There's a whole lot of art and artistic opportunities in our great little town. That doesn't look to change in the coming months and years. And hey, that's pretty damn cool.
Just a short rundown of what resides in Tulsa includes one of the best ballet companies on Planet Earth, almost as many theatre companies as churches (that's an amazingly large number, by the way), a thriving music scene covering many genres, exciting visual artists to go along with interesting, occasionally offbeat displays of their work, two different symphonic organizations, a truly world-class collection of spaces at our own Performing Arts Center, and new venues opening almost monthly.
And remember, that's just the short rundown.
It's really difficult to say what the best thing in Tulsa is, or the most fascinating, or the one thing that's unique to our humble burg -- so much so, that I'm not going to try. But what we do have are a pair of up-and-coming artists, a pair of theatre companies that embody the idea of the old and the new, and a shin-kicking new arts facility in the Brady district, the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa Hardesty Arts Center, mercifully known as the AHHA.
Courtesy of Alex Walker
Standing proudly in the Brady Arts district, the AHHA is a four-story arts mecca. As its name states, it is an extension of the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa, and so far, it's making a splash at least as big as the figure it cuts downtown.
Buzzing with classes, kids' activities, art exhibits, workshops, AHHA continues -- and perhaps cements -- the arts as one of the driving factors in the revitalization of downtown. Most Tulsans remember when downtown lacked only the tumbleweeds that would have driven home its status as a ghost town, but now there's the Guthrie Green, a new ballpark, swanky living spaces, and more restaurants and clubs than most people can get to in a month of nights out.
Still, we call it the Brady Arts district for a reason -- places like AHHA and all the artistic goings-on here.
Alex Walter and Kurt Alfredo Richards-Belmontes are pair of up-and-coming artists our town should be proud of. Both visual artists are creating exciting works that are making people sit up and take notice.
Walter, for his part, doesn't seem all that particular about what he does, just that he's doing something.
"I'm a mixed-media visual artist," he said. "I do most of my stuff with a combination of acrylics, watercolor, and a Japanese ink. As far as what types of art I do, it's really pretty eclectic."
This is definitely borne out by a pair of projects he's recently completed, and one would be hard pressed to find a pair of projects by one artist that are farther apart in terms of subject matter and intent.
"I finished a piece for the City of Tulsa for the Trap the Grease campaign," he said. "That was cool."
In an effort to make Tulsans more aware of what we're putting down our drains and what is and isn't tough on our wastewater infrastructure, the city has embarked on an awareness campaign.
"They wanted to use something like '50s-style horror movie posters to make people look at what we're putting down the drain," Walter said. "It's like our arteries -- if it's going to clog your pipes, it's going to clog the city's pipes. We worked with some ideas like The Blob and the damsel in distress, and it took off. Now, these visuals are all over the place."
The art is fun, it's eye-catching, and it sends a message. It may not be the most highbrow message ever sent, but hey, it's a public service campaign. It's not destined for the Guggenheim.
That is in stark contrast to a recent commission the artist completed, Walter said.
"I just did a commission piece this holiday season for a friend," Walter said. "He wanted a gift for his wife, and what I did was a juxtaposition of his and his wife's faiths. He's a Buddhist and she's a Christian, so I did a piece for him about that."
Certainly a far cry from a PSA about grease, but art is art, and Walter is passionate about it all, as is Richards-Belmontes.
Richards-Belmontes is also a mixed-media type, and is quite loath to commit to one form.
"I do abstracts, I do seascapes, landscapes; I've done sculpture before, but in the watercolors, it all comes with the territory," he said. "I guess I do a little of all of that."
Courtesy of Alex Walker
His current passion is something he calls "re-arte."
"I take recycled material and I paint on them," he explained. "Like cardboard. I use aerosol, paint, watercolor, stickers -- anything that can be reused, I use."
He makes what, to him, is a natural connection between his re-arte and his watercolors (not to mention the deconstructive work he enjoys doing with denim), linking them together in a way only an artist can.
"I'm a watercolor artist. I paint figures, mostly women," he said. "They're kind of abstract in a way. And you'll see the same styles in the re-arte."
How the re-arte came to be is as fascinating as the faint accent with which Richards-Belmontes speaks.
"I grew up in the Virgin Islands, and so whatever you could find, you painted on," he said. "Growing up in the islands, we had teachers that showed us that, you know, walking to school, if you find something, bring it to school, and we'd paint it."
It would seem that the green movement is reaching farther and farther.
"I'm very green -- saving and recycling anything is good," Richards-Belmontes said. "I hate trash, and I hate to see piles of trash."
And again, the Virgin Islands childhood had its effect there, as well.
