Noreen Rice: Painter whose dreamy and poetic work drew on Celtic imagery to create 'a strange and primitive universe'

Her works hang in collections from Tokyo to the United Nations in New York

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The Independent Online

Slim, strikingly attractive, and smiling out from a house where artists converged on London's Abbey Road, at first glance she is a picture of Sixties chic. But Noreen Rice was never one to conform to expectation. She wore what she liked, she said what she pleased, she painted only when she had something to say. Normality was a not a close acquaintance.

"Creativity has been described as pulling the pail up from the well, or of holding the end of the golden thread," she said. "Images for me are surprises which emerge of their own volition, invite the viewer to participate again in the collective subconscious."

The golden thread she grasped brought her to Hong Kong, London, Paris, Geneva and back to her native Ireland in a career spanning more than half a century. Her works hang in collections from Tokyo to the United Nations in New York.

Rice's talent was first spotted at school at Methodist College Belfast. She was introduced by her piano teacher Tom Davidson to the painters George Campbell and Gerard Dillon, two huge influences who became lifelong friends, and she immersed herself in city's vibrant post-war arts scene. She also knew Jack B Yeats and they sketched each other, though she disliked his depiction and tore it up.

Rice never attended art college but had a clear vision for her work at a young age. When father was posted to Hong Kong, her first solo show came aged 20 at the British Council there. In 1957 she moved to London, where she worked nights as a typist in the BBC newsroom and painted by day.

With her brother Hal she rented a flat from Gerard Dillon in his tumbling house in Abbey Road. She and Dillon lived and worked together for seven years. Campbell was also a frequent visitor and there was an open door for artists, writers and musicians.

This richly creative environment encouraged her to experiment, using tin, wood, leather and wire, and she and Dillon would hunt together for material in junkyards. The only portrait he ever painted was of her. "They were times of magic, discoveries shared, and a great deal of laughter," she said.

Rice became a prolific exhibitor across Ireland and Europe. Working mostly in pastels and oils, she often drew on Celtic imagery for her dreamy, poetic images. Jacques Lassaigne, director of Paris's Museum of Modern Art, said she created "a strange and primitive universe, suspended between two skies... in these figures and symbols... one may read the secret of the silent life patiently reconstructed".

Critic Ivan Fallon said: "Noreen Rice is an original, and her fantasy world is her own and no one else's." In 1963 Rice was among a delegation of Irish artists brought to the US by the Irish government.

She had to be persuaded by Dillon and Campbell to meet John F Kennedy, but was immediately struck by his charisma. When he arrived in the White House State Dining Room it was with an Irish Wolfhound and Cocker Spaniel, gifts from a recent visit to Ireland. Three weeks later he was assassinated and Rice was locked inside the BBC for a week.

She moved to Paris in 1967, where she was married to the sculptor Haim Kern for two years and took up lithography. Rice then lived in Geneva with her young son Tristram, where she received a government bursary to study etching. She returned to Northern Ireland in 1973, where she remarried and had a daughter, Trasna.

Her output slowed as she brought up her young family. However, she continued to exhibit and was a magnet for young artists. In 1997 she collaborated with the Spaniard Felix Anaut to create large pictures of Adam and Eve in front of an audience for the Daroca Arts Festival near Zaragoza.

After another spell in London, Rice finally settled across the Irish border in Newbliss, Co Monaghan where she held residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. In 2005, aged 69, she was commissioned by the Duchess of Abercorn to paint the shutters of four huge windows at Pushkin House, a dacha-like building on the Baronscourt estate near Omagh used by teachers and children in creative programmes by the Duchess Sacha, a descendant of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

It was her last major work before suffering a stroke in 2013, but she continued painting almost until the end. Joan Hill, a friend from her schooldays, said: "She was always drawing, that's all she ever wanted to do. She gave out more light than she took in."

Noreen Hazel Rice, artist: born Belfast 19 February 1936; twice married (one daughter); died Cavan, Republic of Ireland 19 March 2015.

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