In Your Midst

A CONVERSATION WITH ULRICH HENN

March 2003

In This Issue:
A whimsical statuette by Ulrich Henn shows an acrobat, balancing himself on one hand while twirling hoops around his wrist and ankles. The title of the work? The Life of an Artist. It expresses the excitement, and the danger, of life as an artist. “You are never safe,” says Henn. “You never get a secure income.”

Henn has experienced both the risks and the limitless possibilities of the artist’s life. Growing up he was never what one might call artistic. He took only one art class as a boy, and he now admits that he often turned in his brother’s drawings! But everything changed with the Second World War. When the war ended, Henn was a prisoner of war in an American prison camp outside Naples. “We were not allowed to write, so I did not even know if my mother was still alive. I was only twenty years old. I was homesick. It was Christmastime. There was no Christmas tree.” Yearning for something to remind him of home and the holiday, Henn began to carve a Christmas crib. His materials were simple—old ammunition boxes and razor blades. “That was the first thing that brought me together with art,” Henn says. “It was not very good, but it was good for celebrating Christmas!”


Ulrich Henn pictured in front of the Ceremonial Bronze Doors of St. James

After 17 months in prison camp, during which time his only book was the Bible, Henn returned to Germany with the practical idea of studying chemistry. But there was no money to go to the university. Then a sculptor happened to look at some of the pieces Henn had created in prison camp, saw great promise, and gave him a set of tools. Henn got a job in the workshop of a wood carver, creating copies of works by old masters like Riemenschneider. The idea of sculpting as a career gradually seemed more and more possible. No one in Henn’s family had ever been an artist (they all belonged to the “honorable professions”); he had no academic training; and the world around him seemed to have fallen apart. But “I was young and carefree,” Henn says, “carefree enough to marry” and open his own studio.

Having no formal training as an artist made things difficult. But the timing was right. Many of Germany’s churches had been severely damaged during the war. Small commissions began to come in—commissions to replace fingers and hands on ancient statues, or to create ornaments for the bells which were being recast all over Germany (many of the bronze bells in the country had been melted down to supply metal for weapons).


Henn’s maquette of the Cathedral’s tabernacle. This small scale model stands about 10” high.

And in time, commissions began to come in for works of his own. A fiercely independent artist, Henn respects his colleagues (“I have only good colleagues,” he says, smiling) but avoids visiting galleries or following the contemporary art scene. He wants to maintain “his own handwriting,” uninfluenced by trends or fads. “I just want to be a happy singuleine,” he says—the German word is difficult to translate; it means “a little one-of-a-kind.”

Just as his career as a sculptor in wood was beginning to flower—and as his fourth child was on the way—there was a severe setback. In an accident Henn badly injured his left hand, severing the tendons. He was told he could not sculpt in wood or stone for two years. It seemed like the end.


The tabernacle modeled in red wax.

In fact, it was the beginning. Since he couldn’t sculpt in wood, Henn began to work in wax, the malleable substance with which the bronze casting process begins. Looking back, he sees God at work in his life at that time: “Any cut, in your life, not only in your hand,” Henn says, “can work out, possibly much better than you ever thought.”

What had seemed catastrophic proved to be another major turning-point in his career, for it was in bronze that Henn truly found his “handwriting.” World famous sculptor Henry Moore described Henn’s work as “melody” in bronze. The word aptly suggests the paradoxical lightness, even transparency, of many of Henn’s works. “The greatest pleasure for me is to try to take the heaviness out of the material,” Henn says. “Sometimes the spaces between speak more than the metal around.” Henn’s sculptures, which include fountains, crucifixes, chandeliers, and some 30 sets of bronze doors, can be found all over Germany. His only work in this country, aside from the doors and tabernacle of St. James, are the great bronze gates of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.


An artisan cuts St. James’ ceremonial bronze doors into pieces for casting. The tabernacle was cast in 16 separate pieces.

When he receives a commission, Henn usually has a very clear idea of what he wants to do. His decisions are based both on the function of the work and on the place where the work will end up. “A door,” for example, “is always a point of decision. You can go in or you can stay out. The door should tell what you will find inside.” A tabernacle extends an invitation of a different kind. “This for me is the place where people fall on their knees, to give their reverence to Christ.” Father Ryan suggested the story of the burning bush from Exodus, where Moses, going to investigate the wonder of the bush burning yet not consumed, found himself in the presence of the living God. Henn agreed, and found that the subject was also suited to the space in the cathedral—a very high, narrow room which presented some distinct challenges.


In the foundry, molten bronze (2100° F) is poured into the mold.

Henn’s first step was to create a maquette, a small, 1:10 model of the sculpture. He rarely does sketches on paper—“I need the third dimension”—instead, his studies are done in wax. “Many little figures go back to the wax-pot” before the sculptor is satisfied with the model. For the Cathedral’s new tabernacle, the proportions of the work were so important that Henn flew back to Seattle in September 2001 to look at the Chapel again. By projecting slide images of the maquette on the wall of the Chapel, he was able, with Father Ryan and architect Stephen Lee, to get a very accurate sense of what the proportions of the final work would need to be.

Back in his studio in Germany, Henn began work on the full-size tabernacle, again in wax. Because of the complexity of the work, it could not be cast in one piece—the original wax had to be cut into 16 sections, which were individually cast and then welded back together. For the artist, “that’s the awful part, when they come to cut it. To

The tabernacle is maneuvered into its place in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
put the pieces back together was the most difficult thing, because it needed to be transparent, in balance.”

The most time-consuming stage came after the casting and welding were completed. Henn calls it “overworking”—the process of bringing the textures of the entire work to their finished state. The flames of the Cathedral’s tabernacle were burnished to the highest possible polish, work Henn did entirely by hand.

“It’s always a hard thing to say, now it’s ready,” Henn says. “It’s hard knowing you can’t change anything anymore—the decisions you made a long time before are final. Suddenly it’s not yours anymore, it’s a thing on its own. All my ‘children’ are far away.”

Ulrich Henn does not like interviews. “Artists make, they don’t talk,” he says, quoting Goethe. He would rather concentrate on the challenges of his next project, the 14 Stations of the Cross for the great Cathedral of Mainz in Germany. “New things, new possibilities, new problems. It keeps me young.”

Corinna Laughlin is the Assistant for Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.


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