Robert Ulmann was born in Zurich, Switzerland, where he studied sculpture and painting, exhibiting annually with the National Art Society of Switzerland and in Paris, Munich and Stockholm. He migrated to Canada in 1956 and became a Canadian citizen. After working on the restoration of sculpture on the west wing of the Parliament Buildings Ottawa, he took up a Government appointment as one of six artist advisers to the Eskimos, initiating handicraft and sculpture programs in isolated settlements across the Central Arctic. He arrived in Australia with his Australian wife, Helen, in 1969, after two adventurous years backpacking and sketching through the United States, Central and South America and the South Pacific. From 1970 to 1972 he was employed by the Northern Territory Administration as a manual arts instructor to the aboriginal people of Docker River, a remote settlement west of Ayers Rock. A series of drawings from this period was exhibited by the Department of the Interior in Canberra, Sydney and Adelaide.
Robert Ulmann’s paintings and prints of wildlife from Australia and overseas fill a beautiful studio overlooking the famous Logans Beach whale nursery at Warrnambool in the Western District of Victoria. His previous studio and home, together with 13 years of field sketches and his best work collected together for two books were destroyed by the Ash Wednesday fires at Naringal in 1983. Rob exhibited in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth as well as in the Regional Galleries of Warrnambool, Ballarat, Portland and Horsham, and, among numerous prizes, he won the award for watercolour at six of the annual exhibitions of the Wildlife Art Society of Australasia, between 1978 and 1983. Although his principal interest was in drawing and painting, he retained a fascination with sculpture. His works range from two stone fountains with figures commissioned by the City of Zurich, while he was still a student, to a 4 ½ ton sculpture in bluestone commissioned in 1977 as a memorial to Sir Fletcher Jones., a five metre representation of whale tails in steel, and a life-size bronze of St. John of God commissioned for a private hospital.
In September 1989 an Australian Broadcasting Commission documentary on Robert Ulmann’s work as a wildlife artist, with special emphasis on his love of the Southern Right Whale, was shown on television. A Brush with Nature, the first program filmed in the Wildscreen series, has had ten repeats in Australia and been shown around the world, even being dubbed into Thai. Robert and his work were also featured in an article on six Australian artists in the July/August 1990 issue of the North American magazine Wildlife Art News and in November-December 1990 in the inaugural exhibition at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC. He was cover artist of the first wildlife edition of Australian Artist in November 1990, and of the 1993 055 Area Code Phone Book in Telecom’s Australia’s World Class Achievers series.
Robert Ulmann loved the challenge of working directly from life (the greatest tragedy of Ash Wednesday to him was the loss of thousands of field sketches) and of working large in watercolour (up to 120 x 170 cm.). He went bush frequently but also held a shelter permit from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and studied and sketched the birds and animals he rehabilitated for return to the wild. He played a big part in establishing the popularity of whale viewing at Warrnambool, appearing constantly on television, reporting daily on whale whereabouts to the local radio station, DNRE and the Tourist Information Centre, and he fought hard for the establishment of a boat exclusion zone to protect the mothers and calves while they were off our coast. He travelled extensively in outback Australia and overseas in search of subject matter, people and landscapes as well as wildlife, with field trips in latter years to China, Indonesia, PNG, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia , Botswana, the Cook Islands and India and Nepal. Rob died very suddenly on 1 November 1999 but his studio is still visited by artists seeking inspiration, by the now grown-up children who came on school trips to listen to his very funny talks on “whales, art and sex”, and by collectors and visitors who return because they love his work and have never forgotten his passion for life and art. He was, as he always said, “married to the brush”.