Exploring Austin’s Creative Side

Sometimes one thing just leads to another. It all started with the Bullock Museum in Austin.

I’m the lucky recipient of occasional e-mails from Texas State Parks. One of those e-mails caught my attention: a curated collection of paintings of various Texas state parks was being held at the Bullock Museum in Austin. It was to celebrate the centennial of the Texas park system. Well, that sounded interesting. But the Bullock Museum is in downtown Austin, somewhere we don’t typically venture with our Ford F350 truck. The parking garage ceiling is too low for us to park in. I talked about it with our daughter Katie and she offered to take us.

At her suggestion, we started the day out at the Kerby Lane restaurant’s original downtown location for a delicious breakfast. Afterward, there was time before the Bullock opened to stroll along the new walkway to the state capitol building. It is lined with sculptures of animals indigenous to Texas, which is where I saw the armadillo that you see at the top.

The Bullock Museum is the history museum for the state of Texas. The exhibit was on the top floor, so I was diverted by all the displays that we saw before we ever got up there. First up was a room of traditional handmade dresses from every state in Mexico. Cal gave it a quick walk-through, but I was fascinated. Look at the hand embroidery on this dress!

There were many other things that he found more interesting, such as the reconstructed hull of the French ship La Belle that went down in the late 1600’s and was found in the sands of Matagorda Bay in 1995. The ruins as they were found were in 600 pieces. Many artifacts are on display that had been on the ship, including things that new settlers might need for a new colony.

And here is this fiftieth anniversary model Ford F100, built in their Dallas plant in 1953:

We finally arrived at the “Art of Texas State Parks” exhibition. To celebrate the state park system’s 100th birthday, the parks and wildlife department commissioned thirty Texan artists to paint scenes from their parks. There is a lot of diversity in ecosystems as well as history in the parks, as we have found. The Texas state parks that we have been to are some of the best that we have seen anywhere. Some of the art was too contemporary for my taste, but I enjoyed seeing many others both from parks that we had been to, and ones we hadn’t. Some parks have been added to my “must see” list based on their picture. For example, this one:

It is of Caprock Canyons State Park up near the panhandle of Texas, south of Amarillo. The artwork is entitled “Caprock Morning Ritual” and the artist is Jeri Salter. There really is a herd of bison in the park.

In the museum is a statue of Sam Houston, one of the founders of the state of Texas. The sculptor was Elisabet Ney, who lived from 1833 to 1907. Being a rare female sculptor, she caught Katie’s attention. Katie discovered that her studio is an Austin museum and they were having an “Elisabet Ney Day” three weeks hence. She wanted to go, and I agreed, so we made a very fun girls’ day out of it.

Elisabet Ney was born in Germany and spent half of her career there. She sculpted German luminaries such as Jakob Grimm, the author of fairy tales, and politicians such as Otto von Bismarck. She was a feminist before her time and a very independent thinker. Despite her parents’ wishes she went to the Sculptor School in Berlin. Later she fell in love with Edmund Montgomery, a philosopher, and they married in secret. Eventually they immigrated and bought a plantation in Texas called Liendo. The quiet farm life was great for her husband’s work but when her monuments and busts of prominent politicians became popular she built a studio in Austin.

I didn’t know any of this when we came to the studio. When we drove up to it I thought it was all grown up in weeds!

It is a villa built after the style of castles in her beloved Germany, complete with tower. The “weeds” are actually beautiful wildflowers flourishing alongside little pathways through the property. The whole place is perfect for an artist who needs to create. You can just imagine what the residents of this brand-new fashionable Hyde park neighborhood thought about this at the time, though. Elizabet sometimes wore pants, wore her curly hair short, and had kept her maiden name, so I’m sure that added to the chatter.

Walking in, my jaw dropped. Here was a bust of someone I recognized immediately. What….? I turned around, and there was a full size statue of the man I recognized. I didn’t know about Elisabet’s German connection yet but I was about to find out from the docent that you can just barely see on the left of Ludwig.

This is none other than King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whom she sculpted in 1870. I’ve learned his story well during the times I have lived and traveled in Germany. Elisabet wrote a letter to him requesting to sculpt him, and he agreed. He put her up in a villa and had a hall set up as a studio for her. She is the only person he ever allowed to make a statue and bust of him. She got tired of the publicity and court gossip that ensued, though, and immigrated shortly thereafter.

Much of her work is displayed in the studio, including busts of important Texans in the day. And there is this:

Elisabet had sculpted the Greek Titan Prometheus while in Germany and had it shipped to her studio. The arm was damaged in transport. It was while she was repairing it here in the studio that she suffered a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 74.

We decided it would be fun to have a tower in one’s studio, or even having a studio to create in. Here’s a picture of Katie climbing the tower steps.

I could not find much about Elisabet Ney on the Internet. Her story is fascinating, and I decided that someone needs to do a historical fiction novel based on her life. It won’t be me, though!

And the “Elisabet Ney Day” that brought us here? It was an Earth Day celebration on the back portion of her property, with mostly activities for children under several picnic canopies.

Our next stop after the Ney museum was the Austin Creative Reuse Center, a non-profit shop that accepts donations of craft supplies for resale. Katie had taken me here several years ago. They shut down during Covid and now have reopened in a larger space. If you have any sort of craft hobby you could probably find items for your projects here at a very low cost. It is a place that is entertaining to poke around in.

A purplish unicorn greeted us when we walked in the door. There was a list of things that had gone into its creation which I can’t remember now, but I’m sure it included toilet paper and paper towel rolls, and Mardi Gras beads.

Also in the photo is a chair made from old tires. Some people are blessed with a creative talent that I don’t have.

You probably don’t come here with a list of things you want since you don’t know what you will find. I purchased four manila envelopes, a mini stapler, a thick wad of scrapbooking paper, some postcards, and a counted cross stitch pattern of a picture of bluebonnets, all for the paltry sum of $5.34.

It was while we were out that Katie mentioned that the “Greater Austin Clay Studio Tour” was happening the next day. We decided to do that, too. Fifteen pottery studios around Austin opened their doors for the weekend. Of course, we did not go to all of them, but Katie was driving all over town just for the few that we did visit.

Some studios were in people’s homes. Sarah German of Sarah German Ceramics had her garage open for sales and she was also demonstrating a technique to make the mugs that you see on this shelf. Other clay creators were here too, and I’m sure they found it interesting to see what their colleagues are doing. I really like her work but there is no place for anything like this in an RV.

Her studio is a separate little building in the back yard and it was open for visitors. It is a contemporary, airy studio perfect for creating. I may not work with clay, but I would love having a space like this.

How does this studio compare to Elizabet Ney’s? Well, both are for creating, but that’s where the similarities stop! This one is probably far better suited to today’s artist.

Many of the studios were in commercial buildings. They offer classes for amateurs like us, which might be fun another time when I’m in town.

I used to buy a lot of pottery – functional stuff for the kitchen, mostly. I had to get rid of a lot of it when we cleared out the house. I bought nothing on this day, but enjoyed looking at everything for sale and at the various studios.

Visiting all of these places got my creative juices flowing. But I don’t think I’ll be painting a picture, sculpting a bust, or throwing clay on a wheel anytime soon!

Next time – Going west – west of Austin, that is