Ursula von Rydingsvard

Sculptor and three-time NEA grant recipient
Headshot of a woman.

Photo © Tony Powell

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd, Soul Sand.

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Ursula von Rydingsvard: The NEA grant was like heaven coming to you, that they anoint you as being somebody worthwhile. That the government does this. That you got it from a group of people who knew art, that knew artists, and that understood the art that they were blessing with that gift from the NEA.

Jo Reed: That was artist and three-time NEA grant recipient, Ursula von Rydingsvard. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Until July 28, people have the opportunity to see Ursula von Rydingsvard’s remarkable solo show called “The Contour of Feeling” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. While she works with all manner of organic material, she’s best known for creating large-scale, often monumental sculpture from 4x4 cedar beams. Over her remarkable four-decade-long career, Ursula has created abstract work that’s both sensuous and massive—that at once conveys solidity and movement---like a sea creature crawling along an ocean floor. Or her many huge bowls that contain both grace and bulk. Wearing safety gear and using circular saws, von Rydingsvard and her team cut, stack, assemble, glue, and laminate the cedar before rubbing a graphite patina into the work’s textured, faceted surfaces.

Describing the work diminishes it—if you can’t get to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, then, stop listening and check out their website, nmwa.org and look at the images of Ursula’s work—it will give a sense of its breadth and dimensionality.

While Ursula von Rydingsvard is in her mid-70s, she shows no signs of slowing down—she’s had over four major shows in the past year. And her work is in many museum collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, the Detroit Institute of Art and the Storm King Art Center, where I was introduced to her work back in 1992 at her first full-scale museum exhibit. So I was thrilled to catch up with her when her show opened at The National Museum of Women in the Arts here in Washington DC.

Well, I want to congratulate you on your wonderful show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It is really spectacular.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Did you see it, Jo?

Jo Reed: I did see it.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Oh! I’m glad, yes!

Jo Reed: I did. Your work is often large-scale and monumental and created from cedar beams very often.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: That’s right. That’s right.

Jo Reed: Tell me why you work with cedar. What’s the attraction there?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: I think in the end it seems like this is the way I express myself in the most sensitive way. I try really hard not to get the next load of cedar from one of those huge trucks that come and deposit them in my studio. I try hard really hard for that to be the last that’s going to come. It just doesn’t work. You know, so, I went to intestines, like the fourth stomach of a cow. I went to stone. I went to all kinds of materials, which also helped; that is that it helped but I had to use cedar with it; that there’s a way that the wood, the cedar wood especially, is able to say in the most tender way what I need to say. And, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t really clearly verbalize what it is that I want it to say, but somehow it enables me to touch on things inside of me that don’t get touched by many, many other materials.

Jo Reed: And tell me, Ursula, why did you choose sculpting as opposed to painting or--?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: I used to paint. This was in the sixties. I painted a good bit and the paint got so thick that at some point it just fell off the canvas. So, that told me something, that I needed something much more three dimensional.

Jo Reed: Now do you begin, Ursula, with a sketch? How do you even begin something that is so complicated and so large?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: I never do sketches, because to do a sketch for something as complicated as the sculptures that I do is kind of a joke. And then to hold yourself to that sketch would be like putting yourself into prison; you know, that this is what you have to do. My work has to feel alive to meThe beginning-- I have to have an idea of what I want to do. But it ends up being quite different because I keep groping. I keep in my mind something that I call on, that is instinct, for lack of a better word to call it-- to dig deeply into myself in order to get something that excites me, something that frightens me, something that feels just like an exploration, something that the next layers need, because of the implications of the first layers. So, when you grope, you make it feel alive. You make it feel like it’s moving or you can make it feel like you can engage with it. And the more wood I have assembled, the more I know what else it needs. That’s not a real commandment, but it often happens.

