charles umlauf poetess

The lush landscape frostbitten, art commands centerstage at Umlauf Sculpture Garden

Above, Charles Umlauf’s 1956 “Poetess” represents a tribute to his wife, Angeline Umlauf (1915-2012), as his muse.

Charles Umlauf, Neal Douglass, 1951, Austin History Center via The Portal to Texas History

Born in rural Michigan, Karl (Charles) Julius Umlauf (1911-1994) was the sixth of eight children of a family of impoverished European immigrants. The family moved to Chicago when Umlauf was eight years old, and it was in elementary school there that a teacher spotted and began nurturing his artistic talents. The teacher helped him earn summer scholarships at the Art Institute of Chicago. Upon graduation from high school, he was able to study at both the Art Institute and the Chicago School of Sculpture.

Umlauf met Angeline, a fellow art student, and the couple married in 1937. Six children would follow. During hard times, Umlauf had the talent and good fortune of obtaining several commissions from the Works Progress Administration for sculpture in public buildings.

Encouraged by San Antonio art patron Marion Koogler McNay (1883-1950), the Chicago artist accepted a position as an art instructor at the University of Texas in 1941, and he remained on the faculty for another 40 years. In 1944, the Umlaufs purchased, according to Alberto Martinez in the Austin American Statesman, “what has been described as a stone farmhouse at Robert E. Lee (now named Azie Taylor Morton) and Barton Springs Roads… the couple then built a modernist family house around the stone walls, later adding a spacious studio for the sculptor.” Harold (Bubi) Jessen (1908-1979) designed the home in exchange for “The Poetess” above, later donated back by his family to the garden.

Although planning to remain there “until we are through,” according to Martinez, the Umlaufs donated their house, the studio, their two acres atop the hill and 168 of his sculptures to Austin in 1985. Six years later, Roberta Crenshaw (1914-2005) persuaded the state to swap six acres of land with fish ponds down below with the city, and that land was repurposed to host a museum and sculpture garden.

Charles Umlauf with “Man in Supplication,” Lisa Davis, Austin History Center via Portal to Texas History

Visiting the Umlauf Sculpture Garden after such a damaging freeze almost seems unfair. “The Lovers” are no longer shielded by leafy surroundings; “The Nun” appears praying more earnestly for the souls of her nude neighbors. “The Skater” must have looked quite at home in the snow though. With trees stripped bare, the light is harsh. The shadows of tree trunks and branches crisscross Umlauf’s works. But I have a whole new city to explore and can’t be waylaid waiting for spring.

In addition to his large body of work in the garden and numerous museum collections, Umlauf leaves behind his profound influence on large numbers of artists who studied under him at the University of Texas-Austin, including a maker of iconic Texas works, Bob (Daddy-O) Wade (1943-2019). And Farrah. Yes, that Farrah.

Farrah Fawcett sculpts alongside Charles Umlauf as he uses her as a model, 1971, The Umlauf

Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009) was a budding art major studying under Umlauf before seduced away by the lure of fame her junior year. The pair remained close throughout their lives though; she regarded him as a mentor, and he considered her a muse. While acting was her public livelihood, art was her private passion. She often returned to Austin to work alongside Umlauf. The actress donated much of her work and her art collection to the Blanton Museum of Art.

The Umlauf Sculpture Garden is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit now for the sculpture, later this spring for the full-blooming beauty of the garden itself.

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