‘I’m Trying to Tell It What I Want It to Do’: Watch Ursula von Rydingsvard Cut Away Blocks of Cedar to Unearth Massive Sculptures

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Artist Ursula Von Rydingsvard poses in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo: Venturelli/Getty Images for Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

For Ursula von Rydingsvard, whose cedar sculptures transform a seemingly impenetrable material into intricate and poetic works of art, the connection to wood runs deep. The German-born artist came of age immediately after World War II, living alongside other Polish refugee families.

“We stayed in wooden barracks,” the artist recalls in an exclusive video filmed as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, “raw wooden floors, raw wooden walls and raw wooden ceilings… so somewhere in my blood I’m dipping into that source.”

In this harsh setting, talking too much was “immediately suspect,” von Rydingsvard said, and so instead, “I drank from the world through visual means.” The warm wood of her childhood surroundings became her medium of choice as an artist. Today, her studio is filled with this familiar texture and weight. 

Although her works are often installed outside, surrounded by the natural materials that inspire her (wo)man-made creations, the artist’s first solo exhibition in Denver, titled “Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling” is an indoor show, providing a more intimate setting in which to view her massive sculptures and works on paper.

The process of making these monumental works is slow and deliberate, requiring the construction of layers over time through only necessary cuts to the surface. The result is baroque, lacy textures that contradict the heaviness of the wood.

“The confrontation in part lies with my struggle with the cedar,” the artist says. “It’s always telling me what it needs to do and I think that I’m trying to tell it what I want it to do.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling” is on view at the Denver Botanic Gardens from April 30– September 11, 2022.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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