Jo Reed: Ursula begins her sculpture by drawing on the floor, the shape of the base she envisions, and the sculpture grows from that.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: I do draw on the floor, because I have to begin again somewhere. And I put it on the floor just to get me started. There are so many choices that I have and it’s really the wood that gives me those choices, gives me more choices than the felt that I’ve used in the past, the wax that I’ve used in the past. I mean, or even the clay, you know—but it’s the way my mind wants to work is with that wood. And, unfortunately, I can’t stop it. I guess maybe I should say for better and for worse, I can’t stop it.

Jo Reed: And how do you work with the wood? What cutting implements do you use?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: It’s a circular saw with a seven-and-a-half-inch blade and the blade has endings on it that are all differently placed on that circular blade. There’s a man, he’s a Japanese man from whom I get my blades. And when I make an order it’s for three thousand blades. And he came and he stayed with us for two days studying what we were doing, how we were cutting, and he made us blades that you can’t buy. They’re spectacular. They’re tailor-made for what we can do with the cedar. And it’s extremely important for the cutters, because the cutters are doing something that takes a real, real skill to do.

Jo Reed: Will you explain the process of creating the work?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: I draw on the four-by-four cedar beam. I draw all of the sides, all of the four sides of the cedar with a pencil. And some of it’s quite complex, but all the cutters understand what that means. And the piece goes to be cut, then it comes back. And if it doesn’t work, I give it back to the cutters or I make another one for them. But they follow that line, and because I’ve cut myself for about fifty years, maybe forty-five, something like that, I know basically what’s going to come out of the drawing that I do for them. But the way we used a circular saw I don’t think anybody in the world can do what we do with it. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of courage, and a lot of focus.

Jo Reed: After the wood is cut into the shapes that Ursula wants, the pieces of wood, and there can be hundreds of them, have to be joined together.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: When we build the piece we stack the four-by-fours on top of one another by screwing them into one another, both laterally and coming from up to down. The screws are four and a half inches. They’re long. And they’re very good to keep everything together, but we never, ever leave it that way. We then disassemble it, we mark everything on the outside and then as we disassemble the layers from top to bottom, we draw on the piece. You draw exactly the number of each of the four-by-fours and you draw the relationship to one another that they have. And then you take that layer and take it off and put it down on the ground. That’s the top layer of the piece. Then, second from the top layer, you do the same thing. And it’s very, very time-consuming. Not just that, but the whole process is very time-consuming. But leaving it with screws makes it very, very vulnerable to falling apart. You can’t ever, ever put it outdoors and so on. And the links of one piece to another get a little bit lost if there are lots of screws. And by the time you get to a place with it that’s the very top, sometimes there are lines that they form--are a little bit wayward. So, we have to check all of that. And, in marking properly, as we take the layers off and then glue it, and the gluing process takes three to four months-- it’s very labor-intensive as well.

Jo Reed: Well let me ask you this then, Ursula. For this show in Washington, did you have to disassemble and reassemble them in the museum?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: We glued our sculptures in usually, like, five layers. So, you glue five layers to each other. Then you make all sorts of hardware to receive another layer, then more hardware to receive another layer so that they all stay together in a way that they will never come apart. So, when they installed, that’s what they did. And, by the way, the installation crew was fantastic. All they do is install art. They were very careful. They knew just what they were doing.

Jo Reed: It was really cool seeing the pencil markings on the pieces.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Yes, yes.

Jo Reed: I really liked that. You rub graphite on the piece once it’s assembled.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The graphite is very much like a pencil, what’s inside the pencil. It’s powder, however, that is ground very, very finely. It’s ground like flour. It’s black. And when I put the graphite on the surface I don’t have a system. You know, it’s not as though I put it into all the crevices. It’s not as though I have it figured out. The surface of the piece lets me know what it wants; and, more often than not, it does go into the crevices, because this makes the three-dimensionality of the piece more exciting or it makes it more frightening. I’m interested in what the look is, you know, what the visuals will give me, and you know, the other thing is that people think in a way that’s so idealistic about wood. When I put this black stuff on it, not that that makes it mine, but it makes it more mine. I am not treasuring this wood; I’m doing to it what I think it needs to have done to it.

