When he started, Athens’ Harold Rittenberry Jr. was just creating for himself. Today, his pieces have gone from his backyard to fans around the world.
By Alexandra Shimalla | Photos by Andrew Tucker
I first met Harold Rittenberry Jr. through other people.
I learned that he’s a self-taught artist who works with giant sheets of metal or steel to sculpt fanciful creations. I learned that his art has been commissioned in his hometown of Athens, widely in Atlanta and from admirers across the globe.
While interviewing the deputy director of the Georgia Museum of Art, I was given a tour of the museum’s archives. We wandered past rows and rows of carefully stored pieces and toward a dark room. As the lights switched on, I saw a massive structure in front of us: It was my first look at a Rittenberry.
“I really love his work,” says Annelies Mondi, the museum’s deputy director. “A lot of his work is about love, freedom and other large topics that maybe we don’t feel comfortable talking about in everyday life. I feel like artists allow us to think about these larger topics. They reflect the world back to us.”
We slowly walked around the perimeter of the sculpture in reverent silence. I was stunned speechless at the minute detail wrought from such a hard, unyielding material and from a man who’s still sculpting at 80 years old.
Rittenberry’s home is a sight to behold. The front and side of his yard are filled with his work. The most he’s ever had in the yard was probably 12 pieces, he guesses. Visitors are greeted by a knight, which Rittenberry has no intention of selling just yet—maybe someday, but not today. As for everything else, all of it just might be for sale.
Beyond the knight, a figure with a gazelle-shaped head peeks out. A swinging bench sits behind a screen, carved with fish, elephants, bears and birds. On the opposite side of the yard, the sculptures blend together in a sea of mammoth pieces of artwork. There’s a lot to take in at once. More towering sculptures line the side of his property that hugs an active road, acting like a barricade.
“I always loved sculptures. I wanted some for myself. That’s why I put them out there, but when I did that, everybody came out. They wanted one,” says Rittenberry.
The first man who came to Rittenberry about his yard work was an antique picker from Atlanta. Rittenberry hadn’t intended for the pieces to be sold, but the man walked around the yard, picked what he was interested in purchasing and asked for a price. Rittenberry had no idea, so the man offered him $2,000. “I thought it was great,” he says with a laugh. “I thought it was too much money for it. I said, ‘Well, he’ll be coming back and getting his money back.’ So, I put the money up under some clothes in my drawer, and I kept it in there.”
The man did come back, but it was to buy more work.
“I never had no problem about selling it,” says Rittenberry. “Everybody saw it, they liked it and they bought it. So, every time I took a trailer load off, I sold it.”
When Rittenberry was in his 50s, his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Rittenberry adjusted his life and schedule in order to care for her. “It started getting boring, just sitting around not doing anything,” he says with a laugh.
After receiving a catalog in the mail, Rittenberry ordered a cutting torch, just to try it out. The product was finicky, though, and wouldn’t work. He tried and tried and was about to send it back when he decided to give it one last shot. “Lo and behold, it worked in ’85, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he says.
Rittenberry is actually an artist in a few ways, despite his recognition for welding. “I always have been some kind of artist,” he says. He draws, mostly pen and ink images, but he also dabbles in watercolor. “I’ve been doing art all my life, but this part right here,” he says as he gestures to the numerous sculptures in front of him, “it just took over everything.” Then he laughs again, a deep, rolling belly laugh.
During our first conversation, he lectures me on the welding process: “It has to be red-hot in that little spot where you cut it,” he says. “You have oxygen blowing through the torch, and oxygen blows that hot metal away.” He elongates the word “blows” as if to verbally illustrate the process. “It’s eroding it. So, they speak about cutting as you do oxidation,” he continues.
At about the same time as he’s being my professor of Welding 101, a man drives by and waves at us. Rittenberry waves back with a giant smile and explains, “That’s the man I buy welding equipment from, and he knows more about welding than any man I ever seen.” Then he continues the lecture.
“I liked the way it cut. It cut metal just like a hot knife cutting through butter,” Rittenberry says about the process. “It’s very difficult to learn; I can tell you that. You have to stop and go, stop and go.”
He points to a bird and demonstrates the stop-and-go technique. “Some people can’t do that. They wonder, ‘Do that get on your nerves?’ Nah, I got used to it,” he says.
The materials that Rittenberry works with are poisonous. Chromium and nickel, I’m told, are bad to breathe in. “They get in your bloodstream the same as lead does.” (Many reports confirm that the fumes emitted from chromium and nickel particles are considered occupational carcinogens for welders.)
