Alumni Spotlight | Ursula von Rydingsvard (Visual Arts '75)

Ursula von Rydingsvard
Photo / Zack Garlitos
How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

In 1973, I had something I would call an awakening as a result of getting a divorce and coming to New York City with my little three year old daughter, arriving naïve and very poor. A huge portion of the base from which I functioned was the emotional richness I enjoyed connected to being a single mom to my daughter, also named Ursula. I was able to achieve a degree of stability and a kind of psychological, slow shedding of fears, with hefty doses of excitement about my artwork being enrolled in the Masters of Fine Arts program at Columbia University.
Was there a specific faculty member or peer who especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

I am indebted to some very kind professors at Columbia University, with Ronnie Bladen being the lead. He quietly would enter my studio, and say almost nothing, but I could feel the deep respect he had for what I was doing.  In retrospect, I don’t think I showed him work that deserved the kind of support he gave, but I did take his attitude and his sparse words seriously, enabling me to add a little more to the stability of the fragile platform on which felt I then stood. There was also someone named Jean Linder whose work had to do with installations, was seriously sexually oriented and for 1973 it seemed bold, and was not minimal.  Who she was, and the images of her work affected me profoundly at a time when I had no understanding of a real artist, never mind a female artist—never mind a gentle, beautiful one who wore woolen sailors pants with Turkish peasant blouses.

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

I recall Philip Guston coming to Columbia and speaking with extreme emotional generosity—the way one can speak only to an audience of students who themselves are still groping. There were only seven of us listening to him speak of the terror that was inside of him after having changed the style of his work. It seemed as though he, too, was lost as he was trying to build his new orientation that had a palpable desire and a deep want that I could feel strongly in him.  Guston showed concern that he might fail but an even deeper want for following his instincts.  I recall clearly his talking about looking at a painting on a column of a cathedral that Giotto had done of Mary, and his ability to look at it only for a portion of a minute before he had to turn his head to relieve the intensity of emotion that was hitting him, to then, repeat the same process.  What I learned from Guston as a student was to see that even an older accomplished artist could be this vulnerable, this fragile, this wanting and determined, to forge a new way through which he could speak—which had much more to do with digging into the grizzle of his psyche—no matter that the critics were trashing him mercilessly at the time.
About Ursula von Rydingsvard
Ursula von Rydingsvard is a sculptor who has been working in Brooklyn, New York, for over 30 years. Von Rydingsvard is best known for creating large-scale, often monumental sculpture from cedar beams, which she painstakingly cuts, assembles, and laminates, finally rubbing powdered graphite into the work’s textured, faceted surfaces. Recently she has cast sculptures in bronze from full-scale cedar models.

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s work is represented in the permanent collections of over 30 museums, including: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Walker Art Center, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Storm King Art Center, Detroit Institute of Arts and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.