Jo Reed: Can you describe your studio?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: It’s huge and I’m so happy! I’m so happy that I have such a large studio.

Jo Reed: It would have to be, yes.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Yes. Yes. And even now, you know, I have a sixteen-foot ceiling, And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of just making a huge hole for me to go to the second floor up above. But what I do instead is when I get to place where I’m almost at the sixteen feet and my head is being bent so that I can at least see what I’m doing, where I’m putting the four-by-fours and what drawings I need to do, I can then take the bottom portion off and then make the rest of the piece go down and then I can build more. But this is very painful often, because I always have my eye on every part of the piece and I’m always looking at it as I add. You know, that gives me more information when I have the whole bottom of it, then it does without it. So --

Jo Reed: Yeah, of course.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: But, honestly, everything else about my studio is wonderful. Just wonderful.

Jo Reed: How many assistants work with you?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: It’s not that many. And I’ve never had many, because I’m such a fanatic in terms of controlling what I need to do. I need to know everything that’s happening. So, I have usually three or four people working with me in the main studio and there’s one person that’s doing the gluing in a gluing room, all on his own. And he’s been with me for twenty-two years. One of the cutters has been with me also for twenty years, and so on, so that we have a team that is so-- they’re not just kind, but they’re so talented in what they need to do and what they need to get done and they’re so caring in terms of how they do it and how they build it and how they care for it. I just feel so, so fortunate to have the assistants that I have. And then I have one and a half more people upstairs that do the administrative work. And we do things like we eat lunches every day with one another. I saw my assistants more than I see my husband, and I brought my whole team over to the Washington exhibition.

Jo Reed: Oh, how nice.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Yes, yes, and I introduced them to everybody at the time when I had the opportunity to speak at the very beginning of the show.

Jo Reed: Well, I want to go back in time a little bit, because--

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Yes.

Jo Reed: --when you first started out, getting the money for the materials and finding a place where you could actually do this kind of work had to have been a challenge.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: I was very poor, for sure. I came to New York City, because I was accepted at Columbia University and it changed my life entirely. I came without money. I lived on two thousand dollars a year. And it all practically went to the rental, you know, from the building that Columbia let me live in. I was very poor, but I felt so great. I felt so alive. I would sit on the stone benches of Columbia University with burning cheeks for my happiness, of sort of having a place that considered art as something that was consequential. And to see so many other artists, it was like a huge, huge revelation. New York City was full of great exhibitions, it’s full of great artists, and it’s all you can take, so you keep going; you keep getting excited. So I loved it.

Jo Reed: How did you manage in the beginning though in terms of making large-scale art when materials are costly and assistants aren’t there to help you move stuff?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Yes, and I didn’t have any assistants for quite some time--

Jo Reed: I would think not.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: --but of my budget say if I earned three thousand dollars one of that thousand would go to my cedar. I don’t know. I just did manage it and I ate powdered milk with my daughter; We ate chicken livers all the time. I don’t know, and it’s no complaints—I just went ahead.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I’m always curious, my ex-husband is an artist and I know how resources can really impact what you’re creating. If there just isn’t the money to buy the wood, get the paint then you’re still doing art but it can shift so I’m always curious about that especially with people who do sculpting because that is very expensive.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: You’re completely right, you’re completely right.I had a job of teaching at five different universities at the same time; it was all part-time so that the money you get is kind of pathetic and there’s no insurance. So I took my daughter to clinics and such when she needed it but then I got a job at Yale and this was in 1982 I got a job at Yale which actually paid $17,000 a year and it had insurance. So I was in ecstasy, yeah, so things worked out and then I quit teaching at Yale after about five years or so because I was starting to sell, and my steadfast priority in life was making the art

Jo Reed: I know you’ve gotten NEA grants over the years--

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Three, yes.

