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Friday, May 10, 2013

Horse trainer turned sculptor achieves international acclaim for larger-than-life work


By Roger Auge II
KyForward correspondent

Douwe Blumberg stands between two 8-foot-tall clay sculptures – a Korean War era African-American sailor and a World War I Army infantryman. Five more loom in the corners, waiting their turn under the sculptor’s tools.

In other parts of northern Pendleton County, the Blumberg location might be called a barn, but here, on this sunny, breezy ridge top, the building comprises Blumberg’s burgeoning sculpture studio.

Each soldier is meticulously researched and sculpted. The summer of 2014 will see 18 of these monumentally scaled bronze figures become the new multimillion dollar Las Vegas Veteran’s Memorial, thhe first veteran’s memorial in the city of Las Vegas. Of the 18, three are already in production at a foundry near Los Angeles.

Blumberg’s 30-by-50-foot studio is white on the outside, has a 12-foot ceiling in the work area and a two-car-wide garage door at its south end. This is Blumberg’s workshop, his personally designed artist’s studio.

That’s correct.

On a ridge top at the north end of quiet Pendleton County not far west of what remains of DeMossville, the renowned sculptor has unobtrusively set up shop and is busily creating sculptures and monuments for international locales.

And quite an operation it is.

On this sunny spring afternoon, Blumberg is welding bronze stools for a Los Angeles designer, while just outside a shimmering silver life-sized stainless steel tree awaits delivery to the city of Summit, N.J. Off to the side is a pile of abstract aluminum gulls which will eventually form an installation on a lake in Orlando, Fla. Blumberg wears a dark green t-shirt, jeans and work boots that bear testimony to the physicality of his profession. He runs a hand through dark tousled hair. A large volume titled Human Anatomy for Artists rests on the fourth rung of a six-foot step ladder. Smells of cut grass, metal welding and wax melting permeate the studio.

The soldiers, which represent different wars and different battles possess a grandeur, an elegance and a reality that evokes a tributary air, not something artificial or staged. There’s a Native American with sharp features, a World War II soldier, a gaunt Civil War infantryman, a fighter pilot exuding confidence and pride, a Korean War African American sailor holding an artillery shell in muscled arms. You’ve seen each of these men before. Called upon at a time in their lives to execute a painfully unpleasant duty, they seem to be carrying out the calling with dignity and dedication. The feelings an observer gets from the soldiers reflect depth of thought and depth of respect.

Blumberg studies people, studies pop culture, studies history and studies life. He creates monuments around the world, sculpts fine-art furniture and for fun loves to build just about anything from archery equipment to his own two-seater airplane. However, his journey to the world of fine art and north Pendleton was a roundabout one.

A successful trainer of show horses for 18 years in Southern California, where he was born and reared, Blumberg had wealthy, but not massively rich clients and, as a result, good but not great horses. Horse training barely paid the bills, was hard on the body and was a shrinking industry on the West Coast. While passionately in love with training horses, he was also ardent about creating sculpture.

“I’d thought about becoming a sculptor,” said Blumberg. “I enjoyed training horses, and I was passionate about it, but I’d always loved art. It was a big conflict between the two passions.”

“So one day, there I was, sitting on a horse in Malibu, actually overlooking the Pacific,” he says, pausing before adding, “and this client walks up and says he thought I should be doing my art instead of training horses. That same day, in a completely unrelated conversation, my business manager basically said the same thing. She told me we had received a check for $600 for training and another for $6,000 for a sculpture. The coincidence and irony pretty well made the decision I had been wrestling with for some time.”

Evidently he was meant to be an artist, as he has met with incredible success during his relatively new career. One of his pieces graces the hallowed land at Ground Zero in New York City, another at William Shatner’s California home, one more at the royal residence in Dubai and many others at high profile locations.

Nearly 12 years after leaving show horses behind, Blumberg is on the way to becoming a major American sculptor.

