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Pickens County Progress
Pickens County, GA, November 14, 2002

Carving Out Lessons:
Sculptor Barbara Rheingrover turns life into art

By Jeff Warren

From 3,300 feet up a ridge north of town, Barbara Rheingrover’s house looks down over Jasper.

Like the Grinch lair of Seuss lore, the place has a window on the village below. Substitute Sassafras Mountain for Mount Crumpet and Jasper for Whoville and you get the idea.

But Barbara Rheingrover is no Grinch. Her sunny presence fills the spaces of her home and studio like mid-morning light.

On a misty Thursday, artist/sculptor Rheingrover warmed an interview and a cup of coffee in her large, high-altitude kitchen.

“You focus on the positive,” Ms. Rheingrover said. “I think it comes back to you.”

Life began for this lady in a faraway place. She grew up in the Missouri hills. “I’m the last of nine children,” Ms. Rheingrover said. “Mother was almost 43 when she had me. “Part of why I’m up here in the mountains is because I grew up in the mountains of Missouri.”

She comes from creative people. “My father was an inventor, a carpenter and a farmer,” Ms. Rheingrover said. "He's got 14 patents, in Washington DC. He was always creating with his hands.”

Inventions included an improved corn planter that would not over-seed when the farmer turned at the end of the row.

“My mother was a pastel painter," Ms. Rheingrover said. ”I went on from doing pastels to oils and acrylics.”

Sculpting came much later, but the muse sometimes whispered ‘along a streambed in Missouri. "I picked up round, smooth stones by the creek on my dad’s property," Ms. Rheingrover remembers. The child Barbara loved the look and feel of the slick, rounded rocks. Day’s end found her safe at home with pockets full of the water-worn treasures.

Before Ms. Rheingrover ever ‘struck a chisel, she fell in love, married and raised a family. Her husband, Gary, worked for AT&T. “We moved all over,” Ms. Rheingrover said, “kind of like a military family.” Stops included Nebraska, Washington, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Atlanta.

Ms. Rheingrover began sculpting in Atlanta when she was about 40 and her children were grown. “I went to a lecture,” she said, “and this lady, Ruth Zuckerman, was demonstrating.” Inspired, Barbara had to go home and try it herself.

“I started with limestone, a hammer and a long screwdriver,” she confessed. Then, she got serious.

"I found there was an American professor that took students in summer to Lucca, Italy,” Ms. Rheingrover said. “It was to the Art Institute of Lucca, 15 minutes up the coast from Pisa.” Ms. Rheingrover made the trip. She toured Florence and Rome. She discovered Pietrasanta, the mecca for devotees of the stone carver’s craft.

The name, Pietrasanta translates as “the holy stone”. In training there, Ms. Rheingrover learned the smooth-finishing technique that is now her trademark.

"I don’t leave bruises,” she said. "I don’t leave anything unfinished.”

Ms. Rheingrover was gaining recognition as a sculptor when her husband suddenly died. A heart attack took Gary Rheingrover in 1994. He was only 52. Grieving took Barbara Rheingrover most of three years.

She began sculpting again in 1997 with an ambitious collection of bronze sculptures, The Seasons of ‘Life.

Ms. Rheingrover created seven bronzes. They depict the stages of grief, “all those things you go through when you lose somebody,” Ms. Rheingrover said. Titles include Fear, Trust, Despair, Anger, Forgiveness, and Redemption.

The final victorious piece, Hope, is a full depiction of the thread that runs throughout and ties the pieces together. Half the bronzes feature superhuman hands, cradling, supporting, or sheltering a central figure or figures. Seasons of Life is on display now in Dahlonega. The Funky Chicken, a gallery run by Christina White, has the collection through mid-January. Then, the bronzes travel to Atlanta to grace the opening of a new Center for the Visually Impaired. Ms. Rheingrover’s collection will display there as a hands-on exhibit.

Ms. Rheingrover began exhibiting art for the blind in 1988. “I’d always heard that with the sense of touch you could pick up dips and turns,” she said, "lines that are indiscernible to the eye.”

To test the theory, she put out the light in her studio and felt the project on her work table. Immediately, she imagined art for people without sight.

She organized Touchables, a hands-on gallery exhibit for the blind, “It was an instant hit. Patrons wanted more”, Ms. Rheingrover remembers. “The sighted people said, ‘We don’t get to touch anything either. Why don’t you open it up to everybody?’ So I did.”

Ms. Rheingrover later expanded her work with the visually impaired to include training. She taught blind students to carve stone. “I had 138 blind students at the Kentucky School for the Blind for a week,” Ms. Rheingrover said. “Their tactile sense is just unbelievable. “They run their hands over some piece and come up with all kinds of things that it represents.”

Barbara Rheingrover is as passionate about teaching as she is about stone carving. At an upcoming workshop, Aliveness in the Arts, Ms. Rheingrover will lead sighted students into painting, clay sculpture and stone carving.

Art, she insists, is the great escape from a world of ceaseless stress. Creating leads your mind away from what ails you. “You can’t think about anything else,” Ms. Rheingrover said. “Your hands, your mind and your heart are doing one thing. I have people leave their baggage at the door. I teach them how to become little children again and to let that child come out and play.

“Some folks come in saying they can’t draw a straight line. When they’re finished, they’re amazed at what their heart and hands can do.”

“In workshops I try to share the love and peace I’ve found through God,” Ms. Rheingrover confided. “I sort of have an intuitiveness for people when they’re doing art, it’s not mystical. It’s just a feeling you have.

“A lot of students I’ve taught are now teachers. When your students excel, you’re just as proud and happy for them, even more so, than for yourself.”

Students are not the only people who get to enjoy Barbara’s studio. Her four small grandchildren do also.

“All of them love to come and work in my studio,” Ms. Rheingrover beamed. "They love to pretend to carve stone or to paint.”

For Barbara Rheingrover, family, creativity and God’s love intertwine her story. Her life mingles the whisper of a Missouri brook with the smooth, cool roundness of water-worn stones.

It blends the laughter of brothers and sisters with the timeless advice of a gentle mother:

“My mother said, if you can pray for those that have hurt you and did you wrong, then you can begin to forgive them and let go of that anger. You can’t really pray for someone you hate. Love wins out over time.”

For information on upcoming workshops, contact Barbara Rheingrover at 706-692-0716 or access her website at