By Paul Fairchild
Art at its best speaks to us, tells us stories. This is particularly true of public art, the sculptures and murals with which we pepper our cities. They tell a shared story about a community – how it was built, where it is going, what concepts and values are important to its citizens.
Oklahoma City is fortunate to have many civic-minded benefactors who donate the bronze, painted or steel chapters of the city’s history that sit on corners and in plazas, turning a downtown stroll into a visit to an art museum.
Descriptions of the public art featured here are just that — brief summaries that convey a general idea of what the pieces look like. To assume these summaries could replace the experience of seeing these works in the flesh, as it were, would be to invite a beating from art fans around the city. The stories behind and about the pieces and their makers, however, are not as easy to come by.
This guide provides information organized so that one can walk a specific four-block route in downtown Oklahoma City and see some of its best public art. Hopefully, they will pull you into the city’s story like a well-written book.
Your tour starts at the northeast corner of Robert S. Kerr Ave. and N. Broadway with “Curious Organism,” an offering by Oklahoma City architect and artist Stan Carroll. This fun, prankish piece pulls you in at the overhang of a parking garage and spits you out in the Underground, the three-quarter-mile tunnel system linking 16 blocks and 30 buildings in the downtown area. The Underground itself, a virtual history of Oklahoma City with its many photo galleries, is worth serious exploration … but that’s another article.
In the past, the Underground has been sorely underutilized, the many reasons for which were addressed with its recent renovation. The biggest reason: the entrances were not easily recognizable. This is one of a handful of sculptures intended to call attention to those entrances.
The white metal porcupine – truly, if it were that easily identified, it would lose a lot of its charm – extends its “eyes” through the glass wall, down the steps of the Underground entrance, and along the tunnel, exploring the unusual space. The organism satisfies at least one of its job requirements if, by using your curiosity, it draws you into the Underground and inspires you to start your walking tour … but not before you finish this story!
This sculpture, unlike many in the nearby Oklahoma City Museum of Art, is meant to be toyed with. Carroll explores the idea of vandalism – if you bend a spine here and there, are you subtracting from, or adding to, the organism as a piece of art? Did you vandalize it … or improve it?
Inscribed in its base and translated from the Cherokee is “Falling Water,” a title that is to sculptures what “Smith” is to last names. But it has not previously been written in Cherokee, so sculptor Lin Emery is off the hook, and the piece is definitely unusual.
Immediately anchored to Oklahoma by the Cherokee name, the piece is abstracted from nature, like almost all of Emery’s work. In this case, inspiration came from Oklahoma’s state flower, Mistletoe, and its state bird, the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher. Abstract and aluminum, it is a unique depiction of virgin Oklahoma prairie, the kind Leonard McMurry’s pioneer — whom you will meet in a few stops — crossed to build a new life.
Artists like working with brushed aluminum for many reasons, including its durability and the semi-reflective quality of the metal. At 25 ft. tall, the statue looks unusually delicate, particularly as it sways in the wind, conveying a sense of the energies moving through nature, a favorite subject for Emery. It also abstractly reflects the shapes of the towers surrounding it, reminding the contemplative viewer that they sprouted from nothing but raw prairie.
It is an engaging piece as is, but one of its crucial components has been missing for some time – it is also a fountain, with water rushing down its blades when functional, adding another symbolic and aesthetic feature. The spigot has been off for some time, though, and it is unclear whether it will be turned back on anytime soon. Consider that a disclaimer; consider this a rejoinder: it’s still worth seeing.
“UNITED STATES AIR FORCE MONUMENT”
Head back east to the northern entrance of Kerr Park for an excellent example of urban design. There you will find a water garden oasis, a walkable getaway for cubicled office workers that need a little fresh air at lunchtime.
Following the flow of water will take you south, down the steps and headlong into Leonard McMurry’s U.S. Air Force Monument. Although there is concrete beneath you, you are now in Couch park, which extends west to N. Robinson Ave., dead-ending at Leadership Square.
Erected in 1964, this 65-foot monument dominates Couch Park, honoring members of the U.S. Air Force, particularly those serving at Oklahoma’s Tinker Air Force base. The statue weathered 40 years before a restoration and rededication in 2003.
Featuring a figure anchored with one foot on a globe, the statue holds in one hand a wheel, an ancient symbol of a mode of transportation. His other hand pushes a dagger toward the sky, as if to say, here’s where we were and here’s where we are headed. An eagle representing the United States of America sits at the very top. The figure was modeled after Air Force Lieutenant Wayne Baughman, an Olympic wrestler and Oklahoma City native.
