Walk through downtown some weekday at lunch time and look around. You'll see that downtown revitalization isn't just something being talked about anymore. It's happening.
It's really a very exciting feeling.
One of the centerpieces of the revitalization has been the Atlas Life building on Boston. Just by standing there and looking awesome, it seems like it has been the guiding force of the Deco district. After all, the thing was built in the 1920s.
Anyone who's been paying any attention to downtown probably recognizes the four-story neon sign that marks the front of the Atlas Life building.
The names Joseph Buchanan and Linda Rimstidt Coward might not be as easily recognized, but we'll get to that in a minute.
A little more attention probably brings into focus the fact that there's a Marriott hotel housed in the structure. How it came to be that way, though, might not be common knowledge.
To go along with the oil boom that enriched Tulsa early last century, there were fantastic, ornate, spectacular, sturdy, powerful buildings erected with all that cash. People came to Tulsa from the coasts, brought their money with them, and further fueled the Tulsa economy. And in 1922, Atlas Life Insurance built the Art Deco structure. And they built it well --there are walls toward the base of it that are three feet thick.
Like any tale, though, there came a fall. Tulsa was no different. As the oil boom ended, the economy tanked, and lots changed.
The building housed Atlas Life Insurance until the company vacated the property in 1991. It passed through the hands of Tulsa Public Schools and Kanbar Properties until it was acquired by Jeff Hartman, managing partner of SJS Hospitality.
Hartman and his partners wanted to bring something unique to Tulsa.
"When I purchased the Atlas Life building, Downtown Tulsa was on the verge of a renaissance, and I recognized the need in this emerging market for a limited-service, Marriott brand hotel," he said.
Teaming with Marriott brought something special: a hotel brand that was then missing from Tulsa housed in an historical building--something else Tulsa didn't have, since many of Tulsa's historical buildings are underused--that is, the ones that haven't been demolished.
That brings us to today (skipping over a few things, admittedly), which finds the Atlas teeming with life: locals, tourists, shopkeepers, foot traffic.
Among the shops nestled on the ground floor of this fantastic building is a trio of artist studios, and two of them share a back room. Farthest into the building is Betty Dalsing's studio. An oil painter who uses a palette knife almost exclusively, Dalsing is succinct.
"I love this building."
And she's helped all three artists in the building increase traffic by joining with the Brady district in participating in the First Friday art crawl--for those of you not paying attention, it's the first Friday of the month, and it's a time to chill out and check out the arts scene.
"When people come downtown, they've got the Brady, they've got the Atlas. Hopefully, more people will join us, and we'll have a First Friday artfest," Dalsing said.
She went on to describe the matter-of-fact way in which she and the other artists joined in the fun this past March.
"When I got here, we all talked about it, and there didn't seem any sense in starting another Friday. Brady's been doing it for years," she said.
So the First Friday art crawl, along with the location of the Atlas and its surroundings, bring in foot traffic. And these people see these three studios.
Occupying these other spots are the two very exciting artists: Joseph Buchanan and Linda Rimstidt Coward.
And these two really are exciting artists. PR people might throw that word around a lot to spruce up their clients, but in this case, it's really true. Just talking to either one engenders a palpable sense of glee, of the joy of the arts.
They are both thrilled to talk about their artwork, though in nothing even approaching a pretentious manner. They are ecstatic over the coming-to-life of downtown Tulsa. They both seem to be something we hear very little of in our dramatic, neo-Romantic society: the not-at-all-tortured artist.
Coward practically gushed when talking about her studio and the now-lively downtown Tulsa, having recently relocated to the Atlas Life building from her pottery shop in Brookside called, shockingly enough, Brookside Pottery.
"I've been a potter for 40 years, and I was in Brookside for almost 20 years. When I moved downtown, that was a significant time. I've been so devoted: I live in Brookside, my shop was in Brookside. I still love Brookside, but I've always wanted to see downtown happen. I finally trusted it enough and love it enough to come downtown," she said.
And both invoke Hartman when talking about where they are and what they're doing.
