Kansas City, Mo. Artist Ursula von Rydingsvard stands on the sprawling south lawn at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Dressed in a black sweater, black jeans and black boots, her tall, broad-shouldered frame stands out against the lush green sod moist from a morning rain.
von Rydingsvard brushes her hands over ``Large Bowl,'' a 12 1/2-foot cast bronze sculpture, one of seven mammoth abstract works she has on display at the museum.
``Go ahead and touch it,'' she invites. ``It's OK.''
The artist believes in the spontaneity of the human spirit. Intuition and improvisation drives her creative process. Her carved sculptures -- often in cedar and graphite -- are unpredictable and sensuous. And they often reveal something deep within her subconscious.
Saving her soul
von Rydingsvard was born in 1942 in Deensen, Germany, to a Ukrainian farmer and his Polish wife, who had lived in Poland until they were forced to move to a slave labor camp and work for the Nazis, according to a recent article in the Smithsonian magazine.
After the war, the family was shuttled from one refugee camp to the next. Like other refugees, they had very few possessions and household utensils were treasured.
When she was a child, von Rydingsvard wore a spoon tied around her neck so she wouldn't lose it.
So it's no surprise that she dresses in dark colors and creates sculptures that are brooding, stoic, haunting and domestic. Her creations, once formed, often resemble objects of daily life -- bowls, soup ladles, shovels, hoes, rakes and, yes, spoons.
According to von Rydingsvard, these primitive implements are ``the real icons.''
``They are the things that save my soul, not only save me physically, but save me psychologically. I'm sure that I idealize them,'' she said.
Still, the sculptor says, she does not seek to recreate her childhood memories in her works.
``Never, ever, do I recall being in my studio and directly connecting a memory to the piece I'm working on,'' she said.
In her New York studio, von Rydingsvard uses circular saws to hack and chisel four-inch by four-foot cedar beams and then uses clamps, rods and glue to stack them into sculptures that tower twice her height.
She begins from the ground up, deciding what direction and how deep to make the cuts into the beams based on a image in her head, an image she cannot describe or draw.
``I never do a preliminary drawing or models. It's all intuitive,'' von Rydingsvard said.
She creates one layer at a time, cutting the beams so they fit together in a geometric unit. Eventually, the pieces of her puzzle-like sculptures are glued together, layer by layer and allowing eight hours between each layer for the glue to dry.
Excess glue is picked off and zinc naktilae, a wood preserver, is applied. The exterior of the sculpture is covered with powdered graphite and then scoured in places to allow the wood ``to breathe through.''
Finally, latex is sprayed onto the wooden surfaces to set the graphite and to keep the wood stable for many years.
``You have to spray with latex every three years,'' she said. ``If you don't, it turns silver.''
The von Rydingsvard exhibition originated in the summer of 1997 as an outdoor installation in Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Yorkshire, England. Next March after its run at the Nelson-Atkins, the exhibition will travel to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Debra Scott, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Kansas City museum, said some of von Rydingsvard indoor works recently were on display at the Madison Art Center in Madison, Wis., and will continue on a tour that will take them to Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, N.H.; the Chicago Cultural Center; and the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu.
Her works have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York City; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; and the Detroit Institute of Arts. A number of private collectors, including the Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Wash., have commissioned her works.
``She is in the front rank of sculptors today, bringing intense energy and gravitas to sculpture,'' Martin Friedman, director emeritus of the Walker Art Center, stated in the Smithsonian article.
``She is also a key figure in restoring to sculpture its sense of craft. In her work, labor has been elevated to a sacred process.''
-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.