Internationally exhibited sculptor … birthed Lawndale Art Center … wields power tools … enamored of heroic materials wood and steel … pens poetry and makes drawings … has an ongoing love affair with his wife of 35 years … divides his time between a rocky mountain top in Colorado and Texas.
Looking for authentic men? American heritage style? Look no further than sculptor James Surls, a major progenitor of the Houston contemporary art scene. A writer of poetry. And he can choke an axe. Catherine D. Anspon has a sit-down with a man who knows the difference between a Basquiat and a blowtorch.
You’re surrounded by estrogen — wife Charmaine and seven daughters. Is this why you sculpt with wood and steel?
I will say that working in wood and steel came much more from the ancient and early history of man. Having all that estrogen changed the paradigm to a great degree and certainly changed the content of the work, by giving it purpose.
Relics of your East Texas childhood that are still with you?
Biscuits and gravy, sunny side up, fried green tomatoes, pinto beans and cornbread, black-eyed peas and corn on the cob, chicken-fried steak and catfish — all so good that I wish I had a plate full right now. But the most important relic from my childhood is my daddy’s toolbox and all the things in it.
Three things that make the man?
The three most important things I have going for me: self-confidence, work ethic and Charmaine.
A big Black & Decker drill that I bought in 1968. It runs as good today as it did the day I bought it. I think the best chainsaw — and the one that I use — is a Husqvarna.
Hammer of choice?
I have, from my dad’s old toolbox, a Stanley, but mostly I use a hatchet, and I don’t even know the brand name.
My F-350 Ford diesel. I have to clean it out before Charmaine will ride with me on a trip. It’s a work truck that rides like a Lincoln.
No man toys for me. I have my truck and my John Deere. There’s nothing else to want.
Foie gras or barbecue?
If I had to make the choice, I would say barbecue, but I will say I do like both.
David Brown flower shop over at Uptown Park Boulevard. I just tell him what I want, and it’s done. Perfect. As for a restaurant, it would have to be Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar and Avalon Diner for breakfast.
I only order shoes from a mail-order store called Hitchcock — shoes in large sizes and real wide. I get eight-inch high-tops that lace up; they’re
steel-toed work boots. I also wear what used to be called wing tips.
Okay, spill it: Why did you cut your hair? Did you suffer like Samson in the wake of the decision?
From back in the mid-‘60s, I have worn my hair as long as it would grow. But in 2005, I started a serious year of drawings. I did one particular drawing called Skin Casting, which was about shedding your skin and growing a new one. This is when I cut my hair off, shaved my beard and threw it all in the wastebasket.
Now I don’t use anything. But you should know that back in the ’50s when I was a teenage type, I used Royal Crown Petroleum Jelly. By doing this, I could make a pompadour that all the girls loved, and all their mamas had to put plastic covers
over the backs of the couches to keep them from getting greasy.
Are you a Wrangler man?
Yes, but loose. I can’t wear tight jeans.
Magazines you can’t live without?
Scientific American, although I only read it in airports and on airplanes.
On your nightstand?
For years and years, the only book on my nightstand was The Crack in the Cosmic Egg by Joseph Chilton Pearce. Now I’m rereading Thomas McEvilley’s Yves the Provocateur, which gives a marvelous insight into Dominique de Menil’s thinking in the early days of Houston’s rise in the world of art.
What is breakfast when you have an arduous day ahead of you in the studio?
Either steel-cut oats with fruit or two eggs up with hash browns, salsa and sourdough toast. On Sunday mornings, we have pancakes if our grandkids are here.
Preferred cocktail or adult libation?
Martini made with Crystal Head Vodka, shaken and up with two olives. Seriously good.
You never leave home without …?
My man bag, which looks like one of those things you feed horses out of. It’s a heavy canvas Souffle bag full of Ticonderoga pencils, sharpened and ready to use and two drawing pads and a notepad. Then there is another bunch of stuff like you would not believe … Books and fine-point Sharpie ink pens, hand lotion and extra reading glasses and a copy of Garden & Gun magazine, and on and on.
Rustic American locale you’re longing to visit?
East Texas. I know it by heart and love every inch. Oak and pine, black jack and sweet gum, bluebonnets and paintbrushes, slow-moving rivers, slues and back water, the big thicket and the piney woods.
James Surls. Photo by Jim Paussa.
James Surls’ Passion, 2012. Photo courtesy Robert Millman Photography.
Studio Surls, Carbondale, CO. Photo by Robert Millman Photography.