En Plein Air: Public Art in Oklahoma - 405 Magazine

En Plein Air: Public Art in Oklahoma

Bronze sculptures and colorful murals and evocative abstract whirls of glittering glass ... whether meant as representational tribute or wild flight of pure fancy, the state's cultural landscape is enriched by creations like these, especially given that they're free for all to study.


Art In The Open Is Meant To Tell A Story. Question An Assumption. Remember A Feat. Evoke A Smile.

Outdoors and accessible to all, public art provides both a mirror and a window to the world through the artist’s eyes. It reflects our evolving culture, shared history, collective memory. Beneath Oklahoma’s ever-changing skies stands a growing body of murals, sculptures and installations that go beyond the traditional public depictions of war memorials or men on horses. There are no admission fees, no audio tour, no dress code, no shushing guards. The new public works let art out of the confines of a gallery setting and treat the entire state as a museum without walls.

This Land

Ten years ago this month, artist Bob Palmer and students from the University of Central Oklahoma unveiled their downtown mural of an Oklahoma flag painted across the undulating grain elevators south of Bricktown. For eight years the flag waved in perpetual curl, above the inscription 1907-2007 and beneath the exoneration CELEBRATE OKLAHOMA!

In 2012, a design for a replacement mural by Mustang-born printmaker Rick Sinnett was unveiled. In “This Land,” electric colors bring forth state symbols: the Scissor-tailed flycatcher, American bison, stalks heavy with wheat, Indian paintbrush flowers and sunbeams radiating above the land and the Oklahoma river. The work would be the largest in a series of massive murals he is creating near the historic Mother Road, entitled Public Arts Project 66.

The concept was approved by the Oklahoma City Arts Council. But when the corporate logos of sponsors were not included in the final design, the chief financial backer withdrew support.

Undeterred, smaller businesses stepped up, donating materials and expertise; Sinnett and others donated their labor.

For the last $16,000 in funding, needed for renting scaffolding and lifts for the painters, Sinnett turned to Kickstarter. Within days, 142 backers pledged $17,583 to bring the project to life. The largest donation was $10,000 from Downtown Oklahoma City, Inc.

Over a year and a half, Sinnett and his team applied hundreds of gallons of paint, using two-inch rollers and two-inch cutting brushes to define the design outlined by 360 four-by-eight sheets of plastic stencils over the 100-foot-tall by 128-foot-long silo surface. Once half of the design was outlined, the crew flipped the stencils to complete the mirrored half of the symmetrical mural.
Sinnett told his backers: “The sheer magnitude was so mega, for lack of a better word, just to deal with the logistics was mind-boggling … Now that I’m older, I’ve developed this fear of heights … There were days where I would get on the lift and decided I couldn’t do it. I’d have to come down … I couldn’t do it. That’s something else I wouldn’t ever in a million years [have] thought, that I would have the ability to confront my fear and try to defeat it. Wow. All of this because of painting this giant piece. What a cool experience!”

“This Land” was completed late in 2014. “It wasn’t until I painted the first mural that I realized that public art is my calling. That’s what I’ve been put here to do, is to bring art to the people. It’s about art for the people.
“My primary goal, it’s pretty simple. If this piece can somehow, some way make 2,000 people smile, then my goal has been achieved.”

The Guardian

Twenty-two-feet tall from the spear tip to soles of feet, “The Guardian” may be Oklahoma’s most elevated piece of public art, installed 255 feet off the ground at the top of the Capitol dome. Sculpted by Enoch Kelly Haney – a former state senator who would later be elected chief of the Seminole Nation – the Plains Indian warrior is depicted with his foot tied to the ground, signifying he is ready for battle and will not retreat.

The work was cast in 50 pieces from two tons of bronze, and was anchored by eight four-inch-long bolts to the just-completed Capitol dome on June 7, 2002. Although said to represent the 39 tribes headquartered in the state, it is the artist’s family that provided the detail: the eyes were inspired by the artist’s son, William; the cheekbones from his grandson and namesake, Enoch. The body of the statue is turned east, toward the rising sun, and his face looks south, overlooking the Capitol’s main entrance. At its dedication, Haney spoke in the voice of his creation, declaring: “My lance pierces my legging and is planted on the ground. I will not be moved from my duty, from my love of Oklahoma and all its people – people who have come from far and near, people who have withstood adversities and hardships, and still stand strong and proud. I will stand my ground. I will not be moved. From this day on, I will stand guard.” A nine-foot replica stands in the Rotunda below, and seven seven-foot replicas dot the state.