"Just growing up in an environment where whatever I had, I used, that's what I did. And as a watercolorist, I even make my own paper. You know, I can get whatever I want, but I guess I want to do it in a way that can be responsible," he said.
As for Walter, his passion runs so deep he's incorporated his art into his day job.
Courtesy of Alex Walker
"I work at the Tulsa Boys' Home in substance abuse doing counseling and stuff like that," he said. "I've really tried to incorporate art into every facet of my life, and that's no exception. I work alongside the boys every week. I mean, art has been so cathartic for me, so I see that it's been an outlet for them. It's helped me build relationships with them. I'm 27, and these kids are teenagers, so I'm not too far removed from adolescence, but as far as my art is concerned, it's helped further bridge that gap."
When he's not working on a commission, Walter is creating whatever art he feels like pursuing on a given day.
"It's definitely what I'm in the mood for or whatever I'm trying to work through," he said. "It's something I've been doing since I was young, like most artists, and I really enjoy it. That's why I do it."
As for Richards-Belmontes, he also started out young and did a great deal of self-instruction, a lot of it in graffiti before discovering that watercolor would become so important to him as an artist.
"My training started off as learning things on my own, just because I liked it," he said. "I'm pretty good at learning things and picking things up."
As a junior high kid, he gained admission to an afterschool program for graduating seniors, and there got some instruction in the basics of art, and from there, eventually wound up in Tulsa.
COURTESY OF KURT ALFREDO RICHARDS-BELMONTES
"I came to Tulsa to go to ORU, and that's when I learned how to do watercolor," he said. "I did that for quite a bit and did a lot of shows in the Tulsa area, and then I started doing the re-arte."
He went back to his ORU days often during the interview, expressing gratitude for what he learned there.
"If it weren't for ORU, I wouldn't have learned watercolor," he said. "I had a teacher there who showed me a totally different world. I was into graffiti and street art, and the watercolor was just completely different. It gave me an interest and made me want to learn about art history. I wanted to do things that looked like quality art."
And so he started doing just that, and continues to do so, though his process when it comes to creating a work of art may be a little incomprehensible to outsiders.
"Well, I was a biology and art major, so I go about it like a scientist would," Richards-Belmontes explained. "I'll think about something and research it. I'll find pictures or shapes and work that way."
What his approach seems to say is that he is guided more by colors than other forces.
"Say I wanted to do a picture that's orange and blue and black. I'll take those colors and mix them up with shapes and things, and basically do rough drafts," he said. "I gather up pictures and everything I need, and then I put it together. It can take a few months or a year. It has to be right, or I won't do it."
Whereas a lot of watercolor artists or portrait painters might just start painting, Richards-Belmontes has his own approach, and it's one that he recognizes might be a little unusual.
"It's a little bit insane," he said.
While, like most visual artists, it's tough to pin Walter down as to what he does and how he goes about it, when pressed, he spoke of depth, of feeling, of fun, but also what he feels makes his artwork his own.
"Whether it's a figure drawing or a landscape or whatever, there's always a unique take on the norm," he said. "I'm about color and fun and vibrancy and motion or whatever. I guess that no matter how simple the piece is, I try to give it some depth."
What that means to him, exactly, resonates in what he called the feeling of the piece.
"For instance, when it comes to portraiture, I focus on the feeling of the piece," he said. "That's where I start and finish in terms of depth. I'll play up the emotion and try to evoke a feeling based on the expression of the subject, or maybe the color harmony or different techniques."
While that's a lot of artsy words to fall on the ears of non-artists, Walter isn't one of those pretentious artists given over to bemoaning the ignorance of the masses. Rather, he recognizes that, basically, people know what they enjoy.
"Everybody's not necessarily an art historian or a buff, but people know what they like and what they respond to," he said. "The works that I've been commissioned to do have been [in] large part a result of me doing something I like to do that has sparked something in someone else." That certainly backs his contention that people know what they like, and lucky for Walter, a lot of what people seem to like seems to be coming from his brain. And isn't that what every artist wants?
COURTESY OF ODEUM THEATRE
What the future holds for both artists is as uncertain as what it holds for any of us. Nonetheless, each has his ideas.
"I just want to be happy," Walter began. "I'd like to establish some level of success. Where that is, and what that is, I have no idea. Even in this past year, I wasn't aiming for the things I've gotten done, but just being passionate about what I do has put me on a certain trajectory."
By way of example, he referred to RAW: natural born artists, a collective of artists that seeks to provide artists just embarking on their careers with the tools and exposure to get them up and running in the art world. It was his involvement with this group that led him eventually to securing the Trap the Grease campaign.
"There are projects that aren't necessarily falling into my lap, but are certainly the result of the path I've been on," he said.
