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A Gift From The Bower

Translating nature into sculpture with James Surls

Iconic Texan sculptor, James Surls, celebrates his 80th birthday this year, I was incredibly honored to chat with him about his life, work and upcoming celebrations. 

Some artists have a recognizable style from the get-go, born in the rural community of Terrell, East Texas, Surls has always been an artist, from an early age he was good at making things, not always functional, or for any other purpose than having beauty and form, sculptures!  Graduating from Sam Houston University in 1966, then continuing his education further afield, he became a professor and taught sculpture in Dallas for 8 years, eventually relocating to Houston after accepting a position at The University of Houston.

Recognizing the need for a creative hub for his students, he founded Lawndale Alternative Arts Space in the late 1970’s. Lawndale began as a space offering studio and exhibition space to students, eventually, exhibiting the works of other artists.  Lawndale has grown into today’s nonprofit art center presenting frequent exhibitions, talks and special events in Houston. 

Talking with Surls is a poetic experience, his eloquence being an extension of his physical work, which is aesthetically beautiful with meaningful content. A lifetime of work that has been greatly shaped by the terrain, landscape and natural elements of his childhood hometown, directly influenced by living a life encompassed by nature, a communication with the elements and forms of his surrounding environment.  

The desire to return to a natural environment led, Surls and his wife, sculptor Charmaine Locke, to the Splendora area where they purchased a small cabin in the forest. This relocation was about “moving home”, melding into the earth, the trees, the landscape, the nature which has been his muse since birth. Living and breathing as part of the forests, green grass, rivers, rocks and blue sky, these fundamentals are reminiscent of his past, they nurture the art and stir up memories.

 Surls refers to the Spendora location as “The Green Envelope”, where immersed in nature the couple were able to eat, sleep and breathe their individual sculptural practices in unspoiled, idyllic surroundings.  “We lived beneath the canopy of the trees and when the sunlight hit the ground, it was like a spotlight and we moved with it”, resulting in work as a translation of their relationship with each other as much as their surroundings.  Surls, when asked about which artist has influenced him most, replies “Charmaine Locke”, their individual sources and sensibilities blend in psychological pools, language, conversation, life. “We swim in the same streams” he states.

The Splendora home and studio grew with time, love, friends, family and collectors.  Events were held at the location, eventually becoming a beating heart for art exhibitions and music, despite having no air conditioning and being at the end of a long back road, the nexus was hugely loved and cherished by all who visited.  

Feeling very much at one with the universe, Surls feels that he has been “conjuring from a psychological place where human beings have been conjuring from for thousands of years”, we are all part of something much bigger.

Composing with wood, which he shapes by hand using an ax and blades, Surls also works with bronze, stone and stainless steel. During the Splendora years, he used whatever the forest provided. The work begins with drawings, they are manifestations of personal feelings, connections and universal communications, these drawings have been featured alongside his sculptures in countless exhibitions and books.  

We are incredibly fortunate to have several of Surls magnificent pieces of public art in the Houston area.  “Tree and Three Flowers” is situated at the junction of Kirby and Westheimer, a bronze and stainless-steel amalgamation of plant forms, leaves and thorns, is 38ft tall and weighs just under 7000lbs. Created by Surls in his Colorado studio, it was then driven all the way to Houston.  The sculpture depicts morning glory and cactus flowers as well as tree branches, aspirational and symbolic, and native to Texas. In many of his sculptures, there is an exploration of the human psyche, the flower depicting the softer side of our nature, the cactus, the pricklier side. Being thrown off a horse when he was 14, and landing in a thorn bush, has augmented the fact that you may have a beautiful life but at times it will be difficult, regardless.

Other recurring symbols include the needle and thread, the thread connecting and binding everything together, bowls, knives, swords, vessels, representations of comfort, female and male, boats symbolize bridges to other places, the mystery of the universe. Eyes look to the past and the future, the house represents security. 

Locally, the sculpture, “Natures Language” is positioned in the foyer of The Woodlands Towers, additional public pieces in the Houston area include “Pitcher with Flowers” at Sam Houston State University, “Points of View”, Market Square, Houston and “Again the Tree, Knot, Flower and Me” at Herring Hall Lawn, Rice University. There are many other privately and corporately owned pieces in the Houston area, so look out for them!  At the opening celebration of the installation of “Tree and Three Flowers” in 2016, mayor Annise Parker said that public art “provides elements of unexpected pleasure” to our surroundings, I can’t agree with her more.

A recent project involved creating a sculpture from a fallen limb of a prominent oak tree in the LBJ Ranch House, the home of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Ladybird. Throughout the years the tree has provided shelter for animals and community, political gatherings, meetings with world leaders, cabinet members and dignitaries, where treaties were signed and peace was made, together beneath the shade tree. The Cabinet Oak sculpture, namely, “History Walk”, was recently auctioned, the buyer being obligated to place the work in the publicly accessible library, to be enjoyed by the community.

In 2020 Surls was the recipient of the International Sculpture Center Lifetime achievement award in Contemporary Sculpture, an honor established to recognize individual sculptors who have made exemplary contributions to the field.

“A gift from The Bower” is a celebration of James Surls octogenarian status and the 40th anniversary of Diverse Works, of which Surls has supported over the years. The exhibition will take place at the Locke Surls Center for Art and Nature (LSCAN) in Splendora and will showcase newly commissioned sculptures from multiple artists as well as Surls and Locke. In a natural outdoor exhibition space of small clearings in the piney woods, these sculptures will be in restorative surroundings, focusing on our relationships as humans with nature and land, reminding us that as far as the environment goes, we are all guests.

Surls personal piece for the exhibition is a tree stump saved from Hurricane Alicya in 1983, originating from a big water oak tree that was pulled from the ground by the storm. Surls has elevated the piece in order to expose the tangle of roots as well as what is left above. Tree stumps being symbolic of the first settlers, clearing forests to grow crops, digging up entire stumps from the ground, an act of survival and progress. Later, stumps were used as bollards.   The sculpture represents an appreciation of the trees for their magnificence, providing shade as well as the wood for boats, houses, spears, a monumental number of positive things from a living, breathing organism, a growing lifeline enabling survival.

“A Gift from The Bower” is described by Surls as “a dream come true”, Each sculpture being made in collaboration with musicians, writers and performers to create an all-around creative experience, co-curated by Jack Massing and Xandra Eden.

Opening festivities include live performances, artist talks, and special tours that will take place on Earth Day Weekend, April 22-23, 2023, from 11am-7pm each day. Parking, accessibility information and a full schedule of performances are available online.

jamessurls.com

diverseworks.org

lawndaleartcenter.org

"I believe that if one stands still enough and is quiet enough to look and see and listen and hear, that Natures Language will tell us that which we need to know" James Surls - American Sculptor - 2013

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