Artist Rial Rye poses just outside of his East Point studio. Photographs by Isadora Pennington.

“A lot of my life has been ambiguous, from my race to where I’m from.” Rial Rye leaned forward in his seat, his arms resting on his knees. Behind him, a series of pieces that straddle the line between 2D and 3D line the walls of his East Point studio. Featuring tearful faces peering out just over his shoulder, the works form a sort of silent audience to our conversation. 

Rial Rye’s East Point studio. Photograph by Isadora Pennington.

Rye is a multidisciplinary artist. He’s the kind of creative who takes up a new medium on a whim and then teaches himself techniques until he has perfected it. This adaptability has served him well in his life. 

Born in California, he grew up moving frequently from state to state, including South Carolina, Nevada, Illinois, and Washington State.

Perpetually the new kid, Rye had the opportunity to reinvent himself time and time again. His very existence, down to his ethnic identity, his accent, and even his name, has been up for debate. 

From day one his identity has been fluid. When he was born his parents couldn’t decide on a name, and the hospital actually would not allow them to take Rye home until they chose something to write on the birth certificate. When her hand was forced, Rye’s mother begrudgingly signed off on naming him Kenneth. 

“She still gets angry about that, and she calls me Ryan,” explained Rye, whose middle name is Ryan. “In every place I’ve lived I’ve gone by a different name. I went by Ryan, my family on my mother’s side calls me Rye, my father’s side calls me Kenneth, and I went by Kent in high school. It has almost been out of my control.” 

Growing up, Rye also struggled to find a sense of belonging. Rye is biracial; his father is Black and his Ashkenazi Jewish mother is white. Between all the relocation, the name changes, and his biracial family history, he has never really felt like he truly belongs anywhere. His childhood was marked by transience and trauma, the kind that can shape an entire family for better or for worse. 

When Rye was only four or five years old, his younger sister became ill and ultimately died from a rare genetic condition: Tay-Sachs disease. As it turns out, both his parents were carriers of the faulty gene that causes the condition, as is Rye himself.

Considering his young age and lack of awareness at the time of his sister’s death, he didn’t really process or grieve the loss. His parents, however, were destroyed by the slow decline and untimely passing of their daughter due to this heartbreaking disease. Their relationship suffered and they eventually divorced, unable to reckon with the grief. 

Following his sister’s passing, Rye’s life changed drastically. He moved with his newly single mother to Washington state where she leaned heavily on the Catholic church to help care for Rye. 

“I grew up slowly becoming aware of the situation and what had happened,” said Rye. “My grief didn’t really happen at once, it has been spread out. I never really did cry. I find that my work and making faces that are crying feel like I’m crying along with my work; it feels like my work emotes feelings that I never was able to express.” 

Rye’s creative passions have also evolved over the years. As a young man, he dreamed of pursuing fashion design, a career path that didn’t really seem viable to his family who wished that he would choose a more steady field like being a doctor or a dentist. Eventually, he found his way into a hair salon and worked as a stylist for more than a decade. 

Towards the end of that phase he realized he was mostly working in the salon only to support his artwork. One day a customer complained about his hands, saying that they looked dirty because they were covered in paint. 

It was a clarifying moment for Rye: here he was, facing criticism and the possibility of termination, and he just… didn’t care. Instead, he quit his job and decided to pursue art full-time. 

In 2020, when COVID hit, he and his husband decided to move to the remote outskirts of Las Vegas to ride out the pandemic. When his husband secured a work from home position it allowed them the flexibility of choice for what came next. 

And, for the first time in his life, that decision was up to Rye.

“My husband is so supportive. We bought our place sight unseen– we didn’t even get a Zoom tour. I don’t know if this is an artist thing, but I wanted to move here and I wanted to know that it was going to be forever.” 

“I fell in love with Atlanta from a distance,” said Rye. Though their friends and family thought they were crazy for doing so, they soon put in an offer and secured their new home in Midtown. 

