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Thursday, June 13, 2024 — Houston, TX

Surls shares insight behind sculptures

By Hallie Jordan     3/25/10 7:00pm

James Surls, whose seven art pieces were installed on campus last month, enlightened the crowd about his art philosophy and the ideas behind his plant-like sculptures in a lecture Tuesday at Herring 100 . The seven pieces in the exhibit, which arrived Feb. 21, are entitled "Magnficent Seven: Houston Celebrates Surls" and reflect a connection with nature, featuring titles like "All Diamond," "Ten Big Standing Bronze Flowers" and "Standing Vase With Five Flowers." Before their appearance in Houston, five of the seven pieces on display were exhibited on Park Avenue in New York City.

The sculptures will remain at Rice until Aug. 31.

During his lecture, Surls described his methods for making art and his beliefs about the connections between art and science.

"I think great science and great art have always gone together," Surls said. "I think that between art and science, there is philosophy, which is the balance between the two."

After working with Surls in the '80s on a public art project, Paul Hester a Visual and Dramatic Arts lecturer, said hearing Surls speak was particularly interesting to him.

"My initial response was how different he looked," Hester said. "As he said, he cut his hair, cleaned up his act and was much more mellow. In the past he was much more bombastic; he used to have a lot more swagger. I could still see that younger enthusiastic person, though."

One of Surls' pieces, "Knots and Needles," describes how the two title components have helped advance human capabilities, Surls said.

"Knots and needles gave us the ability to walk further, stay warmer and so many other things we could not do before," Surls said. "The idea of the work is of the web of sewing, and thread and cloth, and what cloth did for us."

Surls and Hester worked with Diverse Works, an alternative art space located downtown, with four other artists to create public art for Market Square Park downtown. Surls made a metal-based sculpture with wood flowers while Hester, a photographer, printed historic photographs on porcelain enamel.

"I told them I wanted my sculpture right in the middle of the park," Surls said.

The park is currently being redesigned because the art was starting to need refurbishing and it became a hangout spot for homeless people, Hester said.

Surls also presented several drawings during his lecture and described their relation to his art.

"I get to have a piece of paper in front of me and pencil," Surls said. "From there, I can search the universe. I love to draw. I think drawing historically will end up being pointed at as more important than anything else I do."

Jones College sophomore Devin Glick said hearing Surls speak really added to his understanding of the sculptures.

"I thought it was interesting to see the personality behind the art," Glick said. "It gives me a different perspective when I see them around campus now."

Surls used his work, "Either or, You Choose," created in 2005, to explain his drawing style and methodology.

"It is all done free-hand," Surls said. "Those oval shapes around those two worlds in the palms of the hands and around the undulating hair of this living thing is all done free-hand. Ironically, the faster you do it, the better it looks."

Though Surls says his work could be referred to as abstract, he does not use the term.

"Maybe it's because I grew up in East Texas. In East Texas, people say 'Oh, it's abstract. I don't have to know what that is.'"

Surls style of lecturing, really helped keep the audience engaged and interested, Eric Granquist, a systems administrator for the Language Resource Center and lecture attendee, said.

"He is enthusiastic about his own work, which came across in the lecture," Granquist said. "He managed to connect with the audience because he had emotion and allowed it to show. He told us about his creative process in a very open and complete way."

Surls was born in Splendora, Texas, and attended Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Afterward, he taught at the University of Houston and worked at Lawndale Art Center upon its opening in 1979. After living in Texas for 50 years, Surls moved to Carbondale, Co. because his wife wanted to, he said.

"He was really thinking about the world from a different point of view," Hester said. "His work when he lived in East Texas was not unlike it is now, but it was made out of wood. He would bring in whole trees and strip the bark. It was very much connected to where he lived. I'm wondering about this change from wood of metal. You can see his difference in location translated in his different materials.

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