Artist Richard Riley Creates Surreal, Spooky, and Sublime Replicas
Photos by Ashlee Glen & Courtesy of Richard Riley
He has created pop culture and movie prop and character replicas for major amusement parks, Disneyland, orthodontist offices, museums, and myriad private clients. Madison Heights–based Riley Replicas has shipped creations around the globe, finding his work featured in France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, and Australia. What turned into a full-time passion enterprise for Richard Riley began as a side job when the artist needed a second income.
In 1999, Riley was working for a fire extinguisher company. The Lynchburg-area native needed a second job to supplement his regular paycheck, and an idea came from his brother.
Riley’s brother subscribed to a magazine called Toy Fair, which catered to action figure collectors, he said. The magazine was hiring artists to make dioramas they could stage their featured action figures in.
“He was like, ‘Why don’t you try that?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” Riley said. So, he made some dioramas, took photographs of them, and sent them in to the magazine in response to their job advertisement. He was hired on the spot.
Riley worked for the magazine making dioramas for a year, until operations shifted and the work started drying up. Riley’s brother, once again, gave him another idea.
“My brother, again, showed me where people were making replicas of figures from Star Wars and he said, ‘They’re selling them on eBay.’ And again, I was like, ‘I can do that!’ So I just jumped into it and started making these small figures,” Riley said.
After launching that endeavor, Riley got what he considers his big break in the replica-making world.
In 2003, a New York City client who owned a comic book shop commissioned Riley to make some Star Wars replicas for his private collection. This contract had Riley making a replica every two weeks. One of his first projects was a Jabba the Hutt replica, re-creating the infamous sloppy space slug.
One day, the client asked Riley if he would start making some Star Wars mask replicas. His vision was to put them on full-size mannequins, dressing them to look like various Star Wars characters to set up around his comic bookstore.
“I had no idea how to even begin to make one, but I could either lose a customer or figure it out, so I told him ‘I’ve never done a mask. I know the principles behind it. Let me try something but of Styrofoam.’”
The Styrofoam mask was a success.
Styrofoam has been Riley’s go-to material ever since.
Sometimes he works with fiberglass or uses plastic resin molds when making multiple pieces of the same item, but Styrofoam is by far the most common and primary material used to create his replicas.
“It’s more economical for the client, and also it’s so forgiving,” Riley said. “If you cut something or if you carve something and it’s not exactly right, just cut that part out, put a new piece in, and then carve it again. No big deal.”
In 2015, Riley went full-time with his business.
He is mostly a one-man show, except on occasion where he needs something like a metal frame or a metal decoration for a particular replica. In these cases, Riley said he hires a local specialist for whatever service he needs.
All of Riley’s clients find him online, he explained.
“The internet has completely changed how people like me do work,” Riley said.
In a competitive market, Riley chooses not to limit himself to a hyper-specific niche and makes sure he always delivers by his promised deadline.
“I’ve really diversified when it comes to what I make,” he said. “I don’t try to pigeonhole myself.”
The most fulfilling part of his work, Riley said, is troubleshooting—figuring out how to go from nothing to the final product. Each creation is different and requires a different process as a result.
“I know what the piece is going to look like before I finish it. In my mind’s eye, I know exactly what it’s going to look like. It’s just the figuring out how to get to that point because certain pieces will require it to be hollow. Other pieces may require it have an internal structure. It might have to have a metal frame in it, or a wood frame in it,” Riley said.
The least favorite part of his job is shipping the items, particularly large ones, Riley admitted. Trying to pack and pay for everything can be a headache. When possible, he said he drives a project to its destination himself.
One hundred percent of his work goes out of state, Riley said. Although he is based in Virginia, no client has contacted him directly from the Commonwealth.
Riley’s annual commissions vary year by year, but this year he is booked solid through 2024. Clients are on a waitlist for next year, he said. Sometimes, he might only do five jobs a year, but they are usually major ones.
In May, Riley had a replica of the head of the shark from the classic movie Jaws. The nearly four-foot piece will be mounted on the wall of a 1970s/1980s movie-themed Texas restaurant, he said. As a major fan of this movie, the job was an extra special one for the artist.
The dream job would be to make a replica of the full-sized shark from Jaws, Riley said. That, along with a life-size T-Rex and some spaceships from the Star Wars universe.
If people visit Kings Dominion during Halloween, they might see one of Riley’s creations on display: a cemetery arch. This commission was made through a New York-based firm working with the amusement park. Other Halloween pieces can be found at Six Flags amusement park, and Disneyland in California.
Out of his extensive portfolio, three projects stand out to Riley among the most memorable.
Around 2013, Riley made a replica of a Star Wars creature for a car manufacturer. His work was featured in that year’s Super Bowl advertisement for the manufacturer.
A few years ago, Riley received a commission to make an ancient-looking statue of the legendary Greek hero Hercules fighting Cerberus, the three-headed dog who, in mythology, stands guard in the realm of Hades. After delivering the piece, Riley found out it was displayed at an event the president attended.
Riley said his personal favorite project was making Max, the dog from Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas. This piece went to an orthodontist office in South Carolina, where the holiday theme was “the Grinch.”
Chris Jerrigan, the orthodontist at this office, has been a regular client of Riley’s for five years now. He practices what he calls “experiential marketing,” setting up elaborate quarterly themes in his office. Countries of the world; Disney themes with castles, cottages, and soon an eight-foot dragon; and a 12-foot Rockefeller Center replica; seasonal themes for Halloween and Christmas—there is always something set up in the small-town practice.
“I always wonder if he’s not going to get snapped up by Lucasfilm or Universal to start making their stuff. It’s just crazy, his level of talent,” Jerrigan said.
Riley’s biggest piece of advice to fellow artists, which he wishes he had done, is to take business courses.
“Whatever job or dream someone has, there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t follow it. None whatsoever,” Riley said.