Jo Reed: --three and I’m wondering what impact getting those grants had for your work and what they did for you.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The NEA grant was like heaven coming to you, that they anoint you as being somebody worthwhile, that the government does this. It just felt wonderful, wonderful -- it just happened that the money itself was important, but just the fact that you got it-- you didn’t just get it from one person, that you got it from a group of people that knew art, that knew artists, and that understood the art that they were blessing with that gift from the NEA. It was wonderful and it gave me sort of a real talking-to about “Ursula, you’re doing okay and we want you to do even better.” It was great, all three of them great.

Jo Reed: You were born in Germany during World War II. Your father was Ukrainian, your mother Polish. And you were in Europe with your family during and after the war, and while your work isn’t biographical everybody’s history has to leave an imprint on what it is that they do and most particularly I think that would be true with an artist. Can you tell us a little bit about your early life and how perhaps you can see it manifesting if not in the art itself maybe in your work habits?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: <laughs> My work habit; that’s very smart. Okay. I’ll just tell you a little bit about the history, that I was born in 1942, the war ended in ’44—or ’45, and my father made the decision almost immediately after the war, because he was a laborer that was conscripted by the Nazis to work on a farm because they were short of men, so he was a spectacular farmer and it’s in good part to his credit that we all survived. My mother had six children at the time. So we then went through nine post-World-War-II refugee camps for Polish displaced people; that took five years. And at the end of the fifth year we went to Bremerhaven, which is a port in Germany, because we passed-- finally we passed all of the requirements that they needed in terms of health, mental health, physical health, and we got to the United States. We got there in December, the end of December and when we came to New Jersey, there was a place that the National Polish Alliance took us to a lodge that they had and we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We couldn’t believe the cars, we couldn’t believe the numbers of-- we’d never been in a car and we were-- we-- they had to stop for the two kids that were throwing up, but it was like coming to heaven—we couldn’t believe it. And when we came to the dining room of this lodge the cook, it was a woman chef that cooked the food for us she had a table set, she had a table cover-- a white table cover for the whole table for us-- we had then seven children and a mother and a father-- real glasses, wasn’t tin cups, real glasses, we had plates—real plates, not tin ones, and we had real-- it’s not silver, but forks and knives that really worked. The table was beautiful and we couldn’t believe it was for us. So when we sat she gave us soup at first and bread; we ate all the bread; we ate all the soup. Then she gave us an entrée because we didn’t know that there was going to be another entrée because we never had more than one thing; we had potatoes when we ate or we had, you know, whatever else but it was just one thing. So she then gave us the main meal and we ate everything including the whole ketchup-- every-- all the ketchup in the ketchup bottle and then dessert. We were just totally, totally amazed. And when my mother and father went with the Polish National Alliance to try to find rent, and to find rent for seven children was just not possible, and you can’t blame them, so we then had to buy a house. Of course we had no money, I think my father had one dollar bill that was pinned to the inside of his coat, and so the National Polish National Alliance gave us a loan and we were able to then pay the rest of the mortgage, but it was such a tough thing for my parents to try to make enough money. It was really, really hard but it was a new world that seemed so rich, that seemed so, you know, so you can have anything,

Jo Reed: When you think about that time and the displacement and the challenges and the wonder of coming to a new country, but also all the hard work I can see certainly work habits.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Yes.

Jo Reed: I mean what’s some powdered milk? Nothing. Okay we’ll have powdered milk, I’ll get to make the art. <laughs>

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Yes. The thing I can’t do is just point to things that influence my work. I know that there is some connection to my parents. My father was a farmer. They were all poor. I don’t know how to describe it but I think that in some way-- I connect with that in some way; I have it running through my blood, not just the farming but I remember going to Poland, I’ve been there a number of times, and for the first time seeing things that I know I have seen and felt before that I understood things so well because I feel that my work in part is something that fills the hole that ripped me out of Poland. I was never in Poland, I just have a -- I had a Polish mother, and it’s with Poland that I identified. My father was Ukrainian, so I never identified with being a Ukrainian, but I mean I name almost all my pieces, maybe 85 percent of my pieces, in Polish language, because I want to sort of make it close to me still. And I think that having that hole-- and it’s not just the hole for Poland. It’s just being ripped away from something in a way that was so cruel and I don’t really know how to say what to connect my artwork to in a way that has some clarity or real logic but I do know that in some way the past did affect my work.

