By Todd Wilkinson
Over the last quarter century, Kent Ullberg has been recognized in the U.S. and abroad for erecting grand monuments to nature, using wildlife as a primary motif. His pieces decorate large public spaces around the world: In Stockholm, the setting for several commissions, Ullberg recently installed an abstract, stainless-steel sailfish that reminds Swedes of their cultural affinity with the sea; in Jackson, WY, his massive salmon-eating grizzly lounges in an outdoor sculpture garden at the National Museum of Wildlife Art; in Washington, DC, his tribute to endangered whooping cranes marks the entrance to the National Wildlife Federation’s headquarters; in Wausau, WI, his noble, patriotic bald eagle greets visitors to the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum; in Philadelphia, his frightening dinosaurs rule the front of the renowned Academy of Natural Sciences; and in his adopted hometown of Corpus Christi, TX, Ullberg’s spiraling billfish rise above the tidal shore of the Gulf of Mexico.
|SPIRIT OF NEBRASKA’S WILDERNESS,OMAHA,NEBRASKA|
If there is a singular emblem of Ullberg’s monumental work during the past decade, it is his visual symphony titled Sailfish in Three Stages of Ascending, which covers half a city block in front of the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Until recently, this project—which earned Ullberg the Henry Herring Medal for notable achievement from the National Sculpture Society—reigned as the largest wildlife monument in the world.
But Ullberg admits that even he was daunted by the scope of one of his most recent projects. The winner of a prestigious competition, his assignment was to build a new millennium installation in downtown Omaha, NE. Across a stage covering several city blocks, Ullberg had to figure out metaphorically, and physically, how to make heavy metal fly. Conceptually, he also had to bridge natural wonder with symbols of modern, urban prosperity; and moreover, he had to connect age-old traditions in sculpture with a fresh artistic vision that appealed to a new generation of viewers.
Ullberg’s answer to these challenges is the monument titled Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness, which was officially unveiled last year and has already become a tourist attrac-tion in the heartland city. The design features four stampeding buffalo and a flock of giant Canada geese taking the observer on a visual journey. The big fowl take flight from a traditional park where the charging buffalo have flushed them, then sail over busy streets and intersections around the corners of buildings, until finally the bronze birds—transformed now into stainless steel—swoop into the airy atrium of a skyscraper owned by First National Bank, the corporation that awarded Ullberg the commission.
|SPIRIT OF NEBRASKA’S WILDERNESS DEDICATED LAST FALL IN OMAHA|
“I consider this a progression from the Broward County piece,” the sculptor says modestly. “Certainly [the sailfish] was a signature project, but it was concentrated in one spot. Integral to the Omaha project is literal geographical movement and the specifications that the piece be part of the city. The urban landscape itself became my canvas.”
Logistically, the challenge was epic. The committee which judged Ullberg’s proposal the best wanted him to deliver a finished product 18 months earlier than the four years outlined in the original blueprint. In addition to the behemothic bison, he had to sculpt and cast 58 individual geese, each one with an 8-foot wing span and weighing around 200 pounds. To meet his deadline, he enlisted several different foundries and gathered an assembly team at his airplane hangar-size studio in Loveland, CO.
“The sculpture is about the spirit of wilderness as encountered by Native Americans and the first European settlers in this area of vast open prairie with a limitless sense of land and sky,” Ullberg says. “This spirit survives and is represented by wild geese flying through a space that has become downtown Omaha. Spirits fly freely, unhampered by man’s structures. I selected these birds for a reason. The largest race of Canada geese, the giants, whose Latin name is maxima, were abundant when the first settlers arrived in Nebraska, but by 1920 this subspecies was thought to have become extinct. But since isolated flocks were rediscovered in the 1960s, a restoration has been underway, and their revival represents a conservation success story. They represent endurance and the ability to recover the life spark that was lost.”
The artistic side of the endeavor, however, was only half the challenge. For help with logistics and installation, Ullberg collaborated with the same landscape architect, the late Jim Reeves, who had overseen the installation of the Broward County piece. Still recovering months after the final goose was anchored down, Ullberg says, “It was the most complex, largest, and most demanding of any piece that I’ve ever done.”
Born in 1945, Ullberg has lived through changing times and different art movements. He feels in his marrow that monumental sculpture is on the verge of a new golden age and that wildlife subject matter has a place in the renaissance. “Sculpture has a long tradition of celebrating people who are no longer with us,” he says. “Think about all of those generals in the park, the Greek heroes, the statues of politicians. I think extending the tributes to nature is quite logical.”
Looming large in Ullberg’s mind is the work of fellow Swede Carl Milles, who spent a good part of his career creating monuments in the United States and returned to Sweden a national treasure. In Ullberg’s birthplace of Gothenburg, a port city on Sweden’s west coast, Milles created a public monument, Poseidon, that for Scandinavians is their answer to the monumental figures of Michelangelo. It stands in front of the Gothenburg Art Museum and Symphony Hall.
