POSTED ON AUGUST 3, 2011:
Ah, So Epiphany
Midsummer night's dream comes true for an artist's artist. Local practitioners are in good hands with long-time,multi-dimensional, Tulsa-loving arts diva
For Melanie Fry, serving as curator of an art exhibit is as easy as waking up in the morning.
A counselor by day who dabbles in art -- pastels, mostly -- and theater in her spare time, Fry has an animated, semi-manic personality that allows her to become easily enthralled with whatever thought pops into her mind and then to turn that thought, in this case anyway, into an intensive project like a group art show.
Essentially, Fry woke up one day and said, "I want to do an art show," and that's how Oh, Tulsa! was born.
"I wanted to do a show because I'd gotten back into art and I was really liking what I was doing," Fry said. "I know so many artists -- and so many artists I know their work, but I don't know them. And they're great. They're incredibly good."
So, to highlight all the good work local artists were doing --and basically because she felt like it -- Fry decided to put together a group show.
She bumped into an old friend and local artist, Cynthia Marcoux, at a local coffee shop and enlisted her help.
"She was totally engrossed in a conversation with some other guy, and I'm like, 'Dude, I have to talk to you right now,'" Fry remembered. "I was like, 'Let's do a show. Let's do -- something.'"
Their original idea was to highlight local women artists, but a conversation with Steve Liggett, artistic director at Living Arts, took a different turn.
In the hands of an impresario
Oh, Tulsa!, which opens Friday, Aug. 5 at 6pm at Living Arts, 307 E. Brady St., is an effort to bring together local and regional artists of all ages and levels of mastery to do a riff on a theme -- in this case, Tulsa.
Fry invited roughly 140 artists to participate, and at least half of them have agreed, creating works of various media inspired by Tulsa.
Fry calls the exhibit a "love letter," of sorts, to Tulsa.
"So many people think that art comes from afar, but we have some of the most gifted, honored and awarded artists right here in our own backyard," she said. "Art comes from here -- our hearts -- and here -- our hometown. So many of us have always had a crush on Tulsa, so this celebrates a lifelong love affair with its very finest and most creative artists."
Fry said it took her 60 years to embrace the city. As a youngster, she always assumed she'd leave it to find success elsewhere.
"Finally, I gave up," she said. "I can accept this. I surrendered. And I really do love it here. It's my home, my community."
Like many who hail from T-Town, the artists participating in Oh, Tulsa! have complicated relationships with the city. They love living here, but they recognize its flaws. And some of those are explored in the artists' work.
Tulsa Tourist Trap by Cynthia Marcoux.
Others were inspired by the city's history, its landscape, its natural phenomena, its architecture and attractions. Fry didn't limit artists to a specific subject matter; everything was fair game -- even sex, politics and religion -- as long as Tulsa was at its core.
Allie Jensen, for example, took her inspiration from the Arkansas River and Woodward Park. One of her large-scale acrylic paintings is an homage to the sculpture of the Greek god Pan, which was stolen, along with a cherub that was part of a fountain in the pond, from the park in April.
The statues have still not been recovered, and the city can't afford to replace them.
"The idea for that piece was, 'Whose garden is he sitting in now?'" Jensen said.
Her other contribution to the exhibit is dedicated to the river.
"One of the things I love the most about Tulsa is the river," she said. "I walk there a lot, take my dog there. I just love that there's this beautiful, natural place that's right next to downtown. And frankly, I like that it hasn't been improved too much. I really wish they'd leave it alone. I know that's an unpopular position."
Larry Silvey, a retired graphic designer -- well, not completely retired; he still freelances for the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, where his wife Glenda works -- is an abstract artist who took his cues for the show from downtown.
He was one of the co-founders of Tulsa Now, a 10-year-old grassroots organization focused on their view of a more progressive city less encumbered by the powers that be and specifically dedicated to downtown development.
"(Downtown development is) just now finally starting to happen," he said. "But we still have a long way to go. We did downtown Tulsa a disservice by leveling half the city and turning it into a flatland, thanks to urban renewal."
Midnight Dancin' on Brady by Larry Silvey.
One of his paintings, "Dancing on Brady," Silvey describes as a "rather loosely defined dancing woman." The others he doesn't describe at all.
"I'm just living and breathing Tulsa. But I like to do abstracts, so I just stretch it a little."
Being there, doing that again
This is the third time in its 42-year history that Living Arts has asked artists to interpret Tulsa. Once was in the mid-1980s at the now-defunct Phoenix Theater and the other was an Oklahoma Centennial celebration in the Brady District in 2003. Steve Liggett served as co-curator of both.
"Each time we have challenged artists to bring their own flavor to the mix, it has been welcomed and the results have always been unexpected," he said. "Some artists pick up on different aspects of living here -- the good, the bad, the ugly and the beauty that is Tulsa."
Liggett said Oh, Tulsa! has turned into something of a "who's who" of Tulsa artists. Projects include paintings, sculptures, jewelry and installations.
Liggett is designing an inflatable sculpture of a cowboy hat, reminiscent of the Claes Oldenburg piece intended for Tulsa's Performing Arts Center in 1977 that the arts patrons of the day never let happen.
John Williams, founder of The Williams Cos., donated $50,000, which was matched with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, for a 12-foot concrete sculpture of a cowboy hat to be erected in front of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. Internationally famed pop sculptor Oldenburg designed the piece specifically for Tulsa, but backlash from the public, spurred by criticism from then-fine arts editor of the Tulsa World Maurice De Vinna, stopped the project in its tracks.
