Life after lobbying

Dick Ratcliff

Photo By Larry Dalton

Dick Ratcliff became a lobbyist the same way he became a sculptor: He just started doing it. After college and law school at the University of California, Berkeley, the Richmond native didn’t know what to do next. Offered a job lobbying for the state’s irrigation districts, he gave Sacramento a try in 1960. He didn’t know anything, but he liked it, learned the trade, opened his own firm (Applied Strategies) and took all kinds of clients. He retired after 40 years and, not knowing anything about sculpture, gave that a shot, too. Three years later, he’s showing around town. Ratcliff’s sculptures show through August 31 at Danielle’s Creperie and Gallery in Arden Town Center at Watt Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard. For information, call (916) 972-1911.

How’d you turn sculptor?

I’ve never done anything arty or even attempted to do it. I was getting ready to retire and discovered that my wife had several things that I could do around the house, and I really thought that I needed to find something else to do. So, I decided I was going to go back to school. … I took some art courses, and what I found was, although I’d never been involved in art before, I could draw somewhat—not well, but with effort, I improved. So, I took several courses and found that I enjoyed it, and it gave me hope that there would be life after retirement. What I discovered when I got to three-dimensional work, sculpture, was that it was easier for me and worked better. I took a class that’s given at the Art Foundry every year in bronze sculpture, and there was a student show at the end of the class. I had several pieces in there, and I sold one, which was shock more than anything else. Since that time, I’ve been able to produce some objects, some of which have sold. There’s not a big line to buy them, but by the same token, I’ve sold more than a couple. It’s not enough that I’m making money at it, but it’s enough that it’s not costing as much as it might otherwise. … To me, it’s kind of astounding.

Why’s that astounding? Maybe you’re talented.

I started from nothing, and in a relatively short period of time … well, maybe I am talented, but I never knew it. And at this point, when things work fine, my ego soars. But just give me one moment of doubt, and it sinks to great depths.

Have your old lobbying pals seen your work?

Some of them have come around. Some of them have even bought a couple pieces. I think what it is is they’re surprised that I can actually do something. And it really is a far cry from what I ever thought of doing, and apparently is an even farther cry from what they thought I would be doing. I guess there’s a tendency of a lot of people who are retired to either play golf or sit on the porch and wait for the mailman. I always feared that. I need to do something, and I’ve found my something.

What do you get out of it?

It’s new and different—learning new things, meeting new people. Another part of it is a certain amount of pride in starting with materials and ending up with an object. The other part of it is it’s been an entry into a world that I didn’t know much about.

Like the way you learned lobbying cold?

In the sense that in both cases I started out as ignorant as a post. And in both cases, there’s a similarity in the enjoyment of learning what’s involved and being accepted as someone who’s part of the community. I guess you’d say in both cases there’s a certain element of creativity that I find very pleasant, the sense of being able to affect the development of things that are very important: art on one hand and public policy on the other.

What do you sculpt?

Objects that have caught my attention. Not being in a position to live on my work, I’m able to do what I want to do, which is a privilege. Mine tend to be animals and figures in odd positions or doing odd things.

What are you working on now?

The basic shape of a crow, and I’m having some trouble with it. One of the things you run into when you start to sculpt is that you can do a lot of things with the surface in terms of texture, what it looks like, whether it’s a caricature or realistic or abstract, but one of the things you need to get right is the shape. … If you’re doing a person, and the leg from the knee to the ground is as much as half an inch shorter than it should be, a person’s eye picks that up. And for anybody who’s ever looked at a crow, they know what that shape is, even if they may not be able to reproduce it, which is my problem.