But he doesn’t wear a mask. “Well, you’re supposed to, but I don’t,” he says, then he lets out another belly laugh.
Rittenberry’s sculptures are filled with animals, nature, and the mysterious and mythical. He always asks clients for a theme from which to create his work, but he has his own ideas that are slyly worked into every piece he creates. Birds are messengers, and the sun is life-giving. “Love is all,” his motto, is carefully etched into the majority of his works.
“The creative process works the same way; I don’t care what kinda work you do in art. It’s the same drive. … You get an idea in there, and it’s just festering and festering and keep on until it just gonna have to come out there some kinda way. So, it’s the same creative process. It’s a ghost that follows you all through your life. You always have to be doing something. It just bothers you, pesters you all the time,” he explains.
Rittenberry will tell you what he thinks of his work, what his intended meaning was, but he admits that it’s ultimately up to the individual to decide. “You can use ’em as you wish. That’s what art is all about — every piece of art in the world. It’s useful to use your own judgment to think about what it’s saying to you. It speaks to everybody in a different way,” he says.
I’m told that a large, multi-scene work, just one of the few in his yard, only took about a week to construct. Apparently you just cut and form — there’s not much to it. I don’t believe him. “It’s just experience,” Rittenberry amends. “If you don’t have experience, you can’t do it like that.”
When he gets to work, the image of what he wants to create is already fully formed in his mind; it’s just a matter of manipulating the cold-rolled steel (his preference) or metal enough to make that image become reality. “It just falls right in my hands like you make a computer program. It’s already programmed in my mind what I want to do, so I don’t have a problem about stopping and starting,” he explains.
Sometimes the items he creates aren’t to his liking. One of the pieces in his yard is now a bench, but it started as something entirely different. “I take Leonardo da Vinci’s advice, ‘When you make a piece, you don’t like it, don’t destroy it; let it go as it is,” he says.
Rittenberry’s work can be found all over Athens and Atlanta. His start in Atlanta stemmed from a partnership with fellow artist Robert Clements, who encouraged him to participate in the Atlanta Folk Art Park, a public art project leading up to the 1996 Olympic Games. “People know me better in Atlanta than they know me here,” he says with a laugh.
This statement catches me off guard given how prominent his works are in Athens. They dot the town: Memorial Park’s Bear Hollow Zoo, Sandy Creek Nature Center, a few corners in the Epps Bridge Centre, the West Broad School, Rocksprings Park and Community Center, Piedmont College’s Athens’ campus, the Georgia Museum of Art, the Lyndon House Arts Center, the Athens-Clarke County Library, and Brooklyn Cemetery.
Established in 1882, Brooklyn Cemetery is the final resting place for many African Americans from the surrounding area. Linda Davis, the coordinator of Friends of Brooklyn Cemetery, explains that Rittenberry told her that “as a child, he would see a funeral procession and fall in line with the mourners and escort the bodies to the burial sites in the cemetery.” After sketching up an idea, Rittenberry donated his “time, talent and labor” to create the cemetery gates’ panels.
His work also can be found in numerous states, just not Hawaii or Alaska yet, and it’s in Italy, Germany, France and Canada. “I don’t let it go to my head. I just be thankful that somebody liked it. That’s my problem: I always want somebody to like it. I don’t like to make stuff nobody don’t want,” he laughs.
As the work for Brooklyn Cemetery suggests, Rittenberry has a strong tie to his community. “It’s always a wise idea to do things for the community,” he explains. “Just because you lived here.”
One of his recent community works was for Athens-Clarke County Library. The Friends of the Library approached him about creating a piece, which now stands in the library entrance’s brick plaza. Jane Russell, the organization’s past president, explains that the decision was based on Rittenberry’s work with the Athens community, previous pieces that have been on display in the library’s Quiet Gallery, and the fact that he was born on Christmas Day in 1938 where the library now stands. The piece, Salvo, is a beast, weighing in at 450 pounds. It’s made of repurposed carbon steel. (Rittenberry tries to use repurposed material whenever he can, although he admits it has become more difficult because it’s being recycled first.) At Salvo’s highest point, it stands a proud 11 feet and 3 inches tall.
When asked how many sculptures he has created since that fateful day he gave that welding equipment one last try, Rittenberry says with a laugh, “Lord, I don’t know.”