Unveiling Umlauf's Process

Exhibit designers discuss re-creating the sculptor's studio

Unveiling Umlauf's Process

When planning its 25th anniversary this year, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum decided to look inward. Rather than showcasing outside artists in its sunlit gallery space, the museum would focus on its namesake, master sculptor Charles Umlauf, and re-create his studio in it as part of a new interactive exhibit.

Previously, visitors to the Umlauf have been privy only to the expert’s completed work in the sculptures displayed throughout the grounds. But "the gardens are really just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t really show how much work he actually made,” says Stephanie Busing, one of the designers of the museum's silver anniversary exhibit. "Studio in the Museum," which opened in April and runs through Oct. 16, helps fill in the gaps of this artist’s career and reveal just how detailed, dedicated, and prolific he was during his lifetime. Moreover, it allows visitors to immerse themselves in the process that Umlauf used to create his astounding works.

Gallery guests are greeted by a crowded workbench cluttered with chisels, buckets of plaster, and hydrostone while a pair of clay-splattered Wranglers hangs on a wall nearby. A drawing board featuring facsimiles of charcoal sketches, a gas mask, and repurposed popcorn jar all put the visitor in Umlauf’s intimate atelier, where he sculpted works that have earned him a lasting place in Austin history. The multimedia exhibit also showcases a three-part video series detailing the lost-wax casting method that Umlauf perfected, a 22-foot-long timeline of his work and personal life, and a clay bust of Umlauf himself, meant to be manipulated and tweaked by visitors playing sculptor.

Responsible for the whole shebang are a pair of designers carefully selected by museum curator Katie Robinson Edwards: Busing, a set designer with a background in experiential theatre, and Nimer Aleck, a sculptor-gone-consultant. On Wednesday, July 27, the two will sit down with Robinson in the gallery to discuss how they planned out and executed the re-creation.

Busing visited the original studio, which overlooks Barton Springs Road, for a year before the exhibit opened, taking measurements and photographs. She said the decision on whether to make the exhibit a stage set or a more interactive, educational experience was up in the air for a while, but they ultimately decided on a hybrid of the two. “It feels like something you would see in a museum, versus a typical art gallery,” Busing says.

Drawing from a wealth of mid-20th century artifacts from his 1,100 square-foot workspace, the exhibit features items that both predate and postdate the height of Umlauf's career. “We had to make a choice on what artifacts we wanted to highlight that spoke more to his process and didn’t necessarily epitomize a specific year,” Busing says.

Aleck is responsible for both the interactive sculpting head of Umlauf and the lost-bronze wax examples that accompany the videos. Busing said he was instrumental in determining which tools would have been the most important to Umlauf. “There isn’t much documentation on how he would have operated in that studio,” Busing says. “There aren’t very many photographs, so we had to really make judgment calls.”

Despite certain permanent elements such as walls, shelving units, and a lamp, the majority of the relics have been directly transferred from Umlauf’s studio. Even the floor, a faux finish that simulates poured concrete, is specified to the artist's liking. The exhibit designers have been careful not to reveal too much of the studio here, for the museum’s master plan includes opening Umlauf's full studio and family home to the public within five years. “I felt it would be more compelling to do a teaser and only show part of his studio so that when his actual physical studio is open to the public, it will be a completion of a long-term project,” Busing says.

The conversation with "Studio in the Museum" designers Stephanie Busing and Nimer Aleck will take place Wed., July 27, 6pm, at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, 605 Robert E. Lee. The conversation is free and open to the public.

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Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, Charles Umlauf, Katie Robinson Edwards, Stephanie Busing, Nimer Aleck

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