"I did a one-man show in Tulsa," Buchanan said, "and Jeff Hartman came down to see it. He asked me to come down and look at the space. I did, and I liked it. Then I told Linda I was coming in, and she was like, 'Oh my god, I've been trying to get you in here, and now here you are.'"
So began their side-by-side adventure, which has led to many collaborative works--something that Coward said is unusual.
"It's very rare to find two artists who can work together." She said. But she went on to say that the rewards are great.
"Collaboration can be a magnificent way to express yourself with another artist" Coward said.
The reasons why they work well together may have to do with universal language or the stars or just physical proximity (Buchanan begun his explanation of their joint works by saying, We share a sink and stuff in the back part of my studio. We use it together"), or it may be just common, cross-curricular interests.
"He treats painting like I treat clay, and I treat clay like he treats painting, in a way. We're both very textural in our art. And I treat clay like a canvas," Coward said. "So the collaboration already looks like it was taking place."
She also returns to the subject of the building and its arts-friendly owner often, as well. She credits the building and Hartman both with anchoring Tulsa, its arts, and its downtown.
"I think there's a lot happening here. You can just feel the enthusiasm. And this building in particular, with the help of Jeff Hartman, is really making art happen," she said. "If you look at the shops just right here, you can see that he's given me the opportunity to collaborate."
Hartman is not an artist. He did stick his head in during an interview with Coward and said enough to her for a listener to ascertain that he's taking a pottery class with her, though. But he is a patron and lover of the arts.
"Personally, my wife and I enjoy and support the arts," he said. "And we wanted to provide more cultural opportunities in downtown Tulsa."
Past the collaborative efforts, both artists have points to make about exactly what they're doing on that first floor, and why they're doing it.
For Buchanan, in the end, it's about education--at least a type of education.
"The whole idea is to create an environment where people can come in and observe art being created," he said. It takes the mystique away a little bit, and gives people a better idea of how it's done."
Passersby can see artworks in progress, in various stages of completion, and on display. This, according to Buchanan, changes their perception of all art in general.
"When a person goes into a gallery, they only see the [finished] artwork. The process is romanticized. People have their own concepts about that. But this gives them a little more reality and what it's really like."
Coward leaned a little more toward the good-press-for-Tulsa side of things when she talked about what these art shops were accomplishing.
"People who come to the hotel get a real sense of Tulsa artists, because they actually see it being made, and that's pretty unique. We have people coming into the hotel and saying, 'This is fantastic. I've never seen anything like this in a Marriott before,'" she said.
And praise for the building trickles down like Reaganomics was supposed to.
"We get a lot of foot traffic. In fact, it's interesting, we get a real combination. We have people come through going to the Atlas Grill, to the deli, and now we have Delk's next door, and we have the Press Club next to us," she said.
She also likes the fact that people who might not actively seek out art end up seeing it anyway. She's kind of an art guerilla that way.
"We get this traffic every day of people who aren't artists, and they check up on us. They'll stick their heads in and see what we're up to," Coward said.
While all three artists love the building, and they all use the building well, they do so in very different ways.
Buchanan only creates some of his work on-site, using it as a studio only from 11:30a to 3:30p, and the rest of the time, the space functions as a gallery--a kind of advertising display.
"It's a place to expose people to art being created, as well as being displayed," Buchanan said--and Coward would echo that sentiment later. "Most of the stuff in here right now is not for sale. These are just examples of what I do. I designed the furniture, that table, I have sculpted marble, and I paint," he said, indicating various members of the hodgepodge of really cool stuff in his studio.
It follows, then, if he's not selling work out of his space, he must be getting work somehow, and he is: commissioned works, which he said make up a vast majority of his art sales.
As an example, he indicates a large, square painting hanging on the west wall of his studio. It's by no means photo-realistic in any way, but neither is it his usual abstract art. Its colors are bright, almost garish (but not quite). Dominating the piece is a cartoonish figure with a big nose and holding a rather abstract guitar. Buchanan had created this piece on his own, and boy, is he excited about it.
