At the Tulsa Artist Coalition gallery on Brady Street, you can peer in from the sidewalk through the glass facade and see large, colorful, almost cartoonish paintings on display. The pieces, by painter Eric Humphries, depict scenes from the race riot that tore Tulsa apart 79 years ago in what was probably the most destructive explosion of racial violence in American history. Not far from there, the rebuilt Mt. Zion Baptist Church stands where the old one was burned to ashes in the violence, and the new race riot memorial is covered in tarps, unfinished on the 79th anniversary of Tulsa’s worst fit of ethnic cleansing.
On the northeast corner of Fairview Street and Boston Avenue, just three blocks north of the gallery, a series of empty clearings spread out in bleak contrast to the rejuvenating bustle of Tulsa’s Brady District. On a humid Tuesday evening in early June, local artists Erin Turner and Carolyn Deuschle met just before dusk at a tree in one of the conspicuously empty plots – “because it was the most beautiful,” said Turner. “This other really awesome tree we wanted was infested with like 5000 grubs.”
With the help of friends, they wrapped a figure around the trunk of a tree, 10 feet in circumference. Around the sculpture’s chicken wire frame they’d glued white tracing paper, revealing a translucent female figure eating her own feet. The sculpture evokes an ancient symbol, Orusborus, in which a creature infinitely consumes itself.
Turner and Deuschle grew up in white, middle class Tulsa. Now in their 20s, they have occasionally returned home between stints elsewhere–Maine, New York, Mongolia, Mexico, Spain, Argentina. Though widely traveled, they remain deeply connected to Tulsa, in both its beauty and the horrors of its past.
“It happened 80 years ago but I feel like a lot of those kinds of tensions are still prevalent,” said Deuschle. “I remember when I was a kid, my family moved into my house in Maple Ridge. Our neighbor told my mom she wished there was another race riot to cleanse the community even more.”
“I am thoroughly disgusted by what happened,” added Turner. “We have progressed to a certain point in existence where it is just history and it is a scandalous history that should never be relived. And from that, something beautiful needs to happen.”
With battery-powered moonlights for innards, the figure glowed yellow as the sun fell below the horizon. Slowly, people trickled into the clearing, most of them in their twenties, as word of the “happening” spread via cell phone. Some brought flowers, candles and in one case a glowing orb that sat in the crook of the tree and changed from purple to red to blue to green. They also brought gin and tonics and beers, and they sat in the grass smoking cigarettes, gossiping, laughing, and, at times, seriously talking about the race riot and the legacy bequeathed to them by Tulsans before them.
“It’s kind of funny that this is a bunch of white kids out here,” said Matt Flynn, who grew up in Tulsa. The fact didn’t detract from the importance of the event, Flynn said, “because they don’t teach it on that side of town” – Flynn motioned south – “and I doubt they teach it on this side of town.”
The crowd of white young people commemorating the race riot was as emblematic of race divisions in Tulsa as the site of the guerrilla installation itself, where a Jim Crow inheritance left a neighborhood devastated while Tulsa unfurled southward in suburban sprawl.
The one black person at the event was Allison Gates, a friend of Turner’s whose grandmother had written a book on the race riot. She was pleased that the “happening” was happening, and glad to see it out in the streets rather than cooped up in a gallery.
“Having the paintings in a museum, people have to walk into the museum. If you do it guerrilla style it’s in your face, you can’t hide it. I mean this place is undeveloped,” she said, looking out in the dusk at the emptiness contrasted with the development south. “You can see it.”
Photo by Jeremy Charles