Miss Americas

There they are … Miss America! Bronzes of the three Oklahoma City University students who won the Miss America crown stand in perpetual evening gown attire near the southeast corner of campus. Oklahoma sculptor Shan Gray created the tiara-wearing, rose-carrying likenesses of Miss Americas Jane Jayroe of Laverne (1967), Susan Powell of Elk City (1981) and Shawntel Smith of Muldrow (1996). Unveiled during OCU’s centennial in 2004, the trio is often accessorized to celebrate special events, wearing Thunder shirts during playoffs and Santa hats for Christmas.


More massive even than the five larger-than-life statues of Heisman Trophy winners that stand frozen in mid-play across the University of Oklahoma campus is a 3,000-pound, 11-foot bronze with a one-word title: “Sphinx.”

The journey that led to its position as guardian north of the entrance to OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art began after the death of longtime arts patron Jerome M. Westheimer Sr.

His will left a provision for the purchase of a monumental sculpture by one of his favorite artists, Fernando Botero. Born in Colombia in 1932 and still active at the age of 83, Botero is known for works of wit and playfulness and the philosophy “art is for all of the public to enjoy, not for selected people.” Eric Lee, then-director of the museum, worked with New York-based Marlborough Gallery to select “Sphinx,” a winged lioness-woman mythical creature, with manicured fingernails in the front and long talons in the back, then on tour of Europe and Asia. Lee said before its September 26, 2006 installation: “Thematically, it works well with the pyramids of the building, even though it is a Greek, not Egyptian, sphinx. The curves of the sculpture contrast nicely with the geometry of the building, and the bronze is really beautiful against the limestone.” He called it “among the museum’s most important acquisitions ever … destined to become a campus icon.”

Standing Brave

When his quest to buy a 26-foot tall Indian statue for his Big Cabin Travel Plaza turnpike truck stop fell through, DeWayne Franks commissioned Wade Leslie, of Franks & Son body shop, to create one twice as tall. Then 26 years old, Leslie used 1,800 feet of steel pipe and rebar for the framework, which was then covered with wire mesh and insulation foam, from which he carved details. Next came fiberglassing, sanding, printing and painting. To bolster the freestanding statue against the Oklahoma winds, a 15-foot underground footing was prepared with 100 yards of steel-reinforced concrete to support the pedestal. His spear and headdress were built into the framework for added support and installed August 9, 2001. Number of hours to construct: 801. Final height: 46 feet tall,

The Womb

The iconic exterior of the gallery/concert venue known as The Womb sprung from the psychedelic imagination of Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and was painted by Brooklyn-based artist Maya Hayuk. In an interview during the process, she said: “I really wanted to focus on eyeballs and mouths, just cause it feels like it’s psychically linked to what I think this building is gonna be. In a way, it’s kind of like my blessing of the building … It’s freaking cool. I’ve been listening to his music since the dawn of time, so it’s really super awesome and flattering and humbling and mind-blowing to have him turn around and recognize me.”

Dick Tracy

Born in Oklahoma Territory on November 20, 1900, Chester Gould is said to have started his art career at age seven, selling crayon portraits of politicians at the Pawnee County courthouse. After his 1919 graduation from Pawnee High, he attended Oklahoma A&M, Northwestern and the Chicago Art Institute. In the era of Al Capone, he proposed a comic strip about the triumph of good over evil. His crime-fighting Dick Tracy debuted October 4, 1931 in the Chicago Tribune. A pioneer in portraying the effects of violence, and in creating more than 200 imaginative villains, Gould drew the strip without taking a vacation until his retirement in 1977. In 1990, the year Warren Beatty starred in the title role in the “Dick Tracy” movie, the 25-by-30 foot mural was commissioned from Ed Melberg of Tulsa. It is now the focal point of the town’s annual Chester Gould birthday bash and parade, held the first Saturday in October.

Shannon Miller

The youngest Oklahoman to be honored with a monumental statue is Shannon Miller, the most-decorated gymnast in U.S. history. As a teenager, she won two national championships, two world championships and seven medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. The city of Edmond earmarked $100,000 to immortalize the Olympic gold medalist in bronze. The statue was dedicated May 12, 2001, the month after Miller turned 24.

