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 Award

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.

Fifty Wings, 2015. Bronze and stainless steel, 11 x 11 x 8 ft. View of work installed at the National Botanic Gardens, Singapore. Photo: Robert Millman Photogaphy

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. I was the wisp learning how to project my will.

Consciousness became my born-again moment. Acquiring consciousness gave me the ability to ask myself such a question. I think I am searching for reality on the touch of the ball joint of being as it relates to the cosmos at large. For me, to mark my way with evidence of that balance between the paradoxes is certainly a goal. I try to show proof by tangible means. Think of Bob Dylan for a moment and ask it like this, “For searching you are what?” or “Searching you are what for?” I am searching for a certain degree of “Peace in the valley with grasses in the meadow growing tall and green from the spill of clean water falling fast over boulders as it is making its way from the melting snow in the high country to distant oceans.” I want there to be a place for me in there somewhere, so when nature calls I stand very still and listen. Nature speaking to me is like having communion with Chief Seattle or Whit- man, Thoreau or Chief Joseph. The voices of centuries coming to me on the hooves of elk crunching ice between the stones as they walk up the mountainside. My searching will continue for the rest of my days. There is magic in having my senses awakened, and I am willing to believe in that magic.

SK: How have your views about life and art changed in recent years?
One of the best movie lines is the one in which Forrest Gump says to Lieutenant Dan, “You still Lieutenant Dan.” How much can I lose and still be me? My recent years have been spent trying to focus on what matters, which is what I have done in the past as well, but now I am obsessed with the reality that things are changing around me and a considerable amount of that change is not of my choosing. My studio has always been a sanctuary from uncontrollable events and even beliefs. I am talking about self-preservation. I have always had the ability to survive while suffering from acute attention issues—even while focusing on a particular sculpture, my mind will race to the next and the next until I am working on many of them at once. I call this broken field running—it is like juking at high speed. I am trying my best to be more focused and finish sculptures in some kind of timely manner. I just listed all the projects that need to be finished. Most of them have been started; yet in some cases, years have passed with everything ready to be assembled, but they have not been finished simply because I run to the next one at the speed of a thinking thought. There is thoughtful thinking in the psychological atmosphere about finishing well, meaning finishing your time in this life with honorable intent as it relates to deeds and actions. I now understand that honorable intent is not enough, because unintended consequence is the paradox holding honorable intent in check. The ball joint of life is the physical manifestation of touch. I have a deeper notion about things now. I now know that I can be going 100 mph due west, and in the flash of a moment and on the turn of a dime, I can be going 100 mph due east and that it is all just a part of being. I now have a better understanding of how to make the tight turn and live to tell the tale.

Rough God 4, 2010. Steel, 67.5 x 84.5 x 60 in. Photo: Robert Millman Photography

SK: What have you learned about human nature?
I am much more savvy about human nature now than ever before, and I am sure that everything I have learned about the nature of humans has to a great degree influenced my work. I assume that the nature of humans has been building for tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years, but each of us has to come face to face with the reality of it if we are to have any kind of understanding of it and know who we are. In the center ring of humanity is belief. We are not born with belief, we acquire it from time and place. I grew up in the Baptist church, but at some point, I could no longer balance the words and the deeds with the actions in the backyards and on the streets of the community at large. Beliefs are hatched in local nests and when they get compared, time and time again, there will arise a problem. Sometimes belief systems are holding tight to blinders such as logos, symbols, teams, flags, and borders, to a demigod or false prophet, so as to make it hard to see even in the clarity of day. This
is why I used the term “born again” as being the name of finding consciousness. Certain religious orders have taken the term as their own, but I think it is there to be used to express a transformation. It is human nature to fix on a belief system and not let any other enter or pass through the mind’s eye. I have learned that it is much harder to expand than it is to set tight on a personal reality. My art reflects a gravitational force greater than my own. Yes, it is a belief system, but I do not try to make anyone believe anything other than what they see. Art is to be looked at, with questions asked of it like, “Art, what are you saying?” If you are quiet enough and listen intently to art, it will tell you why it is; it will tell you what it is and show you its full meaning. But, belief gets in the way. Spectators paste themselves on top of art, they then deal with it on their terms and not on the terms presented. I have to have an understanding of that as a fact and make sense of it and fit it into the reality of a mark or an object. I was once on a panel at a museum, and the subject at hand was doubt. I was asked by the moderator about why I had doubt and how I moved through it. I said that, when it came to my art, I didn’t have doubt. The moderator suggested that she did not really believe that. She then asked what made art great. When I said that great art spoke truth, she got a little upset and said, “Truth, whose truth? There is no truth.” Things got tense when I replied, “My truth.” This is why art is personal even when created for a larger community. My art comes through the center of my very being. It is human nature to believe in yourself.

