Rick Waltonsmith’s sculptures feel as though they have grown organically in their site. Like wind-twisted coastal trees, sea creatures, or the pattern of wind in grass, Waltonsmith captures an elemental energy and conveys it into form. His sculptures are shaped in Corten steel or bronze bars as an outline to make a non-representational shape; he then suspends “tesserae” – rough polished stainless steel, bronze and brass objects - around the linear form.
“My interest is always to make subtle pieces. Sculpture that you can see right through, and that embrace the surroundings”, says Waltonsmith. “However, I want the viewer to find interesting detail when they take a closer look, so that is one reason why I include the tesserae.”
Waltonsmith’s sculptures are all non-representational, but he is a westerner and is specifically influenced by his surroundings in the Pacific Northwest, and in California’s mountains and deserts. He uses plants and trees, strong mountain land forms, rugged desert shapes, and wild ocean coastlines for inspiration. He then juxtaposes these with geometric shapes in the smaller sections of the pieces, to create contrast and interest.
“My garden is home to two sculptures by Rick Waltonsmith,” a collector recently commented. “The first, ‘Desert Beauty’ is more representational, with lines and curves evoking the arms of a cactus. Most recently, I installed ‘Ocean Life III’ on my front patio, a symbolic piece with long, graceful curves. These pieces share what I like best about Rick’s work: clean, well-edited lines, and a surprising sense of whimsy. Rick’s gentle sense of humor lightens and illuminates his work, creating artwork that enlivens my garden.”
Waltonsmith is originally from Seattle. His view of the world and artistic drive were molded and affected by the Pacific Northwest lifestyle, and deep family ties from the region. “Growing up in the Seattle area promoted outdoor activities; and my family was very much an outdoors family. We skied from the time I was five years old, and would usually go to the ski areas around Seattle in the family station wagon. We also went camping all around Washington, Oregon and occasionally up into British Columbia. I am very grateful to my parents for tolerating a car full of tired kids, coming back from skiing on those snowy weekend nights,“ he says. Waltonsmith’s art life grew out of these active experiences as his appreciation of outdoor beauty seeped into his soul.
Waltonsmith’s first exposure to creating sculpture was at summer camps on Orcas Island, Washington. Roughing it by sleeping in log buildings, or tent cabins; and being outside all day, he gravitated to the camp’s carving tent. The carving tent was near the water’s edge; and it was easy to envision and carve Easter Island figures, and Northwest Indian totems. It was the era of Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon Tiki”, so any kind of Polynesian art was part of the carvers’ repertoire. Northwest Indian art in the form of totem poles, and wooden canoes were all around him in public places, in homes, and on reservations; which affected his art eye for shape and design. Totems on personal themes still occasionally appear in his sculpture.
“When we are hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, or the Santa Cruz mountains in California, I always have ideas for sculptures. When sailing on San Francisco Bay, or Puget Sound Washington, shapes and forms are right at my fingertips.”
Waltonsmith attended high school in Seattle, and continued with wood carving; but also was introduced to ceramic sculpture. He enjoyed the work of Henry Moore, Jean Arp, and the growing number of non-representational sculptors around the world. Also in high school, he began to appreciate the work of Louise Nevelson, and made several assemblage wall pieces out of wood scraps.
Later at the University of Washington, his emphasis was on non-fiction writing and journalism, though he took several design classes in the art department also. Themes for his sculptures continue to come from literature, history and music. Waltonsmith’s desire to be a sculptor solidified at this time in his life.
In the period right after his graduation from college, there was an economic downturn in Seattle. He moved to Portland with his first wife, where he was able to find factory work. “I worked rotating night shifts at Gilmore Steel out in the mill. Always interested in new materials to experiment with on my art, I learned to weld in the fabrication shop at Gilmore; and I purchased my first welding set, that I still use today.”
While living in Portland, Oregon he met sculptor Sandra Haefker, who was working in terra cotta on large, anthropomorphic shapes. She was interested in using direct, outdoor materials for her sculptures; and Waltonsmith needed training in executing his ferro cement technique. This was the process of going from a maquette to a large scale piece. The apprenticeship culminated in a large scale outdoor sculpture, targeted for a public space.
“During my apprenticeship and hands-on work with Sandy on ferro cement sculpture, I was also intensely studying the work of David Smith. His aesthetic for outdoor sculpture, and his quest for direct fabrication techniques empowered me to develop my own style and technique,” says Waltonsmith. However, it was a commissioned piece in the very demanding environment of Wisconsin hill country that set him on the stylistic path he follows today.
Waltonsmith was approached to do a commission by a client in Cross Plains, Wisconsin. The client’s house is prairie style, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is positioned into the side of a hill, and is exposed to high winds and lots of snow. The client wanted a sculpture on top of the house on the extended stone slab chimney. The chimney would not support much weight, and the strong winds would blow a large structure down. Also, snow and ice would pile up on a solid sculpture 30 feet in the air, and create a dangerous situation. In order to meet the client’s needs, Waltonsmith developed a new style.
“I developed my present style of using an open framework of metal bars to express the ‘mass’ of the sculpture. I refer to this part of my pieces as the ‘armature’, and I use Corten steel or bronze bars for the outline of the piece. Armature is also the term I used for the internal structure of my ferro cement pieces, and is analogous to first generation computer aided design (CAD), also called “wire frame” modeling.”
Waltonsmith’s sculpture shows finer detail by using small forms in combination with the larger form, and captures reflected light with rough polished metals on the smaller forms. To do this he positions the rough polished shapes made of bronze, brass and stainless steel mounted on the armature. He refers to these as “tesserae”, a term he borrowed from mosaics, that are the small pieces mounted into a floor to comprise the image in the mosaic.
In the 1980’s Waltonsmith married his second wife, Ann, and moved to Saratoga, California. To execute his one-of-a-kind sculptures, he works in a large studio on his property. The building is an old carriage house that he converted specifically for production. He does all of his cutting, grinding, welding and polishing in his studio.
Each sculpture has a story behind it. Waltonsmith writes a few words describing the inspiration for each piece, and he may follow up with another piece that continues a similar design or theme. He makes most of his work for outdoor display, and this is where the sculptor sees his pieces interacting with changing light, changing weather, and changing seasons. Waltonsmith produces sculptures that do not attempt to dominate the nature that he sees around him every day. He wants to complement this natural beauty.