GoLocalProv | A studio visit with sculptor John Udvardy

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Wednesday, April 27, 2022

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PHOTO: Michael Rose

Visiting an artist’s studio is a special experience. The place where a creator makes his art is often a space where he works alone. In a series of nondescript commercial buildings on a quiet street in Warren, Rhode Island, sculptor and retired RISD professor John Udvardy engages in largely unseen works that result in finely orchestrated found object sculptures. A recent visit with Udvardy was an eye-opening journey through the artist’s work and into his personal story.

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Born in humble circumstances in Ohio, Udvardy did not come from a family of artists or collectors. Asked about the roots of his artistic inclinations, he remembers collecting glass bottles as a child and says he coveted them for their shapes. This love of form remains with the artist today and is present in everything he creates. Throughout his studio, carefully selected objects are ubiquitous. Found in garage sales and on street corners, these recycled products are his medium.

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PHOTO: Michael Rose

Udvardy did not start his career as a sculptor. His first artistic inspirations were found on the covers of The Saturday Night Post, which was renowned for its illustrations by the likes of Norman Rockwell. Udvardy copied images from the popular magazine to form his hand. Finding his way to the Cleveland Institute of Art, he studied painting and met his wife, Lyn. He enrolled in the MFA program at Yale, where some of the giants of American art were professors. James Rosenquist and Richard Diebenkorn were two of the bold names teaching when Udvardy was a student. Alongside him in the classrooms were other notable 20th century artists like Richard Serra and Chuck Close.

While some of his fellow Yalies traveled to New York after graduation, Udvardy committed to a position in Brown University’s art department. This shocked his contemporaries, who suggested in less than uncertain terms that Providence was a city below the caliber of serious artists. For young Udvardy, however, the position at Brown offered financial security that would elude his counterparts in the early years of their careers.

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PHOTO: Michael Rose

What started at Brown turned into a long-term career at RISD, where he taught for decades. Rhode Island is where he raised his family, taught generations of students, and produced incredible work. For many years he maintained a studio on Eddy Street in the capital, before it was demolished to make way for the motorway relocation which reshaped the jewelery district. When he lost his Providence studio, he decamped to Warren. There, his artmaking facilities are spread across three discreet buildings that once housed businesses in the automotive and fishing industries.

Like many artists, Udvardy is somewhat cautious about his creative space. He jokes about keeping the onlookers away who accidentally showed up on his doorstep while visiting local open studios. For this sculptor, his studio is a private and productive workspace. As you walk through the buildings, the myriad of inspirations that inspire Udvardy’s artistic creation becomes apparent.

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PHOTO: Michael Rose

On the shelves of the workshop, one can notice things ranging from African sculpture to arrowheads in shadow boxes. Pottery and ceramics line the shelves in front of the windows while artwork from an earlier era in Udvardy’s career is stacked against the wall. Udvardy opens the door to a small powder room, the walls of which are covered with an array of heart-shaped trinkets he has collected nearby and from his various travels.

In addition to Scandinavia, Spain, and other places across Europe, Udvardy spent time in North Africa and returned to the American Southwest several times. Wherever he goes, whether on the streets or across the country, he is constantly on the lookout for new items to add to his creative menagerie.

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PHOTO: Michael Rose

The tables in his studio are filled with materials that will eventually become part of a work of art. On the floor, a dozen vintage irons are neatly stacked, on another surface lie orbs of various shapes, sizes, colors and textures. Ironwork, copper guttering and wooden frames are spotted around every corner. Large completed sculptures are wrapped in plastic and ready for display, while work in progress sits idle nearby awaiting finishing touches. Tools of all kinds are scattered throughout the space, seated by a busy craftsman. While his workspace is overflowing with materials, Udvardy’s sculptures are uncluttered and meditative.

Udvardy’s work has been shown in more places than can be listed here. His sculptures have found their way from his vast studio into private and public collections, including those of renowned museums. When asked what it means to see sculptures move from his studio in Warren to significant new homes, Udvardy pondered for a moment before simply saying, “It feels good!”

Learn more about John Udvardy at www.johnudvardy.com.

Michael Rose is a multi-talented fine arts professional based in southern New England. Since 2014, he has been the gallery director of the historic Providence Art Club, one of the nation’s oldest arts organizations. In his current freelance work, he advises collectors and artists, provides appraisal services, teaches and carries out curatorial projects.

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