Talk with Ursula von Rydingsvard

Talk with Ursula von Rydingsvard

By Diane Richards

Ursula and Diane at NAEA Conference

Insert from NAEA 2017 catalog:


Artist Series | 2:00 – 2:50 pm | Hilton/Grand Ballroom/3rd Floor

Ursula von Rydingsvard is an artist who works on a monumental scale. Built slowly and incrementally from thousands of small cedar blocks, each work reveals the mark of the artist’s hand; her respect for physical labor, and her deep trust of an intuitive process. Her sculpture is included in numerous permanent collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.


I had the opportunity to listen to Ursula von Rydingsvard at the NAEA conference in New York City. She spoke directly about the influence art teachers have on the youth of our country. She shared with us personal details of her own incredible fight for an education she deserved. She then shared with us details of our innermost thought about her recent work.


This may seem like an inconsiderate way to start this conversation, but the woman walking up to the stage was, well, … not what I expected. Ursula’s work is massive in size, whereas the material and scale used do not seem to fit the petite woman on stage. Her work can be characterized as masculine and not at all feminine. Maybe that is why I love her work even more. As she begins talking- I am enveloped in her story, as a woman who is clearly passionate and thankful for doing what she loves. Although at times she can not find the words to explain exactly how she feels about a piece, she provides enough important information about the work for that piece to come alive.


Ursula connects with her audience immediately by explaining her art teaching background.


UvR: I’ve been an art teacher for 9 years. I taught children of migrant workers that came out of Mexico; then I taught in Connecticut at a place called Farmington High School. So, I think I have some sort of understanding of why went onto to teach – actually, the first teaching job I had was at Miami Springs High School, where I -during the time that Castro forced many from Cuba- so I taught their children. They were some of the most talented children that I had. Since then, in the late 70s, I have taught at five different universities at the same time. The School of Visual Arts, Fordham, NYU, Parsons, and Pratt. I had to survive, so that’s why I had to teach at 5 different places. Why?  I had to do it. But, there were glorious moments in that- taking over defunct sub-terrariums and pool rooms that hadn’t been used in like 70 years, and you make installations around there. After that, I taught at Yale University in the 80’s and it was the first time I got medical insurance. Because it was full-time because part-time teaching paid very little. Anyway, after that, I taught very part-time at the FDA, so I know how hard and how focused one has to be. How determined and most of all how much you need to believe in these kids and how serious you take these kids. It can’t be done half-way or in a way that isn’t like really wanting (to do it) on your part, to message them with things having to do with the visual world.


Next, Ursula took us on a journey of her most recent works within the last 10 years.


“Damski Czepek”- Polyurethane Resin 14 foot tall

UvR: This is the piece that is a full-scale model that got turned into a resin. I this way, it was fastened ed in the Walla Walla Foundry (Washington State). As you see, there is this rigor steel caster in this pink rubber that keeps this model very very still. And then they put the resin in. The reason to use the resin is that it does these beautiful things in the light. It drinks (in) the sun. It’s not transparent, it’s translucent. This is at Madison Park in New York City.

(It is) beautifully undercut, that looks like scales of fish, which was the result of that pink rubber that you saw that it can get details like this.


“Unraveling” Cedar, Graphite 11’6” x 18’ 6” x 2’5” 2007

UvR: This is recently installed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It’s outside but it was displayed first at Madison Square Park Converium 2006. This is a piece can be squeezed up against a ceiling. It can be squeezed into a corner or not. Obviously, there is a kind of tightening and letting go. All cedar.


“Droga” Cedar, Graphite 4’6” x 9’7” x 18’ 3” 2009

UvR: This is a piece that is a kind of … I don’t know… When I use words to describe what that is, I really don’t know what that is. People think I’m lying to them. I don’t know. It is something that I was very interested in doing and I start right off with the part of my right that is a circular form that I cut from the inside of a bowl that I made. But it was very complex because it had Hundreds, and Hundreds, And hundreds of shims. When you look at it up close it looks very complex, but it’s something that sort of drags itself… that it’s got a pattern the likes of which it leaves the cedar like fleshy, leaving it without the graphite. But the pattern has to make sense with its body. ANd its kinds of a creature that you can have a strong sense that it would crawl. In that is doesn’t do acrobats. This is part of the patterning. The gluing was done in a way that the seams were just off from one another. You know? So there not matching- shifting that also helped the implication to the kind of movement that this thing could make.  And the angels of all my 2 x 4’s and a lot of the long long long shims, that angels would go from one side to another. Again implying a motion. But you see in here is a kind of a regurgitates of its innards. And here the other side of the piece.