Cock Fighting, 2018. Pine knot, bois d’arc, walnut, and red oak, 101 x 60 x 144 in. Photo: Robert Millman Photography

SK: What meaning does sculpture as form, volume, and weight have in 2020, when we seem to live in the cloud?
JS: Form, volume, and weight have been present in sculpture since sculpture was conceived. My story of the birth of sculpture goes like this: a group of early humans were walking across, down, and through a washed riverbed. A woman looks down at the stones around her feet and sees a particular one that she picks up; she fondles it gently, passing it back and forth between her hands. She sees herself in the round bulbous stone. She is round and bulbous and filled with life. With this thought, she has placed life in the stone, she has imbued the stone and given birth to sculpture. I believe that a particular woman gave birth to sculpture by making a connection between object/meaning and life itself. This as a metaphor has stood for thousands of years. This is within the context under which I exist. I believe it is still applicable today. But today, there is a parallel track that gives rise to the reality that you can put art on the head of a pin, you can put art right through the eye of a needle. The thought of art can become the art itself. When thought can be used as the end product, then things have changed. I truly think I live on the ending cusp of the last 30,000 to 40,000 years. Keep in mind that the poets have closed form down to thought, with the only registration being in short writings and sometimes even in a word or two. Now we can do this in the physical realm as well. We now have processes that eliminate all but the idea. It is a strange time in many ways, and for those among us who like the reality of touch and the feel of form and weight in our hands, there can be a sense of loss. It may be in the reductive nature of deconstruction that the loss is inevitable. I wonder if there will be a time when a museum consists of a clean, well-lit space, with no physical presence of any kind, just people sitting around thinking while using digital enhancement. I would like to think that humans have enough power left in the opposable thumb and the deep need for touch that form, volume, and weight will be with us simply because we are humans with an evolutionary history so strong that we are not willing to give that up. But again, there is certainly evidence that we very well may give it up.

SK: Can art make change or provide hope in a time of political and cultural division?
Art in many ways runs point on the cultural climate while setting the rhythm and reason for what change is coming. Humanity has gone through the rise and fall of many cultural splits, which have contributed to the fall of empires. Division has been with us for a long time, and great art has been a part of that. Look at the Russian Constructivist period and what incredible clarity came out of the artists of that time. I am trying to bring clarity to the reality of our times. I very much want to have my art matter, to the point of providing a difference in our culture. Sometimes, reflections of the paradox are a positive thing. I just finished Cock Fighting, which is made from cedar fence post I got near Abilene, Texas, some bow-dark wood I got north of Dallas, a curved oak limb I got near Athens, and some ponderosa limb knots from the Colorado-New Mexico state line. Collectively these were cut, formed, and fitted into place to make a complete statement about cock fighting—as in males puffing up and doing the chest thump and posturing as if tough was their crown. Males have worn that kind of crown from the beginning. How do I put that into form, with weight and dimension? I rely on my personal history for the wellspring from which I draw. No one else’s art looks like mine, so now it is personal. The personal in it always comes home to roost and in equal measure must speak to the world. For this sculpture to punch beyond its physical self means it has to be seen and visually read, with the meaning and intent becoming apparent. Now we just shifted to a different arena, we are now talking about what happens to a work of art after it has been created. I can go back to the reality of form, volume, and weight and their relativeness. Let’s shift for a moment back to the idea of the new rail on the evolutionary track. If we lose our emotional response to touch and feel and take on the reality of the digital, the nano, and the cloud, then we very well may influence all things at a far greater speed and increase the number of people reached. Art as sculptural object is singularly powerful, with its intent and meaning in full view. That is my goal with my sculpture and my drawings; I want to imbue the materials I use with the sense of a life in and about them. I want them to speak a visual language with a clear message. I seriously hope that art can make changes and provide hope. However, so few of us ever get to see the art of our time that it is hard to say.

This Place, Everywhere, 2019. Bronze and stainless steel, 18 x 13 x 13 ft. View of work installed at the Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, Dallas. Photo: Paul Go Images

SK: What meaning does art have at this point, beyond market-savvy, celebrity-fueled art fairs?
I don’t participate in “market-savvy, celebrity-fueled” art fairs, so I really don’t know much about them. Certainly, I hear about the “richest artist in the world” and how there are those who clamor for the red one or the blue one and how marketing is the legs of the system. Hey, it sounds okay, but I think of the time when tulips were the center of trade like fad and fashion are today. I simply do not function in that world. I feel fully qualified to speak about the overall meaning of art in our time because that is the backbone of my personal existence. Art that is made to hang on the wall and look good will hang on the wall and look good, that is what it does. Great art has always carried a sense of deeper intent. It has something contained in its very being that speaks to us on a level of metaphor and magic, a level of felt sense. I would use the example of Joseph Cornell dropping a marble in a shot glass and through that putting the earth in the context of the universe. That is the magic of a great artist, and it has nothing to do with market savvy.

