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Chester County Press

Movement and color and life

11/13/2015 12:28PM ● By Richard Gaw

Sculptor Rikki Morley Saunders outside of her home near Kennett Square.

By Richard Gaw
Staff Writer

Ralph J. Morley was a builder of custom homes in the Upstate New York town of Oneonta.

Throughout his life, he had the gift of being able to draw perspective -- to transfer angles and contours and dimensions from his mind onto the page -- in flowing, free form ease. It was a skill that easily found its way into his true passion as a woodworker, a talent he passed off to his young daughter, Rikki.

Ralph had provided Rikki with a nearly idyllic childhood, one that blessed her with an appreciation for art and one that was wrapped over-abundantly by surrounding nature. It was not uncommon for young Rikki to spend precious hours admiring the way her father graceful cut knives into wood, just as it was normal for her to disappear into the woods with her dog Snippy, and climb stone walls and apple trees, and sometimes, when the moon was just right, to sleep under stars, where she would see shadows and fading degrees of light.

Nature was merely the extension of the living classroom Rikki was learning from her father. He had trained her eye to see the things in nature that are not easily placed into category -- the stuff that most of us never see. In time, as she became an artist herself -- and eventually a sculptor -- their connection deepened in a semblance of color and light and movement. Even though Rikki had moved to southern Chester County, it was as if the five-hour distance between she and her father had vanished.

They became each others' muse, and there it remained for decades.

Years ago, Rikki -- now a wife, mother, artist and conservationist -- was designing and helping to build her home on the outskirts of Kennett Square. One day, she called Ralph in order to explain her frustrations, and moments later, he told her to call him back in five minutes. She did.

“Rikki, pick me up at the Philadelphia airport at ten this morning," Ralph told his daughter. "I will spend the day with you, but I have to be back to the airport by five p.m.”

He spent five hours helping his daughter with her home, then flew back to Oneonta.

Saunders, an equestrian, with her horses on her property.

 He's been with her ever since. Two years ago, a week before he died at the age of 91, Ralph was still talking with his daughter about the pieces they were working on.

He was in the car a year ago with Rikki and her husband Jesse on Route 842, heading toward West Chester. It was nighttime and it was raining. Suddenly, they heard something hit their car's windshield. Jesse stopped the car and backed up. Rikki saw a small dark object on the road. It was a tiny saw whet owl. She gathered the animal into her arms, where it died ten minutes later.

Three months later, Bill Streeter, from the Delaware Valley Raptor Center in Milford. There, she met a saw whet owl named Mortimer. She studied Mortimer for several weeks. She sketched its contours and its angles and its movement.

Eventually, she disapperead into her home studio on the second floor of a barn on her property -- accessible only by a narrow staircase -- and there, she sculpted an interpretation of the owl, a copy of which now sits on a mantel in her home.

It is really little wonder what draws Saunders to the work of sculpting moments in nature. She lives with Jesse on a farm, where dogs, deer, herons, peacocks and horses roam relatively free, and where the deep thicket of woods seems to go on forever. It is where, for more than 25 years, she has practiced sculpture, and during that time, she has learned from and worked alongside some of the most acclaimed sculptors in the nation, and become a well-known name on the local and regional art circuit.

Since 2007, Saunders' work has been in selected exhibitions in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., New York City, Oradell, N.J., Middleburg, Va., Bolivar, Mo, as well as at the Somerville Manning Gallery in Wilmington. In 2012, the National Sculpture Society selected one of her pieces, a life-sized representation of a peacock entitled "Nureyev," for its 79th Annual Awards Exhibition.( LOVE to add: )Hudson River Museum, 54th Annual Exhibition of Society Of Animal Artist. Her work is also in private collections from Maine to California.

There are dozens of other sculptures in her catalog, all finished in a luminescent bronze: "Tarka," an otter; "Gift in Velvet," a Whitetail deer; "Alexander," a peacock, and many more.

For Saunders, arriving at a finished work involves first imagining the finished shape, and then using the right measurement concepts in order to get there.

"When I see something, there has to be a moment in time that I need to capture," Saunders said. "I have to spend time with the animal before I sculpt the image of it, so as to be able to capture not only its shape, but its spirit. It's not a stuffed animal or a piece of taxidermy. It's a life, with character. For me, I want to capture the animal's soul, and I hope to do it so well that everyone will sense that. Everything I do is taken directly from life."

Saunders was recently riding her horse Duke near her property, when she came across a Great Blue Heron. She admired the bird's wingspan, which appeared to her both prehistoric and elegant.

"I don't think there are barriers between people and nature," Saunders said. "It's more like a very thin veil. We are only different molecules and densities. When I can be really quiet, I am able to pick up so much more. Our intuitive senses are heightened when we allow them to be."

The intersection of Saunders' passions in life, inherited from her father, could not have melded more perfectly with her life in Chester County, where she has lived for the past 34 years. In a 2008 magazine article, Saunders was referred to as "Renaissance Woman," an apt title, given that her life is an admittedly busy blend of activity that have not only inspired her art, but also her love of horses and her desire to conserve nature and open space.

In 1984, newly arrived in the area, she began equestrian training with local teacher Bruce Davidson, where she focused on three-day event riding. Her talents in the equestrian arts got her nearly as far as the Olympics, where she was long-listed for the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

In 1997, understanding the effect that the future transportation plans spelled out by PennDOT in southern Chester County would cause loss of farmland and degradation of our watersheds, Saunders created S.A.V.E. [Safety, Agriculture, Villages and Environment], which has since become a major presence in the grass roots effort to preserve natural lands and open spaces in Southern Chester County.

"It's just so beautiful here," she said. "I may not have been born here, but I chose to be here, so I feel very strongly about protecting it. I don't want to see it just go to the benefit of a few to the detriment of the whole, and future generations."

Currently, she is in the beginning stages of her latest work -- one she will not yet reveal -- but imagines will be complete by January, sent off to the foundry for bronzing in Utah and returned to her by next spring. Eventually, she would like to include it as part of a 2016 exhibition of her work.

Every day, Saunders rides at least one of her horses. She entertains friends at her home. She attends both art gallery openings and conservation meetings. She continues to work on her home. She takes particular care to design a flower arrangement. She loves spending time with her daughter and her three grandchildren in Utah. She knows that while the other side of her life takes her away from her art studio, she looks at her work as a sculptor as merely an extension of a life toppling over with gifts.

"My artistic voice is one of gratitude," she said. "I feel very grateful for having been raised the way I as was raised, and to be taught how to see, and how to be quiet. Just sitting and watching a leaf fall from the sky is an act of art. It doesn't get any more beautiful than that.

Saunders reflected, just moments before tending to Duke in the barn.

"Why stop art?" she asked. "I can never imagine stopping what gives me so much joy. Besides, I come from a family that has never really known how to stop."

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail

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