William Ernst Ehrich (Prussian-American, 1897-1960) was an award-winning Western New York sculptor, ceramicist, public monument artist, educator and WPA supervisor in Buffalo, NY. Ehrich was born on July 12, 1897 in the Hanseatic city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in what was then the political entity of East Prussia. Ehrich had 3 sisters and 4 brothers, three of whom became architects. He initially trained in a woodcarver’s shop there and studied sculpture and ceramics as a scholarship student at the Königsberg Fine Arts Academy under the direction of Hermann Brachert (German, 1890-1972), Franz Andreas Threyne (German, 1888-1965), and Erich Schmidt-Kestner (German, 1877-1941), influences he later brought to his sculptural work in Western New York.
Ehrich’s art studies were interrupted when he entered military service on March 3, 1916, to fight in the German Army during WWI. Ehrich was assigned to the Infantry Regiment Herzog Karl von Mecklenburg-Strelitz Nr. 43, 18th Company and first served on the Western Front in South Russia (Ukraine) during the Brusilov Offensive. After suffering a head wound near the end of that campaign, Ehrich was near Lemberg (now L'vov) and was taken prisoner by the Russians on September 16, 1916. He was sent east to Jekaterinoslaw (today Dnjepropetrovsk) where he worked in a salt mine. It seems that he fared well as a prisoner with the Russians by being chosen as an unofficial camp artist and also from a detail provided by one of his sisters who implied that things could have been worse for him. She stated that not only did he have a girlfriend, but that she was the daughter of the director of the salt mine. She reported that even though he was a prisoner of war, the fellowship was good, not just among the prisoners, but also with the Russians.
Buffalo artist Harold L. Olmsted (American, 1886-1972) later wrote the following in the Burchfield Center’s 1971 exhibition Our Legacy of Art in Western New York catalog, “‘Bill’ Ehrich came to this country from Germany after the First World War, most of which he passed pleasantly, so he told me, in a Russian prison camp doing heads of Russian officers!” During the Russian Revolution, Ehrich was eventually freed from Russian internment on April 24, 1918 and was sent to a German quarantine camp in Zegrze, Poland, north of Warsaw in late May. Even though the war in the east was over, fighting continued on the Western Front where he was then sent to fight until early November. Ehrich served in both France and Belgium before finally being released from the military in July, 1919, having survived the war on both fronts.
After the war, Ehrich returned to art school under full scholarship in Königsberg in 1920 under Hermann Brachert and Franz Andreas Threyne. Through the local Methodist church William met his future wife, Ruth Karoline (née Herrmann/Hermann, 1902-1992). After a long courtship, the couple was married in a civil ceremony in October, 1926, followed by a church wedding at the Altstädtische Kirche at the end of the Paradeplatz. During the 1920’s, financial survival for the young couple was problematic. Ruth had worked in the office of a company that sold lighting fixtures and William did contract work for his senior professors Schmidt-Kestner and Cauer. Without an established reputation, it was difficult to compete for the art funds that were scarce after the war. As a result, he failed to get proper credit for his work, such as the stone heads over the entrance to the Neue Burgschule and the reliefs over the entrance to the main train station. Given the lack of career prospects and the hyperinflation that engulfed Germany after the war, the couple considered other options. In April of 1929, he and his wife Ruth immigrated to the United States and settled in Buffalo, NY unaware of the world financial chaos to follow later that year with the stock market crash in October which resulted in the Great Depression lasting from 1929-1939.
While in Buffalo, Ehrich first worked professionally as a carver at the Kittinger furniture company, while he made wooden sculptures at home in his spare time. He eventually lost his job at Kittinger, apparently because he was too meticulous about his work and didn't have the productivity they wanted. At first he continued to carve the large Barlach-style wooden sculptures he had carved in Germany, but times were difficult and the market did not support the sale of such pieces. According to the biography on the artist’s website ehrich.us, by Nancy Ehrich Martin, Archivist at the University of Rochester, Ehrich met the “gift shop owner Pitt Petri who convinced him that smaller articles would be easier to sell. William created a set of small animals including a duck, penguin, cat, bear, rooster, and deer with fawn. From these prototypes he made plaster molds that he used to mass produce delicate clay copies, most of which were finished with a bright white glaze. He sold these china animals by the hundreds.”
In 1933, another opportunity opened for Ehrich when he became an instructor in sculpture at the Art Institute of Buffalo (AIB), where he taught from 1933-1938. That same year he also became a member and started exhibiting with the newly-formed Patteran Society of Buffalo. Under the Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) he produced numerous works of public art, which included various projects for the Buffalo Zoo, “…which saw significant expansion with WPA assistance from 1938 through 1942. William supervised a cadre of sculptors and painters who created murals in the reptile house, sgraffito on the animal house exterior, and the concrete animals at the zoo entrances that are still there today. Unfortunately none of the records of the Buffalo Zoo or the National Archives document which works are specifically his, but his notes suggest that he created the animal figures on a fountain, the sgraffito, and some of the animals at the zoo entrances.”
