Two graduate studio art students receive annual UMLAUF Prize

Matt Robertson

Visitors exploring Austin’s UMLAUF Sculpture Garden this year can expect to find a giant banana fountain and a BDSM angel courtesy of UT studio art graduate students and UMLAUF Prize winners Gracelee Lawrence and Ryan Hawk. 

The UMLAUF Prize honors outstanding UT graduate studio art students for their work with a cash award and an exhibition. The award usually goes to a single individual, but for the first time in 10 years, two artists received the honor. Lawrence and Hawk will display their work at the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden & Museum starting Thursday at 6 p.m. 

“[Lawrence and Hawk] were two outliers that were very strong but very different, almost yin and yang,“ UMLAUF juror Suzanne Booth said. “It was decided the institution could support two of these artists. So, that was the decision, and I was happy about that because I couldn’t decide between the two.” 

The UMLAUF sculpture garden, located in Austin, showcases the work of American sculptor Charles Umlauf, who specialized in bronze sculptures. Lawrence, the artist behind the banana fountain piece, said her and Hawk’s reactions to existing Umlauf sculptures of men and women served as inspiration. 

“We were able to think about the work we were doing and the connections in it, and that helped us to continue pushing each other along the way in both supporting and being critical,” Lawrence said. “We both shifted our gears toward the sculptures and reacted to Umlauf’s work in similar yet different ways.”

For Lawrence, the relationships between the figures stood out to her. One of UMLAUF’s sculptures named “The Kiss” shows a man embracing a woman. Lawrence said she and Umlauf might have opposing perspectives, and she struggled with what she sees as his objectification of women.

“I’m not trying to pose an answer but instead question what is happening in there,” Lawrence said. “‘The Kiss’ struck me as this really specific power dynamic that I was not particularly fond of. It’s this push and pull for me. It’s this beautiful space, yet looking at some of the ways bodies are portrayed can be challenging.”

While Hawk said he agreed that many of the women figures weren’t portrayed positively, he said he intended his work to be a response to the heteronormative perspective of Umlauf’s work.

“There are a lot of nude females in classically objectified poses, and I took issue with that,” Hawk said. “I wonder how he got away with doing that in the ’50s through ’90s, when feminism took sprout. When Umlauf sculpted a male, it was always a god or angel.”

Hawk said he found the depictions difficult to identify with. His goal with his sculpture of an angel is to get viewers to think about what makes someone an ideal man.

“I wanted to really challenge the way [Umlauf] idolized the male body and masculinity,” Hawk said. “It’s really about challenging the presumptions and representations of masculinity. I want to show there can be empowerment in passivity or submissiveness. I believe by doing that, it will also alleviate femininity from being seen as only passive.”

Booth said the way the artists’ work interacts in the traditional space is compelling because it challenges the viewer.

“They’re almost like counterparts,” Booth said. “They’re juxtaposed within the context of UMLAUF, which is a very traditional sculpture garden, and my hope is that it will be compelling and interesting to the viewer and that it will challenge them as I think good art should.”