Hippo Ballerina: Interview with Sculptor Bjorn Okholm Skaarup

Hippo Ballerina

Hippo Ballerina is an iconic copper sculpture that has returned to New York City. Having previously been installed at Dante Park, the Flatiron South Public Plaza, and at the Girl Scouts of America Building, the sculpture is a monument that inspires joy in those who see it. As of May 2022, its new location is in Pershing Square Plaza West, located on the west side of Park Avenue between East 41st and East 42nd Streets in Midtown Manhattan. Hippo Ballerina is accompanied by Hippo Ballerina, pirouette and Rhino Harlequin, pirouette permitted as part of the New York City Department of Transportation’s Art Program. 

Hippo Ballerina was created by a Danish artist named Bjørn Okholm Skaarup who was inspired to create the 15-foot-tall sculpture after viewing Edgar Degas’ painting titled Little Dancer Aged Fourteen; the dancing hippos of Walt Disney’s Fantasia were also inspirations. Bjorn is represented by Cavalier Gallery, who made this exhibition possible. Bjorn hopes that the sculpture prompts people to celebrate nature, animals, and life. He holds a Master’s degree in History and Art History from the University of Copenhagen and a Ph.D. in History from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He previously held a position as an artist for the Danish National Museum whilst also being employed as a scientific artist at the Department of Forensic Medicine and Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. Bjorn is an accomplished author and illustrator of books on history, archaeology, and anatomy. As a self-taught sculptor, his rise to fame is especially impressive. He is a member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors and currently lives and works in New York City where he is furthering his education with post-doctoral studies at Columbia University.

Bjorn recently discussed his work via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): You are very well-educated and have a background in history. So, how did you discover your love for the subject of history and what eras are of particular interest to you? Why?  

Hippo BallerinaBjorn Okholm Skaarup (BOS): I’m as much a historian as an artist. My father is an archaeologist, so we would often talk about history rather than sports around the dinner table. Both my wife and I have PhDs in renaissance history and met at a history conference in Venice. I love the late renaissance, which in art history is referred to as Mannerism. In that period bronze sculpture reached a zenith unequalled before or since. Sculptors such as Benvenuto Cellini, Leone Leoni, and Giambologna would then produce masterpieces in bronze (sculptures, reliefs, medals) of aethereal and almost otherworldly beauty.

MM: You worked at museums where you had the opportunity to combine your love of history with your talent for art. How did you find your way into these careers?  

BOS: I was always looking out for ways to combine my love of drawing and sculpting with my historical interests. I worked as an illustrator at the National Museum during my years as a student of history and art history. Later, I used my sculpting skills to reconstruct faces of the past at the medical faculty of the University of Copenhagen. When I moved to Florence, I earned my PhD from the European Institute and studied the public artworks of Florence and its Renaissance sculptors, learning the vanishing art of large-scale bronze casting in a small foundry outside the city.

MM: You are also an author and an illustrator. How did you break into that industry and how much of an influence was your background in museum work on your publications?  

BOS: As a historian, I have worked on renaissance anatomy, and published a monograph and some articles on that subject together with some illustrated books on archaeology and history – and even one about history’s worst Danish villains. I’m always trying to improve my sculpting skills and at the same time remain more or less up to date with my academic field. When I sculpt, I therefore listen to audiobooks, mostly history books. With the developments in text-to-speech technology I’m able to listen to some pretty esoteric works, even though they’re not recorded. I had no sudden breakthrough within the industry. My works have, however, gradually gained an audience after several public displays in Europe and the US. It was initially a slow process, but my early works were perhaps also darker, more Scandinavian, and generally less appealing than my later sculptures.

Hippo BallerinaMM: You are a self-taught sculptor. How did you initially get your creations recognized by the art world?

BOS: I have been drawing since I was three and sculpting since I was ten just for the sheer joy of it, though I had no idea until much later that it would eventually become my full-time job. I think everything started to take took off within the last 10-15 years. I got the chance to show my works in a series of prominent historical settings in Denmark and Italy, including the royal renaissance castle of Koldinghus, the Museo di Ognissanti, the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence, and the Cipriani in Venice. These were later followed up by US exhibition at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT and The National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

MM: Your sculptures are utterly delightful! What have been some of the best reactions and/or tidbits of feedback you’ve gotten about them?  

BOS: I like the way children interact with the animal sculptures and love when on the rare occasion people appreciate one of my art historical references or some of my more esoteric works. My 2.5-ton sculpture, Hippo Ballerina even has her own Instagram channel (@dancewithhippoballerina) for people to interact with and tag her on social media.

MM: Have you ever considered illustrating children’s books?  

BOS: Yes! I would love to start producing a series of high-end illustrated books and am actually working on two projects now – one about the national birds of the world, and the other one about the history of music. More information on those to come!

MM: How did your childhood impact your creativity?  

BOS: Everyone in Denmark is raised with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and legends from Norse Mythology. Those stories are also reflected in numerous public artworks, including the Little Mermaid, which I have loved since I was a kid. My favorite Danish sculptor is the little-known Niels Hansen Jacobsen, who was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When creating my art, I tend to bring in these sources of inspiration ranging from ancient fables and art history to music and modern animation. Each sculpture that I create presents some sort of whimsical story or allegory for the viewer to decipher.

Hippo BallerinaMM: You now live in New York, so how much of a culture shock was it moving here from your native Denmark?  

BOS: Much of my inspiration comes from American popular culture, especially the golden age of illustration, so it has been great to experience it directly. Howard Pyle, the father of American illustration, happens to be buried right next to my foundry at the Allori cemetery in Florence. In New York City, I love the MET and the American Museum of Natural History and have drawn endless inspiration from those institutions – one of which presents the finest works produced by man, and the other the most ingenious creations of nature. Everything here is on a much grander scale, which I certainly acknowledged when even my 15-foot hippo appeared quite small in the vertical cityscape of New York City. The tiny Little Mermaid from Copenhagen would literally have disappeared among these tall buildings.

MM: You have a doctorate degree and have done post-doctoral research. How, if at all, does your academic research influence your creative muse?  

BOS: I now only do academic work, book reviews, conferences etc. for fun and am no longer affiliated with an academic institution. The last few years have instead been focused on creating art which is, however, still often rooted in my background as a historian.

MM: What have been the highlights of your career as an artist?

Hippo BallerinaBOS: Having my own pieces on display in front of New York landmarks, and other iconic historical places in Europe and the US. I’ve had the opportunity for my iconic 2.5-ton Hippo Ballerina sculpture to be installed across New York City at Dante Park, the Flatiron South Public Plaza, and at the Girl Scouts of America Building. Currently, she is on display at New York City’s Pershing Square Plaza West with Hippo Ballerina, pirouette and Rhino Harlequin, pirouette through the end of the year. In addition, a portrait bust I did of the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, Ben Ferencz, was installed last year in the courtroom in Nuremberg, where the trials took place.

MM: How do you hope that your artwork and career will evolve over the next ten years?

BOS: I have been working on a big circus for the last three years and it will finally be ready this summer. With 33 characters, it is by far the most ambitious thing I have ever done, and I look forward to exhibiting it!

MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

BOS: I am currently represented by Cavalier Galleries where smaller editions of my works can be found in locations across New York, NY, Greenwich, CT, Nantucket, MA, and Palm Beach, FL.