“You don’t have to know. It’s just beautiful,” a man said while shrugging, after his friend seemed confused about a piece at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum.
It’s true; visiting the Umlauf can be enjoyable with little or no knowledge about Charles Umlauf (1910-1994) or his artwork. The grounds feature nice gravel paths, lush native plants, a waterfall, two ponds and a museum all nestled in the heart of the city next to Barton Springs and Zilker Park.
But learning about the Umlauf family and the stories behind the artwork solidifies why the sculpture garden feels like the true home of Umlauf’s work.
The first piece that stops many visitors in their tracks is the cast stone War Mother (1939), which was created as a response to the Nazi invasion of Poland. The gravity of the situation and the strength needed to survive can be seen in the mother’s hand.
Powerful hands are prominent in several of Umlauf’s pieces, and they even mimic his own large, strong hands. Across from War Mother sits one of two Pietà (1940) pieces featured in the gardens. Normally, pietà scenes depict the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus. But here, Umlauf includes Mary Magdalene who can only be seen if viewers walk around the Pietà.
Continuing a bit further down the path, Ballerina (1977) comes into view. The movement and sensual body of this piece stands in distinct contrast to the previous sculptures. Visitors have been introduced to three important themes in Umlauf’s work: family, religion and sensuality.
Since I was visiting on Family Day (the first Sunday of the month), there were many children interacting with the art. I watched as a little girl in pink cowgirl boots and her dad mimicked the pose of the Skater (1970) for a photo. The Skater was modeled after Olympian Peggy Fleming, but the skates Umlauf sculpted are actually hockey skates since they were the kind he was familiar with. This example shows how aspects of Charles’ life enter into his work, purposeful or not.
Other children in the gardens were touching the small animal sculptures like Lotus (1960), the popular bronze piece that was modeled after a hippo in the San Antonio Zoo. Visitors are encouraged to touch Umlauf’s bronze sculptures which have been washed and waxed, so the visually impaired and curious can explore the artwork. This accessibility was important to Charles.
Charles Umlauf has been described as gruff, funny, pugnacious and extroverted. He wanted things done the right way and without shortcuts. Even at 80 years old, he was still moving around bronze sculptures and working. He always had several major projects going while he taught life drawing and sculpture at UT from 1941-1981. Many students (including the famous Farrah Fawcett) posed for him and influenced his work, but his biggest muse was his wife, Angeline (Angie). Her likeness can be seen in pieces like Poetess (1956) and Seated Bather (1958).
Though most pieces in the garden are bronze or cast stone, a rare, aluminum casting of the Crucifixion (1946) sits near the back of the garden looking up towards Umlauf’s former home at the top of the hill.
In 1944, Charles and Angie moved into this house and raised their six children. They had a beautiful outdoor area for entertaining, and hundreds of his sculptures lined the stone walkways in their garden where Angie wrote poetry. The kids could run down the hill to Barton Springs (though the area where the current sculpture garden sits was very wild at the time).
Angie lived in their home until her death in 2012. From her bedroom window, she could see visitors down the hill viewing Charles’s work. Charles and Angie were so mindful of the future that they gifted their home, his studio and sculptures to the city in 1985, noting that “a place so very special within the city limits invites, in fact, demands, unique treatment – not condominiums.”
In the future, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum will combine the family home, studio, garden and additional acreage with the current public garden. This process is in the beginning planning stages, but with the enthusiasm and dedication of the staff, seeing the full story of Charles Umlauf is sure to become a reality for the public.
Currently, the Umlauf serves as a calming space that cultivates a wonderful sense of excitement for Umlauf’s work, contemporary art and Austin itself. The museum has four shows a year – two exhibiting Umlauf’s work and two featuring contemporary artists. The artists chosen to show here compliment the indoor and outdoor spaces in interesting ways that enhance the dynamics of the gardens.
In total, the Umlauf holds over 65 events every year including weddings, yoga, private events and public cultural events. With the showing of new work alongside Umlauf’s and the planned expansion, the garden and museum will continue to transform and weave into the fabric of the city. Even if a visitor comes in with a lack of art knowledge, they can still fully enjoy Charles Umlauf’s vision for Austin.
The Umlauf is open Wednesday–Friday from 10 AM–4 PM and Saturday–Sunday from 12–4 PM. General admission is $5, except on First Sundays when admission is free. There is a small parking lot connected to the gardens at 605 Robert E Lee. Please visit the official website to learn about becoming a member.
Charles Umlauf’s original sculptures are available for purchase through charlesumlauf.com, a website managed by the artist’s daughter, Madelon Umlauf.
Have you visited Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum? What was your experience?
Kelli McDonald is an artist and writer living with a surly, polydactyl cat named Moyra. If you want to see what Kelli’s up to, follow her on Instagram @MadameKLM.