Walnut Creek Gallery showing the work of a blind carver, 95

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Sculptor Michael Rizza uses his hands as eyes and says in an interview that every rock tells stories about what nature intended it to become.

As his 95th birthday approaches in early October and he is now legally blind eight years after macular degeneration robbed him of most of his eyesight but not his inner vision, the artist from the Rossmoor district of Walnut Creek has created more than 500 works during his 61-year career.

An exhibition from Saturday October 1 to November 12 at Walnut Creek’s Valley Art Gallery (valleyartgallery.org/events/9046) features some of Rizza’s work. Showing no signs of slowing down, dozens of 6-inch-tall models or models line a bookcase in his home studio and wait as prototypes to become sculptures ranging from the size of a table to 10 feet tall and cast at handmade in stone, bronze, aluminum, plaster, alabaster, travertine marble and other composites.

“A pre-cut stone is a block and means nothing to me, so I make a model and draw it on the stone,” Rizza said. “But when I get a rock, right next to the mountain, it has the start of a shape. I sublimate this form, reveal its character, its beauty. This is the price I receive for bringing a stone to life. I sculpt what nature intended it to look like.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Rizza accompanied his older brother when he was 10 on the New York City subway because traveling together was safer for both boys. His brother, he said, was a talented artist, but fascinated by art from an early age, Rizza trained at the Leonardo da Vinci Art Studio and managed to enter High School with his brother. of Music and Art in New York. There he developed skills as a draftsman, rendering meticulous architectural detail and eventually obtaining nine patents related to architectural projects.

“Throughout I took painting and drawing workshops, but never sculpted until I caught the virus years later when I took a class at Diablo Valley. College,” Rizza said. “But even in the patents there was design and creativity. It wasn’t that I wanted to be an inventor, I just got curious and wanted to go all the way.

“I designed a game (called U-Sculpt) and recently an equality flag that people haven’t seen yet. With all the shenanigans going on in our country and the political atmosphere of people siding with each other, there are five unifying bands: white, black, brown, yellow, and red. I apologize to Asians and Native Americans for those last two colors, but that was the only way I could think of to include all Americans using the color. I’ll get someone to do it, then send him to Washington to see if he likes it.

Rizza’s work has been exhibited at the Italian American Museum and can be found in features at Davis Symphony Hall, both in San Francisco. His sculptures have been exhibited in galleries and museums such as the Blackhawk Gallery in Danville, the Perlmutter Gallery in Lafayette, the Grants Pass Museum in Oregon, the Zantman Gallery in Carmel and others. Rizza obtained its materials from Renaissance Stone in Oakland until the owner died. Today, he pays $20 per shipment to ship stone from a quarry in Kansas and another in Ventura.

“They send e-mails 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 out is by bus or if someone takes me somewhere. Because I’m blind, I can’t use power tools. I work in semi-hard stone, like alabaster, which I can shape with hand tools. I have to avoid cuts because I take blood thinners.

When Rizza hears about a new stone, “I want to cut it,” he says. “I’m doing a show in Tracy at the Grand Theater Center for the Arts and I have 12 stone sculptures, and each one is a different stone.”

Working with stones that weigh no more than 40 pounds – they used to weigh 90 pounds, but Rizza says he can no longer maneuver them on his own – his sculptures appear as undulating works honoring the organic beauty, color and texture of every stone. Many pieces have openings that serve as windows and add dimensional depth and the visual elements of a work’s environment.

“Architectural drawings are drawings of buildings that are sculpted, geometric shapes. My background has taught me to visualize the finished project before starting. It is fundamental in the way I approach and complete my art. Going from 2D to 3D, some wonder why my work is pierced, why my sculptures have holes. I say, ‘This is the fourth dimension.’ What you see through these openings adds a fourth dimension to the work.

Among the artists whose work he admires is Jean Arp (alias Hans Arp), for its greater simplicity. Rizza considers sculptor Barbara Hepworth to be amazing for her mastery of form while using huge, huge stones. He said that Isamu Noguchi, with whom he worked in 1958 on the ceiling and waterfall details of a skyscraper, showed the true nature of a stone, polished or not. Rizza said that Van Gogh was an artist who “sculpted with paint in dazzling colors” and that he admired Picasso for “having no limits and taking risks”. El Greco was the first painter he loved, however, for the elongated strokes 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 nurse practitioners, engineers, physiotherapists and a child working in IT.

“They’re all healers in some way,” he says.

Living alone and particularly isolated during the pandemic, Rizza said he has embraced the healing found in art. Looking at the 80 models of his house, he worries.

“I’ve only done 15. I need another life.

Add to the models the 70 sculptures his children own and the “about 120 I have lying around”, Rizza’s next concern is to find a permanent place for his work. He plans to give the models to sculptor friends and donate much of his work to the Italian American Museum, where it could have a permanent place alongside San Francisco sculptor Benny Bufano, an artist he admire a lot.

“At 95, I don’t have much time left, but I want to finish the elements that I started,” he said.

Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at [email protected]

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