SK: What is your responsibility as an artist?
I would have to think about that in terms of to “whom and what” do I owe responsibility. Being an artist is a very self-centered existence in many ways, and sometimes “self-centered existences” can be equated with egotisticalness. I have to be aware of that, and I have to be okay with creating my truth. I believe my first responsibility as an artist is to myself. I use the word “I” in this answer, and that in and of itself puts the responsibility in my core first. I will again use the word “truth.” My truth has to be shown, and it has to come out as a matter of fact. I cannot doubt my art or myself. I have a responsibility to be true to my vision. That then becomes a point of view, a perspective given with certain clarity. I feel that is what I owe the world. I very much want to live up to that as it relates to the community at large, and at this level, it has to be an honest attempt. I certainly owe no one what they want me to say; I do owe them the best of my vision and a true adherence to the reflection of self in the work. But remember the constant presence of paradox—when something becomes plural, the complex system of order changes, for if it is not I, but we taking in the art, meaning can shift. To the plural, I have a great responsibility. The responsibility of the artist is to communicate his or her inner vision with as much clarity as is possible.

SK: What do you consider to be the watershed periods in your work?
Over the years, I have made several works, both sculptures and drawings, that dealt with the question, “How far back can I go?” I feel I can go back a day or a year, or back to my first memory. I feel I can go back 100 years or even 1,000. I have in my reality the fact that I can go back to the very beginning of human existence, but for the sake of your question I will start with college. My senior year, I went from an anthropology major to an art major. This was a very big deal for me because I opened and went through a door to my future. Charles Pebworth was a great teacher for me at Sam Houston State College. He worked in wood, so I came to the table already knowing how to use all the tools of the trade because I had grown up building with wood alongside my father. Charles let me run as fast I could. I didn’t have to wait for something to happen to become an artist; I was one as soon as I said I was one. I loved being an artist. I was struck by the power of “singular belief,” almost like being called from a higher source to be what I wanted to be and said I was. I was known as “the Carver.”

Then came graduate school. I had never heard of Cranbrook Academy of Art before I applied, but I was accepted and spent two years as “the Caster,” because I became the teaching assistant as well as the foundry assistant under Julius Schmidt. Julius had a hell-fire attitude and a work-till-you-drop personality. He was a hard-nosed, old-school sculptor who never let up. At Cranbrook, I thought process was the art. Then came the idea that meaning and content should take up as much of the viewer’s headspace as the “how did you make that” question.

Oak Tea, 2019. Bronze, 101 x 30 x 18 in. Photo: Robert Millman Photography

Shortly after Cranbrook came another serious doorway into a new period. I moved to Dallas and taught at Southern Methodist University for seven years. Three of those, I spent the summers in Taos, which was a game changer for me. I worked out in the forest and on the side of the mountain. Nature was my studio. I started to have a full degree of understanding of what was around me. I was breathing deep the air of the sublime. Every day, I would walk by an amazing example of architecture, an adobe Penitente church set in a sea of cactus, needle grass, and handmade wooden crosses covered with broken pieces of car taillights, bottle caps, wads of wire, and blue or red bottles. Meaning and metaphor shot from the place. I stood for hours sometimes looking hard at what was before me, sometimes at sunrise and sometimes at sunset. Those summers in New Mexico were extremely productive times. I not only got to look and listen to nature, I got to be nature. Everything I saw, heard, and did was natural to me. My seven years in Dallas were a good time for me; I made lots of art, met lots of people, and established a sense of place for myself. I started looking hard for the center of self in my existence, and I found it in 1976 when Charmaine and I settled into the heavily wooded landscape around Splendora, Texas.

Now the “I am” in me got placed in the right spot on earth. We lived down a dirt road, over a wooden bridge, across a creek, and around a bend to a one-room house. I could say my time in the Splendora woods was part of the happiest and most productive period of my life. We lived a very high-energy life. Art came like water from the roof of the house. I moved with nature, as confident as trees, meandering creeks, and sunrays spotlighting through holes in the leaves above. All of my art was about the personal of living, the truth of being in the here and now. I have now lived in the high mountains of western Colorado for the same length of time as I did in the big thicket of the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Throughout the last 40-plus years, I have been on a long slow climb to the summit. I keep a steady hand on the driving wheel. But at the same time, I realize that with each terrain change, there comes a psychological change as well. Change begets change, and that change shows a way of manifesting, from the intangible to the tangible, from concept to the statement of physical fact, sculpture with intent and meaning.