Part of the genius of Poseidon is how it establishes a timeless dialogue with those who encounter it—it is as evocative to viewers in this century as to those in the one just past. Ullberg’s aim is similar. “My platform for engaging the viewer is nature, because it’s something I care deeply about,” he says. “To remind the public how precious and beautiful it is, I use a representational language, and hopefully it will hold the same relevance 100 years from now as it has today. My personal philosophy is that when you use public space and impose yourself upon people’s eyes, you are obliged to use a language that communicates a universal message. You shouldn’t have to be a high-brow art scholar to have an informed inter-pretation—which is not to say that you must pander to simplicity, but visually I believe it must be accessible.”
Ullberg is a crusader, but he doesn’t think of himself as a rabble-rousing activist. He is a lifelong naturalist, supports conservation causes, and once designed a penguin monument in honor of his friend, the legendary birder Roger Tory Peterson, who had railed against habitat destruction threatening bird populations throughout the planet.
|SAILFISH IN THREE STAGES ASCENDING,FT.LAUDERDALE,FLORIDA|
However, Ullberg made an exception to his tempered vigilance in 1990 after the Exxon tanker Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the ocean and causing environment degradation that remains today. In a cathartic statement he created a piece called Requiem for Prince William Sound, portraying a bald eagle in the throes of death, its feathers sullied by oil. The piece emerged as Ullberg listened to Mozart’s Requiem Mass. While the subject matter may have alienated some, the Society of Animal Artists noted Ullberg’s courage and awarded him its Medal of Honor.
Although Ullberg has experimented throughout his career with abstraction, he was an adherent of realism when it was unpopular as a form of expression, rejected as passé by his art school professors as well as modernists and post-modernists. The irony, he says, is that realism, when coupled with rising public awareness about the environment, has elevated wildlife to prominence. Still, wildlife subject matter continues to struggle against stern rejection from urban post-modernists. The issue flared in 2002 when a Canadian art writer penned a scathing review of an exhibition of Carl Rungius paintings at a museum in Toronto. Sarah Milroy referred to Rungius’ big-game paintings, rendered during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as “sentimental dreck” which incited in the viewer a “gag reflex.” Not only did Milroy criticize Rungius for being a hunter who killed many of his subjects, she also claimed his realistic, almost literal portrayal of wildlife was the work of an unsophisticated artistic ruffian. (In fact, Rungius’ landscape painting earned him esteem from the National Academy of Design in New York, and he continued to paint wildlife in spite of what the fine art establishment at the time had to say.)
In pointed response, both Ullberg and renowned wildlife painter Bob Kuhn gently shot back that Milroy failed to understand Rungius’ talent as a fine artist, the time in which he lived, and the fact that his paintings, nearly a century after they were completed, still resonate loudly with millions of primarily urban dwellers who feel disconnected from the natural world.
Any person who deals with contemporary art, Ullberg says, recognizes that one of its prime objectives is to confront contemporary cultural and philosophical concerns. “Today,” he notes, “one of the greatest contemporary issues of our time is the environment and the threats to survival of creatures we share the planet with.”
With Ullberg’s latest monument, Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness, he says the intent was to enter into a visual discussion with post-modernists and prove that it is not subject matter that determines the validity of an idea, but how that idea is expressed. He aimed to be provocative. “The combination of traditional and contemporary elements is the essence of post-modernism, especially in its approach to modern space,” he says.
|KENT ULLBERG WITH WIND IN THE SAILS, DEDICATED LAST SUMMER IN STOCKHOLM|
Since Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness was completed, Ullberg has received several offers to design large public monuments in other cities, building upon the more than 50 works that already distinguish his resume. What’s next? Although he is open to suggestions, a lingering dream is to combine sculpture with the ocean environment, creating a piece that modern mariners could interact with while still on the water.
Decades ago, he notes, Solon Borglum—the brother of Gutzon Borglum, who created the relief of four presidents’ faces on the massif of Mount Rushmore—had a vision of creating a statue of Jesus rising out of Corpus Christi Bay. Scanning the waters from his home in Texas, Ullberg is intrigued by the notion of projecting the silhouette of a massive sea creature to summon more attention to the plight of oceans.
“Kent may choose to live on this continent, but his work speaks to an international audience, for he is as well or better known outside the United States as he is here,” says Bill Kerr, founder of the National Museum of Wildlife Art. “With wildlife, he has chosen an idiom that speaks to our time.”
Ullberg is represented by Columbine Gallery, Loveland, CO; Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Nicholas Fine Art, Billings, MT; Pitzer’s of Carmel, CA; and Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ.
Featured in May 2003