Keep Austin Wonderful: Discovering The Umlauf Sculpture Garden
I’ve been going to SXSW regularly for a few years now, but it wasn’t until last fall on a short trip to Austin that I finally ventured across the street from Zilker Park into a curious-looking alcove known as the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden.
The UMLAUF Sculpture Garden is an oasis of art and nature in South Austin, adjacent to the city’s largest park (the aforementioned Zilker), whose claim to fame includes Barton Springs’ natural swimming hole, stand-up paddleboarding in the fair-weather months, and the iconic Austin City Limits Music Festival, which brings thousands to the park every Fall.
UMLAUF Sculpture Garden is the namesake property of Charles Umlauf– a renowned American sculptor who began his career in 1929, when he studied under Albin Polasek at the Art Institute of Chicago. This year, the UMLAUF celebrates its 25th Anniversary, as Charles and Angeline Umlauf donated the property (which included their home, Charles’ studio, and 168 of his sculptures) to the City of Austin in 1985 (the garden was opened to the public in 1991). Shortly after the donation, private funds were accrued to renovate the xeriscaped garden, which is built so as to reduce the need for supplemental irrigation (a boon to present-day Austin’s economy, as the city continues to undergo a drought).
Particularly enthralling on my recent visit to the garden was UMLAUF’s 1970 Bronze sculpture, “The Kiss”. On the day that I was in the garden, another photographer was there photographing it (see above), which seemed to add credence to my suspicion that “The Kiss” was the garden’s most celebrated work.
While UMLAUF is dedicated primarily to the work of its namesake, the garden also hosts temporary art exhibits from other world-renowned artists, like experimental artist Adam Crosson, whose recent exhibit Intermodel aimed to “negotiate strategies of intermodal freight transport (IFT) with the social and literary theory of negative capability”– a theory first described by John Keats as “the creative necessity of being comfortable with the unknown”. This week, the garden also wrapped up a tribute to Jesus Moroles, a renowned local sculptor with a penchant for granite work who was killed in a car accident last year. (Moroles’ 64-ton, 22-foot tall Lapstrake sculpture currently resides at the CBS Plaza in New York City, across the street from the Museum of Modern Art.)
As the garden offers “superb art casually set in a shady garden of native Texas plants,” it feels a world apart from the bustle of downtown Austin, and in that regard it makes an excellent, accessible counterpart ideal for the simultaneous appreciation of nature and sculpture. The waterfall and streams within the gardens muffle the sounds of nearby traffic, and the light constantly changes (with the seasons and with the time of day), which makes it a premiere contemplative space.
Originally containing small ponds used by soldiers to practice fly casting during the late 1930s and 1940s, the four acres that comprise the sculpture garden were then forgotten for the next four decades, as the website reads, “lost under dewberry vines and illicit dumping”.
Today, the garden’s gravel path is laid out as a giant peace symbol, which harkens to the peaceful nature of the space. “Children explore the grounds with sculpture safaris in hand, lightly touching the gleaming bronzes waxed for the visually impaired,” the garden’s accessibility plan notes, “friends sit and talk on the secluded benches; the occasional dance or music performance is even more magical among the trees.”
Eventually, the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden & Museum will also include the sculptor’s personal sculpture garden, located on two adjoining acres up the hill, overlooking the garden’s grounds. Angeline Umlauf began creating this unique space in the early 1950s, planting native flowering shrubs around the sculptures that Charles moved out of his studio as he finished them. Their six children dug paths and edged them with stones they took out of the flower beds. “It was the pleasure that their many guests experienced in their private garden that inspired Charles and Angeline UMLAUF to give it, along with their home, his studio and 168 pieces of sculpture to the City they loved,” says a rep from the garden.
Today, the UMLAUF garden offers a wide variety of programming beyond leisure, including visiting artist exhibits, artist talks, and a selection of ongoing and seasonal events like yoga and pumpkin carving in the garden. The garden is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 AM to 4 PM, and Saturdays and Sundays from 12 PM to 4 PM (closed Mondays). Find more information here.