Chester History and People: Ursula Hamann, Paper Cut Artist and Poet
Interview and Article by Rene Kenny, Chester Library Assistant
As I approach the quaint cottage located on a quiet street in Chester, I notice the flourishing state of nature that surrounds the artist’s house on this sparkly, sunny autumn afternoon. Ursula DeBruycker Hamann, who just celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday on October 26, 2021, smiles warmly as I enter her sitting room through the kitchen. Her housekeeper has been busily vacuuming the floor, and almost didn’t hear me knock.
This was just the home I expected to see where a woman who draws gnomes lives. She offered me a seat at the table. Her view of her beloved garden brings her happiness every day. Throughout the interview, which took about an hour, I did not see Ursula drink anything, even water, and wondered if she could keep speaking for that long, given that her next interview was scheduled to begin as ours ended.
My first question involved her favorite artist. Who would it be? Albrecht Durer, Paul Klee, Hans Holbein? No, it was her own grandfather, Hammond DeBruycker. Ursula is descended from a very artistic family, but more on that later. The important thing to know is that her grandfather was her muse and inspiration. I even viewed a lovely painting by him of Lorelei, the beautiful German woman who sat on rocks near the river in an attempt to seduce fishermen to their deaths after having been cheated on by her lover. Loreleli faces away but turns her head ever so slightly toward us, her voluminous black hair waving behind like the sea. You could almost hear her sweet voice calling like a siren to the ill-fated men on the boats that cruised past on the Rhine.
Ursula shifts slightly in her warm, rose-colored housecoat. Her bright blue eyes shine as she wistfully remembers her grandfather. The “artist” gene skipped her mother, but her mom’s aunts and uncles were all artists. Growing up, the art supplies in her home included pencils and colored pencils, nothing more.
The most important thing to know about her grandfather was that he lost his life’s work during the bombing of Hamburg. He painted the murals which graced the inside of the “big, beautiful elegant building.” Hammond DeBruycker, while a prolific artist, was most proud of these murals. They depicted the “life of man,” from cradle to grave. A part of the mural included a Star of David, though, and when the Nazis saw it, they had it painted over. As Ursula tells it, “Hitler saw to it that it was painted over. When the war was over, they restored it. Grandpa had a friend who was Jewish. He bought a lot of his [Grandpa’s] artwork, too. To me, he was another grandfather. When he [the Jewish patron] was no longer safe, he decided to go to Spain. I don’t know what happened to him. He was a friend and somebody who supported my grandfather.”
During the war, Hammond climbed out of a bunker only to gaze up at the smoldering remains of a burning building–his home and artwork destroyed.
I wanted to lift the mood a little, asking Ursula the question we were itching to know, what her favorite German food was. How surprised I was when she replied, “rouladen.” I’d never heard of this dish, so she very patiently told me how it’s made. “You start with a big slice of beef that is very thin. You don’t only make one, because it doesn’t pay. You have a big counter, and you put it on parchment.” She would make six to eight of these at a time.
Spread the beef with mustard, then “put garlic pepper on top, a little bit of bacon and onion. You can find it in a German cookbook. Now you have to have toothpicks. You can also use string. Boil the toothpicks first and rinse them off. Start rolling it up.” Here, she gestures how to roll up the beef pinwheels. You boil the toothpicks first so that they don’t break.
“Make sure you close up both ends and put one to two in the middle to hold it all together. Saute all sides. Put it in a Dutch oven and put some olive oil on the bottom. Pour hot chicken broth on top to cover the whole thing and let simmer for one and three-quarter to two hours. Skim off the fat. Thicken the gravy with cornstarch. Serve with red cabbage and potatoes–mashed potatoes. Even some apple sauce.” You probably didn’t think you’d get a recipe, but there it is. Some recipes include pickles inside as well.
While spending so many words describing her favorite German food, she only gave me one for her favorite American dish, “scampi.” I hoped that she was being served rouladen and scampi on a regular basis!
