Outside the Lines

Rising art star Amy Rice talks manly men, overzealous fans, and the dog bite that won’t go away

REGULARS AT PALMER’S BAR, the venerable dive on Minneapolis’s West Bank, must have thought their Scotch had been spiked when images of bunnies, bicycles, and butterfly-winged girls began appearing amid the booze and bloodstains. That was where Amy Rice had been showing her paintings until Yuri Arajs, the respected curator of outsider art, discovered her wistful work several years ago and helped ensure its present ubiquity across the country, from the Corazon and Rosalux galleries in Minneapolis to shows in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, and New York. Recently, Rice exhibited in London and her work was collected in the same art book as Banksy, the international guerrilla-art star.

Yet Rice, who works part-time at the Spectrum Community Mental Health center in Minneapolis, running a program for mentally ill artists, hasn’t lost the curious edge to her dreamy images. It’s hardly artifice: Rice’s forthright intensity was seen around the world last year after a pit bull jumped a fence and sunk its jaws into the neck of her Labrador retriever during a walk around her northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. Rice bit back, right on the dog’s nose, saving her pet and prompting calls from the National Enquirer and stories as far away as Australia. As Rice explains, no matter how hard she tries, she can’t help coloring outside the lines.

What was it like to have two shows in England, and shows here, all at the same time? Outrageous. I remember being in the Gap, of all places, and I looked at a clock on the wall with different times around the world, and I shouted, “Yeah! My shows are happening!” I got a publishing gig out of it and I have a pretty big fan base in that part of the world. But I never expected any of this. I’m self-taught, I didn’t go to art school. There are so many incredible artists who can’t get work up.

You often put children and young women in your work. Who do they represent? It’s almost all me in my work, it’s sort of biographical. Even if it’s a little black boy or if the girl is Asian, it’s still me. It’s my emotion. I’m kind of an open book anyway. Art is sharing yourself; I can’t say I don’t want you to know anything about me. And it does matter to people. They like knowing, though sometimes they want too much from me. A guy who bought my work once started calling me at home. But I don’t want to become a bitter person who won’t put her bio on a website.

Your work captures a shyness in you—a girlish quality—that’s very different from the typically masculine edge of most stencil artists. It seems more feminine, but that’s not who’s buying it. I’m always surprised when tattooed manly men say they like my work. A while ago, all I made were paper dolls. And I chastised myself—I thought it was a waste of time. But it turned out to be work people loved. I loved it, and it shows. So maybe it’s because I love what I’m doing that all kinds of people are drawn to the work—though I don’t know if they know that’s the draw.

You paint on everything from wood to cigar boxes to bicycles—especially bicycles. What is it with you and two-wheelers? I think it’s because the first brand-new bike I ever had was stolen. I had it for seven years and it changed my life. I was never athletic—I think exercise is a ridiculous concept. But it was cute as a fashion accessory. Riding it gave me a pride and confidence I never had. And it did make me somewhat athletic: I lost weight, my mood improved. It was special. I still look for it on bike racks. It’s gone, but I fantasize: What would I do if I saw someone on it? Run out and tackle them? I’ve gotta let it go, but I loved that bike.

Speaking of fighting, how’s your dog? Are you over being an instant celebrity? The pit bull incident was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me, and it became the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. The National Enquirer has been harassing me about doing a story. It’s just crazy: I’ve sent out a press release about my art on the average of once a month for the past decade and the most press I ever get—or may ever get again—stems from this stupid, random, very bad day.

Robyne Robinson is the co-anchor of KMSP-TV news and the designer of ROX jewelry.