By Gussie Fauntleroy
Thomas Ostenberg’s whimsical figurative sculptures capture the precarious foundations of our interrelated lives
To Thomas Ostenberg, the idea expressed in the ladder, one of his earliest bronze sculptures, was clear. Three horses stacked one on top of the other at the apex of an enormous wheel: The image obviously spoke of the high-stakes corporate culture in which the one on top gets there by climbing on others’ backs. And even with four legs moving, the horses go nowhere except where the big wheel rolls. Ostenberg knew this personally because he had been the “horse on top” in his earlier life as an international banker, before he closed his eyes and jumped off the wheel.
So he was astonished when he met a woman who saw in the ladder something equally significant but entirely different. The woman, who lectured in various communities about battered women supporting each other, wanted a small version of the sculpture to display when she spoke. To her, it perfectly symbolized the triumph of a woman who rises above the endless wheel of domestic abuse—with the help of others who themselves have climbed out of their pasts. Staring at a photograph of the sculpture, she declared, “This piece is exactly what we do!”
Ostenberg laughs. “I could not not make it for her,” he admits, sitting at a shady outdoor café near his Santa Fe, NM, studio. The experience, early in his artistic career, opened his eyes to the dual nature of the creative encounter: first between the artist, the vision, and the materials that give it form, and then between the viewer and the finished work. Both are equally vital and real. And in Ostenberg’s case both encounters, however dissimilar, tend to share the quality of being uplifting. “That’s the way I am,” he explains. “I want to bring something positive to the world.”
This desire has roots in the artist’s upbringing on a Colorado mountain ranch, where hard work and non-materialist values were central, even within the context of a materially comfortable life. Ostenberg’s father was a businessman who paved the way for American companies to operate overseas. He purchased the ranch west of Denver as a healthy place for the family’s five children to grow up. That meant learning responsibility—being up and dressed at 5 o’clock every day to milk the cow—and witnessing, through animals, the cycle of birth and death. “My father didn’t pamper us,” Ostenberg remarks. “I’ve been working since I was 8.”
Ranch life also meant having a horse as a pal. Each day after school, Star was waiting in a field near the end of a long dirt road, where young Thomas would climb from the fence to the horse’s bare back and ride home, content in cowboy dreams and an open-sky life. Many, many years later, when he picked up clay for the first time in a sculpture class at the Kansas City Art Institute, he envisioned creating contemporary abstract forms, inspired by the great Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whom he fervently admired. Fate, it seems, had other plans. “The first thing that came out of my hands was a horse. The second thing that came out of my hands was a horse,” the artist recalls with a laugh.
But another career—and a life a world beyond cowboy dreams—would unfold in the years between riding Star and forming the first clay horse. His father, bankrupted by associates, died when Ostenberg was 17. The loss, the artist now sees, strengthened his character, but also brought out a desire for economic security. Working his way through school, he majored in languages at Principia, a small liberal arts college in Illinois. Then he followed what seemed to be good advice from the father of a friend: Study business and enter the international finance field. He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University and took a position with a large international bank in Brazil. From there he steadily climbed the ladder of corporate success.
By the time he was 40, Ostenberg had all the components of a yuppie dream life in Spain—penthouse apartment high above Madrid, Porsche convertible, nonstop social life, and two girlfriends with fathers well installed in the Spanish social and political world. In almost every way, “It was perfect,” he says. Still, sometimes over drinks with equally high-rolling friends, the big question would circle the table: “If you could do anything at all, what would it be?” Ostenberg knew. He leaned toward his friends with conviction: “I’d be an artist,” he said. He hadn’t learned to paint or sculpt at that point—had never really tried it. He only knew that wherever he traveled he was drawn to art museums, compelled, as if by primal force, to spend time with art.
Then came a confluence of events that eventually triggered a tidal wave of change in his life. The corporate culture was shifting, pulling rugs out from under highly paid executives and shuffling employees like pawns on a bottom-line board. Ostenberg left the bank but stayed in Madrid and maintained his lifestyle as a consultant in the international finance world. He successfully stepped away from a job where—although in an exciting and creative arm of banking—he felt increasingly like a cog in a wheel. That gave him time to reflect, and in the process come face to face with a truth that must be learned in first-person much of the time: “I’d made it,” he relates, “but something was gnawing at the back of my mind, saying, ‘Wait a sec. What’s missing?’ I wasn’t really fulfilled.”
In business, there’s a quasi-scientific model of decision-making involving mathematics and probability. Numbers and data are inserted into a diagram to produce the most ideal or viable course of action. Yet time and again in his finance career, Ostenberg would diligently map out alternatives—and then follow an intuitive feeling instead. Against all odds, it worked. In the same way, when the notion struck him to leave business altogether in search of deeper fulfillment, he simply acted on it—the diagram was nowhere to be seen. “A decision analyst would have said it was absolutely the wrong thing to do,” he points out, his blue eyes unwavering beneath a shock of graying blond hair. “I didn’t even stop to think. I didn’t even consider the possibility of failure or success. What was the most exciting, most important thing was just discovering what I really wanted to do.”
This is when he returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute and a master’s from London’s Royal College of Art. He set up a studio in London—which he still maintains—and almost immediately his mostly autobiographical sculptural works seemed to strike a responsive chord. In the late 1990s, with many of his collectors in the United States, Ostenberg began alternating between London and Santa Fe, spending a month or so in each place. Married at 50 and now the father of two young sons, he eventually settled on Santa Fe as his primary base.
Not surprisingly, the utter transformation in Ostenberg’s life—and the lessons learned along the way—continues to be reflected in his art. Many of his sculptures, such as but, i feel fine, depict a precariously balanced figure on top of an animal (usually a horse) on top of a ball or wheel or wedge. Yet the figure on top is clearly untroubled by the shakiness under his feet and, in fact, is joyous and strong. It’s a paradox the artist experienced in his own life. “I went from a very economically secure career, but spiritually atrophied, to a situation where I may struggle from month to month to pay the rent but I’m so emotionally and psychologically secure,” he observes.
In this new life, moving forward no longer equates exclusively with material gain and no longer depends on the roll of the corporate wheel. His pursuit series—where what is being pursued is always a creative or spiritual goal—presents female figures striding purposefully along, each on her own set of wheels. “There’s a sense of rebirth, a fecundity of ideas,” the sculptor explains. “She’s charging toward the future.”
While Ostenberg is capable of producing realistic detail in clay or wax, the somewhat abstracted nature of his figures reflects his focus instead on evoking emotion, expressing the essence of exhilaration or balance or horse. In the same way, a certain ineffable quality unites all the art that inspires him most, from Etruscan sculpture to the work of Noguchi or Matisse. “What I respond to is the sincerity, the poetry, the honesty that comes through in their work,” he explains. “It’s not about being clever; it’s the immediacy and urgency of their work, it’s an outpouring of who they are. It’s about the important, the real things in life.”
Ostenberg is represented by Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, Telluride, CO; Anne Reed Gallery, Ketchum, ID; Peyton Wright Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Galerie Maximillian, Aspen, CO; Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, GA; Lisa Kurts Gallery, Memphis, TN; Donna Tribby Fine Art, West Palm Beach, FL; and Clarke Galleries, Stowe, VT.
Featured in September 2005