By Mark Mussari
Like a tale woven by Isak Dinesen, sculptor Kent Ullberg’s life seems touched by destiny. As a boy growing up in the seaside town of Göteborg, Sweden, he used to accompany his father—a plein-air painter—on his outdoor excursions. Hoping to inspire his son, the older Ullberg set up a small easel next to his own along the high coastal cliffs. At the time, however, the boy had other interests on his mind. “While my father was painting,” he remembers, “I would hang over the cliff, staring at a raven’s nest below.”
Despite the early distractions, genetics appeared to favor a career in art for the young Swede. His mother had artistic talent as well and attended art school. “She was a textile artist and a weaver,” Ullberg says. Taking refuge under her loom remains one of his fondest childhood memories. “I felt very secure under there,” he comments.
As time progressed, another important influence surfaced in Ullberg’s life. “I spent my early years in fishing villages,” he says, “which exposed me to marine life.” As a youth, he had his own boat and lobster traps, and soon he began to work with fishermen in the North Sea. “I think that started my love for nature,” he explains. Before long the teenager was working alongside fishermen on trawlers. When they emptied the nets onto the deck, all sorts of strange sea creatures spilled out along with the intended catch. Ullberg was fascinated. “I had all these books, trying to identify the different kinds of fish,” he recalls. He also began to untangle birds that were sometimes caught in the nets. “I became a birdwatcher as well,” he adds.
By the time Ullberg reached high school, his interests in art and animal biology had merged. “Roger Tory Peterson’s Birds of Britain and Europe became my bible,” he admits, “and I became a naturalist.” At the age of 18, Ullberg enrolled in Stockholm’s Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design. Although he began studying painting, the budding artist had a revelation when he signed up for a sculpture class. “I fell madly in love with it,” he says. “I felt I had found my medium.”
Yet Ullberg’s early proclivities toward realism and animal sculpture bucked the abstract expressionist trends of the mid-1960s. A teacher warned him he would never have a career doing representational sculpture. “I decided to do the next best thing,” he says. “I apprenticed to become a taxidermist at the National Museum of Natural History.” Ullberg immediately felt at home with the work. Taxidermy, he points out, actually involves a great deal of sculpting. He then traveled to Germany, often crossing back and forth from East to West Berlin, to continue his study of taxidermy and hone his skills in animal anatomy.
In 1967, he was offered a job in Botswana to help build and run the National Museum and Art Gallery. “As a naturalist, an avid sculptor, and a taxidermist, I dreamt of Africa like a maniac,” he says. “I had read Isak Dinesen and Hemingway, and I jumped at the chance.” And like characters out of Dinesen’s and Hemingway’s adventurous stories, he also served as a guide while there. “Many of my clients were Germans and other Europeans,” he adds.
While working in Africa, Ullberg found another client in the Denver Museum of Natural History, which wanted him to help collect specimens for a new African hall. “I was their guide out in the field,” he says. Eventually, the museum offered him a position as curator of the hall. Ullberg, who had never set foot in America, accepted.
Once in Colorado, where he fell in love with the mountain scenery, Ullberg found inspiration in the work of animal sculptors Ken Bunn and George Carlson (a second-generation Swedish-American). “I realized these were people making a living doing what I wanted to do,” he says. “And I finally decided to go out on my own.” He cast his first bronze (of a wildebeest) in 1974, from a cast he had brought with him from Africa. In 1975, he submitted a bronze sculpture of a leopard to the prestigious National Academy of Design’s juried show—and won the coveted Helen Foster Barnett Award. “That opened doors for me,” he comments.
Before long, Ullberg’s attention turned to monumental pieces, although he says the seed of that interest can be traced to his European roots and the impact of seeing public art in every square. While in Göteborg, for example, he was fascinated by a large municipal statue of Poseidon: “It was done by Carl Milles, who had done public sculpture all over the world. He was an inspiration.”
Ullberg’s monumental works include a 25-foot pair of dinosaurs commemorating the 175th anniversary of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences and mammoth stainless-steel whooping cranes at the headquarters of the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, DC. He is particularly proud of a monumental sculpture of an eagle—with a 20-foot wingspan—in front of the Houston branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, a building designed by revered architect Michael Graves.