Next, I asked Ursula about her education. Sadly, she replied, “I didn’t get to the end of anything. I went to folk school first. There was an outhouse and a pump outside to wash your hands. The wind might be blowing in the wintertime and you get a frozen butt.” I smiled at her memory, but inside I was thinking how brave she was to continue going to school in these brutal conditions, and how much we may be taking our own education for granted. She went on to describe the one-room schoolhouse: “…long benches, little kids in front and older kids in the back. I was so good at it.”
I was curious about her background in painting. “My mother never had anything for creative stuff. She lived on a farm.” Here I pictured rising before dawn to take care of the animals, and non-stop chores, while also raising children. It must have been really hard. There was no time for art! “I was born in Hamburg. My uncle was one of ten children. He painted cranes.” I was shown one of his paintings of these mechanical feats [not the birds]. “They all were artists, except for my mom.”
After what we would call elementary or primary school, she attended what we call “high school” in Kiel. “It was thirteen kilometers from where I lived. I had a bicycle.” Interestingly, throughout her story, people got around by using bicycles. In this country that gave us BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Volkswagen, no one had a car, and once again I reflected on how fortunate I was.
Ursula went on, “The roads were full of potholes. Kiel is where the U-boats were made. That’s why it was bombed. It was real fireworks.” U-boats are submarines, and there is even a museum of a submarine in Kiel. Kiel is a port city on the Baltic Sea and the location of Germany’s navy. Importantly, that was where the Third Reich manufactured U-boats, so it was a target of Allied bombs constantly.
The irony is that her family had moved to Kiel in order to be safer than they were in Hamburg, because “In 1933, Hitler came to power. My parents bought the farm, a big farm, that my father bought as an investment. My father left the factory where the cranes were built,” she says. (These are the cranes that her uncle painted.) Ursula’s dad owned many patents, and he was paid off, she says, to leave. His company, where his brother and father-in-law both worked, made both industrial cranes and scales.
So they moved to “the country,” and bought a farm. However, since her dad was not a farmer, he hired managers that, one after another, failed them. The other tragedy was that because of the U-boat factory, bombs rained upon their rural farm. She says, “It was awful. It was really awful. My brother and I would sneak up to the attic and watch. To this day I don’t like fireworks.
“At one time, we woke up to big craters in the yard. If a bomb had hit the house, we would not survive. We had a little basement,” that they would shelter in when the bombs came down. “No light was allowed in our house. One day, I went up to my bedroom and there was a hole in the floor. A firebomb had hit my bed and dented it. I went down to the bathroom below. If I didn’t see it, it would have burned our house down.”
Going back to the story of her education, Ursula went to high school in Kiel, bicycling from her farm. “When I was in school, the alarm would sound. We went to the bunker. It was too big to be damaged. The reason we walked thirteen kilometers to school is that the trains were not running. Often there was no food. I never finished high school.”
There was silence after that. I wouldn’t have gone either, in that situation. I felt really badly for Ursula and what she had gone through, and again felt so privileged to be able to go to school and always have food available.
Ursula now told me the story of the young man, Hans, her first love. “I was seventeen years old. Life had never been the same in one way or another. I lost my very first boyfriend. I was very much in love with him. He was a young officer. He was twenty-two. He went back to his troop by cycling to where the soldiers were. There was an alarm and the planes were coming back from Berlin. Sometimes they released bombs to make it back to England.”
Ursula explained that the planes that were damaged would drop their bombs in order to lighten their load. “I never saw him again. I was told, ‘Ursula, Hans is dead.’ I got out of bed.” She ran to the site where the bomb was dropped, but “it was all roped off. Nobody survived. There was a mass grave.” Eventually, she met John, who became her husband.
On a lighter note, I asked Ursula how she got started in art. She replied that her first attempt was “a drawing of my little brother when he was born. I was three years old then.” Her brother’s name was Ingo. They all lived on the farm. Her mother and father died at age sixty-two. When her mother had breast cancer, “my brother [who was in Germany] never told me. When I found out, I was going to go back on a freighter, the way I had gone to America. I got a call. I had to take a plane.” By the time she got there, her mother was already dead. She was clearly very injured by this whole experience, and it created a wall between her brother and herself, which hurt her until this day.