"This is Mr. Rhythm. He's a self-taught musician from Oklahoma out in the panhandle. His family passed away. So these flowers are from his mother, and here's the red dirt. And he travels through Oklahoma. Here's the Catoosa whale, and this is his guitar," he explained, genuinely engaged in the story his art was telling.
A few days after the painting went up on display, the law firm of Graham, Allen, and Brown commissioned four more along the same lines.
"I think they wanted the colors, the way it's got kind of a jazzy, funky, fun kind of feel to it," he said. "I think they wanted something that wasn't too serious and to relate to where they are."
He seamlessly moved to the other works, continuing Mr. Rhythm's travel tales.
"And here he is in Muskogee. Another one has the Admiral Twin in the background, and the Blue Dome," he said.
And here's where the first indications of his artist mind start to show that he doesn't think just like everyone else (or rather, that he thinks like no one else): "He's captivated by certain areas of Oklahoma, you know, where the action is. Like for instance, a night of jazz: Muskogee has produced more jazz musicians per capita than any other city in the world," he said, taking the conversation to in interesting, although completely unforeseen place.
He holds forth on music -- he's also a multi-instrumentalist and has a pedigree to brag about, as his uncle was guitarist Roy Buchanan -- as if that's his art, too, but also trying to convey his message about art using musical analogies. He's a fascinating man, by the way.
He referenced his uncle in one of these analogies:
"I remember as a kid, when I was playing music, everything I played sounded like everybody else's stuff. And I asked my uncle, 'How do you get to that place where you can play just anything and it sounds like you, not like anybody else?' And he said, 'You just gotta let yourself go, let yourself open up to it and feel the music. Before you know it, everything you play will be uniquely your sound.' It's the same thing with painting. You see things from your own perspective," he said. One might not understand exactly, specifically what Buchanan is saying, but at the same time, nevertheless totally gets it--much like reading an e.e. cummings poem.
He breaks out a wind flute he made on a whim out of a piece of PVC tubing. He makes fascinating sounds on it. He compares different media to different musical instruments, all the while balancing different aspects of his identity as an artist.
"I'm a sculptor who paints. That bowl right there is the only thing I've ever made out of clay," he said, indicating a beautiful bowl that, it turns out, functions in the same way a Tibetan Singing Bowl does. "I don't consider myself a potter, though. That's just a medium."
He continued, saying that while the medium may affect the product, it doesn't change the producer.
"It doesn't really change me as an artist to be painting or sculpting. I'm still creating art. It's like a musician, you know, if I play my guitar vs. playing the piano, I'm still playing," he said.
Like Buchanan, Dalsing doesn't create exclusively in her studio.
"I paint in here about twice a week," she said. Creating art right before the eyes of onlookers, which she notices.
"I'll have people just sit on a bench out there and watch me paint," she said.
Unlike Buchanan, she has a milieu to which she often returns.
"My art is Impressionist art. I'm not a realist. It is representational -- if you look at a painting of mine, you can tell it's a tree or a mountain," Dalsing said.
In a lot of ways, Dalsing seems like a natural link between Coward and Buchanan, and one wishes her studio was located between theirs, as a lot of things she says seem to help better connect their ideas.
"I like a lot of color. I'm not exactly a colorist, but I like to use a lot of bright colors. I don't just do landscapes, but that's my primary interest," Dalsing said.
As mentioned above, she doesn't paint at the Atlas every day, but says she does, indeed, paint something each and every day.
"I paint out as often as I can onsite. I paint here, too, but I travel to wherever, and I paint wherever I go. I also take photographs so if the weather's bad, I still have something to paint," she said.
Coward, unlike Buchanan and Dalsing, uses her space exclusively for her work, from conception to execution to display to sales. Okay, she actually fires the pots at her kiln back at her old Brookside shop. But other than that...
Indicating several pots throughout the room, she said that while some of them were created at her old studio, once those were sold, all that will be left are works created in her new space.
"This is where I produce, and this is where I show, and this is what's so nice about this space. It's just the right size for me. It doesn't overwhelm me," she said.
