RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Artist Ursula Von Rydingsvard works in a really big medium. The 70-year-old makes huge sculptures out of red cedar. She's one of the few women working in wood on such a scale. Her pieces are in the permanent collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Her work is also part of a new show at Manhattan's Museum of Arts and Design. It's called "Against the Grain," and as Karen Michel reports, that could just as well describe the sculptor's life and career.
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Ursula Von Rydingsvard wants to break your sentimental attachment to wood.
URSULA VON RYDINGSVARD: Which is, you know, in the land of the elves or in a storybook for children. I don't want the cuteness associated with wood or even the nostalgia.
MICHEL: She seems to have no reverence for the medium. Nostalgia is another matter. She was born 70 years ago in Germany and recounts in vivid detail the accounts of her Polish mother and Ukrainian father. He'd been conscripted to work on a German farm during the war, and after a couple of years sent for his wife.
VON RYDINGSVARD: Trains were burning and she had three little children - the youngest of which was two and a half, three. Two of them almost died on the way.
MICHEL: When the war was over, her dad didn't want his kids to grow up semi-literate on a farm, so the whole family embarked on an arduous journey that lasted several years.
VON RYDINGSVARD: We went through something like nine displaced persons camps for Polish people. We couldn't go back to Poland. It was communist. So, we kept going from one camp to another.
MICHEL: Finally, they were allowed to go to America, to a small town in Connecticut.
VON RYDINGSVARD: I'm not a Pole but identify myself as a Pole. I feel like an outsider here in the United States still, if one can believe it. I was never in Poland until I got be an adult. So, my idea of what was Polish is totally a fantasy fabricated in my head. But it's in my blood. And all that stuff about farming is also in my blood. And I would like to shake it but I can't seem to.
MICHEL: There's something else Ursula Von Rydingsvard can't shake: cedar, the material she's been using for nearly 35 years.
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MICHEL: Using circular saws and chisels she and her assistants carve and chip cedar four-by-fours that she gets shipped from Vancouver. Von Rydingsvard says that unlike other wood, there's virtually no visible grain.
VON RYDINGSVARD: This is neutral. It's like piece of paper. It really says nothing in and of itself. So, it then enables me to really sort of tear it apart and make it do the acrobatics that I need it to do.
MICHEL: She has no use for a beautifully crafted coffee table made from a slice of tree. Von Rydingsvard rubs her cedar sculptures with graphite to further obscure their woodiness. Lowery Stokes Sims is the curator at Manhattan's Museum of Art and Design, where one of Von Rydingsvard's sculptures is now on view.
LOWERY STOKES SIMS: You would expect that somebody who's working in wood and is, like, totally enamored with the grain and the surface and wants to carefully polish it. So, for her to sort of brutally attack it, to sort of literally carve it to a will, just seems to be the opposite of what we expect from somebody working in wood.
MICHEL: As you would expect, Ursula von Rydingsvard's studio is full of wood, towering layers of nibbled cedar. She stands amid them, tall and slender, dressed in black jeans and layers of black tops. One piece touches the ground, sensuously working up and out like a caterpillar out of "Alice in Wonderland." In everything, there are pouches, pockets for hiding, warrens for squirrels and ideas. Spoon- and shovel-like forms with handles of a scale fit for Paul Bunyan hang against a wall. Lowery Stokes Sims says one of the things that distinguishes all of the work is its size.
SIMS: I think that, depending on where you see a particular piece, I think the scale works wonderfully in the outside. On the inside, it does sort of really overtake you to a certain extent. You know, you get a kick out of big things made by women. I mean, there's a kind of grandeur to her vision and ambition to her work, which I think is, still in 2013, unexpected on the part of a woman.
VON RYDINGSVARD: I definitely feel like a woman. I feel the fact that I'm a woman has influenced the look of my work.
MICHEL: Ursula von Rydingsvard.
VON RYDINGSVARD: But dread the thought of it being thought of as work that could only belong to a woman, that it doesn't have the strength us what was usually thought of as men's work.
MICHEL: Von Rydingsvard has to be strong to do what she does, not only to muscle around big chunks of wood, but also because after all these years, she's become allergic to the cedar. She has to wear a 15-pound suit with air pumped into it for as many as eight hours a day. But she won't give up cedar and she won't give up her ties to her past either. On one of her trips to Poland, Von Rydingsvard collected songs, like this one:
VON RYDINGSVARD: (Singing in foreign language)
MICHEL: In the song, a young man rejects an older relative meddling in his choice of a mate, much as Von Rydingsvard has rejected the notion that she adjust the scale and ambition of her work. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.