He and his wife, Marci (formerly of Edgewood and Villa Madonna Academy), have been married for eight years and work together full-time. She does the research and development, marketing and management of the growing sculpture business.

Both divorced, they dated for over three years before he popped the question. “It was all me,” Blumberg said, explaining why marrying Marci took him so long. “After the way my first marriage ended badly, I was truly afraid and understandably gun-shy.”

While both are serious believers in marriage, they were both nervous about jumping in again. But they did, both bringing two daughters along for the ride ranging in ages from 26 to 14.

They faced high hurdles in the beginning of their marriage but with commitment, a willingness to change and some hard work, the arrangement seems to be working well.

On a chilly gray morning last fall, he answered questions while watching Marci and two of the girls make cookies, while caring for several dogs and cats, and while answering questions about Blumberg’s 91-year-old mother who lives with them. The multi-tasking was demonstration of how smoothly this marriage now works. If a fact in his story needs confirmation, he consults Marci. If a dog demands attention, satisfaction comes from an extended hand or a gentle call of a name. The daughters work quietly, laughing at the creative cookie process and the steady progress. A nurse from a care service reports on the elderly Mrs. Blumberg’s activities through the day.

The Blumberg family now lives in an elegantly simple Shaker house of their design on 10 acres not far from Demossville and “20 minutes from anywhere.” From French doors, they can overlook a meandering valley dividing a series of folded hills and ridges. Gray clouds roll overhead and crows flit from location to location. In the kitchen area, food preparation takes place on an island for which Blumberg sculpted the legs and poured the concrete top. Overhead hangs a sculpted bronze pot rack with owls standing on tree branches and pots and pans hung like ornaments. The sculptor’s bronze furniture fills the home and sits atop a floor made of old wood from Washington State.

“We like being where we are,” he said. “We like going to Cincinnati, I’ve always enjoyed the ‘Yankee’ feel of it. Southern California is so homogenized by comparison. After 38 years in L.A., I wanted to live in a rural, beautiful and peaceful place… and this is peaceful,” he said, surveying the setting with his right hand.

Growing up in L.A., Blumberg was heavily influenced by his father and mother, both amateur artists of more than passing talent and a surrogate father-figure who was a world-class woodcarver, personal tutor and mentor for decades. In addition, Blumberg attended art school, apprenticed at foundries and won many awards. Art, however, beckoned only as a hobby not as a career.

One day, a Wisconsin sculptor named Nancy Rieke showed up to complete a horse-related commission for one of Blumberg’s clients at his barn.

“I had a chance to watch her work and I was totally captivated. It was wonderful to watch the piece simply grow and come alive.”

With that motivation and her experience a phone call away, Blumberg sculpted two equine pieces and displayed them at a horseman’s convention in Southern California. Just for fun.

“Over one weekend, I took over $10,000 in orders,” Blumberg said with surprise. “After that I began taking commissions and sculpting my own pieces and gradually the business grew, though it was always a sideline to training, just something I did late at night after I had worked 20 horses all day.”

He reflects the humble, kicked-back attitude of a person comfortable in his own skin. And then, back to welding.

From Blumberg’s website is a list of recent major pieces: A large piece for the William Shatner residence in L.A., the Las Vegas Veterans Memorial (a three-year project comprising 18 large figures), the Americas’ Response Special Operations Monument to be placed by Ground Zero in New York City, a 17-foot tall flock of birds for the Intertex corporation of Los Angeles, a life-size herd of wild horses for the city of Aurora, Colo., a large outdoor musical piece for the performing arts center in Lebanon, Ky., the new entryway monument for the Vance Brand Airport in Longmont, Colo., and three pieces for the royal residence in Dubai. Within the last 18 months alone, he has installed five large outdoor pieces for cities across the country. 

And, as they say, the horse has only just left the starting gate.

See More of Blumberg’s Work


Roger Auge II is a former reporter with The Kentucky Post and now a freelance writer and instructor at Gateway Community and Technical College.

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