Shaped by a love of the sea
Marine-life sculptor Kent Ullberg acquired his love for the sea growing up on Sweden’s southwest coast, in a village that was home for generations of his kinsmen who went out on the harsh North Sea to fish.
“My family have made their living from the sea probably since Viking times,” says Ullberg, 60, a renowned pioneer in public sculpture — sculpture writ large for public places — with themes from nature. His powerfully realistic renderings of fish and wildlife in their natural habitat have introduced the beauty, grace and power of the natural world to parks, buildings and other urban settings around the world.
An avid big-game fisherman, Ullberg delights in hooking and fighting billfish, sailfish in particular, and in sculpting them. He has spent thousands of hours catching, releasing, watching, filming, measuring, diving on, even dissecting them so he can understand their anatomy from the inside out, and the way they swim, jump and feed.
He has sculpted 36 billfish and created 70 pieces of public sculpture. Most of the sculptures are in bronze, his favorite medium, but he also works in stainless steel, which he pioneered for public monuments.
Among his most famous works is the sculpture in front of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.’s convention center: an oversized 30-foot sailfish depicted in three stages as it cruises along the surface, rears its head, and explodes from the water. Water flowing down the sculpture’s large granite base gives it the appearance of a wave, and in that wave swim a life-size dolphin, school of baitfish, pair of king mackerel, and two Ridley’s sea turtles.
A 24-foot Ullberg swordfish leaps from a fountain at Fort Lauderdale’s International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame. And his sailfish sculptures bring the taste and feel of the sea to urban landscapes in Corpus Christi and Port Aransas, Texas, as well as Cape Town, South Africa. He sculpted a world-record 1,376-pound blue marlin for Port Isabelle near the sand-swept Padre Island (Texas) National Seashore, his home for 27 years.
He also sculpted a penguin for Mystic (Conn.) Aquarium; buffalo scaring up a flock of 58 Canada geese, each with a wing span of 8 feet, in Omaha, Neb.; a grizzly bear in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; an eagle in Princeton, N.J.; whooping crane at the National Wildlife Federation offices in Washington, D.C.; and dinosaurs in Philadelphia’s Logan Square.
But billfish remain Ullberg’s favorite subjects. “I love their incredible power and beauty,” he says.
Ullberg has dived with marine biologist and artist Guy Harvey, who helped popularize fish paintings, to watch sailfish feed. “They remind me of a pack of wolves,” says Ullberg, who has seen white marlin and sailfish decimate a school of anchovies in waters off Baja California. “They herded the baitfish like cowboys.” The voracious billfish rounded up the anchovies into a teeming ball the size of a hotel lobby, then made repeated runs at it using their bills to spear or slash at their quarry. “The bill is a formidable weapon,” he says.
Though he has fished Hawaii and Australia, the waters of Padre Island are home. Ullberg’s 33-foot Penn Yan, Anna — named for his grandmother — is a versatile fishing boat that rides a deep-vee hull with tunnel drives redesigned by his naval architect son, Robert, to protect the props of the twin 454 inboards. The boat can fish offshore and also skim through the barrier island’s backwater flats.
“I like studying birds and fishing the flats,” Ullberg says. “I can run through two feet of water in a 33-foot deep-vee offshore boat.”
Born in Göteborg, Ullberg says he’s been a naturalist since the age of 10, when he fell in love with wildlife artist Roger Tory Peterson’s “Guide to European Birds.” He spent summers in a tiny fishing village on the island of Skafto with his grandparents. As a teen, he spent those summers sketching birds and fishing the North Sea on his uncle Karl-Axel’s 90-foot commercial schooner. Drafted into the military, he joined Sweden’s Marine SEAL unit so he could pursue his interest in the sea and marine life. After 15 months of military service, he worked in the SwedishNaturalHistoryMuseum learning a trade as a taxidermist, which gave him chances to perform dissections and learn about fish and animal anatomy. He worked at the museum during the day and studied art in the evenings.
“I went to art school in the ’60s when realism wasn’t allowed,” he says. “It was art for art’s sake back then.” Most of his early commissioned work was abstract, except for one job from a woman who asked him to sculpt her beloved bulldog, which had just died.
“When I came out of art school, you couldn’t make a living as a realistic artist,” he says. “No one would commission nature, let alone a fish.”
In 1967 he graduatedfrom taxidermist at the Swedish museum to curator of Botswana’s natural history museum, which firmly set his commitment to wildlife as a theme of his art. “From then on I decided to dedicate my life and my work to speaking about nature,” he says.
For seven years, Ullberg hunted lions, elephants and other animals for the African museum, performing the taxidermy to transform carcasses into exhibits and sculpting other African wildlife for museum displays. “It was a boyhood dream come true. I was over-read on Hemingway,” he says.
In Botswana, Ullberg helped staff from the Denver Museum of Natural History hunt game for a new African display at their museum, and in 1974 came to the United States to take charge of designing the exhibits there. A year or so later, he was living on Padre Island and working as an independent sculptor. Ullberg says he had longed to return to the sea, and Padre Island and its waters offered him a vast stage for observing birds, fish and other wildlife as subjects for his sculpture.
As a sculptor, no creature is outside his purview. In addition to billfish, Ullberg has sculpted tarpon, tuna, dolphin, whales, redfish, pelicans, manatees, great blue herons, ducks, owls, wolves, deer, elk, puma … and people: a blind Parisian fiddler, a Mexican dancer, his grandson Seaton, and pioneers near death at Donner Pass, Calif., fending off the cold during their last hours.
Ullberg maintains his artistic studio on Padre Island and a production studio in Loveland, Colo., where he fabricates his sculptures (visit www.kentullberg.com). He prefers to work in bronze, although some of his sculptures are in stainless steel. “Bronze is one of the most permanent materials in the world,” he says. “The Greeks knew this. Some early Greek sculptures 2,000 years old have survived in seawater and are still in good shape.”
The process of creating a sculpture is complex. Ullberg sculpts in clay, then makes a rubber mold of the clay original and fashions a plaster of Paris jacket around the rubber to stiffen it. He disassembles the mold and removes the clay, then reassembles the mold and injects melted wax into it to form a thin, even wax coating on the inside surface of the rubber. This wax casting replicates exactly the original clay sculpture. He then removes the mold, hand-finishes the wax casting, and dips the wax into a liquid ceramic that forms a shell inside and out. He fires the ceramic, hardening it and melting the wax, which pours out and leaves a void between the two shells. Then he takes the ceramic mold to the foundry to pour the molten bronze into the void. The last step is removing the outside ceramic shell and finishing the bronze casting.
“It’s the lost wax method,” Ullberg says. “It reproduces every detail.”
One of the founders of the Coastal Conservation Association, a Texas-based group that advocates for better fisheries management, has helped raise millions of dollars for the group through sales of Ullberg’s sculptures.
Ullberg says renewed appreciation around the world for nature and the environment has opened the door for him to pursue his life’s interest. “I love the sea. I love the creatures of the sea,” he says. “As an artist, you sculpt what you love.”