Poet with an Ax

It’s mating season for the peacocks. They strut their magnificent plumage and call out like a cat that got its tail  stuck in the elevator — not quite as seductive to the human ear as to the peahen’s.

James Surls found love by giving life to raw wood with his hands – you read this in the Museum Building at Grounds For Sculpture, where the sculptor’s work is on view through Oct. 2. Each time the glass doors open, the peacock reminds you of the thing he wants.

The call of the wild only enhances the experience of Mr. Surls, an East Texas native and sculptor of international stature. A photo of him from some years ago shows the bushy beard of a wild man, from throat to cheeks. His woodworking studio contains bullet-shaped spears, or large wooden beads with holes through them. In describing the symbolism in his large-scale sculpture, he talks about vessels and blades, steel rods and ball bearings, knots and  phalluses, and in the end it all comes back to courtship.

In a 2003 artist statement, Mr. Surls quoted Joseph Campbell: “We are tigers in the goat pen” and added “I would as soon run with the wolves and be eaten by crushing jaws breathing low gutteral growls, than be run over by an endless sea of sheep.”

James Surls is a man possessed. And the madder he gets, the better the work.

Writes Mark Thistlethwaite in In the Meadows and Beyond (Southern Methodist University Press, 2004): “His art has been described as ritualistic, totemic, animistic, surrealistic, primitivistic, romantic and mystic. He has been called a shaman, magician, poet with an ax and ‘Lone Star Michelangelo.’”

From 1976 to 1996, Mr. Surls, with his muse and wife, the sculptor Charmaine Locke, lived in Splendora, Texas – neither a fictional utopia nor a sugar substitute, as its name might suggest, but small town near Houston in the heavily wooded area known as the Big Thicket where there are snakes and stinging things. The words swamp, sluice and bayou are frequently used when talking about the place where the couple built their own compound, bore and raised seven daughters, and focused on the inner psychological narrative.

The materials for Mr. Surls’ sculpture could be found all around him – roots, stumps, vines and branches that he polished, marked and painted to reveal the spirit he saw in them.

His tree-like forms seem to dance, cast shadows, and sometimes defy the laws of physics. A video slide show enables us to see so much more from his oeuvre than the 13 pieces on view, and helps relate them to his thinking.

In terms of volume, you get a lot for your money here – some of the work is as large as helicopters. “Artists have these sizes that they feel real comfortable with, that they like,” Mr. Surls is quoted as saying. “I like big art. Paradoxically, again, it’s the hardest to do in the sense that it takes the most material, it takes this support system that you need to do art with. The pay off is that you get to have a certain awesome presentation, and I truly want that.”

The sculptures have been described as drawing with steel. We get to see some of his line drawings that are the starting point. “I draw for my soul to keep,” he says, “not to match the couch or color scheme.”

His drawing is to his sculpture as haiku is to poetry, he says: short, deliberate, a power punch. “I don’t erase, I don’t go back, I don’t fix and I don’t make mistakes. It’s like acting on stage. You don’t stop after a mistake, you just keep going. When I put line to paper, I just keep going.”

“Forever Gone” is a wooden shack of whimsical proportions  from which a tree grows. Mr. Surl takes wood and returns it to its natural state, with claw-like appendages and eyes peering out, just as in nature.

James grew up in a world with no art books, magazines, galleries or museums, yet knew he was an artist. His father was a carpenter who  left school after eighth grade and built schools, churches and houses. James might have used his skills to build bridges. Instead he went to Sam Houston State College and studied the Mexican muralists, then attended Cranbrook Academy of Art.

“My father taught me, if you didn’t go to work Monday morning, you didn’t get paid Friday. He taught me to work hard, like the tradesmen I grew up around who went to work at 8 a.m. with a lunch bucket. I’m successful because I get up and go to work every day.”

After a stint teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Mr. Surls found Charmaine, quit, and moved to Splendora with no washing machine, TV, or electric line. They built everything: studio, home, gallery and an education center for the community at large. They hosted dance troupes and performance artists from New York, but as Houston grew, and strip malls and RV parks crept toward  Splendora, Mr. Surls and Ms. Locke moved to a new paradise in Carbondale, Colo., in 1997.

He describes the new surroundings as “diametrically opposite” those in Splendora: Here there are vast green valleys, high meadow pastures, snow-peaked mountains. “Here it’s open, but still sublime,” he says. “I hear the coyotes at night, and there are elk and mountain lions. Here I get wood that is washed out of the hills. I could live in the desert and still make art.”

Making sculpture is like having a construction company, he says. You need tools, forklifts, saws, welding machines. “As a rule I will write, draw and sculpt. Writing and drawing are very quick, but sculpting is like building a bridge and takes a long time.”

An admirer once asked Mr. Surls, “Do you touch your art?”

“Well, yes I do,” he replied. “I’m one of those guys who touch their art. Some artists just give the concept and the sculpture may be produced under digital circumstances. I still use all the tools and physically produce it in my hands.”

James Surls: In Balance is on view at Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Way, Hamilton, through Oct. 2. Also on view: Daniel Henderson: The Art of Invention, through Sept. ; Plugged In: Interactive Art in Electronic Media. Hours: Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (609) 586-0616; www.groundsforsculpture.org

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