ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
THE WORLD TAKES NOTE OF ABSTRACT SCULPTOR UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA’S JOHANN EYFELLS, WHO TURNS MOLTEN METAL INTO ART, IS SHOWING HIS WORK AT A PRESTIGIOUS EXHIBITION IN VENICE.
By Mark Vosburgh of The Orlando Sentinel Staff
Sunday, September 12, 1993
Long ago, in a faraway land of icy peaks and a lava desert, a boy wondered why his father was content to paint landscapes and sell his art for modest sums. ”Is it wrong,” the artist asked his son, ”to want to make the world more beautiful?” Years later, in a place warm and lush, the son left a profitable profession for the love of molding molten metal into abstractions as cold and coarse as his homeland. To his dying day, the painter wondered why. ”He resented in certain ways my so-called abstract tendencies,” the sculptor said of his father. ”He was never quite sure I had embarked on the right road as an artist.” This summer the world took note of Johann Eyfells, avant-garde sculptor, University of Central Florida art professor, onetime architect and the son of an Icelandic painter.
Invited by the government of Iceland to represent his island birthplace, Eyfells is exhibiting samples of his work at the 1993 Biennale art show in Venice, Italy. Running from June 13 to Oct. 10, the show features artists from 49 nations, including the United States. Marcia Vetrocq, a University of New Orleans fine arts professor and Biennale patron, likens the show to Olympic events. ”For a given artist to be invited to represent his country is a great honor and a considerable opportunity,” said Vetrocq, who critiqued this year’s show for Art in America magazine. Though unfamiliar with Eyfells’ work, Vetrocq said artists representing small nations may deserve more consideration than they get at the Biennale. ”It’s like the Olympics in the sense that Guam may have a luge team, but it’s not likely to get the attention,” she said. ”Iceland may fall into that category.”
For Eyfells, the international recognition is perhaps his crowning achievement as an artist, which he contends he has been for all of his 70 years.”It never occurred to me I would become an artist,” Eyfells said during a interview last week at his home near Oviedo after returning from the Biennale. ”I always imagined that I was an artist.” At UCF, Eyfells’ reputation as both sculptor and teacher was established long ago. Maude Wahlman, a UCF art professor and former chairwoman of the art department, described her colleague as one of the people she admires most in the world. ”He is an internationally recognized artist and has been for many years,” Wahlman said. “I think the awareness of how great his reputation is is just slow in coming to Central Florida.” Rob Reedy, current chairman of the art department, said Eyfells’ 24 years in UCF classrooms also have left a lasting impression on the art world. ”His students continually come back or call and ask how Johann is doing,” Reedy said. ”And they always mention that their experience with him in the classroom affected them in a very positive way ever since.”
When the artist in Johann Eyfells first emerged at age 18, he was wearing boxing gloves. In the ring, he combined abstract tendencies with the speed of a middleweight to produce what he considered to be his first artistic creations – four knockouts. ”I think boxing helped me realize, in a reassuring way, that I had an ability to create,” he said. ”I never felt I was conforming to the coaches’ suggestions. I always felt I was alone and free to do what I wanted.” But he gave up boxing for a knockout named Kristin Halldorsdottir. An Icelandic model and dress designer, Halldorsdottir considered fighting to be uncivilized. They married in 1949, and remain together today.
Eyfells’ art took a new and lasting form – a granite rendering of a bear – at age 22, when he was studying business administration at the University of California at Berkeley. Iceland typically sent its young men to the European continent to study. But with Europe ravaged by war in 1946, Eyfells’ father sent his two sons to the United States.
An artist at heart, Johann Eyfells arrived at Berkeley with instructions from his father to choose an academic field that would prepare him for business. As a compromise, he eventually abandoned the study of business administration, and in 1953 earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Florida. Years later, he also gave up the lucrative life of a draftsman and architect to avoid having to tailor his creations to the commercial whims of customers. ”There were too many compromises,” he said. ”Too many limitations.”
After earning a master’s degree in fine arts from UF in 1964, Eyfells took up teaching in Iceland and Florida to support his life as a sculptor. His wife has given up modeling and designing in order to paint. Eyfells sells his art, but not for the kind of prices that would permit him to do nothing but create. ”I hate to talk about prices,” he said. ”It is so difficult to be realistic.” The hair that laps over his shirt collar is graying, but the body remains as lean as that of a middleweight and the hands are meaty reminders of an artistry in the ring. He otherwise fits the stereotypical image of a professor in his dark blue shirt, even darker blue tie, slightly rumpled brown slacks and scuffed brown shoes. Sweating over his fiery hot metals, he always wears a necktie. ”What it means,” he said, ”is that the artist doesn’t have to be strange or conspicuous to create.” The point is a subtle one, for he begins creating well before dawn and always by himself.
His studio is his back yard. His back yard is a scrap heap. Aluminum window frames, cushionless deck chairs, scorched railroad ties and a water heater litter the untrimmed lawn. ”The neighbors,” he said, ”do not complain.” Delivered in bulk by scrap dealers and melted in oil-burning furnaces, the junk metal is transformed into mammoth cubes, triangles or spheres that often share the earthy hues and the coarse textures of Iceland’s volcanic landscape. ”People who know my origin invariably imagine lava flows and molten rock have influenced my sculpture, but I doubt that,” he said. ”I have a feeling that if I had been born elsewhere that similar artistic manifestations would have developed.”
Eyfells calls his work ”receptual.” His definitions of the term are nearly as dense as the sculpture that it describes. The sculptor once wrote: ”Receptualism is a neologism that designates a conceptual approach to an art form that is born of an intense and critical interest in the nature of the fragile reality of minimal distance.” Even his wife of 44 years, and his colleagues in art and academic circles, admit that some of Eyfells’ abstract expressions aren’t always easily grasped. ”It is at times quite difficult to follow him,” said UCF art professor Margaret Skoglund. ”Sometimes I feel he is speaking a foreign language. But that is what makes the end result, art, so fascinating.” Said Wahlman, the former art department chairman: ”Because he is a philosopher and coming up with new vocabulary for seeing and thinking about art, you really have to open your mind a lot. ”That’s why he is such a good teacher, because he doesn’t try to make his students be like him. Instead he helps them to find themselves and their unique contributions. That’s the hardest kind of teaching.”
Fifteen years after his father’s death, the graying sculptor paused to wonder whether the Icelandic painter would have been impressed to have seen his son’s abstract tendencies at the 1993 Biennale. ”I think he would have just accepted it,” the sculptor sighed, ”as evidence of a rather disappointing emphasis in the art world.