In the moment: Illustrator Frank Riccio’s exhibition reflects his intense focus

“Apple Orchard” is part of Frank Riccio’s posthumous exhibition currently on display at McGuffey Art Center. Photo courtesy of McGuffey Art Center. “Apple Orchard” is part of Frank Riccio’s posthumous exhibition currently on display at McGuffey Art Center. Photo courtesy of McGuffey Art Center.

There’s something about the trees.

As I walk through the exhibit, I pause to study each painting, but the trunk of a pastel pine tree stops me. Every stroke on its limbs is a living gesture, each green leaf and blue shadow a flick. The pastel landscape glows with the artist’s movements, each tree a reservoir of long-spent attention.

“Buddhism is about the moment, about detachment, observation and compassion. Frank [Riccio] lived all of these things,” wrote Joseph Beery, a printmaker and longtime friend of the artist’s, in an essay that accompanies his posthumous exhibit currently on display at McGuffey Art Center.

“He was a compulsive sketcher. Pen or pencil in hand, he engaged the moment, quietly observing the details which others might miss,” Beery added. “As we multi-task away through a maze of sensory overload, he stood to one side and watched. Then, through the dynamic act of drawing he would navigate the tangled connections of the instant.”

Riccio’s intense focus is an unmistakable thread running through his work, which ranges from thickly illustrated en plein air pastels to bright illustrations of fantastical worlds. In many, a figure standing on a barren landscape sees a world rich with color and life.

“Frank was a pretty quiet guy,” Beery told C-VILLE. “He didn’t have a lot to say. He mostly put it down in images.”

Their decades-long friendship began shortly after Beery began what would become the Virginia Arts of the Book Center (VABC). In 1995, UVA was dumping a few letterpresses, so Beery and a few book advocates rescued and donated them to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. He enlisted Riccio, a new-to-town illustrator who ran a small publishing company with his wife, to help him hold space at McGuffey, where they could teach letterpress and printmaking and encourage people to use those vehicles as an outlet for their own writing.

“He would sit in the back drawing,” Beery said. “He most often drew us, sitting and talking, and the people who stopped by. Pen and ink and watercolor pencil were the ways Frank engaged the world around him.”

For 20 years, Beery hosted drop-in “block nights,” and Riccio was his most loyal supporter. He illustrated dozens of VABC broadsides and art books in addition to his own oil paintings, pastels and ink illustrations. In the course of his lifetime, he created hundreds of works, each thickly illustrated with brushstrokes and artistic attention.

Riccio began his prolific career in high school, where he excelled through the art department, then studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and immediately began receiving commissions for commercial illustrations. His work appeared in several columns in Gourmet and Sports Illustrated magazines as well as many children’s books, including Conversations with God, Johnny Appleseed and The Spirited Alphabet. He even illustrated a Barnes & Noble campaign with various authors on a worldwide map.

“He had one project where he worked with the founders of a chain of coffee houses called Café Gratitude in Berkeley,” said Beery. “The concept was that people can be more thankful for the things they have. They put money up to have him illustrate a board game called The Abundant River, which was painted on all the tables of the coffee houses. He also made a set of illustrated game cards and all of the posters and graphics—the entire inside of this coffee shop, basically.”

With the rise of digital stock illustrations, Riccio saw a significant number of projects sold to stock agencies and offshore groups, though commissions swelled again with the rise of fantasy and young adult books. The new focus was a good fit, since he loved fantasy, whimsy and children, but he also made a graphic novel about the experience of seeing his livelihood outsourced.

“He made a lot of graphic novels about personal experiences, including grade school and high school and raising children,” Beery said. “He was always drawing and painting and doing personal work, and he expected his employment to be putting pencil and pen and brush to paper.”

When Riccio died unexpected in 2014, he left hundreds of artworks behind. “He only has one heir, a daughter who is 21 years old, and it’s not her focus to curate his work right now,” Beery said. The illustrator’s current exhibit at McGuffey, where he was an associate member, is just a very few pieces that were hanging in his house.

“First and foremost he was a sketchbook artist,” Beery said. “Those ideas were the springboard for larger personal projects, but he always had a pencil and notebook in hand, observing and sketching and drawing and responding to the page in front of him. To get down what was happening, distill it, make notes about it.”

Those sketchbooks remained private until Riccio’s death. Though they’re still privately owned and have not been reproduced at McGuffey, I was able to look at a handful of sketches from them.

Notes accompany watercolor and ink illustrations on subjects like networking, “recalcitrant” letterpress rollers, Virginia Tech orientation and his daughter’s spring piano recital. His lines are deft, colors vibrant, energy loose but unmistakable. The world has been folded into Riccio’s pages, and it feels like he’s standing right here.

“His journals,” Beery said. “They are what he was about.”

See Frank Riccio’s work on display at McGuffey Art Center through March 1.

Do you have a favorite illustrator? Tell us in the comments.

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