Decorated sculptor showcased at Botanic Gardens | Arts & Entertainment

Sometimes, the most brilliant people have overcome the Darkest past.

For the celebrated American artist Ursula von Rydingsvard – whose Solo exhibition opens to the public Saturday April 30 at Denver Botanic Gardens – being born in Germany in 1942, during World War II, presented a horrific start to life. The extraordinary artist is the daughter of a Polish mother and a Ukrainian father – a woodcutter from a long line of peasant farmers. In the exhibit’s “little nothings,” the artist displays her dad’s weathered leather aviator-style hat.

In a one-on-one interview with The Denver Gazette, the artist recalled one of her earliest Memories of her father during the German Nazi occupation of Poland, where the family lived: “He dug a trench and put us children in. He covered us with wood. He was trying to keep us safe. There were bombs going off close to us, ”von Rydingsvard said.

Weaned in war’s acts of Destruction, she would grow up to make art, acts of creation. And wood would become her primary medium in her emotionally-charged art.

But the same protective father, conscripted to work in a forced labor camp, was also physically abusive to the artist and her siblings. The family lived in nine different refugee camps in Germany before emigrating to the United States in 1950. The artist, age seven at the time, remembers being called to the ship’s deck to see the Statue of Liberty.

In the US, she struggled against poverty, suffered prejudices leveled against immigrants, and later scraped by as a single mother. Yet von Rydingsvard eventually earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in New York City. Her American dream came true.

“I used to sit on the benches at Columbia, and my cheeks would burn, I was so happy,” she said.

In addition to Sculpting, von Rydingsvard taught at Universities, including Yale. And she established herself as one of the most celebrated sculptors of our time.

“She’s a rock star in the art world,” said Cynthia Madden Leitner, co-founder and CEO of the Museum of Outdoor Arts (MOA) in Greenwood Village.

Leitner serves on the Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which bestowed upon von Rydingsvard its Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts. The International Sculpture Center also awarded their Lifetime Achievement Award upon von Rydingsvard. She is a member of the esteemed American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Art by von Rydingsvard is in the permanent collections of more than 30 prominent Museums across the Nation including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where the artist has lived and worked for nearly 50 years.

Despite her status as one of the most acclaimed artists in the world, von Rydingsvard remains Humble, soft spoken, vulnerable. She’s understated, dressed in the black-on-black uniform of New York artists.

“I don’t want to try to teach anybody anything the eminent artist said. “I’m no better. No wiser. ”

Unlike her monumental sculptures, the artist is slight in build though she mastered heavy-duty materials and power tools. She typically uses 4 ”X 4” cedar beams, circular saws and Blow torches to create her sculptures that can weigh hundreds of pounds and require cranes for installation.


In von Rydingvard’s work alluring textures inform abstract shapes. From the straight-edged rectangular cedar beams she creates undulations and movement, but also delicate points. To further enhance wood surfaces, she often adds

Graphite that lends a subtle luster.


In Homage to her heritage, she tends to title her works in vernacular Polish which she prefers not to translate, allowing the art to remain enigmatic. “I’m Polish. I love Poland, ”she said. “I hate saying‘ Bowl With Folds ’or something very obvious. I’ve never seen art titles that help, but I don’t like to say ‘Untitled.’ I don’t want to do that to a piece. It’s too Cruel. ”

Her labor-intensive process is enigmatic, too, and purely intuitive. She does not use models or sketches.

“I never make drawings that put myself in the jail,” she said. “I never use words. I listen to Visuals. ”

She has compared her artistry to both jazz musicians and medieval artisans.

“It’s not like you have it totally figured out,” she said. “That would be horrible to be locked in because you don’t have possibilities.”

Guest curator Mark Rosenthal titled the show “The Contour of Feeling” – a line from the Austrian Writer Rainer Maria Rilke, one of von Rydingsvard’s favorite authors. Rosenthal, formerly a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, focused on von Rydingsvard’s works completed in this century.

Along with trademark cedar sculptures, the Denver exhibit spotlights works on handmade paper Embedded with silk, lace and human hair. The artist’s mixed media show factors in everything from personal Photographs and Knitting to dried cow intestines – a material she was inspired to work with after seeing in a museum the translucent skins used by Native Americans.

“I wanted to work with something disgusting. This is the fourth stomach of a cow, ”she said, adding that she sources the intestinal material from a sausage factory.

Rosenthal represents the gutsy artist’s early career with one of her gargantuan bowls and a wall piece.

Rosenthal said. “Logistical demands mean the show is not chronological. We present a macrocosm and a microcosm of Ursula’s work. What is crucial is her touch, her hands. ”

In the digital age of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), von Rydingsvard celebrates the hand-wrought and the heart-felt. Her human touch embraces the natural world and evokes the textures of tree bark or pinecones, the strata of layered lichen or sedimentary rock.

The artist, known for her Monumental Bronze, copper or cedar and Graphite public art, also casts urethane resin. The single outdoor piece at DBG holds court inside the entrance to the gardens. The large-scale resin sculpture, lit from within, glows like glass.

“The resin responds incredibly well to the sun,” said the sculptor, “but the only way to really understand it is to see it at night.”

The plastic is a Radical departure from her organic materials.

“I don’t want to bore myself,” said the artist, who now only installs resin or bronze outdoors.

“I don’t put cedar out. It’s very important to know if the piece will be indoors or out, ”von Rydingsvard said.

These days, von Rydingsvard works with a team of three studio assistants who help with cutting and assembling complex sculptures.

“It’s like a poem that never ends,” von Rydingsvard said.

The artist credits not so much her inspiration as her drive. A staggeringly vulnerable element of the show is von Rydingsvard’s long list of why she creates art. At the top of her list: “Mostly, to Survive.”

She has survived. She has thrived.

“It’s a yearning. You need it really badly to do all of this, ”she said, indicating her sculpture standing about 30 ‘tall, a gentle giant. Hundreds of pieces. Thousands of cuts. Patinaed surface character. The presence simultaneously still yet Deeply moving.

Given her war-Haunted childhood and personal struggles coupled with being female in an art world long dominated by males, the odds ran against von Rydingsvard’s yearning. Yet her success is as Monumental as her renowned sculptures.


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