At 70 years old, sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard is anything but fragile. She’s a sculptor, and her medium is red cedar—which she has become allergic to after working with it for nearly 35 years. Her sculptures are large-scale, and she carves for up to eight hours per day inside of a protective suit weighing 15 pounds. Air must be pumped in while she muscles the cedar into the desired shape.
Part of the reason she works with cedar is its grain—or lack thereof. While most woods have a distinct grain that influences how it can be carved, cedar has no visible grain. That allows von Rydingsvard to carve it out however she chooses without having to battle the wood’s natural grain.
One of the many reasons von Rydingsvard’s work is so unique is its lack of feminine elegance, or “cuteness” many like to associate with woodwork done by a female. She wants her work to be separate from the label of feminine or masculine. Thus, she strives to remove the sentimentality traditionally attached to wood, “which is, you know, in the land of the elves or in a storybook for children,” she says.
“I feel the fact that I’m a woman has influenced the look of my work,” she says. “But I dread the thought of it being thought of as work that could only belong to a woman, that it doesn’t have the strength of what was usually thought of as the men’s work.”
So instead of carefully protecting the cedar and creating a smoothly polished final product, von Rydingsvard gives her work a rough look; she even rubs the sculptures with graphite to roughen them up.
Von Rydingsvard’s work can currently be seen at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England, the Storm King Art Center in New York, the North Carolina Museum of Art in North Carolina, and the Yale University Art Gallery in Connecticut. Her two newest exhibitions are at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City and the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia.