Walnut Creek’s Valley Art Gallery showing blind sculptor’s work
By Lou Fancher
Sculptor Michael Rizza uses his hands as his eyes and says in an interview that every boulder tells stories of what nature wants it to become.
With his 95th birthday approaching in early October and now legally blind eight years after macular degeneration stole most of his eyesight but not his inner vision, the artist in Walnut Creek’s Rossmoor district has created more than 500 works during his 61-year career.
An exhibit Saturday, Oct. 1, through Nov. 12 at Walnut Creek’s Valley Art Gallery (valleyartgallery.org/events/9046) is displaying some of Rizza’s work. Showing no signs of slowing down, dozens of 6-inch tall maquettes, or models, line a bookcase in his home studio and wait as prototypes to become sculptures ranging from tabletop size to 10-feet tall and cast by hand in stone, bronze, aluminum, plaster, alabaster, travertine marble and other composites.
“A pre-cut stone is a block and doesn’t tell me anything, so I do a maquette and draw it on the stone,” Rizza said. “But when I get a boulder, right off the mountain, it has the beginning of a shape. I enhance that shape, unveil its character, its beauty. That’s the prize I get out of bringing life to a stone. I carve what nature wants it to look like.”
Born and raised in Manhattan, Rizza tagged along at age 10 on New York subways with his older brother because traveling together was safer for the two boys. His brother, he said, was the talented artist, but spellbound by art from an early age, Rizza trained at the Leonardo da Vinci Art Studio and managed to gain entry with his brother to New York City’s High School of Music and Art. There, he developed skills as a draftsman, rendering meticulous architectural detailing and eventually acquiring nine patents related to architectural projects.
“All along, I took workshops in painting and sketching but never sculpted until I got the bug years later when I took a class at Diablo Valley College,” Rizza said. “But even in the patents, there was drawing and creativity. It’s not that I wanted to be an inventor, I just get curious and wanted to follow through.
“I designed a game (called U-Sculpt) and recently a flag of equality that people haven’t seen yet. With all the shenanigans going on within our country and the political atmosphere of people siding with other people — it has five unifying stripes: white, black, brown, yellow and red. I apologize to Asians and Native Americans for those last two colors, but it was the only way I could think of to include all Americans using color. I’ll have someone make it, and then I’ll send it to Washington to see if they like it.”
Rizza’s work has been exhibited at the Italian American Museum and is found in features at Davis Symphony Hall, both in San Francisco. His sculptures have been shown in galleries and museums such as Danville’s Blackhawk Gallery, Lafayette’s Perlmutter Gallery, Grants Pass Museum in Oregon, Zantman Gallery in Carmel and others. Rizza used to get his materials from Renaissance Stone in Oakland until the owner died. Today, he pays $20 per shipment to have stone sent from a quarry in Kansas and one in Ventura.
“They send emails, and I look at the stone with my viewer. My eyesight is 2100/20. I can see a window or a bookcase, but it’s blurry. The only way I get out is on the bus or if someone takes me somewhere. Because I’m blind, I can’t use power tools. I work with semi-hard stone, like alabaster, that I can form with hand tools. I have to avoid cuts because I’m on blood thinners.”
When Rizza hears of a new stone, though, “I want to carve it,” he said. “I’m in a show in Tracy at the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts and have 12 stone sculptures, and each is a different stone.”
Working with stones that begin no larger than 40 pounds — they used to be 90 pounds, but Rizza says he can no longer maneuver those on his own — his sculptures emerge as undulating works honoring each stone’s organic beauty, color and texture. Many of the pieces feature openings that serve like windows and add dimensional depth and the visual elements of a work’s surroundings.
“Architectural drafting are drawings of buildings that are sculptured, geometric forms. My background taught me to visualize the finished project before I started. It’s fundamental in how I approach and complete my art. Going from 2D to 3D, some people ask why my work is pierced, why my sculptures have holes. I say, ‘That’s the fourth dimension.’ What you see through those openings adds a fourth dimension to the work.”
Artists whose work he admires include Jean Arp (aka Hans Arp), for his utmost simplicity. Rizza considers sculptor Barbara Hepworth astonishing for her command of form while using enormous, huge stones. He said Isamu Noguchi, with whom he worked in 1958 on details for the ceiling and waterfall feature in a high-rise, showed the true nature of a stone, polished or not. Rizza said Van Gogh was an artist who “sculpted with paint in dazzling colors” and that he admires Picasso for “having no bounds and taking chances.” El Greco was the first painter he loved, though, for the elongated features and colors that can be recognized in Rizza’s sculptures, he said.
Rizza has four adult children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife, Ann Rizza, to whom he was married for 42 years, died 26 years ago. His children became a nurse practitioner, an engineer, a physical therapist and one child working in IT.
“They’re all healers in some way,” he said.
Living alone and especially isolated during the pandemic, Rizza said he embraced the healing found in art. As he contemplates the 80 maquettes in his home, he worries.
“I’ve only executed 15 of them. I need another lifetime.”
Add to the maquettes the 70 sculptures his children have and the “about 120 I have lying around,” Rizza’s next concern is finding a permanent home for his work. He is considering giving the maquettes to sculptor friends and donating a large body of his work to the Italian American Museum, where it could have a permanent place in the company of San Francisco sculptor Benny Bufano, an artist he greatly admires.
“At 95, I don’t have much time left, but I want to finish the items I’ve started,” he said.