One to Watch

Creating Art Together: Monica and Michael Rich

Based in Rhode Island, longtime Saatchi Art artists Monica and Michael Rich give us a glimpse into their creative practices, passion for travel, and current and upcoming studio spaces. Both Monica and Michael studied art and design and have exhibited at The Other Art Fair. Keep reading to hear from both artists about their art practice individually and together.

Tell us about who you are and what you do. What’s your background?

Monica:  My first introduction to art came from my mother, who had hung exhibition posters of many artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, in our house and who collected stacks of art history books she purchased while we lived for a short time in Italy, where I was born. We moved around a lot as a child, which may have given birth to my wanderlust. I studied art in college and went on to become a commercial illustrator as I traveled as a flight attendant. It was a lot to juggle, but it kept me creative. When I stepped away from flying and illustrated full-time, I still had a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that didn’t resolve until I began painting. I was finally combining an emotional and intellectual conversation with my art, which fuels me to this day.

Michael: I grew up near the ocean, summering on Nantucket, where I found endless inspiration in the light and surrounding waters. I learned to paint at RISD and spent countless hours in the museum with Monet and Degas, who continue to inform my work. After college, I returned to Nantucket and immersed myself in painting the landscape while scraping together a living as a carpenter and teaching art. I eventually moved on to pursue my MFA in Cortona, Italy, and later, at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Since returning to New England to teach at Roger Williams University, I have continued to respond to the landscape in my work. All along the way, I have exhibited in many venues, from galleries to museums and, most recently, in a palazzo on the Grand Canal during the 2022 Venice Biennale. It’s been quite a ride!

What are the major themes you pursue in your work?

Monica: My work is about passion and how it plays out in humanity. By using nature and botanicals as my muse instead of the human form, I infuse the work with a slight tease, moving from representational marks to abstract ones. I enter my work from a romantic point of view, applying a Baroque sensibility as I explore an imagined heightened sensual tension. I am constantly trying to capture the contrast between exuberant moments and intimate ones to express the age-old, timeless mysteries of romance, spirituality, and human nature.

Michael: Although abstract in their appearance, my paintings, drawings, and prints have their beginnings in the landscapes of my experience. Often working on a large scale, my painting is influenced by the American abstractionists of the 20th century but with more overt references to the sea and sky, weather, and light. I explore the beauty and irascibility of the landscape through an approach to painting that is visceral, physical, and colorful. Lately, travels through France and Italy have helped refocus my attention toward places of great beauty and the experiences we have in them. In my latest work, the natural forces of sky and sea sometimes give way to more intimate, human moments, the spaces between two people.

You both cite nature as inspiration for your work, tell us a bit about this.

Monica: What I realized about both of us as we were painting together in the French countryside was that it was a “sense of place” that drove our instincts as we worked. For me, the sounds, smells, colors, and even the temperatures create an entire sensual experience to translate onto the canvas. I am interested in nature’s drama, beauty, and life cycle, in its sheer expansiveness of it and intimacy of it as well. There is an ease and acceptance in nature; it’s not at war with itself.

Michael: I am searching for ways to respond to the landscape rather than depict it. I might start with watercolors or drawings based on observation, only to etch the experiences of color and light in my memory. I might start with drawings or watercolors of trees made outside, for example, only to move into the studio and transform those trees into something further from the initial, more representational response. It’s a way to access my internal responses to place rather than depicting the outward appearance of things.

What are some of your favorite experiences as an artist?

Monica: I noticed that both of our answers involve travel, experiencing beauty and culture, and bringing it back to the studio. Michael and I both combine travel and Art as much as we can. I was born outside of Venice and we both have a pretty healthy sense of wanderlust, so our mutual passion for art and travel feels like we were destined to be together. Michael has had extended stays in Italy before I met him and he speaks Italian. I joke that I experienced Europe 24 hours at a time as an international flight attendant.  We love the idea of settling in and getting to know the people and history while being inspired by the landscape and energy of a place. We spent a month in France at the Chateau Orchevaux in the Champagne region, creating Art. We returned to Paris last year to visit the Mitchell/Monet exhibition. This past summer, we took ourselves on a self-directed residency to Tuscany, Italy, where we spent part of most days painting watercolors in the olive groves––a magical experience!

Do you ever find yourselves creating work based on the same experience?

Michael: We have traveled quite a bit together and often bring our paints to work in the landscape. We might be in the same places, but our responses are often very different. On our most recent trip to Italy, for example, I was most drawn to the olive trees on the farm we stayed at, making drawings and watercolors of their twisting trunks and delicate leaves from observation. Monica sought a more spiritual connection, painting the fruit trees and flowers adjacent to the small 15th-century chapel on the property. For both of us, the inspiration comes more from the intimate moments, and we express it through nature and the landscape: a flower here, a tree there for example, rather than painting the whole scene in a traditional way.

How do your creative processes differ? How are they the same?

Michael: I start my work with as little preconception as possible. I make drawings and watercolors on the side, not as studies necessarily. I start by mixing colors and painting as spontaneously as possible.  Painting for me is a lot of working in layers, adding color and scraping it away until I eventually find something that has a resonance, a familiarity of color.

Monica: We both make drawings and watercolors as a practice that can act as a jumping-off point for larger work. I am more of a planner upfront than Michael is; I create mood boards, clip images, and gather tidbits of poetry and song lyrics to spur the work forward. Vocabulary has become an engaging aspect of my process. What we both do is embrace the creative process. We have taught workshops on this and have a Substack, The Smart Creative, dedicated to exploring our processes.  Discussing the creative process and the Art we have seen is a constant conversation over the dinner table.

Do you share the same studio space?

Monica: Right now, we have studios down the hall in an old mill building; we go back and forth all the time, having lunches together and sharing supplies. We are very excited to be building a home with our own studios as a part of the design. We planned the structure to have the studios connected to the house but separate enough to be comfortable for collectors to have studio visits. As we designed it, we were able to be very specific about how we could be close but independent. Michael will have the downstairs studio with a huge, naturally lit painting wall, and I will be upstairs with a vaulted ceiling and a balcony porch. We have had the opportunity to plan art storage, a wood shop, and a printmaking space. As two artists, the process of constructing a home and studio has allowed us to think carefully about the views of nature and natural light.

Do you prefer to work with music or in silence?

Michael: I like having music on while I work––Jazz, the Stones, anything upbeat!

Monica: Romantic music makes for a romantic painting.

Anything new and exciting to be on the lookout for in 2024? What are you currently working on, together or individually?

Monica: We are all hands on deck to get moved into this new house and to move out of our current studios into the new ones. We are coming to terms with not letting a studio and home move disrupt us as we consider applying to fairs and taking on commissions. We are both in the creative flow since we returned from Italy last Summer and maintaining a creative focus is not only necessary but keeps us sane!