A commemorative book to give logic and reason to forty-four years of work.
1969 – 2013
What is Route 44, why is it so significant and why is it connected to an exhibition of paintings? Some people would immediately say it was a very large fountain drink made famous by Sonic, but in Oklahoma it usually refers to Interstate 44 (I-44). Wikipedia states that Interstate 44 (I-44) is a major highway in the central United States. Its western terminus is in Wichita Falls, Texas, at a concurrency with US 277, US 281 and US 287; its eastern terminus is at Interstate 55 in St. Louis, Missouri. I-44 is one of five interstates built to bypass U.S. Route 66; this highway covers the section between St. Louis and Oklahoma City. Virtually the entire length of I-44 east of Springfield, Missouri, was once US 66, which was upgraded from two to four lanes from 1949 to 1955. The section of I-44 west of Springfield was built farther south than US 66 in order to connect Missouri’s section with the already completed Will Rogers Turnpike, which Oklahoma wished to carry their part of I-44. Obviously, this stretch of highway has a colorful and exciting connection to Route 66 and this alone would make it noteworthy, but I am more concerned with about 87 miles of I-44, from Lawton, Oklahoma to Oklahoma City. Lawton is the town I grew up in. It is where all of my secondary education took place. It is where I found my two greatest loves. The first is obvious, my wife, my soul mate and my partner in all things, yes even my second love, Art and Design. Wow, it’s hard to imagine that Lawton, a dirty Army town, could be involved in any way with my Art development but it was, or at least individuals in Lawton had strong influences in my interests in Art.
Another important aspect of the number 44 is the number of years I have been married to my high school sweetheart. Yes, at the tender age of 20, in August of 1969, I made the biggest and best decision of my life. I would love to take all the credit for such a wonderful decision and chalk it up to my superior intellect and my amazing maturity at the time, but the truth is dumb, blind luck that was driven by my heart and had nothing to do with my brain. We were lucky from the beginning. We were best friends that grew together in our love, maturity and goals. There are a lot of similarities in the steady, consistent growth of love number one and love number two, my love affair with Art. My wife and I committed to each other and that same strong commitment is a necessary component in the successful pursuit of a life in Art.
There are a couple of other minor things that happened 44 years ago. One was the first manned moon landing, the other was a little music festival called Woodstock. but my wedding was by far the most important. It’s not a coincidence that this exhibit consists of a time span of 44 years, the same number of years of my marriage. 1969 was a very significant year in my life. I took a serious commitment to honor and grow in two life long loves. I took a big step toward manhood! So, Route 44 is more than a soft drink or even the highway, it’s a journey, it’s my journey!
Prior to this I had been involved with art and painting and had gained some skills but I had no understanding of what Art really was. Like most people I thought it was or at least had something to do with making “pretty pictures.” My concept of pretty pictures was limited to nature and other acceptable subject matter like still lifes and landscapes. I spent most of my time developing skills in traditional watercolor and acrylic. I started early in grade school. At my grade school there was a third grade teacher who had the reputation of an artist. I tried everything to get in her class. I even asked my mother to call the principal but to no avail. I did arrange (or my mother arranged) to have a private lesson, my first private lesson. This only whet my appetite; I couldn’t wait for junior high where they had art classes as electives. I took them all every semester until I graduated from high school. Soaking up everything I could about drawing, painting and all things Art, I became reasonably good, winning a few competitions and even started giving some public demonstrations and private lessons. I started selling some in the local art shows. These sales bolstered my esteem and fed my ego. This was not necessarily a bad thing because ego is an important thing in Art, but it did stunt my growth for a couple of years. I became what I now call a really good $35.00 artist.
