February 25, 2013

Art, Streetscaping Transformed Oklahoma's Corridor of State Government

The following is a commentary about the Art in Public Places program by Jennifer James McCollum, director of Oklahomans for the Arts. It originally aired in April 2012 on KOSU Radio. 

Last week, House Bill 1430 passed through committee. It will extend the moratorium on the Art in Public Places program for three more years, until June 2017.  Please contact your state representatives and ask them to vote NO on House Bill 1430. 


There are four mammoth-size disk planted in soft green berms outside the Office of State Finance in Oklahoma City. They form a quartet of sculptures and serve as a monument to Oklahomans, past and present.

Three of the sculptures are earth-cast concrete and bear Oklahoma's signature red-dirt color.

They're a tribute of sorts to those Americans who left behind everything familiar to reinvent themselves on the south central Plains.

Less than 100 hundred years ago, they cut the cornucopia of wheat out of the prairie sea. They endured terrifying blizzards and crop failures. Some lost their lives.

I'm talking about Oklahomans. Maybe some of your ancestors. This was the catastrophe we came to know as the Dust Bowl.

There is a fourth disk, light as air. It a weaving of silver steel, a complementary melody to the craggy disks. It's like a song for the future, symbolic of Oklahoma's ingenuity and technology.

I've heard people refer to the concrete disks by the renowned artist Thomas Sayre as little more than rusted blades. They were derided in public debate last year, and a three-year moratorium was placed on the amazing Art in Public Places program that helped fund the commission.

But, the disks, tell this important story to future generations of Oklahomans; a story that is so familiar we've stopped telling it. A story that cannot resonate with my children because they never hear it.

The disks on Lincoln Boulevard are reminiscent of the disc harrow that transformed farming in this state.

An Oklahoman named Fred Hoeme was one of the state's foremost red dirt groundbreakers. A farmer living near Hooker during the Dust Bowl era, he was concerned about wind erosion. He eventually invented the chisel plow, which helped stabilize the soil. It prevented the formation of surface crusts, which in turn helped the soil take in and hold rainwater. Hoeme sold about 2,000 plows from his farmstead.

In 1938 W.T. Graham bought the rights to the plow. He modified it and marketed it as the “Plow to Save the Plains.” It was sold worldwide and in the 1950s its widespread use helped control wind erosion during a seven-year drought.

When I hear people poke fun at this public art project, I think back to my college years when Lincoln boulevard was frequented by prostitutes. Aesthetics including the Capitol dome, streetscaping and public art have helped transform this corridor of state government.

I pass the disks quite often during the week. They remind me of the Oklahomans I will never know whose dreams went before mine and were uprooted and carried away by fierce continental winds. They remind me of the courage of those who dared to innovate and invest again through many a boom and bust.

This is what art does. It creates the memorable, the iconic and symbolic. When compared to healthcare, roads, bridges, sewer systems, human services and the like it costs astonishingly little. It's amazing how a small investment can bolster the creative economy and bring widespread recognition and positive attention to our state.

Monday, April 30, marks the first official Arts Day at the Oklahoma Capitol. Dozens of organizations will be present from the Chisholm Trail Arts Council and Oklahoma City Philharmonic to the Lawton Arts and Humanities Council and the Tulsa Ballet. We'll have representatives from Norman, Enid, Ardmore and everywhere in between. They'll be there to advocate against the erosion of arts funding; to cut and lift and turn the soil on the seedbed of Oklahoma's thriving creative economy.
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