Theater & Arts

Sculptor Renzi and his 'Children'

It's not just that smile — which begins at the eyes and works downward — that gives away Clement Renzi's spirit. It also shows up in his sculptures, which convey a joy, contentment and inner peace that contrasts with the anguish of so much modern art in our stress-filled world.

"I am not a disturbed personality," said the 63-year-old sculptor, whose work is a featured attraction at the Fresno Art Museum this month. "I'm basically a tranquil person."

The Art Museum has honored Renzi with a retrospective of his work from the past 25 years. "Clement Renzi: The Fresno Years" takes up the entire lobby and much of the hallway at the gallery.

The exhibit's title is an ironic one for Renzi, for he never expected to be a successful Fresno artist when he and his family (wife Dorothy and young daughter Jennifer) moved back to the San Joaquin Valley from New York in 1963.

"We decided we'd like to continue life in California," he said of that coast-to-coast move. "But I fully expected to be shipping my work back to New York. I never expected I'd have acceptance here. It was a happy surprise.

"I've never had to worry, "Where will my pieces go?' I've always found people who would buy them. That gives me an obligation to be worthy of their support.

"I have a home here, an audience. If you have listeners, you feel free to speak. I have what every artist wants — a little corner of the world."

Visalia-born and reared, Renzi spent his formative years studying and working in the Bay area, Vienna and New York.

He met his future bride, Dorothy Ohanessian, a Fresnan, while attending school at Berkeley after leaving the Navy. He had actually began his wood- sculpting career as a Naval officer, while in charge of a lumberyard in Hawaii.

After college in Berkeley (where Renzi received a degree in public finance), the couple traveled to Vienna, where he studied the German expressionist style. They then moved to New York, where Renzi worked with the prestigious Sculpture Center before returning to California.

"It was necessary for me to get away from my immediate environment and explore the world," he said of his decision to leave the valley as a teen- ager. "It gave me more of a dimension of what life and art are all about, more points of reference."

It's a process that never stops. Renzi has made more than a dozen trips to Verona, Italy, to take advantage of "their good foundries and good food."

And to people-watch. "Since my subject matter is people, I enjoy watching people and their cultures all over the world and the country," he said.

And it would take a lot of traveling just to see all of Renzi's artwork. He still has galleries in Chicago and New York, and his sculptures grace public buildings throughout California.

Fresnans are familiar with "The Visit" at the north end of the Fulton Mall; "The Readers," at the downtown branch of the Fresno County Free Library; and the statue of boxer "Young Corbett," in front of Selland Arena.

Small models of many public statues are on display in the Art Museum collection, which covers several stylistic periods. Many of the pieces were borrowed from private collections, and Renzi said he had a difficult time finding his works because of poor record-keeping early in his career.

A look at the exhibit shows the array of styles Renzi has used through the years. His latest project is creating tall, wide (but thin) heroic figures from the Old Testament.

In 1986 he built "Job," a tall figure who seems to be asking, "Why me?" This year be created "Ruth," "Naomi and Ruth" and "Deborah," all standing tall and proud. The solo Ruth casts her eyes toward heaven.

"(The Old Testament characters) were very strong, identifiable people," he said about his new project. "They faced the same concerns and problems we have today. They endure because they offer a guide on how to handle human conflicts and problems.

"It's very important to have heroes. We want to pattern our life on something, so we choose someone we admire, respect or fear."

But the pieces are also significant because of their emotional content, a change from the sunny dispositions of his other well-known work.

In the round, happy pieces he's best-known for, Renzi said, "I don't want to project a strong emotional content. I feel it, but I don't want to project it — nothing heavy, tragic or severe."

"Job," with anxiety carved into his face, is an exception, "a special challenge," Renzi said.

"I've been on vacation with the lighter themes; they're fun to do. They're of a frivolous nature, but I don't want to bear down too heavily in that.

"It's a healthy thing for art to keep evolving, but it's aggravating. You achieve a style you're proud of, but you can't stay there too long or you get bogged down. You have to show growth."

The Art Museum exhibit displays Renzi's growth. Sure, he's done a lot of simple terra-cottas of smiling, cherubic children — "I use no models; I work out of my head, and I've had a love affair with children for years" — but he's also sculpted tall, slender bronze dancers and musicians reaching for the heavens. And he's carved from wood, made prints from wood cuts and formed animals.

The multifigure sculptures, with figures either huddled together or dancing in a circle, are often more complicated than they seem.

"It's a challenge to try to make a unified statement," said Renzi. "I try to account for every detail, leave nothing to chance. Multiple figures don't have a value unless you see as a unit — one overall form."

Renzi began his sculpting career working in stone, then branched into terra cotta, wood and, finally, the more expensive bronze. Even then, his first bronze pieces were sand-cast in pieces and assembled. Today, he can afford to use wax and have a foundry cast the piece. He uses foundries in Visalia and Monterey and handles his own clay firing.

Renzi is sorry the Art Museum show doesn't have any of his wood pieces because it's a medium he's hoping to return to. Renzi also was initially disappointed that some of his pieces were placed on low tables in the lobby, requiring adults to kneel for best viewing.

But when museum director Robert Barrett explained the reason for the low perspective, Renzi was more understanding. The museum placed the pieces where blind children can reach them.

One of the pleasures of sculpture is the way it feels, smooth-textured bronze or rougher terra cotta expressing the artist's intent even to those who cannot see.

Indeed, a group of blind adults from the Friendship Center for the Blind visited the museum for a touch tour on Thursday. Guided by volunteers and led by blind sculptor Georgia Arie, they viewed the art through glove-covered fingertips.

No doubt the touch of Renzi's art conveys a different message than would a visual perusal. But that's the joy of art, each viewer interpreting a piece from a different perspective.

Renzi, for instance, has his own outlook on the mall piece "The Visit," which shows two women conversing. "They have a completeness within themselves," he explained. "They are detached from the world."

He admitted "The Visit" is his favorite piece because it was his first commission in Fresno and helped establish him in Fresno.

But he hesitates to rate any one piece above another. "There's a bit of me in every last piece here," he said. "In that sense, they are all my children."