After high school graduation I made another extremely important decision about College. The two big schools in the state, Oklahoma State and the University of Oklahoma, were at the top of most of my friends’ lists. Prestigious out-of-state schools were out of most of our budgets, and I was too dumb to even know about professional schools like the Art Institute, Pratt or Art Center. So, I chose OU. I went through all the motions; I visited a couple of times; I applied for scholarships; and most importantly (I thought), I went to all the rush parties. Some of the smaller schools had more traditional Art programs that would have been better for what I was doing at the time, but they didn’t have a nationally ranked football team! Looking back on it, I chose the right school for all the wrong reasons, which is typical for most 18-year-old high school graduates. In the fall of 1967, I packed up and moved to Norman, Oklahoma. By the way, I traveled most of the way on I-44. My learning experiences that year were huge. Unfortunately, most of them had nothing to do with Art. I enrolled in all of the basic freshman level art courses, but the teachers were radical and weird — absolutely no “pretty picture” makers in the lot. I don’t think there were any in the entire school. I found a local frame shop/gallery that liked my “pretty pictures” and they began to sell my work. So, I politely did my assignments in school, knowing the instructors knew nothing about real Art, while I continued to make my “pretty pictures” outside of class. I was slowly becoming a really good $50.00 artist. All was good! Well, all was good with love number two, but love number one was gaining strength and it was 80 miles away. This was a growing problem. Also, my mother became very ill and I really needed to be home. This was not such a bad thing — remember love number one and I certainly wasn’t learning anything about “real Art” from those radical hippies. My family (older brothers) were elated that I decided to come home for a while, but my Mom and Dad were a little concerned. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but besides my wife, my parents were always my biggest fans. I was so lucky to have understanding parents who never once asked me how I was going to make a living as an artist. So, I packed up my stuff and headed back down I-44. I enrolled at Cameron University for the spring semester in 1969. If you have been paying attention this is important. . .
Things are about to get good!
Being 19 and having the advantage of knowing everything (those of you who have had teenage children know what I am talking about), starting classes at Cameron after spending three semesters at OU would be a snap. Surprisingly, it turned out just like I had expected. The academic classes were much easier than at the bigger school, which allowed me more time to devote to my two loves. Love number one was really moving along since returning. We were officially engaged and in full planning mode for a late summer wedding. On a side note, even though gasoline was about 30 cents a gallon, I was saving quite a bit and certainly racking up fewer miles on I-44. As for love number two, I had enrolled in a couple of art classes at Cameron, and, of course, I was continuing to pursue my “pretty pictures.” Cameron’s art program was minuscule compared to OU’s. There was only one instructor, no building, just a couple of classrooms and almost no equipment. Jack Bryan was the art program. He was the instructor and Chair of the Department of Art. One of my classes was a beginning painting class. It was really my first class that was not part of art foundations. On the first day of class I met Mr. Bryan. I was surprised to find out he was quite young and very easy going. I bonded almost immediately. I explained with a little pride that I was transferring from OU, and it seemed to me that he also acknowledged (without saying anything) that I was special. He probably thought, “this kid just got off the short bus and I better be extra nice to him.” Whatever the reason he did make me feel special, and I was immediately pumped about the possibilities. Maybe, just maybe, he could make “pretty pictures.” He gave us a list of supplies, talked briefly about the class and told us to get our supplies and bring them and a stretched canvas to the next class. I don’t remember exactly, but I think he said something about “Come ready to work!” I left very excited and went immediately and checked my supplies to make sure I had everything he wanted and went to a local arts and crafts store (remember this was before Hobby Lobby) to purchase a pre-stretched canvas. I wanted to show how much I already knew, so I got a big one, 36”x48”. I was satisfied this would make a good impression and allow me to make a really, really “pretty picture.” Maybe it would be worthy of a $75.00 or even $100.00 price, and I could make the huge step to a $100.00 artist. The next class came and I lugged all my paint, brushes and my