South Charlotte

Artist's career started out with red ukulele

Jonathan Rice's artistic journey began when he learned to play his father's red ukulele for Cub Scouts.

Rice's Scouting experience was short-lived, but his musical education expanded as he went on to learn other instruments. During his teenage years, his artistic side expanded into painting and poetry.

Today, Rice, 57 - when he's not working as a merchandise manager at the Arboretum Barnes & Noble - spends his spare time painting at night, listening to Miles Davis, carving out time to write poetry when he can and reviewing submissions for Iodine Poetry Journal, which he has edited and published for 12 years.

As a husband, father and grandfather, Rice admits juggling work, family and his artistic pursuits can be challenging, but he can't imagine giving up his art. "It's who I am," he said.

He recently exhibited his abstract paintings at NoDa's Green Rice Gallery. The name of the gallery is purely coincidental, according to Rice, since he has no ownership in it although he did have a studio there. The gallery, which closed in early August, provided an opportunity for his art and poetry to converge.

Rice and longtime friend and publisher M. Scott Douglas co-hosted poetry readings at the gallery, where Rice found success as an artist and sold more of his paintings, said Rice. The gallery may have closed its doors, but the art now will be featured online, and the readings will continue at a new venue beginning Aug. 26.

The open-mic poetry readings have been occurring in the Charlotte area since 1999, when Rice began them at Jackson's Java in the University area, where he lives.

Iodine Poetry Journal sprang from these readings and Rice's submissions to other poetry journals. He studied the journals and what the other small presses were doing and determined he could do it, too.

As Iodine evolved, the production quality and submissions improved. After printing his first color cover, people suggested he put his own artwork on the cover, said Rice.

"I was a little bit reluctant at first," he said. "I wondered if I would only be doing it for myself."

Despite his earlier reservations, his abstract paintings now grace the cover of every issue.

It's a small-press magazine and Rice pays for the publication, so the circulation is not large but the distribution is wide. Iodine receives thousands of submissions from all over the world.

"It has become part of the literary landscape, not just of this town but of this region," he said.

Rice said he believes in publishing a variety of styles and voices.

"What I like is a poem that has rhythm and rhyme that's written so well that I don't notice it," he said, recalling a time when he encountered such a poem. That disconnect happens because the poem "is so well crafted, and that's a very hard thing to do," he said.

"I'm not saying that rhyming poetry is bad, but it can be hard to pull off," he said.

Rice still has his father's red ukulele. The strings are no longer there and the bridge has broken a couple of times, but he's glued it back.

He took a picture of it and used it for the cover of his poetry book, aptly named "Ukulele," published by Main Street Rag in 2006.

"I've got to keep this thing," he said. "This is what started it all for me."