The next work she talks about is about “Luba.” A few years ago while watching Ursula on Art21, I remember thinking how her work intrigued me, but then while visiting Storm King I truly fell in love with her work especially when I saw Luba. I was incredibly drawn to this piece. I was thrilled to see that she had indeed included in this presentation.  I knew there would be an interesting story behind this piece.

“Luba” Cedar, Graphite, Bronze 17’8” x 11’7” x 7’4” 2010

UvR: This is the piece I made for Storm King. It is a sculpture park north of New York City. I chose the tallest part of my studio to be able to do this- and it ended up having these appendages. Two appendages that you see that wonder there way towards the ground. These appendages are made out of bronze. I think in some ways it the first time I really work up to a bronze. I’ve done two other bronze pieces, before this a lot of the two in the last 30 years. Somehow I was able to patina- so the such the transition from the bronze to the cedar quite easily made credible. There’s a colony of trees below and I wanted somehow to create an underarm. (Her voice turns tenderly as she discusses this next revelation) This is where you carry a baby you know a substantial loaf of bread to be kind of frame for the colony of trees that you see. And this is the meaty sort of the bulbous side of the appendages. So you can get a sense of that. A beautiful arch of trees that surrounded it at the top.


Ursula shows a few more slides of “Luba” in a different season. It’s as she’s looking at her child growing up in the four different seasons.


She shows us some other works and although she doesn’t go into depth on each one, she chooses words that depict the process and material used for various sculptures. Words like…The way a resin piece drinks in the setting sun. Organic, movement and dramatic. Again you have to remind yourself that you’re looking at larger than life static sculptures, but these are the words she uses to describe her work. And they do indeed come to life.  There is nothing static about these pieces.


“Ocean Voices” Cedar, Graphite 53’ x 185” x 67” 2011-12

UvR: This is a piece I worked on and it was standing up- although I thought of it as really boring. So here it goes, I sliced it up. With a chainsaw. I sliced it up. And it is the only time I use a chainsaw. Otherwise, I use a circular saw. Circular saw is much more sensitive than a chainsaw. So I then protrude some of these layers indents so they’re all on different surfaces, and I stuff shims in between to stay together.


This is lying it down- horizontal. I’m taking these shims and pruning them so that they make more sense to the skin of this structure. Graphite it’s- the very fine powder that I spray a 3M glue on and really rub the graphite into. And I do that because you know we often have these romantic notions of the wood, oh and it belongs to the elves and all these other fairytale connections…that I HATE… so you know. It’s… it’s not wood is not that for me. I want to transform it then to be able to clearly say what I need to say. It’s not to say that I can tell you with clarity about what I want to say. But that it certainly takes away from the OOOHHS and the AHHHS that way some people feel about wood. And some people say to me… “You must love cedar!” I just use it. And sometimes I say, “Okay Ursula, this last flatbed cedar that comes from Vancouver, that will be your last, right? You’re not going to order any more.” Of course, I’ve been saying that for the last 30 years.  


And I use it because it feels like the thing that I can speak through most clearly. Of course, speaking through visual. But I don’t love it. I TORTURE it. You know. I put it through a lot of trauma.


She pauses for a moment to drink in what she’s just said. The words and force she uses to describe what happens to the wood may seem to some very barbaric. And she clear about the way she feels about the material to the time-consuming process it takes to create these works of art.


UvR: Very often I lop things off. You know there some many transitions that occur so many changes through this process. One of the things that were important to me was…so you see the lifting of the body almost in the middle of the body…the lifting. That was very important to me…like (grunting- heavy lifting sounds motioning her arms as if lifting something so heavy to move) like…  like this effort that’s been put forth by this thing. And the front of it hugs the floor in a way that is pretty closely related to the floor.


She shows some details of the piece.


UvR: But you see off of these things that go up to the front of the face. The little knots that turn in different ways to become something else. You know it’s not DECORATING- I HATE DECORATING, but it trying to figure out what it needs as it goes up to be something else.


As she shows us her next work to be discussed, one can see that’s it’s a slight departure from her earlier work. She discovers a new technique.