Jo Reed: The show also has a series of work on paper, the delicacy, the sheer beauty of that is just spectacular, and I would love it if you could talk about the differences between working with paper and working with wood, though we know there’s a relationship there, but also from going on this big scale to this small scale of paper.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Yes. I love doing it, because I can make three of those a day, <laughs> I can make--there’s an immediate gratification that I’m not with it for nine months and once I start on those big pieces I can’t leave them because everything in the studio is set up for that big piece that I know I’m going to be on for months and months and months, but the Dieu Donne is the organization that makes the paper for me and I work with that organization and the paper they make obviously is handmade and it’s marvelous. You can get some out of linen; you can get some out of cotton. They tailor make it to you and tailor make the size for you and the most beautiful thing is they give it to you wet; they put a screen under the pulp and just get the pulp itself and then turn it and put it on a table and then you work with it. I work with a lot of silk scarves that are cut up, that are distressed by us, and a lot of knots, thousands of knots, and a lot of ribbons. So I put them on top of the wet paper it’s so fun to do.

Jo Reed: Ursula, you use other organic materials in your work and I have to ask, how did you begin to work with the fourth stomach of a cow?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Well, this part of my wanting to get away from the cedar. So I went to a place that has-- that stuffs sausages, you know they make and they do everything in Brooklyn, and of course they used-- for the big sausages they used the fourth stomach of the cow and I wanted something disgusting; I wanted something that wasn’t pretty. And I-- when I bought these intestines I made sure that he didn’t think that I was doing it for art, because then they think you’re a weirdo. What I did is to say that we’re having a huge party with a lot of sausages. So I got a gallon and that’s what I get them in, gallons, and they’re in salt and what I do is I wash the salt and as you wash the salt, the fourth stomach of the cow really bulges out and the warmer the water, the more it bulges out so it’s very, very elastic. And I cut it so that it’s flat and then I sew the pieces together and that’s what the one that-- the blanket’s one in the museum is then sewed together, but they have to be sewed when they’re wet.

Jo Reed: The delicacy is extraordinary.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: It’s beautiful; it’s so beautiful and I wanted it to be disgusting and it’s like the best of lace, the best of what nature gives. It’s wonderful.

Jo Reed: The title of the exhibit is “The Contour of Feeling”, and it is a wonderful show--

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Thank you so much.

Jo Reed: --and it was such a pleasure to see it. All these years later after I first saw your work in 1992, it was just fabulous to see what you’re up to now, it was great. And I so enjoyed talking to you, Ursula, and thank you again for giving me your time; I deeply appreciate it.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: It’s my huge pleasure. I enjoyed speaking with you as well.

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Jo Reed: That was artist, Ursula von Rydingsvard. Her solo show “The Contour of Feeling” is running until July 28 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple, because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Sculptor and three-time NEA grantee Ursula von Rydingsvard’s art is unlike anything else. While she works with all manner of organic material—including the fourth stomach of a cow—von Rydingsvard is best known for creating large-scale, often monumental sculpture from 4x4 cedar beams. These are cut, stacked, assembled, glued, and laminated before being rubbed with graphite. The result are textured, many-faceted surfaces, work that’s both sensuous and massive—that at once conveys solidity and movement. Born in Germany during World War II to a Polish mother and Ukrainian father who spent time in a Nazi labor camp, von Rydingsvard and her family made their way to the United States after years in refugee camps. She senses a connection between her work and Poland—much of her work is given Polish names—but the connections are so subtle that’s she’s unsure of their meanings herself. In this podcast, we talk about von Rydingsvard’s four-decade long career. She explains how she makes her labor-intensive massive sculptures, her early years as an artist when she was poor but joyful about creating art, the importance of her NEA grants, coming to the U.S. as a child of seven, and why she began to make art with the fourth stomach of a cow.