The scope of Ullberg’s vision and the breadth of his abilities become apparent in his work spanning a six-block area in Omaha, NE. “We turned a dirty parking lot into a city park,” he notes. The sculptor used Canada geese as a unifying theme: They are attached to streetlights and buildings, and, in an inventive twist, their material changes with their location. “When they intersect with modern architecture, they turn from bronze to stainless steel,” he says. Ullberg worked for 10 years on the park with architect Jim Reeves. Because of the project’s blend of environmentalism and aesthetics, he sees this expansive work as especially illustrative of “the postmodern consciousness.”
Ullberg’s process begins with a small clay sketch that he develops into a maquette. He then sculpts a scale model in wax. After deciding the actual size of the piece, he builds a steel armature, sprays foam on it, and sculpts the foam into a rough shape. “Then I add on clay and sculpt detail,” he explains. Ullberg’s sculptures reveal an elegant, sweeping sense of movement. Despite their often mammoth forms, the lines are almost ballet-like. Curves swoop and swirl as otters lounge, curlews preen, and pumas prepare to pounce. This effect lends a lyrical element to even the largest of his pieces. “I view nature as a vehicle for abstract consciousness,” says Ullberg. “I love to take it further because I can speak more broadly and reach more people.”
The glorious results speak volumes: His wildlife figures, internationally renowned for their attention to anatomical detail and powerful narrative sense, grace galleries and museums throughout the world, including the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC, Exhibition Hall in Beijing, and the National Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. Numerous art organizations, many of which he belongs to, have bestowed awards upon his work, including the Allied Artists of America, the National Academy of Design, the National Sculpture Society, and the Society of Animal Artists. “I’m passionate about nature and the environment,” comments Ullberg, who lives with his wife, Veerle, on Padre Island, TX. “I want people to look through my eyes and see the beauty of nature.”
One of Ullberg’s most moving and—to the artist—most significant sculptures is a piece that most people will never see in person. It sits on the tiny Danish island of Læsø, off the coast of the Jutland peninsula in an arm of the North Sea. Entitled HAVSVIND (Swedish for “ocean wind”), it is a rare and emotional work by the sculptor. The abstract form of a fish riding a wave, rendered in brilliant stainless steel, rises 17 feet atop a 6-foot pedestal. “It’s a fisherman’s memorial,” says Ullberg. “Both of my grandfathers were lost in those waters.” The glistening figure is a reminder not only of the beauty of marine life but also of the untamable power of the sea. Its dynamic form offers a haunting tribute to the artist’s Nordic roots and to his family’s undeniable connection to the seafaring life.
A number of years into Ullberg’s career as a world-renowned sculptor, his mother died at the age of 63, and he went back to Sweden to see to her effects. He came upon diaries chronicling her experiences at art school, and, much to his surprise, he discovered that she had studied sculpture. “When I was a baby she took me with her to art school,” he comments, “and did a sculpture of my right hand.” He found the sculpture hidden in a drawer and still intact, a tiny artistic imprint of a familial legacy—a love for art still going strong.
Cavalier Galleries, Greenwich, CT, and Nantucket, MA; Collectors Covey, Dallas, TX; Corpus Christi Art Connection, Corpus Christi, TX; Helena Fox Fine Art, Charleston, SC; Fredlund Gallery, Winter Park, FL; The Grapevine Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK; J. Russell Jinishian Gallery, Fairfield, CT; Montgomery Lee Fine Art, Park City, UT; Mustang Island Art Gallery, Port Aransas, TX; Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; Pitzer’s Fine Art, Wimberley, TX; Spanierman Gallery, New York, NY; The Sportsman’s Gallery, Atlanta, GA; Trailside Galleries, Jackson Hole, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; www.kentullberg.net.
Birds in Art, Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, WI, September 12-November 15.
Western Visions: Miniatures and More Show & Sale, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, WY, September 12-28.
Featured in August 2009