I asked Ursula, who started out as a painter, which she preferred, painting or paper cutting. Well, she said, “paper cutting really grabbed me. I loved to paint; it was wonderful. I remember when I had an exhibit at Morristown Hospital. My husband and I were hanging the artwork.” Then she describes a couple, who were upset, who began to survey her work. “When I looked up, they started to smile.” Ursula explained that she was motivated “to create something that makes people smile. It was one of the most rewarding things.”
Ursula explained that paper cutting requires “a lot of patience. I didn’t know what an Exacto knife was. At first, I cut with scissors. Then I learned about an Exacto knife and a cutting board and that was easier for me.” She then switched from painting to paper cutting. She joined the Guild of American Papercutters.
I asked Ursula about what advice she would give a young person who wanted to have a career in art. “It depends on what you want to do,” she explained. Some people, she says, don’t think that they have any artistic talent. Her advice is to try this: “Close your eyes. There is a piece of paper in front of you, and there is a hot number [fast music] playing. You move the pencil to the music. Then you embellish it.”
But if you want a career in an artistic field, “Stay with it. In order to become a commercially successful artist, I don’t think you even need talent. Who’s to say what makes someone successful? As long as you feel fulfilled and happy doing it, I think that’s all that matters.” I absolutely love that quote, and how generously Ursula offers her kind advice.
Then I asked Ursula about her inspiration for her poetry and stories. She replied, “I didn’t say chapter one, chapter two, chapter three. I just sat down and started writing. I think that it comes from within and having a gift that was given to me by a long line of DeBruyckers. I inherited some of this talent.” Remember, Ursula writes in English and it is her second language!
Next I inquired about what she is proud of in her life’s work. She said, “Lots of things. I’m very proud of the garden we created. If it weren’t for the garden, I don’t think I would be here any more. I just watch the seasons go by.” Ursula humbly points out the lovely garden behind her house, from which we can hear birds calling as we speak.
And, finally, I asked this extraordinary woman how she wanted to be remembered. “If I had a chance to spread some joy, and not only through my artwork, but also through my garden, and some people have been inspired, it’s very rewarding to know.” I almost teared up as she said these words.
This talented artist, who continues to write poetry, has seen so much. She saw her uncle’s mural painted over, her grandfather’s life’s work blown up, and her boyfriend meeting the same horrific fate. Her own mother died at age sixty-two and Ursula could not be with her to comfort her. She had to stop attending high school because of lack of food and the bombings.
After this life of struggles and sadness, it’s heartwarming how she took all of that negativity and turned it into such charming, delightful works of art. Despite the horrors of World War II, look at the joy in her art! Yes, Ursula, you have spread so much joy and you will be remembered for your incredible contributions. Finally, she wanted me to include this poem that she had recently penned:
A Question at 95
Ask this old hermit of 95
What it is that still brings joy to her life?
Not excluding the wows of spring
Or other joys the days may bring,
It’s the never-ending creative flow
That’s always there and ready to go!
And then I had to leave, as the next interviewer had arrived. I walked through the kitchen as her caretaker asked her what she wanted to eat the next day. Naturally, her reply was another German word that I did not understand!
I closed the screen door, heading to my car a person who had been deeply affected by the one hour that we spent together. She made a strong and lasting impression on me. Thank you, Ursula, for your generosity and for your continued effort to make the world a happier and more beautiful place.
From the Life of a Ponderer
The creativity of my old inner being
Still does not let go
Of my writing and scheming
Spurred on by tricks of the Inner Vision
I have no hope to cure my condition.
Years of thoughts on paper collected
Grew into more books than ever expected–
One so big it can hardly be carried,
With no more space for another page
To be buried.
But now realistic and with a critical look,
I question what will become of my books:
May they fade with time…
Maybe it’s time for a glass of wine!
Ursula at 94 July, 2021
Renee M. Kenny
Chester, NJ Library