On a freezing winter morning, I’m bundled up and walking through the garden portion of one of Austin’s quietest cultural gems, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, with curator Katie Robinson Edwards, Ph.D.
She’s about to give me a sneak peek at something the public has yet to see and probably won’t for several more years: the private home and studio in which the eponymous sculptor himself once lived and created his famous works of art.
Summoned to Austin from Chicago in 1941, Charles Umlauf was brought in as UT Austin’s first professor of sculpture and life drawing shortly after the fine arts department was established. The 30-year-old, Michigan-born artist brought with him his wife, Angeline (“Angie”), whom he’d met at the Art Institute of Chicago, and their children. They lived near what’s now known as Tarrytown until 1944, when Angie came upon a modest home in the woods just south of the Colorado River and up the hill from Barton Springs Road. Taken by it, they moved into the house and later had it renovated in 1956, trading some of his sculptural work for the labor and materials.
Working steadily as the family grew from three children to six, Umlauf kept teaching as the fledgling fine arts department found its footing, and worked prodigiously between classes, building up a steady stream of commissions. The summer of 1959 marked his first annual trek to Italy to have his work cast; spurred on by the creation of his Spirit of Flight sculpture for Love Field in Dallas, he made the same voyage overseas every summer for the next 20 years. One of those projects was a series of works for the Witte Museum in San Antonio, which will soon lend them back to the sculpture garden. The imposing sculptures, “Mother and Child” and “Father and Son,” each stand 16 feet tall.
“She’s about to give me a sneak peek at something the public has yet to see and probably won’t for several more years: the private home and studio in which the eponymous sculptor [Charles Umlauf] once lived and created his famous works of art.”
In tandem with his prolific sculpting schedule, Umlauf taught tirelessly for decades, ultimately retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1981 near the forty-year anniversary of his joining the university’s faculty. In 1985, he and Angie decided to donate their 1.97 acre property, including the house and studio it contained, to the city in an effort to preserve Charles’ artistic legacy and give something back to the community in the process.
It wasn’t long before local philanthropist and civic maven Roberta Crenshaw, the woman largely responsible for the formation of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department in the ’70s and the subsequent preservation of much of the green spaces in and around central Austin, got involved in the property’s donation. Negotiating a trade with the state, which owned the adjacent property, she expanded the city’s land holdings to nearly seven acres, leading the way for the establishment of the sculpture garden that now surrounds the museum, built in 1991. Umlauf himself placed some of the items that can still be found in the garden today. He passed away in 1994, survived by Angie, who remained a vital part of the city’s artistic community until – and some might argue, beyond – her passing in 2012 at the age of 97.
As Katie and I pull up to the gate leading to the house, she’s explaining that it will be accessible to the public eventually, perhaps sometime in the next four years or so. While the museum and gardens have been an integral part of Austin’s artistic fabric for many years, the next phase, she says, will be the welcoming of guests into the home and studio where the Umlaufs lived, where Charles worked, and where the children grew up. For now, the private structures are only accessible by car and are guarded by a locked gate. That, though, will change in time.
“Umlauf taught tirelessly for decades… in 1985, he and Angie decided to donate their 1.97 acre property, including the house and studio it contained, to the city in an effort to preserve Charles’ artistic legacy.”
Walking up to the house, a set of wings from a 1962 Cessna lie within view on the carport floor. They’re from an exhibit last year’s Umlauf Prize winner Adam Crosson put together, suspending them from the museum’s terrace. Katie explains that the prize, recently revitalized after years of hibernation, will be awarded every year to a top MFA candidate at UT, in keeping with the spirit of the family’s love of the school.
Umlauf’s posthumous dedication to emerging artists goes far beyond the prize itself, though. The organization’s internship program has begun bringing in students from both UT and St. Edwards (in the case of the latter, through a paid work-study program) and, in a broader sense, the museum’s ongoing roster of shows is designed to pay homage to the history of sculpture while embracing modern techniques and new artists at the same time. When Katie was interviewing for the curator position several years ago, she recalls saying quite plainly, “You guys have got to do contemporary shows mixed with Umlauf shows. You’ve got to do foundational shows, like cornerstone shows, and then contemporary (ones) so that we can see the ongoing evolution of sculpture.”
