Portrait of the Artist

Jóhann Eyfells

Seminole magazine recently spoke with sculptor Jóhann Eyfells about his many years as an artist in central Florida. This is the first in the Portrait of the Artist series, which will spotlight key people on the local arts scene.

by Bill Ernst
photos by
Lorraine Benini

The long and illustrious career of Jóhann Eyfells took root in central Florida more than 35 years ago.  He joined the Fine Arts faculty of the University of Central Florida (then Florida Technological University) in 1969 as a professor of sculpture. UCF was Eyfell’s teaching home until his retirement in 1999. He has also been a driving force and a source of encouragement and inspiration to a generation of younger artists who hope to emulate his career.

A world-class artist and an Iceland native, Eyfells represented Iceland at the 1993 Venice Biennial (the “Olympics” of the art world); the United Nations’ World Artists at the Millennium exhibit included his work; and in 2001 was featured in a show on Icelandic artists at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC.

Despite his move last January from his six-acre Tuskawilla-area home – whose yard featured many of his sculptures and served as an area landmark – to Fredericksburg, Texas, Eyfells is known to many in central Florida as the “Grandfather of Sculpture.” He is still a strong supporter of the central Florida arts community, and will serve as an elder statesman of sorts, promoting the area and his work as he moves between Fredericksburg and Oviedo. He continues to oversee the production of his works at the American Bronze Foundry in Sanford, and is being represented by the Millenia Gallery in Orlando.         

The Great Move

One hundred and seventy tons is a lot to move. Just ask Johann Eyfells. He recently moved 170 tons of his sculpture from his Tuskawilla home to his new 10-acre ranch in the Texas hill country. After buying the ranch site unseen, Eyfells began the enormous task of moving his life’s work to its new home. The ranch consists of a house, a guest house, and nine out-buildings ranging from large storage sheds to a huge barn. The Great Move, as he calls it, was impressive requiring eight semi’s and flatbeds, a 94’ crane, and several forklifts. Battling steady rain for two days, the 81-year old Eyfells arrived in Texas with his belongings, his art, a black eye and two broken ribs. He got the black eye when an Orlando Sentinel reporter, there to do an interview, startled him. When Eyfells looked up, he banged into a brace above his head. The broken ribs were the result of crating those large sculptures.

The massive shipment was planned and conducted under the direction of Leif Kristjansson of IS Exposition Services. Kristjansson is also president of the Icelandic Association of Florida – Eyfells’ Icelandic connections at work. Even though it’s been nearly 50 years since he lived in his homeland, he hasn’t forgotten those formative years. Today, some say they see Icelandic lava in his work, or that the natural forces that are so much a part of the Icelandic landscape are evidenced in it. Eyfells says he doesn’t mind that, but he prefers to say that he is influenced by universal forces, not just Icelandic ones.

In much the same way, his connection to central Florida, where he created most of his major works and will always be associated with his art, is a strong one. This area, very much part of his life, holds a special place in his heart.

Of Art and Life

Eyfells was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1923. In 1949, he married Kristin Halldorsdottir, a former model and dress designer, in Berkeley Hills, California.

Eyfells earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1953 and a master’s in fine art in 1964. As he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1987, if the couple had never met, she might have spent her life in Iceland, and he might still be an architect, working for a large firm on Long Island, NY. But they did meet, and came to Florida in 1949, where Kristin earned degrees in psychology and fine art at the University of Florida.

The Eyfells spent their lives pursuing their individual art, working side by side throughout their careers.

Kristin’s work is in many important collections around the world, including a portrait of Anwar Sadat at the Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt, two portraits of former President Jimmy Carter at the Carter Foundation in Atlanta, and portraits of George Bush, Sr., and Barbara Bush on display in the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas. There is also the prospect of her portraits of Bill and Hillary being acquired by the Clinton Library in Little Rock.

In 1999, Kristin suffered a series of strokes. Although she couldn’t get around as she once did, they were still able to continue their intellectual lives. While the subject of the move to Texas and the Sculpture Ranch did come up the year before Kristin died, she was unable to participate with any enthusiasm due to her condition. She die in July 2002, and so the move to Texas was his own. Among his thoughts: There’s no reason life shouldn’t begin at 80 ….Leaving is a new lease on life…New space, new possibilities. Today Eyfells continues to work, and promotes Kristin’s art as well as his own.