Change is comfortable for Rye. Uncertainty, ambiguity, and relocation is all second nature. In fact, he craves it. So he had spent months researching cities across the southeast. Watching YouTube videos, perusing Instagram hashtags, and gathering any and all information he could find about their future potential home. 

As he learned more about Atlanta he simply knew he wanted to live here. And so he made it happen.

As a new transplant to the city, he really started from square one in finding a community. He decided to look through the artists he followed on social media to see if any of them lived here. When he realized that Jeffrey Wilcox Paclipan, a mixed media artist who primarily works with assemblages made of puzzle pieces, was local Rye reached out in a direct message.

The two hit it off, and an informal mentorship was launched. Through that, Rye has begun to build a sense of community within the local art scene and is starting to truly find himself as an artist. 

“I was totally not knowing who I was or what I was doing, I just knew I wanted to make art,” explained Rye. “I spent about three months completely experimenting. I made my own paper pulp, I worked with clay for a little while, I worked with canvas. Nothing really caught on with my soul.” 

Inspired by great artists such as Matisse and Picasso, Rye considers himself to be a neo-expressionist artist. He is also greatly influenced by biracial artists including Wifredo Lam whose cubist and surrealist works were informed by his Chinese, African, Spanish, and Native-Cuban ancestry. 

“Being biracial growing up I didn’t see a lot of people like me doing art. I never really identified as white or black, and I was always misidentified by people.” He shared that people have incorrectly guessed that he was Indian, Asian, and Latin, among others. “No one ever thinks that I’m black or mixed. Everything about my life has been duality and ambiguity.”

When he landed in Atlanta and decided to make a real go at this whole artist thing, he started to really consider his name. It had changed so many times, and to this day there is no one consensus on what his family should call him. It was time to put a stop to it, once and for all. 

Rial Rye in his studio. Photograph by Isadora Pennington.

Citing the importance of being searchable, he started to really dive into his family history. He learned about an ancestor who had escaped slavery in an area close to Atlanta. “His name was Rial Rye, and I thought it was such a coincidence.” Given that half of his family already called him Rye, it just made sense. And so, he adopted the name. 

To look at Rye’s recent work is to witness an evolution. When he was just getting started he mostly worked in paint on canvas, then clay, and now he mostly focuses on woodcut art. 

His works feature cubist linework that is inlaid with resin. Whether working in contrasting colors or nuanced palettes, through texture and the reflective quality of the resin linework the pieces carry an air of motion and change, an element that is so familiar to Rye. 

And what about the tears? Yes, most of the faces in Rye’s work are crying. Human or animal, their faces are portrayed as weeping or hiding behind their hands. 

“It’s comforting to me. For a lot of people crying faces don’t really elicit that reaction,” said Rye. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t do commissions: he can’t stand non-crying faces in his art. 

“It’s hard for me to even like a piece that isn’t crying. I don’t know what it is and I don’t know why, but I feel like it’s the reason I’m doing art. I don’t question it.”

When he has tried making art with faces that are expressing other emotions sans tears, he feels the pieces are empty and lacking something essential. And so, he embraces the tears. “A lot of them are in different stages of grief,” he said. “Once I started to realize that I appreciate this type of art, and I really like it like this, I started to embrace the full face.”

Rye’s work will be showcased alongside his mentor, Paclipan, and a number of great artists in the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art’s juried Metro Montage XXIII exhibition opening July 1. 

The future looks bright for Rye, and he hopes to deepen his connections to the art scene, cultivate a meaningful community, and one day secure gallery representation. Talk about bright – Rye’s most recent work has started to branch out into more variations in his woodcut work, adding translucent elements and he hopes to begin incorporating LED lights in his sculptures. 

“I am just so happy, everything has worked out! I love Atlanta, I have a mentor here who has shown me the ropes, and I’ve met the most wonderful people. I have really just started my life under my terms.”

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.