Somewhere back in 2010, while I was still deeply in the midst of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was recruited to “write a book” for my employer, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. The book would focus on the public art collection that would be housed in the Court’s new building. At the time, I was much more concerned about finishing my thesis and sending out the YA novel I’d been writing, but I agreed to work on the project and became part of the “Art Committee for the Oklahoma Judicial Center.”
As an Art Committee member, I was invited along when our Chair, Justice Yvonne Kauger, toured the vaults below the Oklahoma History Center to see if any of their storage collection might be appropriate for the Judicial Center collection. Those trips to the vaults are probably worthy of a post all their own, but I’ll save that for another day. The goal of these tours wasn’t just to find attractive art for the building.
“We chose the pieces not only for their beauty, but for the stories they tell,” Kauger said. “Each one relates to the history of Oklahoma and the judiciary.”
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to record those stories in Art of the Oklahoma Judicial Center. The collection of more than 150 pieces including paintings, sculptures, pottery and textiles; and is a combination of historic pieces on permanent loan from the Oklahoma History Center and newly commissioned works by Oklahoma artists. The building itself is a fascinating story: for many years it was known as the Wiley Post Building, home of the Oklahoma Historical Society. After the Historical Society moved to a new building, the Wiley Post Building was renovated, and qualified under Oklahoma’s Art in Public Places Act for 1.5% of the construction budget to be allocated for works of art.
Sadly, since then the Oklahoma Legislature has enacted a moratorium on this Act and the Art in Public Places program has shut down. Individual agencies and municipalities can still support their own public art projects, but the budgetary set-aside for new construction projects or major renovations has been eliminated. My involvement with the Judicial Center Art project has made me even more of an advocate for arts funding (but again, that’s another post!)
Neil Chapman donated his time to photograph the pieces, along with doing the layout and design work for the book. Thankfully, our collaboration went well and we remain good friends – with plans to work on more projects together.
A few of the exciting surprises I found along the way included getting to know Jeri Redcorn, whose pottery is featured on the cover of the book. She took up pottery in her fifties after seeing pottery made by her Caddo ancestors in the Museum of the Red River. Making pottery was lost by the Caddo Tribe after removal from their homeland in 1859. Redcorn has revived the tradition and one of her pieces from the Smithsonian Collection was selected by President Barack Obama to adorn the Oval Office.
Another unexpected revelation came when I started researching a grouping of “New Mexico pottery” displayed in the Great Room of the Judicial Center. A copy of a letter from the Oklahoma Historical Society showed the pots had been purchased in 1928 from the Old Santa Fe Trading Post in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “The amount of the charges, one hundred dollars, is of course, a net price to a museum, and we feel certain that this collection could not be duplicated under one hundred and fifty.” The pottery was shipped to the Historical Society by train in five wooden barrels. The collection includes vases and bowls created at the Pueblos as far back as the 1890s. It also boasts a bowl by famed potter Maria Montoya Martinez who is credited with reviving the tradition of Southwest pottery.
I had heard of the Kiowa Five artists who studied at the University of Oklahoma in the early 1930s, but I was surprised to learn there were actually six artists – the “forgotten” Kiowa was Lois Bougetah Smoky. A commissioned piece by Mike Larsen, Kiowa Six, honors Smoky and underscores the idea that women also played an important role in the history of our state. In addition to being featured in the book, this painting also serves as the frontispiece. Interest in the Kiowa artists and their mentor, Oscar Jacobson, has led me to the Jacobson Foundation and the ongoing work they are doing to promote Native Artists. I’m looking forward to sharing more stories about that in the coming months.
The coffee-table style book is 216-pages of stunning color photographs, accompanied by a story about each piece of art and the artist who created it. A book signing is scheduled for September 18 at Full Circle Book Store in Oklahoma City another signing will take place in November (to celebrate Statehood day) at the Oklahoma History Center.