Walt Rickli: Design Thinker Artist Stone Sculptor

Walt grew up in the north end of Hamilton. He and his family moved to Waterdown where Walt worked in the family’s landscaping business. Walt graduated from the University of Guelph with a Diploma in Horticulture. It wasn’t long before he became interested in stonework and was intrigued by the potential of stones. Initially, his first projects were stone basins. Both his interest and experience led him to continue his pursuit of stone as an artistic medium.

His early training started at the Guild institute for Stone Masonry located in Whitby, Ontario. While the main focus of his studies was masonry, there was a component of sculpture. The instructor was a carver by the name of Bobby Watt who immediately recognized Walt’s innate talent and encouraged him to continue his training. Finding further training was difficult. Eventually, Walt drove to Barre, Vermont to the Celestial Studio where he was able to secure a spot to study for 3 months. Actually, he studied there for three years, off and on as he continued to work at the family business. In Barre, he was mentored by three of North America’s greatest stone sculptors.

When he was living in Burlington around 1995, he started to look for a small home that was near water. While doing some work for a client north of Lowville, he found that home in the heart of Lowville next to the Twelve Mile Creek that came with 4 acres of land.

About one year later, he was in need of a studio, so he went to Nelson Quarry located on #2 Side Road where he was able to secure a large building for his carving studio. The facility gave him the ability to work with stones weighing from 200 to 100,000 pounds. In the early 2000s, Walt held workshops at the facility so that anyone wishing to try their hand at a small stone sculpture could. All participants left with their creation and as expected, most were stone basins. To this day, some of these can still be seen in the area at the homes of those weekend sculptors.

At his home in the heart of the village, Walt created a public sculpture garden that also highlighted his landscape experience. That sculpture garden is visited by hundreds of people each month. Walt feels that this garden is a sacred place that is calm, quiet, and peaceful. It speaks to its visitors in a variety of ways. Some come for the artistic beauty while others find a quiet place to mourn the loss of a loved one. Each has their own reason for coming. They are all invited to leave comments on a blackboard that Walt has left for that purpose. It is not surprising that he refreshes that board every day is it continues to be full of comments.

One of the installations is what Walt calls, “the belly button of Lowville”. The inspiration came from the omphalos from Greek mythology meaning naval. A stone artifact was placed by Zeus at the centre of the earth. Lowville’s omphalos can be found deep in Walt’s sculpture garden. As you will see, visitors often leave mementos on the stone

Walt tells the story of a young girl who was palliative and wanted to see the garden one last time. A patient transport was hired, and she was brought into the garden by stretcher. She got her last wish and passed away the next day.

The garden as you can imagine takes many hours of work, up to 2,000 hours per year. Walt has mentioned how it fuels his spirit and he enjoys watching the visitors enjoy what he has created. He feels that it is important to connect to the natural environments whether it is in the form of flora or rock. On his website he states that there is a “human need to touch natural material as often as possible to connect us to what is real”. Visitors are encouraged to touch his sculptures and children can be often seen thoroughly enjoying them.

Works by Walt can be seen far and wide and a comprehensive list can be seen on his website www.waltrickli.com. Highlights include Juravinski Cancer Centre – Oncology Treatment Facility. Shaker Square, Cleveland Ohio, McMaster University – DeGroote School of Business, Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital – Cancer Centre, Ridley College, Andrew Peller and Ikea Canada. Many individuals have also commissioned or purchased his work.

With the expansion of Nelson Quarry, Walt has had to move his studio to East Flamborough for smaller pieces and for larger sculptures he works at a facility in Dundas. He is now focusing more on working with private clients and enjoys the relationship that develops as he works with them to create their stone piece. Often, clients become friends. He is also working on making time for personal projects.

One of those personal projects is the creation of a line of unique, highly unusual memorial stones that will contain a bronze vessel for remains. More information about this project will be available on Walt’s website.

Lowville is not only a village, it is also a very close knit community that connects its residents. Walt feels that it is very important to him to be an integral part of that community. As such, he is a member of the Lowville Area Residents Association (LARA). This group of engaged residents has been instrumental in participating and voicing concerns about several issues in the community. They were instrumental in the discussions regarding a potential highway proposed to cross the Niagara Escarpment. They were involved in the Guelph Line reconstruction and also worked to beautify the village. Some of the proceeds of the 2006 and 2007 Lowville Community Calendars were earmarked for this beautification. Recently they opposed the establishment of a cricket pitch in the park over concerns about the park remaining available for everyone to enjoy and having sufficient parking for visitors.

A visit to Lowville would not be complete without a visit to Walt Rickli’s sculpture garden. No doubt you will immediately feel a sense of serenity when you step in. And, if you are of a mind to, bring a small memento to leave behind in the “belly button” of Lowville.

Contributing Author: Helen Callaway