BY JENNIFER DEMERITT | November 22, 2013 | People
James Surls stands in wood shavings at the chopping block in his Aspen studio. The carved petals are for a new major corporate commission.
When asked about the James Surls Museum opening in Carbondale in two years, the sculptor who is its namesake becomes vehement: “The correct name is the Surls Center for Visual Art,” he says. “I make a big distinction between those two titles. I didn’t think it would work calling it the James Surls Museum. That’s paring it down to one thing; you can’t sustain life paring it down to one thing.”
In addition to celebrating Surls—whose large-scale, organically shaped sculptures have been displayed at MoMA, LACMA, the Guggenheim, and dozens of other museums and galleries around the country—the center will showcase the work of other artists and, if Surls’s vision for the space pans out, will become a hub for the Roaring Fork Valley’s artistic community. “When there’s a space that will say yes, then all of a sudden the complexion of the community changes,” he says. “There’s a certain hum, a vibration. Dialogue starts to be built…. The neighborhood gets excited, the region gets pumped up. That’s my attitude about what the [Surls Center] can do.”
Surls between the upper and lower studios with Big Bronze Walking Eye Flower, 2009, in background.
The initial concept was much more humble. “It started off with me looking for space to store [my] sculpture,” says Surls, a 70-year-old Texas native who has lived in the Valley with his family since 1997. “Then I thought, if we’re going to store it in town, let’s make it where people can see it.” Jim Calaway, a local philanthropist and former chair of the Aspen Institute Society of Fellows, suggested creating a museum, and he had the influence and the resources to make it a reality. “He saw it through city councils and town hall meetings,” Surls says. “I just cannot give the guy enough credit.”
Core of Large Wall Flower, 2002.
This support from the community is testament to the power of Surls’s work—massive, rugged sculptures made of bronze, steel, or wood, inspired by natural forms such as branches, antlers, and leaves. He started sculpting in Texas in the 1960s. “I’d find a piece of wood and carve out of it what I saw in the wood. That’s letting the wood dictate the terms,” he says. “All my art came from [nature].” He earned an MFA from the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and began teaching at the University of Houston in the 1970s, showing his work regularly at regional galleries and museums. In 1979 he founded the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, a rollicking, avant-garde space that hosted exhibitions by local artists, as well as performances by Allen Ginsberg, Spaulding Gray, and the punk band Black Flag—a glorious, notorious show that ended with 23 Houston police cars descending on the center. “That was as freewheeling as you could get. Literally, it just rolled from moment to moment like an express train,” Surls says of those early days at the Lawndale Center. “All I did was say yes to a lot of people—yes, you can do this. It was a risky thing, and fun and exciting and built a powerhouse of a community.”
Turning Palm from the mid-’80s family collection.
In 1997, Surls moved from Texas to the Roaring Fork Valley, because his wife, Charmaine Locke, wanted better schools and a better climate for their four daughters. “My wife said she was going and asked if I’d like to come with her. I said, ‘Yeah, I would,’” Surls recalls with a chuckle. They bought a property near Carbondale, where Surls also has his studio. In an era when many contemporary artists delegate the construction of their pieces to a workshop of craftsmen, Surls remains hands-on. “I do all the woodwork and much of the steel work myself,” he says. He is helped by just one person: Tai Pomara, who has worked as his shop foreman for 16 years.
Throughout Surls’s career, nature has remained his touchstone and his inspiration. “Last week there was an elder from the Ute tribe who came to my studio,” he says. “He told me that he stood outside in the morning and let the first light hit the palm of his hands, then he rubbed his face, so he considered that he was rubbing light on his face. And I thought, man, that’s pretty good…. It makes a connection between you and what humanity has decided to call nature.” He adds, “I get up before the sun comes up. I don’t put my palms to the sun, but I stand outside and listen, and I do make art about what I hear outside in the morning before it comes into existence.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BROOKE CASILLAS