Ursula von Rydingsvard: In the Upper Valley and Across the Globe
Ursula von Rydingsvard is a contemporary sculptor of towering, nature-inspired works crafted from cedar 4x4s, and more recently, bronze. In the past year, the Upper Valley was graced with one of her pieces, acquired by the Hood Museum. Wide Babelki Bowl sits just outside of Rollins Chapel in Hanover NH. While not exactly towering—more short and squat—it’s a substantial presence with a hint of the scale within which the artist works.
A 2020 documentary film (click here to view the trailer on YouTube. It could be the best 2 minutes of your day) captures von Rydingsvard’s work and personal story. Below is my review, just published in a slightly edited form on Boston’s The Arts Fuse.
Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own
Daniel Traub’s hour-long documentary, Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own, does just what it should. It showcases the work of von Rydingsvard, shares her personal story, and reveals the process involved in creating her monumental sculptures.
The artist is known for her large-scale cedar, and now bronze, works that are sited primarily outdoors in art venues, college campuses, and urban commercial centers. The film is more than worth watching simply as a partial but representative compendium of von Rydingsvard’s creations.
Watching the process is a total reveal. Von Rydingsvard, shown in the film’s opening and closing shots in torn, solid work clothing including helmet and face shield, is the visionary. A team of people, whom she credits with making the work possible, cut, carve, drag, glue, and hoist, showing the intersection of “grunt work” with artistic vision. The camera captures the multiple intricacies in every component—pieces carved, bent, melted, graphite-washed—that manage through some alchemy to cohere into the whole.
Viewers of art frequently wish to mine an artist’s history to further understand her work. The film is filled with photos of von Rydingsvard as a child growing up in a post-World War II displaced person’s camp, and she recounts her memories of her abusive father. Von Rydingsvard offers a clear connection between her youthful fascination with and comfort provided by raw wooden structures that constituted her home in the camp, and her later obsession with cedar 4 x 4’s as her chosen medium. How the rest of her history influenced her art is less clear, even to her. Traub resists what could otherwise be a simplistic fairy-tale explanation of emotional rags to eventual artistic riches. In other words, it’s complicated.
Her art does indeed seem driven from her soul and she views it as “life-saving,” in a way that might render viewers as unnecessary. The need to communicate, however, is there. “I do want people to touch the sculpture,” von Rydingsvard says, welcoming the acid from fingertips that changes a work’s patina, like “a rubbed Buddha’s belly.” Among the most satisfying are the scenes showing viewers stepping up to the imposing pieces and laying their hands on them, in curiosity and almost sacred appreciation.
Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own is available for rent or purchase through Vimeo.
(Photo, top, by Susan B. Apel, center photo from film trailer)
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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.