“Hemorrhaging Cedar and HC II”- Cast Abaca Paper, 139” x 52” x 2” each 2012.

UvR: Here’s a piece that was made – cedar reliefs that I put the paper on. The Paper is called Abaca paper. Very strong made from the banana bunch, and there’s something that holds up the bunch of bananas from the Philippines. That gets made into pulp. So this pulp gets put over the piece and cut the relief into many many squares and then I put the ambivalence paper over it and let it dry. It was so (she pauses) beautiful because it then drank the juices out of the cedar. It was so beautiful that I had to have another one. This is a close-up- these are my kind of colors. Colors from the earth, belonging to the earth. Something that is not artificially made. The second one turned out white. (you can hear the disappointment in her voice) There were no more juices to be sucked out of the cedar. It turned out white even though it was three dimensional.


Ursula is not afraid to show her process. Since her process is also what makes the work so beautiful. But not all the work is beautiful. Her next slide is what looks like a bonfire. And that’s exactly what it is.


UvR: These are the fires that I built out of my work that I didn’t like. They last for three days. This was just one of the fires because the next day I had another. Because I need to get rid of the stuff I don’t like. And it’s not only that I’m short of storage. I’m adding another 9,500 square feet to my studio in upstate New York. It’s not – I’ don’t know…It’s just kinda of…filler the integrity of the work. You know? In a way that’s healthy for me. But you know I say this so bravely but I can’t watch it, you know? I take the pieces I want to be flamed, but I can’t watch it being burnt.


Ursula continues to show more of her work and with each one, it’s obvious that she still enjoys exploring the material. She says her work is more intuitive and that she can sense where it needs to go.  


“Cross Mirage.” (Cedar, Graphite 93” x 82.5 x 32” 2011)

UvR: This is called “Cross Mirage.” It sits flat against the wall. And there’s a flirtation of the grid with the 4 x 4s. The organic structure that plays with this grid and when you get a certain distance from it, your eye starts to jitteriness- your eyes start to move quickly to the response to this kind of combination.


“Quarter Moon Crazies” (Cedar, Graphite, 9’ x 4’11” x 7” 2014)

UVR: This is called “Quarter Moon Crazies” and it went through many many changes, but it wasn’t done until I got the big “X” that I gouged the surface of that it made sense.


This next work was a gift from her dear friend Agnes Gund to the Rockefeller Center. Agnes had the privilege of introducing Ursula at the NAEA conference.


“Bent Lace” Bronze 112’ x 69’ x 40”


UvR: This is a piece, Aggie’s gift in honor of David Rockefeller 100th birthday. This is the full scale that I was working on. And so you see the wooden part but you don’t see the more intricate part was the appendage of that piece. I first on a vinyl a huge piece of vinyl 4 x 8 feet I drew all of the forms that I wanted to work with and then it was cut on a machine that I could take these little forms that were drawn, I could them off and then tape them onto the cedar. Again it’s not…it’s very organic it’s not like a design. Very intricate. You see the design evolved to one another, again I don’t want to get boring. I don’t want to get bored myself or anyone else. This is the result from the – we get a ¼ inch thick, the wax of the cast, of the part I was showing you. And there’s a difference that you can see of the wax that the process is so sensitive, that there’s a difference in between where the flat piece of design was and where the flat piece of the wooden surface is. The difference between those surfaces we then cut into the part where the vinyl was, but it’s a process that is so time-consuming. That anyway, I haven’t seen anything like this. Little itty bitty openings, to the most powerful openings, are in that appendage that hangs on the side of that sculpture. All of the veins that you see leading up to that appendage. The openings, those little openings have wind going through but more importantly, they have the sun going through. So it is a piece that the first …the second time I perforated the surfaces like that.


Building a piece- I wear that green thing. From now on – for the last 20 years, it prevents me from inhaling. It’s really potentate in my studio. Not because we’re not careful, it’s because of how it is.


Next, we look at “Uroda” and it’s clear she proud of this piece. Working alongside metal artist Richard Webber she gains a new perspective for another material.


