TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
Sometimes I go in search of articles, and sometimes an article catches me unaware. Such was the case a few weeks back. I had seen an ad for a box of new horse brushes and curry combs for a very reasonable fee. A few days later, I found myself driving along a rather interesting alley off Boynton Beach Blvd., just west of Interstate 95, lined with art shops and galleries.
The third or fourth lane to the right had the sign I was looking for: Neighborhood Gallery. I parked, got out, and found myself staring at a huge, carved concrete horse head atop a concrete column. Richard Beau Lieu, Rick to his friends, walked over. We shook hands, I paid for the box of brushes, then insisted on looking around his eclectic gallery.
There were sculptures, many of them wonderful, large abstract metal constructions, paintings, smaller horse bronzes, a gigantic sea turtle, and that huge horse head thing. I had to ask.
“Yes, I made that,” Rick said. “I’ve been sculpting since the 1970s, when I lived in Chicopee, Mass. I was always interested in art, especially working with metal — steel, stainless steel, bronze — and welding.”
He moved to South Florida in 1986 and opened this shop.
“I also do appraisals. I’m a certified appraiser, credentialed through the International Fine Art Appraisers,” he said. “That’s really my bread and butter. It helps pay the bills so I can have fun doing this.”
He gestured around at the sculptures that took up most of the room in the small gallery.
“What’s your favorite thing to sculpt?” I asked.
“I really enjoy doing the abstract ones. I’ve done a lot of marine-themed work, like this turtle,” Rick replied. “Some were commissioned by the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, D.C.”
“What’s the story with the equestrian-themed work?” I asked. “Do you own horses?”
“I used to,” he replied. “I don’t have any now, but I owned horses for a good part of my life. And if you’re an artist, and you own horses, then one day you’re gonna start doing some work including them. I had Arabians and Quarter Horses, so I started sculpting them, mostly in bronze.”
At one point, riding was a family affair.
“It was years ago, when my kids were young,” Rick recalled. “They rode and showed in the small local shows. I rode as well. After the kids grew up, I kept riding. I used to do Team Penning at the old Posse Grounds on Saturday nights.”
“How exactly do you make these horse bronzes?” I asked, admiring one of a jockey mounted on a horse.
“I use a very old process called lost-wax casting,” Rick explained.
He starts with a picture in his head, an idea, then creates a wire armature, a kind of skeleton. He builds a model on it, fleshing out the skeleton in clay, getting the sizes and proportions just so. When the rough model looks correct, he adds the finely sculpted details. When he’s finally happy with it, he builds a mold around it: an outer mold of plaster, into which he pours liquid silicon.
After it has hardened, he takes out the silicon leans it, then reassembles it: a perfect mold of the original clay sculpture. Next, Rick makes wax copies of the sculpture by pouring hot wax into the mold. He makes up to seven wax copies of each piece. After the wax has been cleaned and prepared, a ceramic shell mold is formed around it and tested, plumbing is added and then comes the dangerous part. Rick melts the bronze in a crucible in a furnace to 2,000 degrees, then pours it carefully into the shell. The shell has to be hot, or the temperature difference would shatter it.
After the filled shell cools, Rick removes the sculpture by breaking the shell with a hammer. Then he sandblasts the sculpture, polishes it and finishes it, adding a patina and sometimes gold leaf. The whole process takes at least a month. “It’s a lot of work,” he admitted. “You’re not turning out cookie-cutter copies. Each one requires care and concentration.”
But clearly, Rick enjoys the work as much as the finished pieces. He has bronzes of gaited horses, horses jumping and walking and standing, horses being fed out of a bucket and a trainer leading a horse.
And what about the large white concrete horse head? It was unlike anything else in the gallery. What was the story behind that?
“That’s a memorial to the last horse I owned,” Rick said quietly, laying a hand on it. “Her name was Leethan, a bay Arabian mare. I owned her for 10 years. She’d been a broodmare before I got her. She was one of those very special horses… She had the most wonderful conformation, and she was fast. Really fast. When I’d ride her with a group, she loved to pull out in front of everyone, just fly. She had the best personality. You could put a little child on her back, and she’d take care of him.”
When she got sick, it was an emotional time, he said.
“She foundered. We spent a ton of money on vets and blacksmiths, trying to save her, but then she took a turn for the worse. My whole family was heartbroken. She died on Sept. 21, 2001. I never found another horse like her,” Rick recalled. “Losing a horse like that is so tough that I needed to do something special. This memorial was a kind of closure, a way to keep her nearby. It weighs over 2,000 pounds. It contains her ashes.”