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Local sculptor shares art with YMCA

Have you ever heard of the Sculpture Fairy?

That's how Kate Cervino, the senior program director for children's programs and the art department at the Morrison Family YMCA, and the rest of the YMCA staff refer to Tom Risser.

"We'd show up to work in the morning, and there would be a new piece of sculpture to greet us. It was magical," said Cervino.

It all started when Cervino approached Risser, a local artist, to contribute a piece of his artwork for the third annual Inspire! Ballantyne Arts and Culinary Festival, a celebration of arts and food in the Ballantyne area that is free to the public.

Risser, "a huge arts advocate," readily agreed and came out to see the space so that he could assess which piece of sculpture would be a good fit. Cervino showed him some possible spots and, in the intervening week and a half, Risser filled them all.

Some of the sculpture is on loan to the YMCA, and he plans to rotate pieces in and out.

These pieces include a robot-like throne made out of stainless steel and a colorful stainless steel flower, with plastic plate petals, popping out of a metal vase.

Other pieces he made expressly for the YMCA, such as the colorful children spelling out the letters of the YMCA that greets visitors at the entrance or the word art with a hand pointing to the art building that is adorned with a banner that reads, "Follow the art, follow your heart."

Following his heart is precisely what Risser, 47, has done. He is an engineer by trade and runs US Bottlers Machinery, a small bottle packaging company. It is a job that provides him with ample scrap materials and sheet metal for his sculpture.

"I get access to stainless steel like no one else," he said.

And now that his innovative use of recycled materials is well-known, it is not unusual for him to arrive home and find a tire rim or another piece of discarded metal that someone has left for him in his driveway.

"OK," Risser thinks. "Thanks. I can use that."

Risser discovered his passion for sculpture 12 years ago when he was making himself a giant skateboard ramp.

"I began using the plasma torch as a paintbrush, and I thought, 'let's just see where this goes,' " he said.

His house and yard are now a testament to his hobby, and school and community groups visit it as they would a local art museum.

But what Risser likes best is displaying his sculptures in public spaces like the Morrison YMCA.

"The public loves them," said Cervino, who is trying to do her part to add to the art scene in the Ballantyne area. "They are wonderful conversation pieces because they are not something you would expect on a YMCA campus."

The sculpture that has generated the most feedback is the steel rod (covered with black epoxy powder) warrior woman who is carrying a flagstaff with a giant pink ribbon. The sculpture arrived on Breast Cancer Awareness Day, and the staff was awed by her sudden and timely appearance.

A nurse who had a booth to raise breast cancer awareness that day moved it from inside the YMCA to outside, next to the statue "because it was just so empowering and beautiful."

Risser couldn't be happier that his sculptures are appreciated and enjoyed by so many new admirers.

"I don't need to make a living from my sculpture," he said. "So I like to share my work and let other people enjoy it."