All I ever really wanted was to go home with you, 2010. Live oak, 22 x 28 x 14 in. Photo: Robert Millman Photo

SK: Which sculptures, on a deeply personal level, reflect your lifetime pursuit in making art?
I would like to think they all do. Thirty-five or 40 years ago, I saw Dick Cavett interviewing Steve McQueen. He asked, “Now Steve, aren’t you embarrassed about having made The Blob?” McQueen’s answered, “No, that was the best I could do at the time.” I thought that was the best answer anyone could have given. I took it to heart and say, “I just want to do the best I can do in the moment I am doing it.” So, the works all reflect my lifetime pursuit in making art. If I had to comb back over the years and pick a couple, there is the drawing and sculpture of Man Doing War. The sculpture was shown at the Whitney in a room with only three artists, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, and me. Putting Man Doing War in that room was like throwing a beast into their midst. I would also mention Big Man Going to the Arms Race, Visions, Being Ready, Rough God, and All I ever wanted was to go home with you (both the sculpture and the drawing). The drawing covers millions of light years in width and depth and shows Charmaine in cosmic space, like going from the poet Robert Creeley’s “This Place to Everywhere.” I wanted to show all of her. I want to say, I put the best of me in all my art.

I would also include There used to be a Forest in Poets Walk out in Los Angeles. I did eight drawings, and Robert Creeley wrote eight poems. Both the drawings and the poems are etched in granite blocks on the corner of Figaro and Seventh. Creeley came to our place in Splendora and stayed a week; we walked the woods for hours. His studio consisted of a little pad of paper, a pencil, and his mind. He wrote a poem that goes like this, “So Simply Vast / Placed / In this Space / Everywhere.” My best is represented in This Place, Everywhere, taken directly from Creeley’s poem. This is a monumental sculpture in the courtyard of the Holocaust and Human Rights Museum in Dallas. I could spend hours speaking about this particular sculpture, its content, its meaning, what it represents, and its obligation to the world at large. I am the most proud of this sculpture; it will be my signature for as long as long is.

SK: Some artists contend that art is terrible as a quick responder to our circumstances—an artist’s practice, after all, takes time. How do your sculptures allow us, in an honest and emotional way, to see the now? How do you want viewers to see and experience your work?
JS: Consider for a moment the reality of the top of the dung heap, the art that is made on the high end of our time, massive amounts of it extruded through the marketing system and sold on a high return level—it is business. This falls within that “pump up the tulip” thing; there has been and will be again the rise and fall of fad and fashion. On that level, it directly reflects our current circumstances as they relate to the political and cultural reality of where we are right now. But there is a sea of art being made across the world. To use my own work as the example—not only does my sculpture take time to bring the intangible to the realm of tangible, it also takes time to move, show, and place, and the number of people who see it is small in a relative sense. There has to be a one to one, an eye to eye with it; it has to be connected to the be-here moment of viewing. The spectator has to have a conversation with the art. When people do stand in front of my work, few are willing to look and see, they move at the clip of media.

Many art historians say that all art (from any time) can be narrowed to fall within decades. I believe this
is true, particularly if you use imagery that tells of a certain time—then you have indeed marked it for a period. I do not do that; my art is about a psychological moment in the nature of humanity, thus having no relation to a decade or period, and it should be applicable throughout time. I want the viewer to see my art as having meaning and to gain answers to the questions “What is it and what is it for? What is it saying and telling me?” I am of the ancient school of imbuing the stone. I actually view this as a creation moment.

James Surls and artist Charmaine Locke at the Splendora, Texas, 1978. Photo: Hickey & Robertson

SK: What gets you back into the studio through boom times and bust times, periods with and without support? What has sustained you?
There has been a steady rise in my reality of boom and bust. I exist in this as a high/low business, sometimes it is on the “Is” side of the scale and sometimes it is on the “Is Not” side. I am sustained, always. Remember, I was dipped in the light of singular belief; I do not have to “get back” in the studio because I never left it. In New Mexico, I worked on the side of a mountain; in Splendora, I worked in the yard; when I was teaching, I made art in my classroom; when I was leaning into the wind, I was making art; my studio is “this place, everywhere.” I can work under the apple tree or in a 12,000-square-foot building—either way, I make art in my studio.

SK: After nearly six decades of making art, what resides at the core of your work? What is the through-line?
JS: There is a through-line in my being and in my art; it is the rhyme, rhythm, and pattern of nature, the language older than words. In the beginning of my time as an artist, it was the physical that sustained me, then as I grew more mature, it also became the science of mind and meaning, reverence for spirit and magic, the energy of nature. This is where William Blake as a poet and artist came to me and showed me his grain of sand and allowed me to go inside and look around. I had a book by my bed titled The Crack in the Cosmic Egg by Joseph Chilton Pearce. My mind was filled with capability. I take this as serious stuff, it was there then and it is here now.