new canvas to class. As soon as class started, Jack (he preferred to be called by his first name, how cool was that? I knew I was going to like this guy) came in said let’s paint. Oh my gosh, what, how – there was this huge white canvas in front of me – so intimidating. Somehow I got the courage and began on a really, really, really “pretty picture.” Well, I quickly realized that Jack was not a maker of “pretty pictures,” but he was so cool, I didn’t have any problem with his suggestions and his critiques. He was able to get me to work and explore like no professor I had previously. I worked on that first painting about two weeks and had it at a state I was satisfied with. It by no means was a “pretty picture,” but it was bold and did I say big? More importantly, I think Jack was satisfied with my progress. He came into class, took a look and said, “I think it’s time to start another painting.” I was so pleased, but I didn’t come prepared, no new canvas. I told him as much and said I would purchase another canvas and start next class period. Jack just looked at me, walked to a corner of the make shift studio and picked up a gallon can of house paint. He brought it over to my easel and simply said, “Paint over it and start again.” What, two weeks of work and I’m going to paint over it! NO WAY, but I did. . .did I tell you how cool he was. BEST LESSON SO FAR! The semester continued with Jack pushing, and me resisting, yet continuing to work and try new things. There was lots of talk about color theory, expression and composition, mostly abstract concepts and very little about making “pretty pictures.” At one point I think I asked him when we were going to keep a painting. His response was, “You will know when!” After about the fourth coat of cover-up paint on the same canvas, I started again. I had been looking at some of Robert Rauschenberg’s work and was inspired to do something with classic American symbols. So, I began with this simple concept and started with bold application of paint in the background, blocking out a composition of organic shapes. A striped pattern started taking shape, then an eagle. It started taking shape. I continued to paint out elements and repaint, trying to keep the application direct and fresh. Finally, I was finished and Jack was right. I knew it immediately; this was the one to keep. This piece is the first one chosen for this exhibit. In many ways it is the most important. It’s not because it is the best, but because it symbolizes a re-birth in my Art and philosophy about Art.
I continued to make “pretty pictures” and kept that side of my Art separate. I was still selling work at the frame shop gallery in Norman. So, every few weeks I would get about 5 or 6 pieces ready and take them to Norman. You guessed it, up I-44. After painting these “pretty pictures,” I would try and make them even more pretty by matting and framing. At this time I didn’t cut the mats myself, but used a local frame shop to mat and frame most of the pieces. It was one of those visits to that local frame shop that really had an impact on me and truly changed everything. Up until this time, I still felt like all my professors at OU, and yes, even Jack, really didn’t know what they were talking about. Really, I had seen all of their personal work and it definitely wasn’t my idea of what Art truly was. It wasn’t “pretty pictures” so how could it be real Art. I was at the local frame shop in Lawton picking up one of my BEST “pretty pictures.” I had just come in and the shop owner invited me back to the work area to talk while he finished up my piece. We chatted while he put backing paper on my work and started looking around at the other recently framed pieces in the shop. I was immediately drawn to a beautiful little watercolor. I went closer to take a better look. It was stunning! As I admired it I asked the clerk “who did this piece?” The shop owner quickly said. . . “Jack.” “Jack” I replied, “Jack who?” He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face and said “Jack Bryan.” I was speechless. After a few seconds I asked, “When did he do it?” I thought maybe he had finally seen the light and it was a new piece he had just finished. The clerk replied, “Oh, I think it is a really old piece. He brought it in to frame as a gift for his parents.” By this time he was finished with my work and I took it and left. I could think of nothing else for days. If Jack could do work like that, I mean amazing work like that, better than anything I was doing at the time, then why, oh why, was he choosing to do the work that he was doing? What a perplexing question. The only conclusion that I could come up with was maybe I better start listening and trying to understand! I don’t think this would have been impactful or game changing if it had been anyone else’s work other than Jack’s! Anyone else’s work and I would have been inspired to match the quality, but Jack possessed the skills to make “prettier pictures” than I, yet chose not to.
