Passion, 2012. Burnished basswood and painted steel, 137 x 171 x 26 in. Photo: Robert Millman Photography

It’s Personal: A Conversation with James Surls

Winner of the 2020 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Awards

It’s been a long, strange trip over the last six decades for James Surls. His wood, bronze, and steel sculptures evoke a sense of ancient, present, and future worlds, from earthly landscapes to outer space, from visible nature to the inner eye. Surls grew up in East Texas timber country, where clearing the land by hand, digging up tree stumps, chopping wood, and building barns were part of a daily regimen that fostered respect for the American work ethic, as well as an impressive knowledge of native pine, sweet gum, and oak trees. His childhood experiences of playing in wood piles and making stick horses blended nature and human action into a seamless whole. Finding himself in Taos, New Mexico, in the early 1970s without a place to call his own, Surls cast a three-foot-square concrete slab on the side of a mountain and turned the entire landscape into a studio. Several years later, he and his wife to be, artist Charmaine Locke, dreamed of living in a 10-room house and working in a warehouse-size studio on 100 acres in the Piney Woods of East Texas. But when their dreams came true, the pressures of keeping up with family, property, and the vagaries of the art world began to devour them. Surls, Locke, and their daughters eventually resettled in Carbondale, Colorado.

With the installation of This Place, Everywhere at the Holocaust and Human Rights Museum in Dallas, Surls is hitting his stride all over again. His work is implacably bound by life. Although it serves as a tangible record of his personal existence, it also give form to a wider humanity—the relationship of people to their environment, to themselves, and to one another.

Susie Kalil: What are you searching for?
James Surls: God, what a question. Searching for in my art or in my personal life? Either way, the answer has to come from the same center because I cannot distinguish between personal and art. It takes a direct center hit to give a reflective thought to that as a question. I would say that is something best understood with age. I say that because now I am more aware of the when, where, what, and why in my search for self. In my youth, I did not give such a question much time. I did things in a moment-to-moment, day-by-day, or at best week-to-week kind of way. The search was just there below the level of consciousness. There was really not much I could do to change the trajectory set from birth . . .

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