Behind the Scenery: Get to Know Ryan Fretz


If you’ve walked among the cottage-lined paths and winding hills of Mount Gretna, It’s likely that your eyes have been caught by a Ryan Fretz display. You may not know his name, but Ryan Fretz’s art has been a keystone (sometimes literally) for the displays at events like the Mount Gretna Outdoor Art Show and the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. And that’s not to mention the year-round displays, breathtaking landscapes, handcrafted sculptures, and countless other impressive creations that adorn many homes and businesses in Mount Gretna and the surrounding areas.

This summer, in honor of the Lebanon Valley’s Year of the Arts, Fretz will be displaying and maintaining a new living art installation in front of the historic Mount Gretna Playhouse. In anticipation of the installation’s unveiling, we had the chance to sit down with him to speak about the installation, his experience as a native of Mount Gretna, and what it is like to be “cursed with vision”.

“Childhood in Mount Gretna was a beautiful thing”

If you’ve spent any amount of time in Mount Gretna, then it is probably of little surprise to hear that someone who grew up in the quaint community pursued a career in the arts. “[Art] has always been with me,” says Fretz. “Growing up in Mount Gretna, the most exciting part of the year, every year, was the Art Show.”

With his nana having been a painter herself, Fretz is the first to attribute a genetic predisposition to his artistic talent, “Everyone can be an artist if they put their mind to it, but there’s definitely a genetic component,” He admits. “Throughout elementary school, middle school, high school, it was always something that came naturally to me.”

As he moved on from middle school, Fretz’s art teacher, Mr. Hartman, was adamant that he would take the honors painting and drawing classes in high school. Initially, the teenaged Fretz was resistant, feeling as though he was already taking enough honors classes, “Why should I take honors art too?” But he enrolled in the courses and now looks back in gratitude to those teachers who pushed him, especially his high school art teachers Ross and Diane Miller, who inspired him to pursue art as a way of life.

It was also during these high school years that Fretz first exhibited at the Mount Gretna Outdoor Art Show, displaying his paintings as an emerging artist. “The emerging artists section is a small part of the art show that’s free to young artists. Because I know people,” he playfully remarks, “I was actually able to do it three times: twice in high school and once in college.”

Later in 2002, Fretz would be accepted into the main show for the first time to exhibit his pottery. From there, he was then accepted three more times as an exhibitor with his pottery.

With around 500 artists applying each year and only 200 of those making it into the show, just being in the art show is an impressive feat alone—not to mention having a part in it while still in high school. But though he displayed paintings as an emerging artist and dutifully enrolled in those honors drawing and painting classes, art wasn’t all that Fretz did throughout his childhood.

“As a youth, it’d been a standard job of mine to work for landscapers, and that’s the basic stuff of mowing and trimming and weeding.” He says. But though “basic,” these tasks would eventually become foundational to Fretz’s work much further down the road.

“Hi, I’d like to be a fine art painter”

After graduating from high school, Fretz made one of his first and only moves to live outside of the county, heading off to college at Kutztown University to study fine art painting with a minor in ceramics. Throughout his studies, Fretz maintained a dream to enter the art world as a professional, “I was intending to pursue professional art, ready to uproot and go wherever following the route of ‘I’ll starve to death and just try my hardest,’” he says.

But even with Fretz’s willingness to forgo food for a chance at success in the art world, he didn’t pursue his professional art ambitions. Looking back at his time in fine arts classes, he recalls the glimpses that he got into the professional art world and the realizations that followed, “Without being too disparaging to the art world, I realized before I graduated that it wasn’t what I wanted to pursue. It was a lot of hype and who knows who.”

On top of his new perspective, Fretz’s pursuit to become a professional artist had another barrier, “Where do you go and apply with ‘hi, I’d like to be a fine art painter’? That’s a difficult thing.” Although he admits that without finding love he may have stuck to the path of starving and dedicating his life to becoming a professional painter, Fretz did in fact find love. As put in his words, “Coming out of college, getting married, and starting a family in short order, I needed a job-job.” And thus, the basic tasks of weeding and mowing came back in handy.

“I needed a job-job”

With his college degree, wife, and growing family in tow, Fretz returned to the Lebanon Valley and took a job as the groundskeeper’s assistant at the Renaissance Faire.

Fretz’s job as an assistant eventually became a job as the head groundskeeper, and more importantly, it gave him a new medium for artistic expression, “In that role, I really fell in love with what could be my new palette—the colors of flowers, trees, and plants; the shapes, like being able to train a tree over the course of years; and playing with topiary forms.”

While working at the Ren Faire, Fretz’s artistic talent brought him into a wide variety of projects, from building and designing an army of scarecrows to the seasonal photo displays. He also gained an education in stone and wall work, as well as the heavy machinery involved in working with those mediums, much of which can be seen in his work today.

“Bitten by inspiration”

Today, Fretz resides once again in the Mt. Gretna area, where his art journey began years ago and where it is now on display throughout much of the Chautauqua community. From the stonework and landscaping of many Gretna residents’ homes to the floral display at the community library, the results of Fretz’s artistic prowess seem to simultaneously reflect and multiply the unique charm of Gretna.

And though some of his work is done without anyone asking or paying (someone has to take care of the Gretna Fairy Garden…) Fretz now operates a successful independent business entitled “Ryan Fretz Arts”. The name, he explains, is “intentionally vague” to cover anything and everything that he might take on—most of which is landscape work.

As reflected in the “vagueness” of his business, Fretz’s creativity and vision seem to have no limits or bounds. In sharing about the role of the arts in his life, Fretz jokes that he is “cursed with vision,” and explains a frequent nightly occurrence saying, “I will sit down in the evening with a beverage, and I will just sit… and I will stare… and then I will see something—and then I become driven.” Further, he describes the way that his mind is pulled towards projects, even those that never make it past the planning stage: “Sometimes a project never happens, but that idea won’t leave me. For years, I’ll pass that spot and think ‘If I just take a rock and…’”

“Art is in everything I do”

Although he might use the word “cursed” to describe his inclination for artistic expression, Fretz maintains a reverence for the arts that was evident throughout our interview—from the way he spoke about his endeavors to the sheer number of projects, mediums, and forms of expression that encompass “Ryan Fretz Arts”. Even when it comes to those basic landscaping practices, there is still impact for Fretz, “I take a lot of satisfaction in the simple nature of landscape work… I get invested and lost in the moment.”

When we asked Fretz what the arts meant to him, it seemed to summarize well the ever-expanding realm of his art, and, consequently, this blog as well… “I think art is in everything I do. I think it’s more prevalent in people’s lives than they even realize. Self-expression is so fundamental to our society. I mean art can be anything—I make hot sauce and I’m proud of that work—your art is what you put your heart into and you create.”

See the Work of Ryan Fretz Come Alive!

In celebration of the Lebanon Valley’s Year of the Arts, Ryan Fretz has designed a living art installation which was unveiled on May 25th, right before the Mount Gretna Summer Kickoff. The installation lives in front of the Gretna Playhouse and will be cared for by Fretz all summer long.

Check out our other Year of the Arts features here!

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