Throughout his career, Ehrich was known for his ability to work in diverse media including wood, stone, marble, clay, plaster, ceramic, enamel, graphite, charcoal, and various metals such as bronze, copper, and lead. Given the raw material, he would visualize the end result, sometimes drawing on the wood or stone with his black marker. He would never make preliminary sketches unless one was needed by a client. He had an innate ability to match his concepts to the medium, making his work grow naturally out of the material. He stated about his work:
“Sculpture, a three-dimensional art expression, has an advantage over sound, color, and movement, that it can be enjoyed forever by the sense of touch, too. Stone, wood, and clay permit my hands to caress my work - as I expect others to enjoy it too by physical contact. My aim is to render my formalized message as concisely as possible. My respect for the media employed often leads me to utilize a suggested, formal shape of stone and wood as I find it.”
Ehrich’s reputation in Western New York began to grow and by 1936, he attracted the attention of the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) in Rochester, NY, where he taught one-day classes beginning in 1937. That engagement led to an appointment from the director, Gertrude Moore, as a salaried instructor by the fall of that year where he taught six classes a week on Wednesdays and Thursdays. At the time, the Memorial Art Gallery was housed on the site of the College for Women at the University of Rochester's Prince Street Campus, which was a considerable distance from the men’s University River Campus. In 1939, Carl Hersey, chair of the Department of Art History also offered Ehrich an additional appointment to teach a sculpture class for the University at the MAG. Those dual appointments continued for the rest of William's career where he served for twenty-three years as Instructor in Sculpture at the Memorial Art Gallery and as Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the University of Rochester.
In 1941, William and his wife Ruth purchased a small home at 49 Klink Road in Rochester and on August 18, 1943, their son Roger William Ehrich was born. In addition to his busy work schedule, William found time to exhibit in numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout Buffalo, Rochester, across New York State as well as in Kansas City, MO, winning numerous awards and prizes over the course of his career. William rarely exhibited his works without winning awards, although the records are too sparse to identify all of them. At the Albright Gallery (now the Albright–Knox Art Gallery), he won the Patteran Prize in 1938 and won prizes at twelve of the twenty-two annual Western New York Exhibitions that took place up to 1956. The Albright Gallery acquired his sculpture “Destiny” (1934) in 1940, a gift of Mrs. Edwin J. Weiss and the Patteran Society of Buffalo. At the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester he exhibited in most of the Finger Lakes Exhibitions and won awards at nine of them. These included the Lillian Fairchild Memorial Award in 1942 and the Juror's Show Award in 1949.
In 1955 the College for Women merged with the men's college at the River Campus to form the University of Rochester. A move to the new classrooms and studio on the River Campus as well as a promotion stimulated a burst of creative activity for Ehrich. Since space was now available, he decided to create his own bronze foundry, and to do that he received a study grant in summer 1959 to learn bronze casting techniques with Heinrich Kirchner in Munich. Upon his return to the University of Rochester in the fall, the foundry came into existence quickly and was very successful, although the work would end suddenly with his death a year later on August 10, 1960. His wife Ruth Ehrich died on April 22, 1992 at the age of eighty-nine after a long illness.
William Ehrich was exceptionally well known in the Western New York region where he left a legacy of artistic work. Hundreds of his works are held in private and public collections along with numerous corporate commissions, museums and colleges to include: The Burchfield-Penny Art Center, Buffalo, NY, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY, and the University of Rochester, NY. Papers and photos are archived in the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
A more-extensive biography along with a list of his sculptures and commissions can be found in his website biography at ehrich.us.
(Compiled and rewritten in select parts by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, East Aurora, NY, from sources: ehrich.us, online biography, “William Ernst Ehrich Biography, by Nancy Ehrich Martin, Archivist, University of Rochester and Roger W. Ehrich, Professor Emeritus, Virginia Tech”; burchfieldpenney.org, online brief biography and portrait photo for, “William Ehrich (1897-1960) Born: Koenigsberg, East Prussia”, by Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Scholar, Head of Collections and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, Burchfield-Penney Art Center and Burchfield-Penney Instructor of Museum Studies, SUNY Buffalo State; and Wikipedia.com, “William Ernst Ehrich”; prabook.com, online biographical information, “Roger William Ehrich”; myheritage.com, “Ruth Karoline Ehrich (born Herrmann), 1902-1992”; fultonhistory.com, online digitized newspaper article, Buffalo Evening News, “; Art Group Appears Settled To Serious Study Program: Current Exhibition Reflects Real Creative Effort–School Attracts Wide Attention.; Understands Material.”, Page 23, Thursday, December 14, 1933, PDF Buffalo NY Evening News 1933 09470.pdf.)