Rick Rush: Artist of the Week
November 8, 2011
I didn’t even know he could paint.
At the time, I was working as travel editor for Southern Living, and Rick had been hired to promote and market art books produced by Oxmoor House, the book publishing arm of the magazine.
He knew what to do and how to do it.
He was good at it.
Oxmoor’s first venture into the marketplace had been “Jericho: The South Beheld,” with rural Southern watercolor scenes created by artist Hubert Shuptrine and the text written by James Dickey, poet, novelist, party boy, and all-around wild man as long as he had a little whiskey within arm’s reach.
The art was stunning.
The text was powerful, pure Dickey, poetry written in the form of prose.
Rick Rush traveled the country with artist and author, escorting them to book signings and press conferences in cities large and small throughout the south. He was out of bed early. He went to sleep late. Rick could not let Dickey out of his sight, and not even the illustrious James Dickey knew what he might do next, especially when the clock ticked past midnight.
Rick’s job was to Keep Dickey in the right town on the right day, on time and reasonably sober, to keep the press awake with coffee or donuts or Bloody Mary’s and peanuts, depending on whether the conference was scheduled for eight o’clock or ten. Rick was the warm-up act. He shook hands, patted backs, handed out drinks, always watching the elevator doors, wondering if James Dicket had actually rolled out of bed or gone back to sleep or was still exploring the strange streets of a strange town, trying to find the hotel or even remember its name.
It was not unusual at all for Dickey to wander into a press conference at ten o’clock in the morning, dressed in clothes still wrinkled from the night before and carrying a full bottle of Wild Turkey. He would pour a ten-ounce glass full of the bourbon with neither ice nor water to weaken it. He proceeded to hammer the Wild Turkey down his throat without stopping for a breath, sit the glass on the table in front of him, wipe his hands together, grin a crooked grin, and say, “First question?”
With Rick Rush ingeniously guiding the project, “Jericho,” with a hefty price tag of $50 in the seventies, became recognized as the best selling art book of all time.
For its second venture, Oxmoor assigned me to write a big, oversized art book on the life and times of the great American cowboy, showcasing art from the members of the Texas Cowboy Artist’s Association. “XIT: The American Cowboy” was a big book, a pretty book, a gritty western book that sold more than 50,000 copies. A man could get choked on cattle dust anywhere between pages 58 and 72.
Rick and I had been with several of the artists at a book signing party in Amarillo and were on a Sunday afternoon flight back to Birmingham.
I was feeling pretty good about it all.
Rick was deep in thought.
Finally, he turned and said without any emotion, “I’m going in Monday morning and give them my resignation.”
Rick could not have shocked me more if he had hit me between the eyes with a wet cow chip.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m tired of going around the country promoting other artists.”
“Why?” I asked it again.
“I want to be an artist,” he said.
As I noted earlier, I did not know that Rick Rush could paint, draw, sketch or even color between the lines. It was a talent he had kept to himself and hidden from view. Now it was knocking on his heart and mind, fighting to get out.
Rick Rush had always been the dignified one among us, the button-down executive with suit, white shirt, and tie. Shoes shined to a glisten. Hair cut by a stylist.
The rest of us looked more like leftover beatniks in a coffee house. Frayed jeans. Long hair. Unshaven. Uninhibited. Probably uncouth.
He was Mr. Big Shot.
The next time I saw him, a decade or so later, Rick looked like the rest of us. Long hair. A flowered Hawaiian shirt. Short sleeves. Even in the dead of winter with a blue norther blowing snow and sleet across the landscape, he looked like a short-sleeved exile from Hawaii.
And, Lord, how he could paint.
All the time.
I may have seen the game. But I did not really feel the impact of the game until I saw the images in his art. He was a promoter, a marketer, an executive no more.
Rick had become America’s Sports Artist.