The idea was born below the streets of London, in the long, dark expanse of an ancient crypt. In a 20-year retrospective of my photographs, images of Oklahoma and Oklahomans made their European debut at the Crypt Gallery of London in January 2018.
The works ranged from sinuous 6-foot-tall scrims that swayed in the breath of the underground tunnels to intimate framed portraits positioned in nooks, illuminated by candlelight. They portrayed Oklahoma’s winding roads, desolate landscapes, ancient petroglyphs, towering clouds, bronc riders at rest, children at play, tribal dancers in full regalia, laughing centenarians, gleaming cities, abandoned towns and vistas at dawn and dusk and in between.
The name of the show was simple: Oklahoma. Its goal, however, was ambitious: to offer a glimpse of a foreign land 5,000 miles to the west.
For three days, Londoners descended through massive iron doors down well-worn stone stairs to gaze upon depictions of people and places from a world away. Some of the visitors talked of their curiosity about and fascination with the American West. Others talked of friends or family who had visited, or always wanted to.
But many were caught short as they entered the exhibit.
“Oh – I thought this was about the musical,” they’d say. “You know: Oklahoma!”
This would be followed by stories about how their grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, loved the show – the music, the dancing cowboys, the beautiful mornin’, the surrey with the fringe on top – and, really, so did they.
Oklahoma! With an exclamation point.
In the weeks before the exhibition, The Guardian published a long feature detailing Oklahoma’s crumbling infrastructure, record prison rates, four-day school weeks and high poverty rates under the headline “Oklahoma isn’t working. Can anyone fix this failing American state?”
But in the winter damp of an atmospheric 19th-century crypt, few wanted to know about modern-day woes. They reminisced about the Technicolor Oklahoma with an exclamation point, a romantic fable filmed in Arizona and featuring music and lyrics written by men who had never visited the state.
Their vision was set to music by Ray Davies and The Kinks who, two decades after the Broadway debut of Oklahoma!, tapped into the romance of the mysterious land with their song of a downtrodden woman pondering an idyllic life across the sea:
“But in her dreams she is far away,
In Oklahoma U.S.A.
With Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae,
As she buys her paper at the corner shop,
She’s walkin’ on the surrey with the fringe on top,
‘Cause in her dreams she is far away,
In Oklahoma U.S.A.“
Upon returning to Oklahoma, U.S.A., I reconsidered the visitors’ perspective and embarked on an unexpected project. In honor of the 75th anniversary of the musical’s Broadway debut – and the 20th anniversary of my family’s relocation to Oklahoma – I revisited Oscar Hammerstein II’s words without Richard Rodgers’ music. Why not amplify – or contradict – their meanings, by pairing them with real Oklahoma views?
I created new images and designed dozens of street-art posters, mash-ups of the decontextualized lyrics and Oklahoma photographs, combined with some modern signs, vernacular sayings and quotes excerpted from interviews from around the state.
The result: Quotelahoma!
By summertime, Quotelahoma posters began appearing in pop-up installations across Europe. They became part of the street art of the Shoreditch section of East London and the Sicilian capital of Palermo, found on walls overlooking the Coliseum in Rome, the canals of Venice and the Duomo of Florence.
Onlookers pondered their messages, studying the words as part of a multi-layered, multi-lingual urban artscape of protest and proclamation.
Sometimes I would sneak back among the crowds and listen to discussions about the posters. Some would ponder the works and smile in recognition, some would ignore them. Others would read them and shrug, or photograph them and move on.
Still others were thrown. The words and images were familiar … and yet not. What did they mean? Was it a code? Philosophy? Advice? Wisdom?
It was not for me to say. The answer is as inscrutable and enigmatic as the place where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.