Inside an Artist's Home
An intimate look inside the preservation of Austin's Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum
Austin's Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum just got more intimate: Plans are now underway to improve and preserve artist Charles Umlauf's Austin home and studio, which have recently been made available for renovation. CultureMap was there last week for the sneak peek.
Overlooking Barton Springs Road and Zilker Park, Charles' house and studio sit on a small hill right next to the current Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, surrounded by full live oak trees and sculptures atop pedestals. Charles donated the home, studio and two acres of land in 1985, with the understanding that he and his wife could live the rest of their lives there.
Charles, who taught for 40 years in the Art Department of the University of Texas, passed away in 1994 and his wife Angeline last year. Now the home, studio, over 250 pieces of art and eight acres (the museum sits on six) total belong to Austin.
"It was a beautiful place when we found it though totally overgrown by weeds. The house had been vacant for quite some time, neglected and much abused by vagrants. Its beauty lay not only in the Live Oaks it wore like a crown but also in the magnificent view of the west hills, Zilker parklands, the City, and Barton Creek — directly below. That shape of the hill, with steep slopes on three sides, forms a knoll and gives a natural sense of detachment such as we had been seeking, along with space for a studio with a high peaked studio and living quarters next to it," Charles Umlauf describes the house, from an excerpt of his book The Sculpture and Drawing of Charles Umlauf.
"A place so very special within the city limits invites, in fact demands, unique treatment — not condominiums," wrote Charles Umlauf.
Austin looked quite different when Charles and his family moved to Austin in 1941, and though the city has grown around this art oasis since they bought the house and land in 1944, (the home was expanded and a studio added in the early 1960s), you still feel the sense of isolation Charles spoke about when you visit. Big trees surround the two unassuming small brown structures. City sounds fade away. You forget you're deep in the heart of Austin.
Neither palatial nor particularly fancy, walk into this historic house today and you see Mid-Century Modern details, stone walls mixed with wood ones, architectural rafters, small rooms, a warm color palette and a really adorable kitchen. Umlauf's six children took time after their mother's death to gather personal items; they also graciously left much of the original furniture, art and memories.
You enter the studio and are transported to a moment in the artist's time. Dusty and cluttered with art supplies and half-finished pieces, the studio has tall ceilings and even more charm than the house. It's been left just how Charles used it — and you really can feel the crackle of creative inspiration in this space.
A prolific and highly influential sculptor and artist, Charles' life and large body of work have made the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum an important draw since being built on city property next to Charles' home and studio in 1991. With his home and studio to open to the public in the future, art lovers will get an even clearer picture of who he was. The museum has encouraged exploration for years — all the bronze sculptures in the garden are coated with wax and touchable — and the preservation of these private spaces fits in perfectly with the philosophy of the museum and Charles' vision of sharing his work with the world.
Plans are very much in the beginning stages: Needs are still being assessed, and cost and timeline projections for the project continue to change, but Nina Seely, the executive director of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, estimates this is going to be a multi-million dollar project, with key components of restoration and preservation being pinpointed right now.
The home needs to be restored (roof, foundation, wiring and more issues need to be addressed) and a physical connection between the sculpture garden and the home and studio is a big goal. Parking needs to be expanded without taking away from the beauty of the property. Dreams of updating the sculpture garden with additional event spaces, pavilions and amphitheaters are taking shape, too.
"The Umlaufs left a legacy for all to enjoy; Charles said it was the best thing they could do to show their appreciation and fondness for the people of Austin who had given so much to them. We are the stewards of history for this legacy property for all of Austin," says Nina Seely.
An enthusiastic and passionate group of folks sits on the museum's board of directors. The Friends of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden organization funds, manages and maintains the museum while the City’s Parks and Recreation Department maintains the xeriscape garden. Those looking to stay involved and help out with this exciting new addition to the Austin art scene should click the links above to find out how to help and stay tuned to the happenings at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum.