Many artists can trace their beginnings back to the influence of a person present in the formative years of their childhoods, someone who sparked their early interest in art. For Hoover’s Rik Lazenby, that person was his uncle, John Thomas, a nationally recognized artist. “He would visit us every five to seven years when I was growing up,” Rik says, recalling his late uncle’s travels and places he lived throughout his life, including Italy, New York, California and Hawaii. “I guess that little spark started right at that point. I patterned a lot after him to start with, and even a little bit into college. That’s where it started, and it’s done nothing but get bigger and bolder.”
That artistic spark stayed with Rik through years of growth and change. Rik grew up in Bessemer but didn’t stay there after graduation. Being a young man growing up in the 1960s, he had a bit of wanderlust and spent some time touring the country before enrolling at the University of Alabama, where he studied art education and became certified in school administration. His first job out of college was as an art teacher at Minor High School. He climbed the ladder to administration, serving as principal at several schools including Cahaba Heights Community School and Shades Valley High School. In the early 1990s, he served on a team to bring the first International Baccalaureate School to Alabama and also served as its principal. He went on to serve as the Director of Student Services for the Jefferson County School System. By the end of the ’90s, however, he was ready to close his 32-year career in education and focus on his artwork.
Rik began searching around the country for some of the best teachers in the decorative arts world and ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, studying under Martin Alan Hirsch, owner of the Faux Finish School. Rik was learning about everything from faux finishing to plasters to elements used to beautify home or business interiors.
Rik even had the opportunity to travel to Italy with Doyle Self, who operated the School of Italian Plasters near Atlanta, Georgia, and obtain his advanced certification in the application of authentic Italian plasters at Safra Colors. Meanwhile, Rik was starting his own decorative arts business in Alabama. “It was wonderful,” Rik says of the experience abroad. “It put me in a position where there were really not many people who could do what I did. The competition was just not there.”
Rik opened Lazenby’s Decorative Arts Studio in 2000. One of his daughters, Jennifer Lazenby-Blanton, eventually retired early from her job with UPS to work with Rik as a partner of the company. “We do a wide variety of finishes in homes and businesses,” Rik says, noting those who visit the Elyton Hotel in downtown Birmingham will see his and Jennifer’s work in the bright blue watercolor finish on the walls inside the foyer. “I still occasionally teach the decorative arts, but I am having to scale back my teaching due to my age.”
The pair’s work in the decorative arts field has earned them widespread recognition for more than a decade. The latest honor came from American Painting Contractor magazine, which named them to its Top Job 2020 awards list comprised of 40 painting and decorative arts companies throughout North America. “We are truly honored,” Rik says.
Rik served on the Board of Directors for the International Decorative Artisans League from 2016-2018, serving as Vice President, President and Past-President. He stressed this was a huge honor to serve the premier decorative arts organization in the United States. “At 74-plus, I feel blessed in two ways. First, that God has given me the strength to continue working in this dynamic industry, and second, that my daughter keeps on carrying her daddy.”
Hoover residents likely recognize Rik’s name from his involvement with Artists on the Bluff, a program through which local artists rented studio space at the old Bluff Park Community School building on Park Avenue. Rik served as the program’s first director and operated his art studios there for about six-and-a-half years until the facility closed a couple of years ago. He relocated Genesis Gallery and Lazenby’s Decorative Arts Studio to Shades Mountain Plaza and continued creating and displaying his work – pieces he formed with various mediums, from epoxy to plaster to ceramics. “A lot of them are very three-dimensional,” he says. “Very few of them have a flat surface. They’re all mixed medias. My earlier works were traditional oil and acrylic works. This has evolved over past 20 years. I’m using a lot of the same materials on canvas or board that I use in decorative arts now on walls and ceilings.”
Most of Rik’s work nowadays reflects his faith and, in some cases, reaches other people in theirs. He created for Beth Hallel Birmingham a 40-foot-long 3D replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a wall in which people can place handwritten prayers. He has also made pieces for a rabbi in New Jersey and an evangelist in Tennessee, among others. “I’ve been able to apply my trade, both my fine arts and decorative arts, in situations that have really been meaningful,” he says. “I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe I’m put in people’s path and they’re put in my path at just the perfect time, and we’re there to pass off gifts to each other.”
Rik recalls a sleepless night nearly 40 years ago, during his career as a school principal, when a bird’s incessant singing outside got him thinking. “It kept on and on and on, and I thought, ‘Why is that bird singing at night when all the other birds are resting?’ I ended up writing a poem called ‘Night Bird,’ and then I did an oil painting around that.”
The poem tells the story of a bird that does something different from the rest, like many who see themselves as individualists, Rik explains. “Quite often, these individuals are not seen by our society as people that are very valuable; they’re almost made fun of or scoffed at as being different. They usually fly in solitude, but they come in contact with other people of their kind and they pass off gifts to each other.”
All these years later, Rik still refers back to the poem to reinforce his belief that each phase of life—his different jobs, projects, experiences and relationships—have served, and will continue to serve, a greater purpose. And regarding his art, it’s not just his own pieces that he treasures, but those of his students and the time he has spent with them in the classroom. “It has been a blessing,” he says. “The teacher always learns as much or more from his students as they learn from him. I really believe that.”
This year, however, Rik made the bittersweet decision to close his gallery and studio this spring. He made the announcement on social media in mid-April, when many businesses were already closed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Although his wife would say he doesn’t truly slow down, Rik says he knows he needs to pull back, at least in some capacity. “It’s something that I think is probably the right time because of the circumstances,” Rik says before quickly adding, “But I don’t plan on stopping. I may close this down, but I firmly believe another opportunity is going to happen.”
Meanwhile, Rik will keep himself occupied by writing, painting and helping with plans for a future fine arts center in Hoover. In addition, he has plenty of family to keep track of with his wife of 54 years, Dee, and their three daughters, 20 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. “I don’t expect to fade away,” he says. “Unless the good Lord says it’s my time, he’s going to make something transpire that’s going to be very obvious to me, and I’m going to reach out and grab it.”