Meet The 18-Year-Old Artist Now Showing In The Museum Of Sex

Harlem-based Taira Rice creates watercolor portraits of naked women of color.

Warning: This article contains nudity and may not be appropriate for work environments.

Museum of Sex

I met artist Taira Rice when she was speaking on a panel about the all-women erotic art exhibition on view at New York’s Museum of Sex, “NSFW: Female Gaze,” which includes her work.

Rice makes ink and watercolor portraits of naked women whose bodies often go unvisualized in mainstream culture: women of color, women with body hair, women with round bellies and strong thighs and big areolas. During the panel, she spoke openly and passionately about taking to her sketchbook upon hitting puberty, drawing the beautiful women she didn’t find in magazines or television screens.

I was floored when, during the talk, Rice disclosed that she was only 18 years old. I called the Harlem-based artist the following week, eager to learn more about her life, practice and plans for the future.

What are some of your early memories of making art?

My earliest memories of drawing are when I was in kindergarten. My parents tell me I used to make very detailed drawings of people looking back at themselves at the mirror.

And what about viewing or experiencing artwork? Was that an important aspect of your upbringing?

I remember going to museums and seeing art all the time. There are lots of murals around my neighborhood. I have to shout out my mom and give her credit for exposing me to art. Both my parents are architects and draw very well. My mom draws naked figures a lot and she would take classes and force me to take them with her.

I remember when I turned 11 she told me I was going to have to start taking nude figure drawing classes. She was like, you need to know about the body. I saw her work all the time around the house. Instead of sitting down and talking to me about the birds and the bees she just showed it to me through art.

Museum of Sex

So you’ve been drawing nudes since you were around 11?

When I went to middle school I started to draw mostly naked people. I had no idea why. I was growing into this new type of body, I didn’t understand it that well. I saw my older sister and was like, “She has boobs. I don’t.” I drew what I didn’t understand.

What sort of insecurities were you dealing with at this (objectively miserable) time in your life?

I got taunted at school. Kids thought I was gross, they called me a lesbian. I never really questioned it. I didn’t change.

How, if at all, did drawing affect the way you saw yourself?

A lot of my drawings are based a lot off my body. It helps me be okay with my own body to draw it and put it out there on the internet. I’m not just doing it to hear the positive response and be like, “Oh, they like my body!” It’s for myself and for me to work on my own insecurities. It’s mostly an unconscious thing.

Your work seems to have a similar effect on a lot of young women who see it, who also have mixed feelings about their own bodies.

It definitely has to do with my ideas about black female sexuality and how it isn’t shown in mainstream media. They ignore women in general but black women especially because we’re seen as “less than” in may ways. I grew up with many strong black women who I looked up to. I wanted to show people like that.

Did you continue taking art classes as you got older?

I did not take well to art classes at all. I felt like they were forcing their own styles and opinions down my throat. I was interested in shading and drawing light and proportional figures, not in someone telling me how to draw.

Museum of Sex

Has your work changed a lot over the past seven years?

Yes, when I started to actually understand what I was doing. In 8th grade I had gotten rejected from the major arts high schools in the city and I felt really discouraged. I took a hiatus and stopped drawing for three years. In 11th grade I got back on it and, to apply to college, I had to whip out a portfolio as soon as possible. I started drawing like a crazy person. I drew in a sketchbook every day. I realized the things I once had interest in had evolved. The style changed, I started thinking more conceptually. I’m doing a lot of watercolor and right now I’m starting to draw in this weird cartoon style. I’m chalking it up to me being very young and just exploring.

What do you mean by thinking more conceptually?

I’ve been drawing women’s bodies since middle school. Back then I’d see a picture of a naked lady and just start drawing it. It was really mindless. There really wasn’t a concept there. Now, even though I try not to think super hard about what I’m doing and just with the flow, I’ve learned the difference between nudity and nakedness. Nudity is me putting myself on display for a spectator to take pleasure in. Nakedness is just me being myself with no clothes on. I want to focus more on nakedness. The woman I’m drawing is not naked because she wants to attract the spectator and be sexual. She simply has no clothes on and is being herself. The concept started evolving around the end of 2016. I’m still kind of figuring it out.

And who exactly are these women? I know some of your drawings are based on your own body, but what about the others?

I pull from many different areas, looking women with breasts and hips and vaginas. If I see someone on the street and her body is interesting I think: “If she was in a pose like this, that would be interesting.” I pull from strangers and friends and family to create this type of woman who is different but relatable. I want people to look at and be like, “Oh, that kind of looks like my body. My stomach is that big, too.” The viewer feels comfortable with this woman and identifies with her and can feel good about herself through her.

When you see a woman who inspires you, do you take a photo or draw from memory?

I study them for as long as I can and remember when I get home. Everything is a mixture of imagination and memory. I’ve never taken a picture and drawn it. Sometimes I go on Google and look up porn stars and use their poses for inspiration. Everything else is from imagination.

Taira Rice

You share a lot of your work on Instagram. Do a lot of strangers reach out to you with feedback?

I get DMs every now and then. People send me things, like opportunities to send my work to magazines. People just message me sometimes and tell me they really love my art. I feel a lot of love and I really appreciate everyone who is helping me out and supporting me even though they don’t even know me. It’s really moving and beautiful and crazy.

Do you remember how you felt when you were invited to exhibit your work in the Museum of Sex?

It was a normal day and I was going through my emails. I was expecting an email from Seamless! I saw I had a new email and that said URGENT. It’s from Marina from Vice [Ed. Note: Vice Media’s Creators co-curated the Museum of Sex exhibit] and she had this whole explanation of the show and said she wanted me in it. I was in a state of shock for so long. It’s super surreal. I never thought I would make it this far in general and to know it’s happening while I’m 18 is even crazier.

It is crazy! Given how much you’ve already accomplished, what does success look like to you in the future?

I honestly don’t even know. I definitely love drawing. If I could draw every day and make money that would be amazing.

How do you feel being 18 years old, about to start art school, with a museum exhibition under your belt?

I always feel weird because I’m young and doing a lot with my art. When I was young I was so antisocial. I didn’t want attention and I guess I still don’t. I know plenty of artists that are my age and are amazing and should be in museums too. But it makes me realize that, for girls like myself, there is no limit. Whatever your needs are ― your pleasures, your desires, your dreams. They can all happen. They’re all real.

Taira Rice
Taira Rice
Taira Rice
Taira Rice
Taira Rice
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