Oklahoma Stories

Art on the Go

By Elaine Warner October 2021

From big cities to small towns, Oklahomans are celebrating public art.

Ardmore’s Maria’s Garden | Photo by Elaine Warner

There’s nothing more American than a road trip and the road has never been more welcoming. From big cities to small towns, Oklahomans are recognizing the way public art can add interest and attractions for residents and tourists alike. These days, when we’re looking for safe entertainment, an art adventure offers a great outing.

Who Was On First

Murals may be the most noticeable of the state’s commitment to public art. Oklahoma’s first examples were probably advertisements. Several towns have spruced up—or recreated—some of these early works of art. Guthrie has several examples of “ghost signs,” remnants of olden days. The artist Z. Pelts retouched some of the old signs and created several contemporary murals.

The most numerous of the contemporary murals are the creations of Dr. Bob Palmer and his team.

“My first public mural was probably in Walters, my home town, but I’ve painted in a number in small Oklahoma towns,” Palmer, a retired University of Central Oklahoma art professor, says.

Over the past 40 years, he’s painted over 4,000 murals with works in a number of states, Mexico, Canada and Europe. He assembled a team of his students, who referred to him as the “Godfather,” in honor of his prolific artistic output. In retirement, his team members are professionals—most are his former students.

His forte is historical paintings.

“I learned more about Oklahoma history through painting murals than I ever did through taking a class,” he says. “That’s why most towns contact me. They want to remind the residents of their history and every little town has a story.”

The Ada Arts District mural (left) and April Jones’ 3-D mural in Seminole (right). | Photos by Elaine Warner

Mural, Mural on the Wall

Many of the murals across Oklahoma are like scrapbooks that feature a variety of elements important to each town’s history. One of Palmer’s Edmond murals shows snapshots of early-day Edmond, vignettes of today’s main street and sculptures from the town’s public art collection.

Waukomis’ historical mural, another Palmer creation, highlights the Chisholm Trail and the Run of ’93. A Shawnee mural pictures the town’s long-lost Benson Park with boaters and strollers in 1900s attire.

Ada has a building-wide mural of celebrities associated with the town including artist Yeffe Kimball, country stars Blake Shelton and Hoyt Axton, and his mother, Mae Boren Axton, who co-wrote Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”

“This inspires today’s artists and young people that even people growing up in small towns can do great things,” says Jennifer Boeck, vice president of corporate communications and community relations at People’s Electric Cooperative in Ada.

The side of Ada’s newspaper office salutes a celebrity of a different sort: Yoda. Yoda also makes an appearance along with another out-of-this-world notable, E.T., in Enid’s ‘80s pop culture masterpiece by Tox Murillo.

Hominy’s Native American heritage is represented via nearly four dozen murals by artist, Cha’ Tullis. The first mural, created in the early ‘90s, was inspired by an encounter with an elderly lady who had been noted for her sunny attitude. She, like the rest of the town’s people, was depressed by the oil bust of that period.

“When I left there, I thought, ‘I need to brighten Virginia’s day.’ So my first mural was right across the street from the window she looked out,” Tullis says.

Tullis went on to create many more murals, though their bright colors are fading. When asked if he would repaint them, he replied, “Once they’re gone, it’s time for a new generation to paint what is important to them.”

Waukomis’ Pioneer Memorial Park mural (left), “Under Her Wing Was the Universe” by Romy Owens (middle) and Cha’ Tullis’ mural (right). | Photos by Elaine Warner

Murals & More

A number of Oklahoma towns have significant collections of public art which include not only murals, but sculptures and paintings on unusual surfaces. Ardmore’s public art efforts have been spearheaded by Create Ardmore, a non-profit organization focused on supporting the arts and cultural activities.

“We’re all about art in the unexpected places,” says Maria Wilkinson, chairperson of the group.

The town has a number of murals, from a butterfly wing selfie wall and flower-covered fences to its latest addition, a postcard-inspired painting designed by Ardmore High School student, Hannah Delgado. She and fellow students did most of the painting under the direction of Palmer, who previously painted several murals in Ardmore.

As for those unexpected spots, one of Create Ardmore’s early projects resulted in a plethora of painted fireplugs featuring everything from the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” to prisoners’ black and white stripes on one behind the jail.

April Jones created a colorful, three-dimensional mural atop the Jasmine Moran Children’s Museum in Seminole. It not only adds to Seminole’s collection but clues visitors in to the wonders inside the building.

One of the most unusual pieces in Enid’s extensive collection is a massive metal sculpture by Romy Owens called “Under Her Wing Was the Universe.” It consists of a glittering (by sunlight) walkway under tall arches studded with small lights. Impressive in the daytime, it’s even more so at night. Inspired by Owens’ relationship with her mother, it calls on natural elements like surrounding prairie grass, the stars above and the image of a protective bird’s wing to inspire contemplation.

“The Queen of Arts” has to be Edmond’s program with 268 pieces—murals, sculptures and paintings—on publicly accessible properties. A bronze Monet works at his easel in front of the Edmond Fine Arts Institute. A reader peruses a paper at the entrance to the library. By the U.S. post office, a pole topped with a heart, encourages people to pick up a stamped post card and write to a friend. And downtown walls are brightened with a variety of murals.

Where to start your adventure? Start with your hometown. You might be surprised. Art is something we all can enjoy, and finding it can be a great adventure.

Category: Oklahoma Stories
Ardmore’s Maria’s Garden | Photo by Elaine Warner

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