Day at the Museum: Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum

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By Mary K. Schaffer

Tucked away in a lush green corner of Austin, just across the street from Zilker Park, lies the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, a hidden wonderland of glossy bronze artworks surrounded by an oasis of greenery and water. Throughout the outdoor park, bronze glints and shines in the sun as sculptures peek out from around trees to greet visitors’ wandering eyes.

The Umlauf, as the garden is called by its employees and volunteers, features the work of sculptor Charles Umlauf, who taught art at UT from 1941 to ’81. Umlauf donated his studio, which is just up the hill from the garden, and his works to the city of Austin in 1985. The garden opened in 1991 to showcase his long history of sculpting.

The garden explores a multitude of themes, says Alex Clark, an international exchange student from New Zealand. “The thing I enjoyed most about the sculpture garden was the way the artworks explored so many different aspects of the human psyche, from love, romance, religion and hope, to pain, suffering and war,” Clark says.

Umlauf’s work largely focused on religious and wartime themes in the early years of his career. The artist used harsh strokes to give his sculptures, especially those of people, gritty and unrefined characteristics, commenting on the ugly realities of wartime America in the 1940s. For example, Umlauf’s 1939 statue War Mother shows the painful wartime reality of a mother desperately clutching her child to her as war invades their lives. This statue was particularly important to Umlauf, so much so that “when designing the layout of the museum, Umlauf insisted that it be placed near the entrance, the first piece you see when you walk through the arch, because it was the piece that got him his position at the University of Texas,” says Samantha Elliott, the volunteer coordinator at the garden.

Later in life, Umlauf moved on from sculpting wartime themes and instead focused on romantic and religious themes. “Umlauf’s sculptures always reflected his personal life,” Elliott says. “He moved on to portraying family moments and religious themes in his later works. For example, both Family, which depicts father, mother and child, and The Kiss, which is set in the middle of the large pond on one side of the garden, highlight Umlauf’s movement toward more personal themes.

Umlauf’s work doesn’t just exist in the garden, however. You can find some of his work on campus. The statue outside the Flawn Academic Center, called The Torch Bearers, is his work, as is the Family statue outside the south entrance to the McCombs School of Business. Both statues stand as a testament to his legacy as a UT art teacher and Austin community artist. The garden has such a connection to the community because Umlauf belonged, and still belongs, to the city. “This was [the Umlaufs’] neighborhood,” Elliott says. “The family grew up around the corner, his studio is up the hill, and he was such a defining, long-term figure in the UT Art Department. So many times, we will have his former students or family friends come to visit and we’ll get to hear stories about him as a teacher or neighbor.”

If you’re headed out to Zilker one Saturday, be sure to stop by the quiet Umlauf Sculpture Garden to relax and enjoy the company of a few bronze friends in the warm Texas sunlight. Admission for students is only $1. But it gets even better: you can touch the sculptures, which have been specially treated with wax so that the visually impaired can interact with the artworks. Now you have no reason not to go!

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