And Eyfells has friends in Texas – from Florida. His friend of more than 20 years, painter/sculptor Benini (who goes by his last name only) and his wife Lorraine Benini, who founded the Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch there, live just 20 miles away. The Beninis had moved from Lake Harney in Seminole County in 1999 to realize their dream of an artistic oasis in the Texas hill country: Situated on 140 acres of Mediterranean-like terrain, their Sculpture Ranch houses and promotes the large-scale, contemporary sculptures of more than 30 national and international artists. Eyfells feels very much at home. 

Local ties

Eyfells was in town recently to meet with Robert Lombard of the Millenia Gallery. The gallery, which represents him on an ongoing basis, will feather as many as ten of his “projects,’ as Eyfells calls them, including the Original in Intensive Care and Seven Spare Parts, three “Receptualist” cubes (see below), other pieces of sculpture, and drawings. “Receptualism will take off through the gallery,” he says.

He has praise for the gallery itself. “The Millenia Gallery is a beautiful building, [and] has a competent director and good financial backing. This will be the new energy in the area,” he says. In his view, the gallery produces “absolutely first rate shows. Botero, Pomodero, Miró and Chihuly were all beautifully featured in the last show, and [the gallery] wants to maintain that caliber of fine art. It’s very ambitious,” he says. “I don’t think anything has happened like this before – we’re on to a glorious future in the fine arts.”

The other local company that plays a large part in Eyfells’ work is American Bronze Fine Art Foundry in Sanford. “They are the best,” he says. “They have bent over backwards to accommodate me.” American Bronze’s commitment and excellence recently won them an important commission from the Vatican: to produce more than 4,000 busts from Michelangelo’s Pietà. The bus t will be sold under exclusive license (estimated value: $130 million) to mark the 500th anniversary of the presentation of the Pietà to the Roman Catholic Church.

Eyfells believes central Florida will continue to be commercially viable for artists. “When people with money start collecting local artists, the next generation will succeed better.” As an instructor, he says, “I always felt that this was a good place to be for young people—as a preparation for life, but not necessarily to make a career of the arts in central Florida. But now, maybe you could stay.”

How does he look back on his years here as an artist? “I can’t imagine a better thirty years for me—the Tuskawilla house, the location, the amazing consequential sculpture commission for the University Theater, and the freedom to do what I wanted to do.” Eyfells says The Power of Passage, his piece for the UCF Theater, opened an unlimited dimension of new possibilities for his work. In addition to fond memories, his career here afforded him freedom and opportunity, which all artists must have. “It still energizes my work today–some twenty years later.”

Bill Ernst, Seminole magazine’s publisher, is a former sculpture student of Johann Eyfells at UCF.

Receptualism

Jóhann Eyfells began creating abstract sculpture in the ‘60s based on his experiments in chemistry and physics—specifically, the transformational properties of metals. These experiments led to Receptualism, a style that intertwines three systems—scientific, philosophical and mystical—into one. For Eyfells, there are no boundaries separating the three. Receptualism gives new shapes to objects and material; new physical possibilities. More than just a method, it is an awareness of natural possibilities that haven’t yet attained physical expression. Eyfells creates natural encounters that cannot happen on their own. And he is often startled by his best work: “Ah, that’s what I was after. I was behind this.”

 Eyfells considers himself much more of an experimental chemist than a material sculptor. He is more interested in the energy of physical forces than in the merging of natural elements. He wants to express “a feeling that there are larger ideas available in the Universe,” and hopes people seeing his work will try to imagine that the word “Receptualism” not only conveys the sense of “receiving” something, but also implies a special dimension—the manifestation of something larger than a mental picture or idea. “I want the viewer to imagine that a larger idea that is ordinarily available to us has been a factor in [materializing] what the viewer is looking at. In other words,” he says, “imagine that the artist is more of a tool than the originator.”

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