Both artists have plans for the future, though neither set of plans is incredibly concrete. Then again, whose are?
"This year, I have three projects I want to work on," Richards-Belmontes said. "I want to finish four watercolors, I want to finish designing three pairs of jeans, and I want to have 30 pieces of re-arte."
And he has less-specific plans for on down the line.
"In ten years, I'll be in a small, cold studio pumping out so much art that I won't be seen by the public," he said. He laughed as he said it, but one gets the feeling he's not kidding.
"They'll just see that art. I'll be doing the same thing I am now, but on a different level. I enjoy it so much, and I want people to see my work," he said.
Walter is equally mercurial in what's ahead for him.
"I just want to see myself out there. I'm not necessarily on a crusade, but you definitely want to look back and have a sense of fulfillment. I want to put myself out there and have it take off. I want to affect people and speak to people."
Don't we all, Alex? Don't we all.
When one thinks of the arts in Tulsa, though, it's arguably the theatrical work that comes to mind. In Theatre Tulsa, we have the oldest community theatre west of the Mississippi. And in Tulsa Project Theatre, we have the new kid, and that new kid has achieved Equity status, something no one else in town has done, and this has changed a lot of things.
What both have in common right now, though, is a sense of starting over. While TPT is in its third season, snagging the Equity designation has radically changed things for the troupe, according to Artistic Director Todd Cunningham.
"The way TPT budgets, produces shows, auditions, rehearses, you name it, is different than it was in our first two years," he said. "Once we met the standards required to become an Equity company, we had to then fulfill all of the obligations of actually being an an affiliate."
Those obligations include many rules regarding the health and safety of the actors, as Equity is a labor organization. This means laundering costumes, mandated breaks in rehearsal, required pay scales, and a myriad of other things that a community theater doesn't face. It's a lot of change.
"If your first two or three years in any business are the most difficult, we, in many ways, are back in year one," Cunningham said.
While TPT may be struggling to make things work in its new paradigm (but make no mistake -- this company is not struggling to create quality and commercially successful productions), Theatre Tulsa is struggling to right itself after flirting with complete and total destruction.
Sara Phoenix is TT's artistic director, and she spoke of taking over a dying organization last year.
"There were a lot of changes back in May," she explained. "Basically, there was an overhaul to the whole organization, and that brought a lot of new people in, both theatre-people and non-theatre-people."
Exactly why this overhaul came about is a matter of debate -- at least as to how the company arrived at its need for said overhaul -- but the bottom line is that when Phoenix sat down in her TT chair, the troupe had $45 in the bank and was staring down the barrel of $18,000 in debt. That makes it hard to think about putting on a show.
"It scared me," Phoenix said. "I grew up doing some shows with Theatre Tulsa. I was in them and I saw them. I couldn't sit back and let it just happen this way."
She got started by bringing in new board members, eschewing a board full of actors in favor of finding people who could help the company in ways other than by being in shows.
"It's a lot of people who don't do theatre, but people who have experience in grant writing and governing and things like that. The old way, with actors and things like that, it just wasn't working," she said.
So far, though, the new way is working. The company has produced a fairly successful season since kicking off its 2012-2013, opening with The Odd Couple, and immediately collaborating with Odeum Theatre to produce Hamlet, paving the way for one of the best reviews I've ever read in a Tulsa newspaper. I mean, the Tulsa World freaking loved that show.
Still, Phoenix expressed reservations, which is understandable, given her inheritance.
"This isn't the perfect season," she said. "It's the season we put together because we had to. But we keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually, things are going to be what we want."
Cunningham's TPT, on the other hand, is crushing it. There doesn't seem to be much standing in the company's way of continuing to do so.
"With every show prior to becoming Equity, our production quality seemed to improve," Cunningham said. "But it wasn't until we were in the middle of this recent production of Rocky and throughout the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat run that we knew we were beginning to reach the levels we had always hoped to reach."
While both companies are making great leaps forward, they are definitely on different paths. Considering one is a community theater and one is professional, that's not surprising.
"Our work recently has been to get stable financially," Phoenix said of the community players. "We have almost completely reduced the debt. We have money in the bank to finance the rest of the season."
That's no small feat, and it's due to a group of people coming together with a united purpose.
"We have a great vision for the company. We have great people involved, and in the past six months, a lot of people have rallied because they believe that Theatre Tulsa should not only just exist, but it should flourish," she said. "We are carrying the important weight and significance of 90 years of Tulsans who built this company through two world wars, a depression, all the people who bought tickets and came to shows over 90 years. It's a lot to be entrusted with."
COURTESY OF KURT ALFREDO RICHARDS-BELMONTES
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