An untitled steel sculpture, built in 1977 by David Lee Brown, sits outside of the PAC's Third Street entrance, where Oldenburg's hat might have. Or maybe it would have stood in the Williams Green, where Jay O'Meilia's "Oklahoma Ballerina," erected in 1982, is perched. Instead, it's nowhere.
Oldenburg built other hats -- there are three, titled "Hat in Three Stages of Landing," in Salinas, Calif., which landed in 1982 -- but the one intended for Tulsa is still a sketch on a piece of paper.
"It is my feeling that some of the great opportunities that we have had in this town we've let slip through our fingers somehow," Liggett said. "I'm not pointing fingers at anybody; I'm just saying. There have been some really great opportunities that, for some reason or another, some known and some not known by the general public, we've lost two great pieces of art in Tulsa."
The other piece Liggett alludes to is a piece by New York artist Jenny Holzer intended for the BOK Center, which displays work by Joe Andoe, Kendall Buster, Bill and Demos Glass, and Mark Lewis.
One percent of the BOK Center's construction budget, or roughly $1.5 million, was allocated, via city ordinance, for public artwork within the arena. The city's Arts Commission took proposals from artists -- local, national and international -- selecting six out of about 300 who submitted work.
Holzer's work, which addresses feminism, sexuality, death and other taboo topics with truisms displayed on LED boards, was intended for the BOK Center's scoreboard and its ribbon board, which encircles the inside of the arena.
In her proposal, Holzer wrote: "I am interested in taking full advantage of the sign's technology to present an artwork that would capture the attention of the crowds during lulls."
Though originally accepted for the center, her project was later rejected with the excuse that officials decided to reserve those boards exclusively for advertising. Officials promised to find another spot within the BOK Center for her work, but it's still not on display and seems to have been largely forgotten -- except by Liggett and others in the arts community.
Liggett's cowboy hat is made of ripstop nylon and inflated with an antique vacuum cleaner, which viewers can control. Projected onto it will be Tulsa truisms submitted by the public via Facebook.
The fact that it's interactive is symbolic of the control the public has over art, Liggett said.
"We can stand up for the great (public) art that this city lacks," he said. "The piece pays homage to two really great artists we didn't get in Tulsa, two artists I respect a great deal. It's a little bit of a wake-up call: Don't be so conservative. What's the worst that could happen? You could make some people think.
"That's what I think of when I think of Oh, Tulsa! I think, 'Oh, Tulsa. C'mon, get with the program.'"
Liggett said Tulsa, for the most part, has been good to its artists, but they haven't always been given the freedom to express opinions that are controversial or unpopular.
"For instance, Larry Clark's work has never been shown in Tulsa, other than his book," Liggett said. "His work is very controversial. It pointed out drug addiction and teenage use of drugs. But you could go someplace like the Walker Museum in Minneapolis, and there it would be."
Liggett said work like Clark's isn't shown in Tulsa because institutions that would display it can't get the backing from investors. People aren't lining up to donate their money to the exhibition of issue-oriented artwork, he said.
"The Andy Warhol series on the electric chair is a good example," he continued. "People don't want to see that; they want to see Marilyn Monroe.
"This city tends to look at art as something decorative and pleasant, but not all art is. Great art, to me, has pushed limits and made statements that have caused people to go back to it several times."
Happy, shining people
When Fry thinks "Oh, Tulsa!," what comes to mind is something more upbeat and optimistic: Tulsa's rebirth and its vibrant future.
"When you leave Oklahoma, we don't really have an identity," she said. "We're like the north part of Texas. But Tulsa is really getting an identity now. People used to make fun of themselves for being from Oklahoma and Tulsa."
Fry used evidence of downtown development -- Oneok Field, new bars and restaurants, events happening downtown in the Brady Arts District -- to describe Tulsa's newfound identity.
"To me, Tulsa is really coming back to life. It's like being risen from the dead," she said.
She's excited about the artists whose work is in the exhibit, and she's hoping to attract corporate buyers to the show. She wants local businesses to display locally made, Tulsa-themed artwork in their offices, stores and cafes.
"I'd love to go to my dentist's office and see local artwork, especially Tulsa-themed. People would love that," she said.
Fry herself has completed a piece inspired by Tulsa's history -- a pastel drawing of an election poster for Cy Tuma's 1966 race for Mayor.
"He had this look, and he had a great voice," she said of the television weatherman dubbed "the voice of KTUL."
Bell's, Gone But Not Forgotten by Joy Frangiosa.
Other artists also took inspiration from Tulsa's history. Joy Frangiosa created an altar for Bell's Amusement Park, made of discarded wood from the Zingo rollercoaster, with a photo of its tracks in the center.
"It's very symbolic and beautifully done," Fry said of the artist's work. "I just don't think people always appreciate the extraordinary talent we have here."
Tom Pershall, Charlotte Rhea and Walt Kosty are all creating site-specific installations for the exhibit. Liggett said Tulsa-themed art will permeate every corner of the gallery space, and some of it will be viewable through the windows at night, after the center has closed.
"This show is going to run the gamut from conceptual art to very accessible art that is easily understood," Liggett said. "Tulsa, I think, should be able to handle it all. It's good every once in a while to get a snapshot of where art in Tulsa actually is."
Oh, Tulsa! opens Friday, Aug. 5 with a reception from 6-9pm and continues through Aug. 25. Admission is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 1-5pm.
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