Lonnie Rich shapes rock, wood, and smooth round stones into sculptures that seem to dance in the wind, cradle a child, or bow in silent prayer. With the calm, patient voice of a man who spent years explaining art in front of a classroom, he gently picks up his statues to point out details—the delicacy of a rose knot that once anchored a limb, black wood charred by fire, the circle around a wishing stone that keeps wishes protected. “She Danced Along the Shoreline.” “Warmed by the Winds of Love.” “Angel in the Whispering Wind.” One by one, he reads the titles of sculptures like the lines of a favorite poem.
Rich works from his home on the East Bay in Navarre, Florida, living on the edge of land and water where the forces of nature provide materials for his “Listening to Wood and Stone” sculptures. Between his back door and the shore are stacks of driftwood bleaching in the sun like dried bones. There is a small, colorful quarry of granite, marble, and stone slabs from around the world that are organized by size and color. He runs his hands over a pile of white river rocks, fingering them like prayer beads. The touch and immediacy of these materials gives him comfort and stimulation.
Nature has always been the inspiration for Rich’s art. He grew up in a clapboard house near the bottomland of the Tennessee River where he collected pockets full of rocks and imagined forms and shapes in the branches of trees. His family drew water from a well and lived off what they grew in the garden. There was little money for art supplies so his mother made art paper from brown paper grocery bags. “My mother gave me the opportunity to draw and explore my imagination,” says Rich. “While other kids were playing ball, I was drawing. I took care of our chickens and I learned about their physical characteristics, the curves, angles and feather textures, and I brought these details into my childhood drawings.”
Receiving the Outstanding Artist Award at his high school graduation transformed Rich’s art from a childhood hobby into a ticket to college. “That award made a big difference in my early life,” says Rich. “It was confirmation that I am an artist and I didn’t have to work all of my life in the local garment factory. I worked in that factory every summer and I didn’t want to go back.” He attended Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee beginning his collegian career with an art scholarship. From there he worked for almost 30 years in art education as a graduate student, an art teacher, a gallery director, and the Chairman of the Art Program at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College, before he retired in 2005 to become a full-time artist. Today, he continues to receive awards for his art. In 2012, he won the Best of Show Award at the Destin Festival of Art and the Heritage Arts Award of Excellence at the Great Gulf Coast Art Festival.
Rich’s sculptures are richly colored and visually striking reminders of the beauty beyond windows and walls. He favors windswept lines and dynamic shapes, particularly pieces that take the form of raised arms or arms wide open. He includes the imperfections, the knots, and the rough edges. “A large part of my work revolves around taking what nature gives me and working within its boundaries,” says Rich. “I can’t create a dolphin if a dolphin isn’t there. If an artwork is forced from its materials, it can appear contrived and overworked until the content is no longer expressed by the form.”
Rich built his current artistic identity on wood and stone, but he was a painter until 2004, when a 14-foot storm surge from Hurricane Ivan destroyed his basement studio, washing away a lifetime of paints, brushes, and materials. “Losing my painting studio was a creative blow,” says Rich. “It was something I had wanted for so long, but after the hurricane I could not afford to replace all of the materials that I had collected over thirty years. Gradually, I began to focus my attention on setting up an art studio again, but I had lost my sense of creative direction. I was waiting on a flash of insight or divine inspiration.”
He found that revelation while collecting the debris of broken trees that the hurricane left behind. He experimented with wood and stone combinations for many years, but did not give them his full attention because he thought changing forms would betray his years of academic training in painting. “Losing everything forced me to change my direction from a two-dimensional artist focused on height and width creating the illusion of depth, to a three-dimensional sculptor that works all sides of a piece. It wasn’t easy. I had to make adjustments physically, emotionally, and creatively.”
Currents and tides still deliver driftwood to Rich’s doorstep. Much of this pine, cedar, and cypress hardwood are called “original wood” by foresters because they were living trees when Columbus discovered America. Rich also boats into bays and rivers to find submerged trunks and branches.
Touch and emotional connection are the keys to picking wood, so Rich keeps a clear, undistracted mind when he inspects each piece. “There is an inner spiritual connection that happens at the moment I sense the energy in the wood,” says Rich. “Spirituality is a major part of what I do. It’s not religion, but a connection of the spirit with nature. I can feel the wood speak and move and vibrate, showing the direction I need to go. That moment of discovery is almost an addiction, but I don’t find that connection with every piece of wood. There are many pieces of wood that I never pick up because they do not seem to have a voice.”
Each sculpture begins with cleaning away the sand, rocks, grass, and roots from the wood’s surface with water, then chiseling away the pieces that are too soft and show signs of decay. Rich often removes portions of the outside edges to enhance a curve or to create a directed swoop that guides the viewer along the edges of the artwork.
“My impressions of the wood lead me to explore color, texture, and weight to see how they can be used to enhance the wood’s orientation as an art form,” says Rich. “I want the finished form to maintain nature’s work as well as the creative work that I do to show the wood grain with its many colors and textures. However, I have to work slowly and take the time to feel my way through my processes because removing too much material will ruin the form.”
Using a wood chisel as a paintbrush, Rich carves into the layers of the wood to bring out luminous colors in the grain and the sap, choosing what to take out and what to leave in. “The layers of sap tell the narrative of the tree,” says Rich. “If it was a good year, the sap is a deep orange color, but a thin, yellowish layer indicates a drought. I like working with the layers of transparent color. I accentuate the lines, but I don’t perfect it too much and detract from what nature has already provided. The beauty of the wood is what has happened in the life of the tree.”
Bringing out the character and life energy of the wood can take hours for small pieces and weeks for large pieces. “There is usually more than one way to show energy,” says Rich. “A tight vertical orientation can be a little more passive, but turn it horizontally and it may open up to become windswept. Tilt it on a diagonal and suddenly it has a very dramatic, visual energy.”
Wood is the dominant element that gives movement and texture to each sculpture, but a small white headstone creates the human quality and personality. “Once I put the headstone on, it brings a broader view and response,” says Rich. “There is life in these stones and just changing the position of that rock to looking back, looking up, or looking down changes the mood of the piece.” The tilt and the angle of the headstone enhance the sculpture’s emotional impact, but these pieces of expression are invisibly held together with drilled holes and metal rods between the rock and the wood. The original tilt and attitude of the driftwood must be maintained throughout the form’s development or the original feelings and impressions from the driftwood are lost.
Rich anchors the sculptures on stone bases that he buys from local landscapers. Travertine from Chile, Midnight stone from North Carolina, and plum wood stone from New Mexico share the memories, character, and culture of their land. Their rich colors, undulating lines, and smooth or jagged edges allow him to stage settings that range from canyons, mountains, and deserts. The texture can reveal rippled surfaces of rivers and shorelines, while others suggest distant horizons for sunrises and sunsets .
In the sensitive hands of Rich, the energy from wood and stone is reborn in the form of angels, dancers, and humble souls expressing a joy for life. “Some people just see a rock on a stick, but there are others who put their hand on their heart as they breath each piece in,” says Rich. “People draw from their own past experiences when they look at my art and they may see a different form than the one I created. They haven’t been where I have been and I haven’t been where they have been, but we learn from each other. That is powerful.”