Today, the calendar of events is robust. The first Sunday of every month, the museum and garden host Family Day, which draws crowds upwards of 400 people. Each spring, the Garden Party attracts 800 revelers who come out to support the organization through the purchase of event tickets, which grant access not only to the grounds after hours, but also a host of restaurants that come onsite for the culinary extravaganza amid the sculptures. An ongoing roster of educational events fills in the blank spaces, often with live discussions led by visiting artists such as sculptor Jesús Moroles, who stopped by in January to unveil Luis Jiménez’s Sodbuster exhibit, a fiberglass sculpture that he worked on as the artist’s assistant. Jiménez was a student of Umlauf’s in the ’60s and gave a eulogy at his former professor’s funeral in 1994. Weeks prior to Moroles’s talk, the museum hosted a live bronze pour to show some of the steps undertaken in the creation of a classic metal sculpture. And someday, the public will have an intimate opportunity to see how some of Austin’s most famed works of art were made, up close, in precisely the space where they were created.
“There are very few places in the United States where you can see an artist’s home, studio, and the finished project. It just doesn’t exist.”
Katie Robinson Edwards, PH.D
Curator, Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum
As we tour the single-story house, Katie explains, “There are very few places in the United States where you can see an artist’s home, studio, and the finished project. It just doesn’t exist.” When asked about what it means to explore the process of sculpting and what it entails, she explains, “There are 20 different stages, and each one has 50 steps just to make one sculpture. So then you come here and you see, okay, well, everything started in a sketch; everything started in a drawing. And he did tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of drawings.”
Of the home itself, which is casually decked out in midcentury furnishings true to the era in which its renovations were done, she says, “I think it’s sacred, and I think you can feel it when you walk in.”
Several steps from the house stands the studio. The open interior space looks as if its owner has stepped away for lunch and might return at any minute. A pair of Wrangler jeans hangs from a hook on the bathroom wall; supplies are neatly scattered across flat surfaces; sundry busts, heads and unfinished works line the shelves against the walls. Umlauf himself made some of the tools necessary to get the job done, Katie explains, because true to form, when he needed something that didn’t exist, he simply made it with his own two hands.
While the home and studio may be placed on display as a diorama of sorts, showing how the family lived and how its patriarch worked, it could alternatively be used as a home for an artist-in-residence, or for some hybrid purpose. The possibilities are aplenty, Katie says, and it’s up to the board to determine the best course of action as time goes by and funds are secured to make the creative oasis even more immersive.
Later, as I’m talking with the museum’s executive director, Nina Seely, in her office. I’m told that in the fall, a scarecrow party will welcome families into the garden for a new autumnal treat called The Last Straw Fest. “We’re the live music capital of the world; we could use some more children and family activities,” Seely muses.
“All the sculptures in the garden are coated in wax to preserve them over time as visitors – especially those who are visually impaired – are invited to get up close and hands-on.”
In the meantime, plans are under way for this year’s Garden Party, scheduled for April under the guidance of the board and the 2015 co-chairs, Paul Qui and Deana Saukam. Seely’s looking forward to another great turnout this year, as well as the ripple effect it creates.
“So, why Garden Party?” she asks, rhetorically. “Why an event that has 25 restaurants and all of that? Well, because we have all these educational programs and functions that we do. Charles Umlauf had a magical way of showing people how to create.”
“Look at this process video,” she continues, referring to the video footage playing on a loop in the gallery, showing Umlauf himself explaining how sculpture is created. “He wants people to see it; he also wants them to touch it. Because if you can touch it, you can feel what he created with his own hands. And too many museums, as we know, all over the world, (say) ‘Don’t touch. Don’t cross the yellow line. Be careful.’ You know, that’s the good news: we are approachable. We want people to understand the visual arts in a 360 (degree) environment.”
All of the sculptures in the garden are coated in wax to preserve them over time as visitors—especially those who are visually impaired—are invited to get up close and hands-on, Seely says. The goal is to give visitors a chance to fully appreciate them not just from a visual perspective, but from a tactile one, as well, and to get inspired by the multisensory experience.
The wax protects the art from the elements, too, and it’s impossible not to see the symbolism. This verdant space in the heart of a burgeoning tech metropolis doesn’t plan on going anywhere soon; its legacy, much like its freshly-inked 100-year plan with the city, all but guarantees it’s here to stay, no matter how quickly the city around it grows white hot with explosive growth. It will, however, continue to evolve, and to encourage Austin’s artistic denizens to do what it takes to make what they love.
Don’t miss this year’s UMLAUF Garden Party, which will take place on April 23rd. For questions and tickets, email email@example.com.
Check out UMLAUF’s website for information about visiting the museum, donating, volunteering, and upcoming events.
Writing: Amy Lynch
Photography: Chris Perez – @metropochris
Hannah Vickers – vickershannah
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