Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum is a place most Austinites have been at least once. This beloved art venue offers vibrant programming, which includes summer camps, family days, and yoga. The peaceful space is also a popular event venue.
But as I walked in to do research for this story, I realized I’d never taken a proper tour. That’s how I missed a key fact regarding touching the statues. I had to confirm: is it really okay to touch the art? “Yes,” Program Director Sarah Athans replied as she smiled, “at least the bronze ones.”
This fact, along with a longtime relationship with Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, set the perfect conditions for Touch Tours to become a part of the garden’s offerings.
Sculpture and Touch
Sculpture is mostly consumed visually, a tendency fed by the fact most museums do not allow patrons to touch the work. Yet in thinking about the process of sculpting with Athans and Umlauf Executive Director Sara Story, I reflected on how sculpting is particularly dependent on touch.
The sculptor must use touch to complete his or her work to the extent that some pieces even contain fingerprints. Yet we normally stand away from a piece to observe it, leaving a large portion of the experience behind.
This was apparent as Athans and Story led me to some pieces to experience them as one would on Touch Tours. (Touch Tours, like all tours, are crafted by the docent to meet the needs and interests of the group.)
First, we compared two statues that contain female faces.
Two Faces, Two Experiences
The first, called Muse II, was full of grooves and waves. I could touch the irises of the eyes and figuratively run my hands through the muse’s hair, styled in a messy bun. I laughed thinking of how many times I throw my own hair up in a bun, and compared my experience to the familiar feel of that action.
This statue was also hollow, bringing a feel to the process of casting as we reached our hands inside.
The second sculpture, Madonna and Child, was smooth until a direction change was needed. The tip of a nose and the side of an arm were formed by an abrupt and harsh edge, juxtaposed perfectly with the smoothness of the rest of the surface.
Without touching, I don’t know if I would have appreciated the complete diversity of approach from the sole sculptor of Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Charles Umlauf. This realization deepened when we went to see the series of animals, grouped in a circle. The rhinoceros (Rhino, 1967, bronze) had a raised surface resembling scales, while the boar (Wild Boar, 1979, bronze) had a spiked surface to imitate its hair.
As a took in the work by touch, it was very familiar–the same action one would use to get to know a child, comfort a loved one, or reassure a beloved pet. Perhaps this is why these interactions enhance our cognitive and physical well-being, something that has been proven by scientists.
Standing there, its easy to understand how touching a face posed at peace, or animals dancing in air, adds to the serenity of the space and feelings of well-being.
➡️ Keep reading: The Story of Umlauf Sculpture Garden’s Beloved Artist
Open to All
Touch Tours are currently offered by request. While developed specifically to enhance the experience for those who must rely on touch and other senses, due to blindness or visual impairment, anyone can take Touch Tours. Athans and Story hope there will be enough interest to make Touch Tours a regularly scheduled offering.
Further, all docents are now trained on how to most respectfully and appropriately work with blind and visually impaired visitors, thanks to training received from partner Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. That means Umlauf Sculpture Garden is ready to welcome visitors of all visual abilities whenever tours are offered.
Combined with accommodations for those with hearing impairments, as well as Spanish-led tours, Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum is truly a place where all Austinites can find refuge.
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