This eventually led her to speak about her actual process, her themes, and her point of view as an artist.
"I make the pot, and then I draw and inscribe into the clay. Then I fire it, and I come back and use the glaze like paint," she said, referring mostly to her pots on which she said she transfers landscapes.
"It's always a surprise. I never know exactly what it's going to look like when it's done. I mean, I have an idea, but..." She paused, then pressed on, striking at the heart of who she is and what she does.
"If you take a classic form, then you don't have to convince somebody that the actual form of the pot is good. So if you can rely on your history and knowledge that way, and elaborate with surface design, then you can make your own pretty strong statement," Coward said.
"I reflect my environment, and I communicate my personal feelings through my pottery. They tell stories. They tell how I feel through color, texture, and subject," she said.
And while she is a potter, she seemed to struggle with defining exactly what she was, ending somewhere on a continuum between potter and sculptor.
"I never wanted to be a production potter. I don't want to compete with machines. I don't want to compete with China or Wal-Mart. It's not about that, although I do enjoy making utilitarian pieces, and it's very nice to know you're making things that people can use on a daily basis and appreciate it. However, that's not enough for me as an artist," she said.
"So I translate landscapes onto clay surfaces in a very painterly way," Coward said. And it's fascinating art work to look at.
And as if taking a painting and turning it into a pot weren't enough, she casually mentioned creating a series of pots based on the poetry of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. She says it matter-of-factly, as if anyone in the world could read a poem and say to herself, "Hey, I bet I could make a pot out of that."
When Buchanan speaks of his artist process, it is in specifics -- pretty much the opposite of how Coward approached speaking about it. And he does so in a scattershot, ADHD kind of way that adds a sense of giddiness to what he says about each piece--and by extension, his own style and process -- as he moves from one to another.
"In my furniture, I always try to make it as simple and light and balanced as I possibly can. Like this table -- it is held together with one bolt. And it's 300 pounds," he said. It really is an amazing table.
But wait. There's more.
"This painting here," he said, pulling it off the wall. "I put metal in it and I used electricity to move paint around." Pulling another down, the surface of the painting actually quite bumpy, he said, "And this one, that's iron. This is the big island of Hawaii, and this was done with electricity."
Right. Electricity. As if anyone in the world could look at a canvas and say, "I bet I could use electricity to paint something on that."
Through some miracle of science involving aluminum and submerged canvas and paint and a probe, electricity ends up putting paint on the painting surface. Who the hell thinks like this?
And how did he come up with this? By accident. A light fell and landed on wet paint.
"It was a metallic paint, and I saw that when the light broke, the electricity that hit the paint made a pattern," he said. Nonchalantly, at that.
When prodded about his style, his themes, his milieu, he finally spoke in general terms, rather than narrowly focusing on individual works.
"I use a lot of texture to create an emotion," he said.
But every time you paint a painting, it depends on what you're feeling when it happens. This can evoke sadness, or all sorts of other emotions."
He returned to a concrete example present in a series of works called "The Path." The largest of the three sports a multi-hued, orange-ish, mottled background, and coming from the left side of the canvas, a straight, thick, black line. Near the center of the work, the line dissipates into spatters of paint, creating something of a swirling effect.
"Lots of people have seen lots of different things here," he said. "But it's The Path. You're going along, and here's the point where you either get it or you don't, and you, like, explode. You just get it, and you're part of your world. That's what it means."
One gets the feeling he meant to finish with "to me." And who knows what another day might find in interpretations of these works?
Coward and Buchanan share some elements of their artistic points of view. However, and interestingly enough, they seem to be a perfect yin and yang in terms of what they think about art, how they approach it, and how they create it. They aren't in opposition, but they're opposites in a lot of ways: witness the aforementioned self-description from Buchanan in which he identified himself as a sculptor who paints. And they both fixate on different things in their art and in their speaking about art.
Asked similar questions, and in interviews following the same path, both artists gave answers that sometimes gibed, sometimes, stood in opposition, but never in conflict.