The artist, Osage sculptor Shan Gray, said his design depicts Miller “in a classical athletic pose juxtaposed against the world which she has conquered … This type of public sculpture, which requires a direct and universal symbolism, tends to function best when grandness of scale is used as part of that symbolic vocabulary.”

And grand it is. The statue itself is 18.5 feet tall, freezing Miller in a perfect balance-beam leap atop a nine-foot pedestal.

Now a 38-year-old businesswoman and cancer survivor, Miller lives in Florida with her second husband and two children. Her latest book, published in April, is entitled “It’s Not About Perfect.” Her philosophy: “So much of gymnastics and young adulthood was about perfection, the perfect landing, the perfect toe point, the perfect score. And then you move into young adulthood and you think it’s about the perfect hair, the perfect body type and the perfect grades. But what I learned is that life isn’t about perfection. It’s about getting back up every time you fall and enjoying the journey.”

Bigheart Okla Sign

For its first 16 years, the town carried the name of Bigheart, in honor of the Osage Chief James Bigheart. During that time, its residents dealt with a 1911 tornado, a 1913 refinery fire, 1915 floods and a 1919 nitro explosion in the middle of town that killed nine. Even so, its population increased seven-fold in a decade, topping 2,000 by 1920. The Barnsdall Oil Company bought the refinery in 1921; on November 21 of that year, the U.S. Postal Service recognized that the old town of Bigheart was now Barnsdall.

But the former name lives on. The oldest house in town is occupied by Jack Gamble. Next door is an old gas station, now known as Jack’s Place and featuring a collection of oil field memorabilia. Out front is a sign that he helped make to advertise his old restaurant, the Bigheart Cafe. “I had it up on a pole 20 feet high. Used to have 132 lights in it. When it was lit out, you could see it for miles around. I got it on a trailer, and I could pull it in a parade if I wanted to, but I never do. Got a ’39 Dodge pickup, and people say ‘Hey, pull that sign behind it,’ but I never have. There’s cars lined up right now, people stopping to take pictures. Don’t know who they are, or where they come from. I used to have a book they would sign. They’re from everywhere.”

Tall Grass

The 18-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture, at the northeast corner of Covell and Kelly, is one of more than 150 cataloged public art works in the Edmond city limits. The Edmond Visual Arts Commission matches private funding for approved works, up to $30,000. South Dakota-based artist Dale Lamphere describes his work as distilling “natural patterns in the fundamentals of movement, form and volume. Discovery is still my primary experience.”

Route 66 Site Paintings

The story goes that Masel Zimmerman and her husband were driving west-to-east across country with the idea to settle in Tennessee in hopes of finding a foothold for her art. Along the way, car problems forced them to stop just across the Texas-Oklahoma border in the ghost town of Texola. Official population in the 2010 census: 36. They opted to stay, and fixed up the abandoned Depression-era roadhouse to become a restaurant, convenience store and art gallery. The artwork spills out of the gallery and onto the stucco walls, the sides of vehicles and the road itself.

Chief Standing Bear

The centerpiece of the Kay County park that bears his name, the 22-foot-tall bronze of Chief Standing Bear stands above a circular viewing court of sandstone boulders and an eternal flame. His existence came about when many in Ponca City recoiled from a 1993 proposal to commemorate the area’s centennial of white settlement with a statue entitled “This Land Is Mine,” depicting a cowboy staking a land claim.

Collaboration led to the commissioning of the 3,500-pound statue, sculpted by Oreland C. Joe, a Southern Ute/Navajo from Kirtland, New Mexico.

“What is so amazing and is so great about this project is that it started as a result of some very definite misunderstandings and miscommunications between Indians and non-Indians,” Carl Renfro, chairman of the Ponca City Native American Foundation, said at the 1996 dedication. “This has been a joint effort by all our citizens.”

The Ponca chief Standing Bear, whose tribe had been forcibly removed from their lands, gained national attention after he and his followers were arrested when they set off on foot from Indian Territory to their Nebraska homeland to return his son’s bones for burial. He was arrested and detained, and sued the federal government for his freedom.

