Archive for Sunday, January 28, 1990


January 28, 1990


James Surls never saw much in the lifestyle of the artist-Bohemian.

The Houston sculptor, who will speak Friday at Kansas University, would much rather work in his studio, in the woods, turning out more than 40 works a year, and prosper with the help of a friendly art market.

"I really never liked the idea that you had to suffer or starve for your art," Surls said in a recent telephone interview. "That doesn't make it with me. That idea never appealed to my. It may to some, they may get what they look for.''

Surls' work now sells for as much as $18,000, and one of his pieces hangs from a ceiling at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Critics and art dealers alike have admired the graceful wood and steel sculpture the remarkably productive Surls has produced over the last 15 years.

"I LOVE IT," said Roger Shimomura, a KU art professor. "There's a funkiness about it, sort of funk-folk."

Right now, Surls' work is being sold at the Jan Weiner Gallery in Kansas City, and he will speak at KU as part of the visiting artists program. The lecture is at 2 p.m. in the Alderson Auditorium of the Kansas Union.

Surls, 47, is known primarily as a wood sculptor, although he also works with steel. In the curving branches and simplicity of his pieces, some see echoes of tree branches and other aspects of nature as well as some humor.

"He uses odd kinds of images that are taken from natural forms, such as trees," said Robert Brawler, chair of the KU art department. "They're quite interesting-looking pieces."

THE WOODS of his Texas youth hold sway over Surls' art, the sculptor says. His father was a carpenter, and he's worked with his hands almost his whole life. What's more, Southwestern and West Coast roots run deep in his work, he says.

"I don't see how any artist can't help become a regional artist," he said. "When a child grows up he goes from the womb to the room to the yard to the school district, then to other states and the world. You can't help but be influenced by your upbringing. I grew up in the woods, and I'd be silly not to be influenced by the woods."

The woods still surround the artist. He lives on a 5-acre, wooded plot outside Houston. His studio is just a few yards away from his house, and for years he and his wife worked on their art in their home. Now he and his helpers put the large number of pieces together in a shop.

He says he believes in hard work, as did his father. But his way of working can give gallery owners jittery nerves.

"I USUALLY work on 15 different pieces all at once," he said. "It's a lot like duck eggs, you don't see anything and then all of the sudden you see all these ducklings. When I'm preparing for an exhibit a gallery owner comes to the studio and he gets this look of panic `Oh my God, the show's going to open in a month, where's the show?' They expect to see all but one or two of the works."

Letting the sculptures sit for a while after carving isn't too bad a business idea, either. Surls says holding up the pieces before selling them lets them bend or crack a little, eventually taking the shape they'll have forever.

"It so happens that wood cracks,'' he said. "You can't make a piece of wood do what it wouldn't naturally do. Now if you bought the work, and it cracked after it was bought, you wouldn't like it. You'd feel bad about the work. But if the crack was already in it when you bought it, you'd love it, you'd say that's my crack. It wouldn't be a problem."

SURLS' WORK and way of speaking show off both his down-to-earth background and his highly tuned sense of artistry. Although he spent a few years working on Texas and Louisiana pipelines, he also studied art at Sam Houston State College and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and he taught for 14 years. He's also contributed to the Houston art community, where he feels at home.

"I'm very active in Houston," he said. "I was the curator of an alternative museum for three years, and I help with shows around here. I feel very much a part of the community."

According to Surls, his life now fulfills two desires he always held the desire to craft images and the desire to create art. Of course, the two aren't too far apart.

"I used to believe that the art was in doing it," he said. "The art was the physical process. I saw so many different kinds of ends, hundreds of them, just with the same technique. I don't believe that anymore. Now I see the art in the finished product as much as in the craft."

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