William Umbreit b. 1935
William Umbreit was born in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1935. After serving in the United States Army from 1954-56, he was honorably discharged in 1962. Umbreit received a BSA from New York University in 1967 and an MFA from Rutgers University in 1969. He taught at Cedar Valley College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the visual arts program at Princeton University, Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and The Sloan School of Art in South Orange, New Jersey. Umbreit received a 1985 grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. The artist’s work has been featured in shows at the Hudson River Museum, Neuberger Museum, Newsweek Gallery and Allan Stone Gallery; and featured in Artspeak, Artforum and The New York Times. Umbreit lives and works in Hampton, New Jersey.
William Umbreit’s work is characterized by a craftsman's passion and a longing for simpler times. While his farm implements are categorized by traditional names-rakes, pitchforks, ladders, spades, shovels, hammers, blades, shears and mallets-their appearances are not true to their titles. In Umbreit’s practice, an expertise in fine carpentry is used to create implements that twist, bulge, contort and pinch, to create other- worldly shapes that appear to defy the laws of gravity and our own preconceptions of form and meaning. Is a pitchfork still a pitchfork, when the handle curves and expands erratically and the steel prongs bend, choking the wood, so as to make it unusable? The artist began making these works in the 1970s, while looking at the shadows cast by functional tools on the walls of his studio. Like in Disney’s Fantasia when brooms are brought to life to help the sorcerer’s apprentice, Umbreit’s sculptures seem to possess life as if caught in the act of “anthropomorphising.” The most obvious precedent is the art of HC Westermann, who channeled his mastery of woodworking and cabinetry into intricate subversions of classical crafts. Manifestations of his interests in ecology and archeology, Umbreit’s tools are an homage to the unpredictability of the natural world and a false belief that we hold absolute control over our surroundings.