For a moment, try to imagine our city without the Cain’s Ballroom.
Now also consider downtown Tulsa without the BOK Center.
Add to that mix, a map of Tulsa showing Route 66 as no more than a relic of the past.
It doesn’t seem possible, not in 2012, at least. But not long ago, the odds were 50-50 at best that development that was progressive and oriented toward making the most of cultural heritage, well … that kind of thing was mostly happening somewhere else.
Then it seemed almost suddenly, things started to change.
Looking back to early September 2003, two events occurred just a day apart, completely independent of each other that stand out as maybe the moment when the tide seemed to recede and our city regained its footing and began to lay claim to a future with the potential to propel us forward while also vigorously embracing our past.
On September 4, Cain’s Dancing Academy was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places. The ballroom had been purchased by the Rodgers’ family in 2002 and, after a year-long renovation, Cain’s reopened in October, less than a month after the designation. The significance of the revitalization of this Tulsa landmark cannot be understated, given the barriers that historically divided the city along the east-west corridor of Archer Street.
A day earlier, the special election for Vision 2025 had passed with over 60 percent of voters choosing to fund the four proposals on the ballot. The BOK Center has become the flagship project of this long-range development initiative, Proposition 4 of Vision 2025 set aside $15 million for various improvements along Route 66 that were later tied to a Route 66 master plan completed in 2006, by a Design and Recommendation Committee.
The committee was comprised of city officials and citizens and, of the 21 projects reviewed by the team, the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza scored the highest, based on these criteria:
Celebrate our Route 66 Heritage Restore the Metaphor
The Centennial Plaza is located at the intersection of Route 66 (aka Southwest Boulevard) and Riverside Drive in Tulsa and was dedicated in 2008. One key component included as a part of the Plaza has been a long time in coming. In late October 2012, the bronze sculpture, “East Meet West”—a larger than life sized, none too subtle depiction of the past colliding with the future circa 1927—was installed. The sculpture’s dedication in early November finally brought to a close a project nearly a decade in the making.
“East Meets West” depicts a horse-drawn, oil-field water wagon heading east that nearly runs headlong into a Model T. carrying Cyrus Avery, the Father of Route 66, and his family. The startled horses rear up and are milliseconds from crashing into the car fender. Avery stands with one foot on the running board, his wife is turned toward the rear seat in a gesture of maternal concern for their daughter, who is doing her best to keep her cat from clawing out of her arms.
According to the Route 66 Master Plan, “the multiple piece sculpture will serve as a memorial to Cyrus Avery… and will reinforce the idea that Route 66 in general and the bridge in particular is where the old met new… east met west… and the past met the future.”
The sculpture is well suited to the plaza, resting near the center of the open-air, semi-circular brick design that is approximately 100 feet in diameter with an elevated observation deck that provides views of the historic 11th Street bridge as well as the new sculpture. The setting is somewhat park-like, with a tiered half-moon border at the back of the plaza rimmed in evergreen trees and grasses with a series of informational kiosks and eight flags depicting the states that Route 66 passes through.
The plaza and sculpture are highly visible for Route 66 automobile travelers, and the observation deck serves as a landing for the skywalk allowing pedestrians to cross Southwest Boulevard from a parking lot on the hillside near the location of the planned Route 66 Interpretive Center. The design of the sculpture is complex and the detail rendered down to the lettering on the Model “T” tires, does what all good artwork should do. It pulls the viewer in and causes one to want to touch and become a participant in an unspoken dialogue with the artist.
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“I want you to meet my friend Bob. This is Bob Summers, man of a thousand words.” Robert Summers is the artist behind “East Meet West.” A few years ago one of his friends started introducing him with this twist on the old “man of a few words” adage and it is a most apt description. As you ease into familiarity with him, Summers insists upon being called “Bob,” rather than Mr. Summers or Robert.