Buchanan: "As Carl Jung said, 'The artist is the last person you want to ask about a painting.'"
Coward: "One of my favorite quotes--and I can't remember who said it--is that our culture and society will be judged by our art and our science. When I was a little girl, I thought it was art vs. science, but the more sophisticated you get, the more you see the integration. I have to know physics and chemistry in what I do, and any good scientist has to be creative."
Buchanan: "I get bored easy. As a child, I was always looking for something new to do. As an adult, I guess I've just kept doing that. I don't give up easy. I'm very tenacious. Whatever I start, I finish."
Coward: "I don't want to be bored, so I don't keep the same themes always. I just trust my feelings and interests, and I try to interpret those things artistically in my work. Yes, we're a victim of our culture and time, so I remain somewhat contemporary, but I still look to the ancient traditions for the basics of what I'm doing. I have contemporary colors, but clay is so very basic. It's a universal language."
Buchanan: "I've focused on doing what I enjoy doing. If I can't do something well, I don't do it. Usually, if I want to do it bad enough, I can do it."
Coward: "It's always a hard decision whether to stay comfortable and acceptable and relate to everybody, or push forward and be a leader in design."
Each artist gives something away when speaking at length, and what each leans toward is not surprising after spending any time with either: he speaks about a specific work, while she waxes rhapsodic (and mind-bogglingly) about color.
"Whether we realize it or not, we are a part of these trends," she began. "Lots of times, I'll get interested in a color, and then I find out that the whole society is interested in the same color. It's happened several times over the past 40 years."
She cites the national fascination with the neutrals and turquoises and pinks of the southwest palette that everyone was nuts over toward the end of the last millennium.
"But then people migrated to green, and I did, as well. Now young people are really leaning toward reds and oranges. I don't know what the next is, but I betcha I can feel it." She laughed, but she wasn't kidding.
She went on, citing the elemental nature of red, describing it almost in terms of an archetype, though not one she has fully grasped, by her own admission.
"Red's a real basic, intense color. Everywhere from the red dot in India to the splashes of the red dot on my pots," she said, referring to her signature present on each piece. "And I've been trying to figure out why this is so compelling and why I can't stop.
Eventually, she posited a theory:
"I think our colors reflect how our society is feeling," she said. But as to why that is, and why we as a society seem to choose the same colors at the same point in time, she is at a loss, though it is an understandable one.
"It's so visual and it's so intuitive that I don't understand it. But I just go with it," she said.
In opposition to Coward's universalistic thoughts, Buchanan talks specifics, specifically a piece he sculpted for the Clinton Library in Little Rock.
He and nine students from the University of Arkansas worked to bring in busloads of school-aged kids from all over the state. The goals were myriad, but first and foremost was creating this work of art from a 14-ton slab of rock.
How do an artist, nine art students, and 3,000 kids create one work of art? It starts with lines on paper.
"I handed out a rectangular piece of paper, and on that paper was a box. I asked them to draw two lines within that box. They could be any kind of lines they wanted," he said.
Given the nature of a square on paper, adding two lines creates a pattern.
"We took those patterns and categorized all 3,000 of them and sculpted it. And it's called 'In a Child's Mind,'" Buchanan said. As if anyone in the world could look at a giant rock and say, "I bet I could get 3,000 random kids to make lines on paper and make the resulting patterns into something on that."
So there's art downtown. And it's not stuffy art, either.
In fact, some might say it's the driving force behind the revitalization of downtown Tulsa. Atlas Life owner Hartman is one of them, citing features like two of the artists in his building as elements that bring the most important part of a reinvigorated downtown: warm bodies.
"People are drawn to vibrant downtowns because of the one-of-a-kind experiences that cities have to offer," Hartman said. "The arts is a key element in providing that unique experience that attracts people downtown, and without people, you cannot have a revived downtown."
There's a terrific building with fascinating people and amazing things inside, and there's a whole new life emerging on those streets, among those buildings. It's a new creature--it's a live, engaged, living, breathing downtown Tulsa. It's exciting. It's enough to make you want to go and paint something.
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