Bjørn Okholm Skaarup: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist

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Learn from the best, surround yourself with kind and brilliant people, stay curious, and be open-minded.

As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Bjørn Okholm Skaarup.

Okholm Skaarup has created a contemporary bestiary, or classical book of animals, in bronze. Each sculpture presents a whimsical story or allegory to decipher, with sources ranging from ancient fables and art history to music and modern animation. The Majestic Lion, traditional king of the animals, wears the crown and armor of a great monarch in the style of Medici court sculptor Giambologna, yet he sits astride a rocking horse, a reference to his fleeting and jovial power. Frogs reenact Homeric battles in the Batrachomyomachia, while mice peer through spectacles and listen at telephones as The Five Senses. A cheetah rides a scooter to move faster, a giraffe stands on stilts to reach higher, and a kangaroo bounces on a pogo stick — a “kængurustylte” in Okholm Skaarup’s native Danish.

From 1994–2004, Okholm Skaarup was an artist at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, before moving to Florence and receiving a PhD from the European University Institute in 2009. While in Florence, he studied the work of Renaissance sculptors Donatello, Michelangelo, and Giambologna, learning the vanishing art of large-scale bronze casting.

The bronze form of a capricorn, clinging to a mountaintop as it is being lifted into the air, is just such a tour de force of contemporary bronze working. In a post-cataclysmic world, flooded by ever-rising oceans, the capricorn takes refuge on the highest mountain peak, only to be rescued by a hardy rat piloting a zeppelin and bringing it to safety.

In Okholm Skaarup’s intricately polychrome work, he explores the voluminous form of a tutu and leotard-clad hippo, which at once references Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years and Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Or another hippo, sprawled in the pose of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, or even a Dinosaur paleontologist, mystified to discover the Flintstones’ Flintmobile among the rubble.

Okholm Skaarup’s indoor and outdoor sculptures have been the subject of museum exhibitions throughout the world, including the Koldinghus Museum, Kolding, Denmark; the Museo Cenacolo di Ognissanti and Four Seasons Hotel, Florence; and Hotel Cipriani, Venice. In 2015, the Collectivité of St. Barth publically displayed a suite of sculptures throughout the island. In 2016, The Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut organized a solo exhibition of Okholm Skaarup’s work, and the following year, his monumetal sculpture, Hippo Ballerina, was exhibited at 64th Street and Broadway, opposite Lincoln Center.

Bjørn Okholm Skaarup lives and works in New York City. He is a member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in the little town of Rudkøbing, Denmark. It is located on a small island with a little more than 12,000 inhabitants. Its most famous native son is Hans Christan Ørsted, the discoverer of electromagnetism — and more recently the actor Nikolai Coster-Waldau (who plays Ser Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones).

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Not being at all interested in either soccer or mopeds I found myself with a lot of time at hand for drawing and sculpting — and never really stopped doing it.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One thing I am particularly proud of (apart from major public sculpture installations throughout New York City, including Hippo Ballerina which was located in Pershing Square Plaza West last year) is the installment of a portrait bust I did of the last Nuremberg prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz. It is now located in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice where the trials took place.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I just finished a grand circus with 33 characters, which took me years to make and was inspired by Calder, Chagall, Cocteau and other artists fascinated by the circus world. Comprised of 33 sculptures, the installation is inspired by the late-nineteenth century circus where costumes, banners, and colors created a neo-baroque symphony of larger-than-life forms and displays. Each sculpture within the installation highlights the spectacle of color and movement celebrated by a menagerie.

It premiered at Art Miami in late 2022 and will soon be shown at Art Palm Beach which opens on January 25.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I am just about the world’s biggest Paul McCartney fan and met him a few years ago at a private event. He was incredibly nice and easy-going as he has been to millions of others during his long career. Later I made a portrait bust of Orpheus, the mythical Greek musician and poet, who could enchant even the animals through his music accompanied by a lyre, inspired by Sir Paul’s music.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

I love the tradition of the Bestiary, which originated in the ancient world and includes countless real and imaginary stories about animals and their particular traits and symbolism. Each sculpture presents a whimsical story or allegory to decipher, with sources ranging from ancient fables and art history to music and modern animation. For example, in my grand circus installation, a Lion ringmaster welcomes you to a show where the troupe is run entirely by animals. Featuring a grand 6 x 10-foot Circus ring, the installation is complete with a gathering of clowns, magicians, acrobats, dancers, and musicians, such as:

  • Koala Bassoonist: from Down Under a special guest, is pausing from his daily rest, and favored eucalyptus tree, to play his woodwind melody
  • Tiger Fakir: the mighty tiger elevates, himself as he premeditates, his destinations in the sky, where flabbergasted birds fly by
  • Lion Tamer: a king among the animals, and ringmaster of carnivals, the roaring lion leads the way, on tour from London to Marseilles
  • Rhino Strongman: much stronger than a ploughing ox, this rhino is a paradox, so soft and gentle, mild and frank, yet armored like a heavy tank

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Apart from supporting a small family-owned foundry in Florence I have sold artworks through charity auctions and tried in both my art and writing to highlight current and historical affairs and injustices.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Never take no for an answer. I’ve run my head against a wall so many times trying to carve out a life as a creative person. So has my wife who is a writer… As an example, I once wrote Thorvaldsen’s Museum in Copenhagen (which showcases the entire oeuvre of the neoclassical Sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen) and asked if they would be interested in showing some of my animal bronzes. The then director wrote back with just one line saying that they had absolutely no interest in that. Similar responses would probably make la ess stubborn sculptor throw in the towel but I am a Taurus in both the Greek and the Chinese Zodiac and therefore very difficult to discourage.

Similar advice is to learn from the best, surround yourself with kind and brilliant people, stay curious, and be open-minded.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I recently offered a sculpture of a yellow and blue-clad Rhino Harlequin for sale through a charity auction with all the proceeds going to the people of Ukraine.

We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

The person I admire the most is the now almost 103-year-old former Nuremberg prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz. His universal maxim is “Law, not war!” And his motto is “Never give up, Never give Up, Never give up!”

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

On my website as well as on Facebook and Instagram @bjornokholmskaarup.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

Bjørn Okholm Skaarup: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.