Part 1: James Surls and what His Art Means to “Me”

James Surls is beyond fascinating, and a man of infinite imagination is the most one can ask for when seeking knowledge and enjoyment of an artist.  At first glance one appears to know exactly what his art is all about, yet on second glance Surls seems to defy our every preconception of his work.  It appears to be solely about a connection to nature found through Surrealist techniques, but in fact one finds that there is an emotional, personal, and almost transcendental feeling to each of his works.  There is always one element in each piece that one just cannot “put their finger on”, but that continually keeps the viewer engaged.

I love James Surls work because the more I read about him and his work the more I learn that he uses every ounce of who he is to construct his sculptures.  Being a very adamant believer that all a person does is influenced by who they are and their experiences makes me inclined to love an artist who can express his experiences to the world through an artistic medium.  He expresses himself not only through sculpture but also through poetry.  Although his poetry is confusing at times and a bit convoluted in the way he jumps from one thought to the next with no obvious transitions, I am always excited to come to that “Ah-Ha” moment at the end.  Indeed there are a couple lines that I thoroughly enjoy in Surls’ “I Never Knew” for reasons ranging from personal familiarity to scientific interest:

“Space time my ass

It’s here and now

and the sun is shining around the edges,

and the shadows have

Life about them

and rocks faces, looking out

through the houses of history…”

The best thing about poetry is that one will never be able to understand a poem in its entirety.  No matter how many meanings we read into a poem, and how many historical facts we find reference to, one can never know what the poem means to the poet.  We can probe the poet for answers to tame our curiosities but we can never really feel what the poet feels.  Can one actually explain why one enjoys a poem?  If poems have different meanings to different people, how can one find a mutual love for a poem with someone else?

Being from a small town myself, I was inspired to know more of Surls and his work when I was told he was from a small town in East Texas as well.  In fact, he spent twenty of his glory years in my town of Splendora, Texas, and when I heard this, I became animated beyond belief.  Honestly, people do not know Splendora at all, and if they do it is either for the fact that it was a “speed trap” town for a long time or because they have passed the exit sign while driving north on Highway 59.  Of course the only reason people remember that they drove by Splendora is because of the interesting sound the word makes as it rolls across one’s tongue.  Splendora was named for the “splendor of the flora and the fauna”, hence the melding of the words into this one unique designation.

Astonishing to myself is the fact that people will go into a field of work that they feel drawn to but had no exposure to while growing up.  When I say they are drawn to this profession, I do not mean they read about it and were intrigued, I mean there was something deep inside calling them to a profession that they could not explain until they got older and experienced the world outside of the small town in which they were raised.  I know that this was true for me.  My only exposure to the “art world” was through a fourth grade Art Memory competition in the University Interscholastic League competition, which I won two years in a row until I went to middle school and the Art Memory area was cut from the program.  I remember being devastated because I came to enjoy the art and had only been asked to participate because I had a good memory.  So somehow by the time I got into the University of Texas at Austin and was in my second year, that love unearthed itself in the form of Art History.  My calling had found me in the real world.

When I view James Surls’ work I remember why I decided to make a life out of my passions instead of studying a subject that might have led to a more lucrative life.  I find that small town familiarity with his life and experiences and therefore his success in his passion of sculpting. And when the economy is rough and the job market looks poor, I can look at Surls’ artwork and remind myself that the sky really is the limit!

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