I introduced you to the ceramic sculptures of Canadian artist, Serge von Engelhardt, in my last blog. I would like to show you more of his work (e.g., photo to the right). But first, I have something to say about another artist, Eugene von Bruenchenhein (American outsider artist, 1910-1983). I am a big fan of von Bruenchenhein’s work, and his wide-ranging experimentation with painting, sculptures and ceramics. He is generally known for his furniture models made of chicken bones (!) and the photographs of his wife, dressed up as a glamour girl. Like so many other outsider artists, von Bruenchenhein worked at odd jobs to support himself and his wife. He dug clay from nearby construction sites to make his ceramic work and fired his creations in his coal-burning kitchen oven. The grey sculpture to the right is one of his pieces.
Von Engelhardt’s intricate and delicate designs remind me of von Bruenchenhein’s, but better. I like to imagine them meeting and comparing notes on firing and glazing techniques. I am pretty sure they would have admired each other’s work, and I’m pretty sure that von Bruenchenhein would have learned a thing or two from von Engelhardt. By comparison, von Bruenchenhein’s clay sculptures look a bit heavy and clumsy. Here are some other examples of von Engelhardt’s beautiful sculptures below:
I was blessed to be contacted by one of Serge von Engelhardt’s daughters. Even better, I had an opportunity to see some of his original porcelain sculptures. They count among the most beautiful creations I have ever seen and I am delighted to introduce him to you.
Like so many other European citizens in the first half of the last century, life for the von Engelhardt family was one of chaos and relocation. They were displaced from Estonia after WWI and sought refuge in Germany. von Engelhardt found employment in a mass-production ceramic factory, where he made models of animals and lamps for sale in gift shops. Because the owner was not able to pay him, he acquired a kiln in lieu of wages. He built a small studio behind his parents’ apartment building from trees that he felled himself. Thus began von Engelhardt’s calling as a ceramic artist.
After WWII, von Engelhardt immigrated to Canada from Germany with his family in 1952. They landed in northern Alberta, where he worked as a farmhand to support his wife and four children. As one of his daughters described to me, life was dire; they built a house from an old pig barn and eked out a basic living.
Moving to Edmonton a few years later improved their lives a bit. von Engelhardt continued to work at odd jobs to support the family and spent the rest of his time in a studio he built in the basement of their house. While in Germany, he had taught himself to make ceramic and porcelain sculptures, and he was finally able to pursue his dream again. Through trial and error he created 400 different glazes for his ceramic bowls and vases and, sadly, no one is able to replicate them today. He sold a few sculptures, but it was difficult to build up interest in his fantasy worlds. As with most original art that is out-of-the-box, he was creating work that appeals to some (us), but not always to the general public. He and his wife followed the children to British Columbia in 1980, and Serge opened another studio to work and sell his sculptures. Although he didn’t really care if people liked his work, he hoped that it would generate some income.
The most spectacular of von Engelhardt’s work is his Atlantis collection, pictured above. The subject of fascination (obsession) for many writers and artists, von Engelhardt sculpted buildings that he imagined on the lost island. He intended them to be illuminated, and they are usually displayed with back-lighting. They are spectacular and beautiful and I wish I had had a chance to see them all together when von Engelhardt was alive.