Artist donates ‘Rio’ sculpture to city of Solana Beach

Artist Rick Harmetz with "Rio" at the Tide Beach Park access in Solana Beach.
Artist Rick Harmetz with “Rio” at the Tide Beach Park access in Solana Beach.
(Richard Harmetz)

The city of Solana Beach’s Public Art Collection has added its 13th permanent piece with “Rio”, a beautiful bronze woman in a yellow bikini, her feet sinking into the sand atop the bluffs of Tide Beach Park.

Sculpted by local artist Richard Harmetz, Rio welcomes beachgoers at the access point at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Solana Vista Drive. The statue was on loan to the city for a year as part of the 2022 Temporary Public Art Program before Harmetz donated her to the city for keeps earlier this year.

The bronze sculptor has also been a cosmetic dentist for 50 years with a practice in La Jolla, Harmetz & Kim.

“I never really thought of myself as an artist, even when I did that piece,” he said. “ I always think of myself as a dentist.”

Harmetz did the artwork on Rio nearly 20 years ago. He spent a total of 16 months sculpting the clay while working his day job as a dentist and the sculpture spent another seven months at the foundry to be cast in bronze.

“I’m glad she has a permanent home where she is appreciated,” said Harmetz. Rio’s new home on Pacific Avenue is actually right down the street from where Harmetz bought his first house on Pacific Avenue in 1976. He used to go to the Tide Beach Park all the time when his son was little, back when the beach access was a rickety wooden staircase.

From Solana Beach the family moved to the edge of Rancho Santa Fe where they lived for many years—one of his son Adam’s early claims to fame was being one of the kids to co-name Solana Santa Fe School when it opened in 1993. Harmetz and his wife Pat, a special education teacher for over 35 years, now reside in Carmel Valley.

Harmetz didn’t start sculpting until he was around 40 years old. As a dentist, he had done a lot of meticulous lab work, shaping crowns and perfecting smiles. He started dabbling in making jewelry and gold figurines before deciding he wanted to try his hand at sculpting 35 years ago when he was driving by a Michaels. Armed with a glue gun and some Styrofoam, he gave it a go.

Up until three years ago, he used to sculpt in his office in his free hours—that’s where Rio was formed—but now he has his own art studio in the Del Mar village.

Sculpture can be a long, long process, often starting with just some PVC pipes and clay.

“You look at it and you think ‘God, where do I start?’ It’s very hard, it’s very physical,” he said “The clay is hard as rock, you get blisters and keep working at it and working at it and finally you have something.”

Before Rio,Harmetz had done a large sculpture called “Healing Love” depicting a man’s love for a woman who had battled breast cancer, showing a mastectomy scar. The sculpture has been on display for many years at Sharp Memorial Hospital—“I was thrilled to death when Sharp asked for it, I was just beside myself,” he said. He has also done a 9-foot polished bronze dolphin named “Hope” which was donated to the city of Orange Beach, Alabama following the BP oil spill caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

“It still doesn’t come easy to me. I don’t have a particular style, I like doing figurative work,” he said. “I have done small landscapes and oceanscapes, I try to do things that haven’t been done.”

Rio is just about life-size—the model was a woman from La Jolla named Paula who was 6 feet tall but the bronze is just 5’10. After he did the sculpture Paula ended up moving away and she never did see the completed project.

When the city of Solana Beach put out the call for artists a couple years ago, he offered up Rio and was happy when she was selected and chosen for placement at the popular beach site. The sculpture was one of four temporary art installations that include spots such as the Seascape Sur Beach public beach access, Lomas Santa Fe Drive and Solana Beach Town Centre.

Richard Harmetz's "Rio" in Solana Beach.
(Richard Harmetz)

Harmetz said he wasn’t sure what the reaction would be and even called every few days to check if people were saying anything bad. After a year of Rio on the beach, he offered to donate the sculpture, which cost him $32,000 to make, not including his time sculpting it.

“I just like the idea of having the piece out in public,” he said.“It’s a fun thing doing this.”

Hamertz said there are many things about Rio that people may not even notice at first glance, like how the base is slanted like the beach or the pareo that is clasped in her hand and blowing in the wind behind her—he reveals that to make that mold of the flowing fabric, he floated mylar balloons and poured super glue over it.

In the studio right now, Hamertz is working a life-size female MMA fighter, working to portray a woman as a warrior and the courage and discipline it takes to get into the octagon. So far he’s only done two feet and two legs—he estimates it will take a year to sculpt it and he won’t have it bronzed unless he has a buyer.

Over the years, however, Hamertz has never made art for money or just to be sold—he has gifted all of his pieces for display or for charity and he doesn’t really market himself as an artist.

“It’s really for me that I do the art,” he said.