“Uroda,” Copper, Steel, bronze 14’ 2015

UvR: It keeps going up. We’re working on a piece for Princeton, we’re not working on it now- it’s done. It’s for a building Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Called Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. This building has to do with our environment and how to make it more sustainable. These are the patterns, out of copper that we hand pounded. These are the patterns, I made this piece, it took three years, I’ll never make another. It was all hand pounded copper. These are some of the pattern 3, 932 patterns. And this is the space we had because I was able to get a very cheaply because it had no heat and it had no electricity. We fixed it so that we got it. ANd the bronze rods that you see bent, this is going to be part of what was going to hold those copper plates, you see the inside, you know the rectangular body-core of this piece. This is what it looked like when it got fried. That is after the torches were put on it. Too much process. The torches make the bending of the copper, a little bit easier, but really hard and resistant. Almost as thick as the copper on the statue of Liberty. And this is putting a torch, it eased the patina from the bronze (copper?) In other words, torches it from the back did something to the chemical so that its body had some wondering red colors like this as a result of the torching from the back. I would give him instructions about where to torch it from the back.


It’s so beautiful,. (Pain in her voice). But it doesn’t stay like this. Then copper has to take its own route. And some of it is glorious, but you know I haven’t followed, I haven’t gone to Princeton every month.


Before she gets too sentimental she turns to another image.


UvR: So this is the bottom and this is the top, I never saw the two together until it was put together at Princeton.


This is the process of installing it. The building is gorgeous in the back.


You see the — how the each of the pounded copper pieces has a seam that which one holds together with the other. ANd that was welded. (Her voice shifts to a calming and loving way) My very favorite was to be near it so that you could really see all the differentiates. Like these blue teardrops. It’s such a beautiful material. And the thousands of years ago they used to have a name for it- that meant a flesh of a woman.


The next piece is a sneak peek at one of her most recent works. Unfortunately, it is so new that she didn’t give any details.


UvR: This is the piece- my most recent piece. You see I’m starting with it on the floor. And I’m really going quickly to what’s there now. Like tremendous meheim at the bottom of the piece. You see how at the top it’s kind of sleepy, it’s kinds of calm and then at the bottom it’s very very disrupted. Very traumatic. There are these ropes and strings in between, of course, this is out of cedar. I don’t think I’ve done anything like this before. This is 6 weeks old. Just finished it.


Recently commissioned by MIT to create a sculpture for their entrance courtyard of the “McGovern Institute for Brain Research” the work called “Scientia”- this work transforms at the top unlike any of her other works- as if it is still growing.


UvR: This is how I start everything and I have something in my head. I never use a model. I never have a drawing. This is how it starts, just like this. Build from bottom up. I draw every single portion of an inch of cedar. It’s not loosey-goosey. Everything that I draw gets cut along the line that I draw. I’ve had my grandchildren over quite a lot in the studio. These are the woman’s grandchildren who commissioned. This is a piece for MIT who funded the casted piece. I only have a 16-foot ceiling so I wasn’t able to see this together. This is gluing, we glue with I-beams- The pressure from the side to side and top and bottom so that the not the wood would bend, this does not. They come out in donuts so that they can be transported. ANd this is starting the casting process. It’s amazingly complex and too amazing time-consuming. It takes almost a year for something like this.  You see all of the seams so that this piece had about 56 separate sections that had to be cast. This is my drawing- for the top portion, but this is only partial because I have to make more, but this is a part I call lace. It’s a horrible name for it. But you see the organic, you see them pulling one another, you see them as part of the same whole. Every single one is different from all the others. Like fingers that reach up that you can see at the top. I drew on the plastics


This is me painting to the top portion of the build. You see me and my assistant. You warm up the body of the bronze, then you fry up the patina up into it. We must have used 10 different chemicals to come up with what we needed. But it’s like doing a painting, you know …it’s like do you want this color or this color, and it all seemed so boring. You know? So I just did my own thing. Depending on what the valleys needed and what the protrusions needed and so on. It was very different from one another. (With pride and enthusiasm in her voice) And this is the group that helped my this piece. They are like HEROS. They worked tremendously hard. This is the bringing to MIT- the installation. You see the colors- it’s just not A COLOR, you know it’s tremendous variation. And I’m not a color person, I don’t know what happened to me. But I couldn’t just see it being the color of bronze. And at night, it’s got this beautiful light that shines from inside the top.  That’s probably the best part of it. And it’s in front of the Brain Institute, and the perforation- you see how they work now. And you know just to go from cedar to bronze and make it so acceptable- you know it’s metal- it’s a whole other world. It took some doing, it took 4 years to work on the top.