I had a great semester at home. It was a welcome relief from the pressure of OU. It was good to be surrounded by family, friends and most importantly love number one. Speaking of love number one, things were really cooking, full blown wedding prep, picking churches, picking silver patterns, china, number of guests, colors, bridesmaids, groomsmen, wedding cakes, you name it we were picking it. Luckily, I played the dumb guy card and let her make most of the decisions. It was a busy and exciting time. The semester flew by with a lot of advancement with love number two. Quite frankly, there was a lot of personal confusion mixed with a lot of thought about what Art really was and what was important. It’s the first time I had experienced this problematic aspect of love number two. Prior to this, I gave it very little thought, I just did. The only concept was trying to improve technique so each picture could be “prettier.” Now, I was wondering if pretty was important or even necessary. This question would become an ongoing battle with my process for the next 44 years. I worked on a few more pieces that were inspired by the success of the Rauschenberg inspired painting using American icons and symbols. One elaborate piece consisted of two paintings and two graphite drawings on panels hinged to a central multi-pain Plexiglas center. Toward the end of the semester a local Lawton shopping center sponsored an outdoor art festival. At the time it was the largest art festival in the area. I entered the festival and was awarded the “Best of Show” award for my booth, which consisted primarily of the recently finished Americana paintings. This was my first recognition that wasn’t “pretty pictures.” This obviously added to my confusion but it was a great way to finish the semester.
It was finally here, the summer of 1969.
“Summer Of ‘69”
I got my first real six-string
Bought it at the five-and-dime
Played it ‘til my fingers bled
It was the summer of ‘69
Me and some guys from school
Had a band and we tried real hard
Jimmy quit and Jody got married
I shoulda known we’d never get far
Oh when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Ya – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life
Ain’t no use in complainin’
When you got a job to do
Spent my evenin’s down at the drive-in
And that’s when I met you yeah
Standin’ on your mama’s porch
You told me that you’d wait forever
Oh and when you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never
Those were the best days of my life
Back in the summer of ‘69
Man we were killin’ time
We were young and restless
We needed to unwind
I guess nothin’ can last forever, forever, no
And now the times are changin’
Look at everything that’s come and gone
Sometimes when I play that old six-string
I think about you, wonder what went wrong
Standin’ on your mama’s porch
You told me it would last forever
Oh and when you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never
Those were the best days of my life
Back in the summer of ‘69
Everything in the lyrics of this song by Bryan Adams didn’t happen to me. I got my first six-string in ‘65 not ‘69 and I never played it till my fingers bled, maybe that’s why I’m not very good. In fact not much of this song reflects “my summer of 69” except “Those were the best days of my life.” Jo (love number one) and I spent most of the summer getting ready for the big event. It was a big and beautiful event with lots of friends, even more family and a few memorable twists. You know when you look back on important milestones in your life, some of them stick out and almost become family legends. Our wedding was one of those. The church was Jo’s childhood church and we booked it earlier in the year. We didn’t think about the August heat being a problem because the wedding was inside. What we didn’t know was the church had a policy of not turning the air conditioning on until two hours prior to the event. Jo’s Step-Dad had a custom homemade wedding cake made for us as a gift. It was an elaborate four tiered classic wedding cake with butter icing. It was a thing of beauty. I had only seen cakes like this in the movies. It was delivered shortly after noon to the reception hall at the church. The Hot Church! At about 3:00, the heat started melting the butter icing. The tiers started shifting. . .Well, you guessed it; the cake fell in the floor! Later that afternoon, just as I was about to leave to go to the church, I got a very frantic call from Jo. She was sobbing and I barely could understand her. I finally made out “The cake fell in the floor.” I tried to console her but it was hopeless. I told her I would be right down and try to do something about it. By the time I got there her Mom and Step-Dad had already sprung into action. He had called the lady that made the cake and she immediately came down. When she arrived and after she stopped crying she got busy and sent every available person at the church to all the bakeries and grocery stores in town to purchase every plain white cake that was available. They found only one! She carefully pulled the second tier out of the middle of tier number one where it had fallen. Tiers three and four were in the floor, so there was nothing to do but clean those up. She carefully re-shaped tier number two and patched it with more icing then took the one small new cake, iced and decorated it and placed it on top and we amazingly now had a three layer classic cake. Wheeew! Disaster diverted. By the way we had cake left over and still had the top tier to freeze and keep for our first anniversary. . .and we built a legendary memory!
We went on a short honeymoon and when we got back we moved, yep you guessed it, up I-44 to Oklahoma City. Jo already had a job and I was about to re-enroll at the University of Oklahoma to continue my pursuit of love number two.