The 1879 case made national headlines when a judge asserted for the first time that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law.” At the close of his historic trial, the Ponca chief addressed the judge though his interpreter, extending his hand toward the bench while saying: “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

Mickey Mantle

There was talk of a Mickey Mantle museum in the town of Commerce, where the family of the Spavinaw-born future Yankees legend moved when he was four so his dad could work in the nearby mines of Picher. But $75,000 in funds from the Oklahoma Centennial funded his seven-and-a-half-foot-tall monument, just outside the centerfield fence of his baseball diamond, the Mickey Mantle Field, tucked in a wide curve of Route 66. The statue was dedicated at 6:07 p.m. June 12, 2010, in tribute to the numbers 6 and 7 Mantle wore during his baseball career. The Commerce statue portrays Mantle batting right; a similar version outside Oklahoma City’s Bricktown ballpark, located on South Mickey Mantle Drive, also by artist Blair Buswell, shows the switch-hitter batting left.

Abstract Eye

More than 50 proposals for a new piece of public art were submitted to mark the expansion of the Dean McGee Eye Institute. The winning team: sculptor Shan Shan Sheng and architect Mark Dziewulski of San Francisco and London. The 20-by-8-foot laminated glass piece is comprised of 44 panels in stainless steel framing, colored in vibrant hues of reds and violets. The transparent panels radiate sunlight in the day and are illuminated at night to glow against the sky.

Gordon Cooper Mural

It took a fresh set of eyes to size up downtown Shawnee and figure out what was missing: a colorful tribute to favorite son Gordon Cooper, one of the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts. Eight years after his death at age 77, his hometown unveiled a spray-paint mural created by newcomer Darryl Carter and Shawnee native Chaz Partin. The work incorporates Cooper’s TIME magazine cover, a black-and-white rendition of him riding in a convertible during a parade, a rendition of the Project Mercury postage stamp and the red-white-and-blue declaration that he spent 222 HOURS IN SPACE! Acknowledgment of his post-NASA fame as an outspoken believer in UFOs may – or may not – be hidden among the mural’s Milky Way stars and abstract skyscapes.

Morning Prayer

More than 160 of the 630 members of the Lochapoka clan of the Creek Nation died on their forced march from Alabama to Indian Territory. In 1836, at a bend in the Arkansas River, survivors gathered under a large burr oak and announced they would settle nearby. They solemnized their arrival by lighting a ceremonial flame, depositing ashes carried over the trail from their last campfires in Alabama.

The town would eventually become Tulsa, and the Council Oak was its first gathering place: town hall, courthouse and church. At the annual Council Oak Tree Ceremony of 2009, the tribe dedicated the bronze sculpture “Morning Prayer,” by Creek citizen Dan Brook of Waco, Texas, signifying the survival of the flame and its people.


After 10 years near the entrance of the Edmond Historical Museum, the seven-foot-tall “L’ete” was reinstalled at the edge of Mitch Park in June 2014. The yellow steel sculpture, with a title that translates as “The Summer,” was created by Oklahoma City-based artist Randy Marks.


Unveiled on May 30, the 130-foot-long, twelve-and-a-half-foot-high spray-paint mural in Oklahoma City’s Automobile Alley weaves together the geometric and celestial-inspired designs of Kris Kanaly; a lush, undulating plant that snakes from blue to orange to green to violet, created by Yatika Starr Fields; and Dylan Bradway’s be-hatted magician with sinewy arms extended to either side, gesturing toward the skull of his trick rabbit, whose ears flow back to complete the braid. A joint statement from the artists notes the work celebrates “imagination and the connectivity through collaboration” and serves as “a powerful public exhibition of how different cultures, ideas and imaginations can be woven together for a stronger creative bond.”

Piece of Mind

Susan Morrison’s six mosaic panels near the entrance of the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark tell the history of what had come before. To the right are the three that recall Bricktown’s early African-American community. The Deep Deuce district took its name from Northeast Second Street, the northern border of an early statehood segregation ordinance passed by the Oklahoma City Council. Memorialized in the center panel is the old Frederick Douglass High School, which once stood nearby. It was there that music director Zelia Breaux inspired students including electric guitarist Charlie Christian, blues shouter Jimmy Rushing and author Ralph Ellison, all of whom played with the legendary jazz band the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. 

Oklahoma's "museum without walls" has many exhibits; click here for more statewide public wonders.