Ursula shared with us so many of her works, we were so grateful to hear about her stories and the work she had created. As if she wasn’t ready for the party to be over, she had one more surprise for us. She was giddy to show us this next piece.


UvR: Now here’s a new adventure. It’s a book. A mere 171 pounds. And you see the top cover and the bottom cover and it’s not yet finished, but I wanted to show it to you. We learned how to bind the book through the computer, we just followed their instructions. (everyone is imaging her sitting next to her laptop with a crew behind her watching DYI on YouTube.) And we had great linen that we bought in a special place in NYC. And of course, we put on our own hinges so that the book could be opened. Look at the page, you see you got linen in the center and very thin slices of cedar at the top and bottom. And the excess linen was cut from the pages and I’ll show you where it went. Do you see the hangings, those were the excess that came from the pages themselves. But it’s got no words. A book with no words.


As if the beauty of the piece needed no words. As she wrapped up her journey with us, she circled back around to the imperative influence of art teachers. She enjoys spending time at the school Agnes Gund is a part of “Studio in a School.”


UvR: Now this is really special for the art educators here. This was done is a studio in a school. (She shows us a self-portrait done in pastels by an 8-year-old girl) This was the program Agie started. And is tremendously involved in it. Who comes up with something that is so physiologically potent- it just blows my mind. You know I go to all to exhibitions that they have. And you know I look for the ones that you know…move me. Even that thought of having the strong pink that catches her hair on fire. That look on groping slightly up there. It so so moving…I use these as large postcards, that I paste onto cardboard that sends to people I feel close. So I guess this is my way of saying you know that, you the art teachers can make a huge difference to the life of a person. You know I’m going to refer back to me for better or for worse, but in seventh and eighth grade I have put it – they had A-B-C-D-E and I was put in level E that was the lowest level with kids that were retarded… For two years I sat in that classroom, I kept looking at the door thinking someone’s going to open the door and say I don’t belong here. Well, it never happened. You know in ninth grade I just insisted that they not put me in the secretarial course for the rest of my years in high school. That I be put in a college course. But I guess all of this, all of my saying that there are some kids that can really do art, and if they don’t get exposed to it, their life if hardly worth living- I’m exaggerating when I say that but that’s just for the kids, but to even have gifts like that is to anybody is I think is astounding but I think it has to be done in the presence of an ART TEACHER. It’s rare you can get kids doing this on their own.  With this thoroughness. WIth this taking your time. When you give them a piece of paper on their own- they go through is much more quickly or they not as considerate or don’t have the guidance or orienting to give them something to wrap their head around. One more that I absolutely love, too. Again I’m almost speechless when I look at it. These are both fifth graders. Again this was done in the presence of an art teacher so I can’t you know emphasis enough that it not as though you have math. So there for you the kids know how to add and subtract, it doesn’t…art doesn’t work that way. It’s something that touches your soul. I don’t know if you can say that about math, maybe you can. I don’t know. But it touches your soul and it has a lot to do with their psyche. It has a lot to do with their confidence. And a child that has been told you can’t draw- it’s a sin. But I know you know that better than anyone. I don’t know what else to say about these except that I’m so so happy that these kids had the guidance that they had in order to come up with this kind of image.


I enjoyed so much talking to you!


(Received a standing ovation)


After her talk, I thrilled and incredibly nervous to meet her. What could I say that encompassed all of my appreciation. I felt like I was meeting my hero. I think what I wanted her to know was that I had gone back to school to receive my MFA and that art had been reborn for me.  Her work has encouraged me to envision my own work bigger than I ever thought possible. I was able to tell her that. And she asked me where I was attending school. And then she said as she turned and looked at the stage, “I wish I had told everyone this… you need to know this…make art a priority. Keep making art yourself. That’s so important for you and your own growth.”


As a group of people gathered around her. We were encouraged to make our way to the back of the auditorium. I waited again to get a photo with her. Some asked for autographs and others both young and old were so happy to have a chance to meet her.


I told her there were so many questions I had about her life. I decided to ask a question regarding becoming an artist during the early 70’s when the field was dominated by men and women’s rights and the feminist movement had just begun. How did that affect your work?


“I don’t know.” She said. “I was in my studio working. Just working. That didn’t influence me. I just kept working.”


That’s when I realized- that’s true is the secret. Keep working- just keep working!

2018-06-21 11.20.07
Ursula at the Fabric Workshop 2018

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