|Milton Ohring sculpts in his Teaneck garage. The bronze serpent, inset bottom left, tempts bronze Eve; the work’s other side shows the apple firmly in Eve’s hand.|
Dr. Milton Ohring of Teaneck is using his retirement to weave together many of the strands of his life – his family’s escape from the Holocaust, his education as an artist, his decades-long career as a metallurgist.
No, not weave. Make the solder.
Ohring creates works in metal and stone. Some are secular, some based on Biblical stories or other Jewish texts, and some refer directly to the Shoah. His approach is highly cerebral – as satisfying as they are to look at and touch, his explanation of their meaning makes them more accessible – and his understanding of his materials’ properties allows him to shape them to tell stories.
Ohring was born in Poland in 1936. He was very lucky – his mother, also Polish-born, had gone to the United States in the 1920s and gained American citizenship before she went back to Poland, married, and had two sons. When the news of Kristallnacht reached Poland, the Ohring family left; because three of the four were American citizens, they were able to do so fairly easily.
The family settled in Hunts Point, in the Bronx, where Mayer and Malke (or, by now, Max and Mollie) Ohring opened a grocery store. Many other refugees made their way to the neighborhood, speaking in the Yiddish that all the Ohrings understood about the horrors they’d seen. “I heard many testimonies,” Milton Ohring said.
A painter since he was young, Ohring took the subway from the Bronx to 135th Street and Convent Avenue in Manhattan, where he went to the High School of Music and Art, graduating in 1953. The school did not offer sculpture then – now, as LaGuardia School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, across from Lincoln Center, it does – but “I was fortunate that one of my father’s customers was a sculptor, and he gave me the tools,” Ohring said. Still, most of his art was two-dimensional then.
Ohring went on to Columbia, earning his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees there; he had always been interested in science, so it was a natural choice. He specialized in metallurgy, partly because of the tactile connection to sculpture, but more “because this was the time of Sputnik,” Ohring said. The United States was caught up in the space race with the Soviet Union, and the Communists seemed to be winning. This country desperately needed scientists so it could build bigger and better equipment to get us farther and faster into outer space.
“There were many jobs in the defense industry, and metallurgy was one of the most important,” Ohring said. “The newspapers said that it was the most popular engineering subject in Russia. It was really being promoted as a career, and I bit.”
He would have loved to have a career as an artist, “but I didn’t think I could have made it in art – and I was right,” he said. And as a husband and father of three children, active in the Teaneck Jewish Center, with a 36-year career at the Stevens Institute, where he taught, researched, directed and mentored doctoral students, supervised a program with Bell Labs, and wrote four textbooks fundamental to his field, he had little time left to breathe, much less to make art.
Twelve years ago, though, Ohring retired. “I always knew that I would go back to art,” he said. He had to teach himself to sculpt – “I started with some ideas, but with few tools and no materials to execute them in practice,” he said. “But as a trained metallurgist, I was well versed in the nature of materials, and I had worked with many tools in various machine shops over the years.”
Ohring works with limestone, marble, granite, and bluestone; some of his work is bronze, cast in a foundry, and some of it is made of other metals. He has found himself increasingly focusing on the Shoah; he has shown some of that work at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, and some has found a home at Teaneck High School.
Ohring’s work combines passion and intellect; he has pieces based on Yiddish lullabies of piercing sadness, and on the mind-numbing statistics of death the Germans produced and husbanded.
It is hard to miss the fury and tenderness of his art. “I feel that I have pursued my art with virtually the same intensity I expended in my engineering career,” he said. “Instead of educating future technologists, I hope to leave an artistic legacy for the Jewish people.”