Sculptor's Life Shaped By Artists And Actors

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"To Miss Frances Rich, stone carver, whose soul is alive with the great gothic vibration." -- Inscription written in 1933 by Renimpel, a distinguished art dealer and collector of medieval and contemporary French art.


Seventy-seven years later, Frances Rich's soul is still alive with the great gothic vibration. And it's vibrating right here in Payson -- where Rich, at 90, continues to sculpt while steadfastly refusing to slow down for anyone or anything.


But Rich's story is much more than that of a world-class, world-famous artist with pieces on display in some of the most prestigious showcases and private homes imaginable.


The daughter of popular 1920s movie star Irene Rich, who starred in many feature films opposite Will Rogers, Frances practically grew up on Rogers' Southern California ranch, playing with his children.


"They had a riding ring and polo grounds and everything," Rich said. "It was a wonderful place. Mr. Rogers was a very approachable man, very pleasant. I was just a kid, and it was the time of my life!"


She tinkered with the idea of following in her mother's footsteps by becoming a screen actress, too, and worked as an extra in a number of films by Rogers' favorite director, the legendary John Ford.


Frances eventually gave up acting, but she never gave up Ford; they were close friends until his death in the mid-1960s. It was Ford, in fact, who introduced Rich to his favorite motion picture location, Monument Valley -- and it was from there that she found her way to Payson about six years ago.


"It's just a wonderful town," Rich said. "Everybody minds their own business, and they're friendly, and the climate is divine, of course."


Another of her closest friends is Katharine Hepburn, of whom Frances has sculpted a number of busts and other pieces over the years. She last phoned Hepburn a few months ago, but was saddened to discover that "Kate's not doing well, unfortunately. It's so sad. She was such a remarkable woman."


Speaking of remarkable women ...

After getting an early education in Swiss schools and later the Santa Barbara School for Girls, Rich received her bachelor of arts degree from Smith College in 1931, majoring in English literature.


The Ford films followed, helping to finance the beginnings of her sculpture career.


In 1933, the renowned Malvina Hoffman discovered Rich through John Ford.


Rich's association with Hoffmann first led her to Mexican painter Angel Zarraga; then to her mentor and long-time friend, Carl Milles, known as the dean of modern sculpture; then to the famed Diego Rivera, who did a portrait fresco of Rich as she completed a sculpture portrait of him.


After absorbing the influence of these artists, Rich's own sculptures began to travel the world. Soon they could be found in such places as the Arlington National Cemetery, where her 10-foot Army-Navy Nurses Monument was placed in 1938. Rich herself was a lieutenant commander in the Navy.


Her works also were put on display at: Purdue University, where six of her bas-reliefs have graced the entrance to the Union Building since 1938; in the foyer of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Conn., where stood her 1961 portrait busts of Katharine Hepburn as Cleopatra; and the homes of Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Will Rogers, screenwriter Garson Kanin and his actress wife, Ruth Gordon, film directors Ford, George Cukor and Cecil B. DeMille and opera star Lawrence Tibbett to name only a few.


In 1955, Francis Henry Taylor, then the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote that Rich brings to her subject matter "a lightness and familiarity with the human figure that is as informal as it is natural ... She is a non-Catholic who has penetrated into the very essence of monastic life and has, therefore, given to her work a poignancy and conviction which will carry her far."


Somehow, with all of her sculpting and world traveling and friend-making, Rich never found the time to get married or have children.


"I don't know why," she said. "A lot of crazy reasons, I think. And I was pretty busy all the time. When you're an eager-beaver girl, people say, 'Oh, she just works all the time!"


People can still say that about her.

"I work all the time, every minute!" she exclaimed. "Come upstairs and I'll show you!"


The downstairs of Rich's house is like a very nice museum. But the upstairs of her house is like a 2,500-square-foot treasure chest of sculpted masterworks, with copies and originals of many of her favorite pieces, as well as a number of works in progress.


It was in this milieu that Rich demonstrated precisely how youthful and energetic she is.


While a male photographer almost half her age struggled with a 70-some-odd-pound bronze bust he was attempting to relocate to her back yard, Rich said, "That looks like it may be too heavy for you. Would you like me to carry it?"


And she wasn't kidding.

And she could have carried it.

And she's 90.

Remarkable.

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