Brain cancer: Passing on the art meme


Recently, while lying awake in my “thinking hour” before dawn, I was musing about Richard’s art and how to keep it alive even as brain cancer gradually takes his life.


I remembered seeing Molly use her iPhone to record a conversation, and that provoked what may be one of my best-ever ideas: I could email photos of Richard’s work to Molly, she could choose a piece, put a photo of it on her iPad, set it up at the table like an easel, and ask him questions while recording their conversation. We could at once archive his work and capture a series of informal teachings about art and his sculpture process. And if Molly’s partner Mark, a photographer, wanted to join the project, he could shoot professional-quality photos of Richard’s work to enhance the archive.


Further, I thought, the interviews might be a sneaky way to inspire Molly to join Grant, our friend and the executive director of Colorado Art Ranch, in apprenticing with Richard. Molly’s got his artistic talent: she helped with the carving on the very first boulder-sink that Richard sculpted (the beautiful gneiss basin in two of the photos above) and has explored other artistic projects, but has never found a focus for her creativity.

My thoughts rolled on, and it occurred to me that if Molly and Grant took to the work, Richard could offer them the possibility of taking on his projects-in-progress and carrying on the tradition of his Salida Millwork studio.


(His sculptural wildlife drinking basins in the photo above are part of a project to restore wildlife habitat to the gritty industrial site surrounding a coal-fired power plant).

I looked at the clock: it was only five, too early to wake Richard. As I lay there contemplating the idea of giving Richard a way to pass on his art meme (a meme, as coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, allows units of culture leap from mind to mind, just as genes pass on biological properties), I thought about his woodworking, including the cabinet and trim work in our house.

Drawer Drawerpull

That work, I thought, would be perfect for our nephew Andrew, if he was interested. Andrew helped build the house and inspired by “Unc,” loves woodworking.

The more I thought about the whole concept of passing on Richard’s art to new hands and minds, the more excited I got. Finally, I snuggled close, woke him and poured out my ideas. He thought for a while and then said,

“That’s really good.”

“I thought it was brilliant,” I said modestly.


Over breakfast, we proposed the interview idea to Molly. She immediately got her iPad and iPhone and went to work, starting with a photo of his very first piece, a shallow granite basin in the photo below. That began a series of breakfast talks, sometimes with Andrew and Grant, sometimes with other listeners, in which Richard elaborated on why he works with the rocks he calls “ambassadors of the earth,” how he listens to what each rock has to say, and his tools and techniques.


The next afternoon, we four-wheeled Richard’s wheelchair up the dirt driveway to the shop for a granite-carving lesson. Grant (working at the wet-grinder carving station in the photo above, with Richard and Molly watching) took to the work as soon as he saw the inner rock emerge.

The next afternoon Molly headed out to the studio for some solo carving time, and an hour later came in bearing one of the small “sampler stones” Richard had picked out. (In the photo below, finished sampler stones sit on an inlaid steel dining table that Richard designed.)


“I got it Sus!” she said, with a smile that echoed her daddy’s smile when he finished that first basin.

When Richard’s strength faded before he could get out to his studio again, they brought the studio to him, shooting photos of his tools and rocks, and clustering around his bed to talk over the images.

Now, even those conversations have ebbed as he grows weaker. Still, it seems my idea worked: Richard’s art meme will live on in other minds and hands, their work extending his vision of bringing rocks, steel, and wood into our everyday lives as ambassadors to reconnect us to this wondrous earth, our home.