Photo Credit: Jessica Smith
With towering, rusted sculptures of a knight, a robot and various animals inhabiting every possible foot of the yard, the home and studio of renowned self-taught artist Harold Rittenberry Jr. is one of the most unusual sites in town. The artist has become accustomed to curious visitors stopping by his residence, nestled at the corner of Colima Avenue and Rose Street. Several of his sculptures will make their way off of the lawn and into the Quiet Gallery of the Athens-Clarke County Library this weekend for the special exhibition “Metal Visions: The Work of Harold Rittenberry.”
Born on Christmas Day in 1938—coincidentally, at the same location where the library now stands—Rittenberry has spent nearly his entire life in Athens, with the exception of three years serving in the Army in Germany. Though he was always interested in drawing and painting, it wasn’t until the mid-’80s, while taking care of his mother, who had Alzheimer’s, that he bought his first welder and began creating metalwork sculptures. He later expanded to working with stainless steel when fellow sculptor Bob Clements approached him to participate in the Atlanta Folk Art Park, a major public-art project established in anticipation of the 1996 Olympic Games. The project kickstarted a very strong friendship, and the two artists continue to collaborate.
“I think it’s one of the best jobs you can find. Maybe one of the best things you can do,” says Rittenberry. “I call it a job, but it’s really not a job. It’s a pleasure.”
Several of his commissioned pieces are in Atlanta—the College Park Library, East Point Library and Atlanta City Court Gate—but luckily, just as many can be found around Athens. Memorial Park’s Bear Hollow Zoo is home to “Serengeti Dreams,” an 8-foot-tall tower of giraffes, elephants and sprinting antelopes, while the Sandy Creek Nature Center has a memorial bench that offers a peaceful place for reflection. In his own neighborhood, he created a maypole for the community garden at the West Broad School, which he attended as a child, as well as an aquatic-themed bench and mural for Rocksprings Park and Community Center.
Some of his commissioned pieces are intended to beautify the surroundings, such as his series of sculptures placed throughout Epps Bridge Centre, while others were created to commemorate specific historic sites. Located in the triangular park on Prince Avenue in front of Piedmont College, “Spirit of Inspiration” is a 12-foot, three-paneled homage to the Cobbham Historic District. He also recently built a gate for the entrance of Brooklyn Cemetery, a sacred place for the African-American community that dates back to 1882.
In addition to appearing in private collections, his works are included in several museums, including the Georgia Museum of Art, and professional galleries, such as the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation, where his angel with outspread wings overlooks the sculpture garden.
Many of his metal creatures hold symbolic meaning. Snakes represent wisdom, while fish are a symbol of endurance, remaining in motion through the ebbs and flows of life. His favorites are birds, which he views as messengers traveling through the liminal space between Earth and the spiritual world. Birds in flight symbolize freedom and transcendence, and their ascension within sculptures easily draws the eye toward the heavens.
“I like to think of them as messengers like angels,” says Rittenberry. “They pick up what they hear, and they carry it, and they drop it all over the world. That might be mysterious talking, but that’s the way I see it.”
Occasionally, Rittenberry’s animals from the land, water and sky will be accompanied by characters from the fantasy realm. His inclusion of mythological creatures invites viewers to contemplate how cultures throughout history have used folklore as a way of understanding the unknowable world around them. Positioning mermaids, flute-playing fauns and a prancing unicorn alongside deer, fish and birds blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and emphasizes that both coexist as important aspects of the human experience.
“The world is full of fictional things. Old myths. Like your neighborhood. Every neighborhood has got its own old wives’ tale. Old haunted house or something. ‘This old man, he did that, they did that.’ That’s the way of dealing with life,” says Rittenberry. “You see mermaids and Pan and stuff like that in my work—that’s what it’s all about.”
When he was a young boy, a spot outside of his family’s home would become submerged by the flow of heavy rain. His mother warned him to avoid the area because a mermaid may lure him close, only to throw her hair up and drag him in. It wasn’t until he was older that he realized his mother’s tale was to keep him protected and out of trouble.
“Mermaids in my work are sort of like, you’re making an apple pie and you throw a little spice in there. Give it a little more zazz,” he says. “But mostly, I put them in to give people something to think about.”
Rittenberry’s sculptures often include prominent celestial bodies that serve as reminders of change and natural cycles. Seeing his rust-covered sculptures in various stages of oxidation also reflects this passage of time. He notes that all the rust may return to dust one day.
“Everything changes. It’s a revolving thing. That’s the way the moon is. It changes. Everything has phases,” says Rittenberry. “And the sun is a life giver, as we all know.”
One of the artist’s most important messages delivered through his work is “Love is all,” a simple but powerful phrase. It feels appropriate that so many of his sculptures are publicly accessible at locations where families, friends and community members share their time. His artwork demonstrates his deep-rooted love for the community and its history, and for animals and the natural world.
“Love is everything. Love is stronger than steel. When people have love for each other, it’s stronger than that piece of steel there. Love is all. I mean, love is everything,” he says. “It sort of gives people the idea that you’re supposed to have compassion for other people, even the animals here. Some people just view love as a formality, but love isn’t supposed to be taken that lightly. It’s way stronger than any weapon you could have on earth.”
Rittenberry’s exhibition at the library will include several sculptures, as well as a collection of landscape paintings depicting mountains and the ocean. During the opening reception on Sunday, July 16 at 2:30 p.m. in the auditorium, Clements will introduce Rittenberry, who will then discuss his passion. “Metal Visions” will remain on view in the Quiet Gallery through Sunday, Sept. 17.