A special visit to Roosevelt Island in 2014 will result in the installation of a sculpture, Blue Dragon, on the Island in early April of this year. Blue Dragon’s artists, Gustav and Ulla Kraitz, were brought to visit the Island by Islander Elisabeth Halvarsson Stapen in May of 2014. Stapen says of Gustav Kraitz, “He is excited about the Island. It pays that I brought him here.”
After looking at a catalog of ancient ceramics, the Kraitzes were determined to reproduce the color and glazed surface of ancient Chinese pieces that they found so inspiring. They experimented with ancient Chinese firing techniques. There were no manuals or books of advice, so they attempted various firing techniques based on pictures of the kilns in Chinese paintings. Over time, they succeeded in reviving the Chinese firing practice. They have shown their work in China. Stapen says, “They have made a few dragon sculptures. One was sold to a museum and they planned to sell Blue Dragon to another.” It is valued at $200,000.00 Stapen says it is the artists’ appreciation of the beauty of Roosevelt Island that prompted them to offer it as a gift instead.
Stapen knew the artist couple from her capacity as Senior Cultural Affairs Officer for the Consulate General of Sweden. While at the United Nations in 1997, the Consul General asked the artists to create a monument to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians on January 17, 1945, and never heard from again. Gustav Kraitz was also apprehended by the Soviets – a mere two days after Wallenberg. Although Kraitz did not meet Wallenberg personally, Wallenberg’s influence on him was profound and Kraitz and his wife, Ulla, agreed to create a monument in memory of Wallenberg. On November 9, 1998, the Hope Monument was unveiled on a traffic island at First Avenue and East 47th Street, in front of the United Nations.
The artists’ sculptures are shown all over the world. In NYC, in addition to the sculpture in front of the UN, the Museum of Art and Design commissioned two benches from the Kraitzes which are in place just outside the museum at Columbus Circle.
Gustav Kraitz was born in Hungary in 1926. He entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest after winning first prize in a painting competition. The academy closed down during the chaos of World War II, and shortly thereafter he was arrested and sent to the Soviet coal mines for five years. He tried to escape three times but was apprehended on each occasion and nearly beaten to death. When he was freed, he re-entered the Academy of Fine Arts and focused on sculpture.
He wanted to leave Hungary, and, in 1956, during the Hungarian Uprising, he finally did. After leaving Budapest, he reached the border. There, he met an old professor who provided a letter of introduction to a friend in Stockholm, Sweden. He got a job in Stockholm working for the City Museum.
His dedication and focus remains to this day. According to Stapen, the Hope Monument was refurbished in May 2014. A damaged pillar was replaced with stone from the same quarry in Sweden as the original and brought here, to New York City, for the work.
Stapen says Kraitz is present at all installations or repairs of his work, and he worked overnight to ensure this repair was a success. Stapen says she remained there too, for most of the night, because she serves as his interpreter. “He needs to have somebody who knows how to translate English into Swedish. I have been around so long that he trusts me.”
Gustav and Ulla
In 1960, Kraitz met Ulla Stenkvist when both were featured in an art show in Stockholm. She was a painter, and they started working together soon after. The couple married in 1961 and have been collaborating ever since. Despite the personal tragedies they have faced in their 55 years together - Ulla was ill for a long time with an aneurism and their first child died unexpectedly when she was nine - they describe their work as optimistic and hopeful.
During Kraitz’ time in New York, Stapen brought him here to the Island. She laughs as she recalls how he enjoyed the Tram. Stapen introduced him to Tad Sudol, President of the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association (RIVVA), and when the group walked up to Southpoint Park, cherry blossoms covered the ground. “Right then [Gustav Kraitz] offered to donate a sculpture to Roosevelt Island,” Stapen recounts. “He loved the beauty of the Island.”
The artists returned to New York in October of 2015, accompanied by Goran Christenson, Director of the Malmo Museum located in Southern Sweden, who usually accompanies them. After seeing the exact place where the sculpture will be placed, the artists signed all legal documents concerning Blue Dragon now, and in the future, should the estate need to approve any move or repair.
The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) has given the green light to the installation of the piece in early April when the artists will be back. The formal unveiling ceremony is scheduled for April 26. Stapen is in charge of organizing the Swedish guests and press. In the meantime, the Blue Dragon sits at a Swedish dock packaged and ready to sail. It will be brought to Elizabeth, New Jersey first, and then transported by truck from there. It is noteworthy that the cost of shipping the two-ton sculpture from Sweden to New Jersey is less expensive than the cost of bringing it here from New Jersey. The Blue Dragon will sit at the entrance of South Point Park.
Stapen herself has lived at the Octagon for over four years.
While visiting a friend on the Island in 2011, she decided to look at a few apartments. She walked into the Octagon and felt at home so didn’t even look at the others. She moved in in September, 2011. She has been involved in the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) as a representative of the Octagon and is associated with RIVAA, especially the gallery at the Octagon. “I brought three artists here to show, as guests of RIVAA, at the Octagon Gallery.
Stapen is sorry that Blue Dragon will conclude her work with the Kraitzes. Gustav turns 90 in March and has to limit his traveling. The Kraitzes are now busy creating a cultural center in Bastad, Sweden where their work will be displayed. Stapen says, “It has been such a pleasure to work with Gustav.”
Tags: Island Life