Oklahoma is peppered with McMurry’s work, two of his pieces on this tour alone. Born in Texas in 1913, he didn’t come to Oklahoma until 1955. By that time, he had studied sculpture for years, only taking a break for service during WWII. One critic noted that his pieces come to life as the eye settles on them. His works include “The Legend of the Great Westerner” at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, “Healing Hands” at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, and 21 busts of Oklahoma’s governors.
A time capsule is buried within the sculpture, which will be opened in 2089, the year of Oklahoma City’s bicentennial. Oklahoma history buffs will find it utterly appropriate that E.K. Gaylord II, Cody Kerr and Garen Draper, all young men at the time, placed the time capsule in the monument.
Turn west and walk through Couch Park, past the water wheel. At the far west end of the park, near the corner of Robinson and Couch Dr., you will find the ornate “Sundial” sculpted by Rich Muno. In the details, it celebrates all things Oklahoma, including a large, hollow globe sitting on an equally large horse’s head, a long established symbol of the American West in art.
Although hard to spot the elevated face of the sundial from ground level, it makes sense – surrounded by office towers, sundials don’t work well in shadows, so every inch above the ground gives it that much more time in the sun.
Sundials — and the ability to mark time — have been hallmarks of civilization for more than 3,000 years. This piece is another unique reminder of the civilization brought here first by Native Americans and later by Westerners, both of whom used sundials.
Now that you have found the sundial, locate the smaller symbols that make this timekeeper distinctly Oklahoman. Careful examination of the globe arm reveals a scissor-tailed flycatcher, a WWII-era plane (aerospace industry), cattle, a haystack, an oil rig, a peace pipe, two tepees and three buffalo.
“PIONEERS OF 1889”
Move west toward Robinson and you will be greeted by another McMurry sculpture, “Pioneers of 1889.” Even without an art history degree, one recognizes that this sculpture commemorates Oklahoma’s 1889 Land Run.
This statue’s placement is spectacularly appropriate. A dismounted settler, kneeling next to a horse carrying his young son, literally stakes his claim in the new territory. The settler’s face shows a pioneer’s determination, the unvarnished faith that grit, hard work and persistence will give him the ability to create something out of nothing. Stand at the base of the statue and turn a full circle. Every line of sight terminates on a skyscraper. Only a little more than 100 years have passed since the Land Run and, indeed, Oklahomans — beginning with the pioneers — have raised a bustling center of business and industry from the prairie.
Like all good portrait sculptures, this one inspires empathy. Viewers can’t help but feel the burden of the risk – symbolized nicely by the rifle strapped to the boy’s saddle, readily available for defending against thieves and claim jumpers or hunting the next precious meal – the father has taken on. There is fear next to that determination, but he has found a home — a future — for his family. Look hard enough, and this piece will take you 122 years back in time.
Note that you have barely walked four blocks and you are neck-deep in public art, many more not even mentioned here.
Turn south on Robinson and head east on Park Ave. until you reach the Skirvin Hilton Hotel, a historical and architectural treasure in its own right, restored and renovated a few years ago with an eye toward preserving both its architecture and the history it holds. The restoration was so thoughtful that it doesn’t look that much different than it does in the 60-, 70- and 80-year-old photos hanging in the lobby.
South of the building entrance stands Enoch Kelly’s “The Guardian,” a small reproduction of the sculpture that crown’s the Oklahoma Capitol’s dome – here is an opportunity to see the famous piece up close.
Haney has said the sculpture represents all Oklahomans, Native American or otherwise, who have weathered hard times: the Trail of Tears, the Dust Bowl era, the Murrah Building bombing, and other hardships. They do so with the same determination and grit as McMurry’s pioneer, and have earned their own monument.
In 2002, the 22-foot-tall original statue was installed on the dome of the capitol; its name takes on more meaning for the larger version. Haney, also a state politician, intended the bronze warrior, eyes searching the horizon and spear at the ready, to make a statement about the vigilant public officers ready to protect and serve in the Capitol building beneath it.
You have reached the end of this tour. For more art, the Red Earth Museum, featuring works by several Native American artists, is tucked into the east side of the Santa Fe Plaza. If you are looking to get your bearings and find your parking space, you are merely two blocks south of the first stop, “Curious Organism.”