When he discusses the “East Meets West” sculpture, he admits the process has not been without its share of road bumps along the way. The 20-by-40 foot scale was not an issue, given Summers’ creation in 1992 of the iconic sculpture for Trammel Crow’s Pioneer Park in Dallas.
“Texas Trail,” considered to be one of the largest bronze sculptures of its type in the world, is a Texas- size rendering of a 19th-century cattle drive, with 40 steers and 3 trail riders driving the herd down a bluff a block from City Hall. The project was not without delays and controversies, but after two and a half years of work it was installed and has become one of the most visited attractions in downtown Dallas.
Summers’ birthplace and home is Glen Rose, a small Texas town located 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth. First settled in 1849, Glen Rose has been famous for its mineral springs, moonshine and dinosaurs; actually, dinosaur tracks estimated to be 113 million years old. First discovered by a schoolboy in 1909, they were little more than a local curiosity until the late 1930s when they were “rediscovered” by Roland T. Bird, a paleontologist with The American Museum of Natural History.
In 1970, Dinosaur Valley State Park was established outside of Glen Rose, and is the home of two fiberglass dinosaurs: a 70-foot Apatosaurus and a 45-foot Tyrannosaurus Rex built for the Sinclair Oil Company’s “Dinoland” exhibit of the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair. Another local attraction, the Creation Evidence Museum, is located just about a mile from the park’s entrance. The museum was founded by Carl Baugh, a Baptist preacher, archaeologist, and radio personality, who claims to have discovered more than 100 human footprints alongside the dinosaur prints and uses the museum to discredit evolution, asserting that people lived contemporaneously with dinosaurs.
Growing up in those surroundings, Summers seems almost destined to dream on a very large scale, but according to his mother, he started much smaller. “The way Mother would tell it, when I was around 2 years old I’d take bread from my dinner plate and build little tiny elephants and dinosaurs and people, and I just continued to keep on from there. I always wanted to be an artist.” He recalls that as a teenager he had a standing joke with a cousin from Fort Worth who wanted to be a doctor. Summers would tell him, “When you become a doctor, you can cut ‘em open and I’ll draw ‘em.”
After finishing high school he considered college, but after visiting several art departments, he quickly came to the conclusion that what they were teaching was not something he wanted to spend ‘hard earned money’ on. “This was the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, and the focus was on work that was much more avant garde than I wanted to create.” Instead, he signed up for a stint in the National Guard, trained as a medic and after a close brush with activation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, took a job with the Texas Highway Department as a road hand.
He courted and married an art student from North Texas College he met on a double blind date. A friend gave him a picture of the girl he was going to meet and after the date he presented her with a likeness of her that he had drawn. His future wife Bertha Ann, who everyone calls Boo, was enamored by the drawing and by all accounts the artist as well; they are going on 45-plus years of marriage.
In the early 1960s, they lived in a small house in Glen Rose and, as Summers recalls, “I’d come home, eat, cleanup and start to paint.” His persistence began to pay off and he started selling his work locally. He caught the attention of an art dealer who started buying his paintings for $35 each. At the time he was working primarily in oil and watercolors and his self-described method was ‘slash and dash.’
Convinced by the dealer to paint full-time, Summers quit his job and started producing three pieces a week, which was much better money than he had made at the Highway Department. When the dealer stopped making his weekly run to buy the work, Summers, who was now also a father, was forced to borrow money and work odd jobs until he was finally hired as an illustrator at General Dynamics. An encounter with a fellow artist working in the same department led him to take a few steps forward and backward in his development as an artist.
“Ronald Thomason was a successful artist admired by most of the guys on staff for the quality of his art. He was working in egg tempera, and would share his books, but he expected you to read them before he would talk about the process much,” said Summers. As a medium, egg tempera is a painting technique that was largely abandoned after the fifteenth century when oil paint was created. It is a painstakingly slow method because many layers of pure translucent pigment and egg yolk must be built up one by one. For Summers, the intricate process was well suited to his temperament. He spent the next four months making the initial preparations to begin his first painting in that style, and when he completed the piece, the change in the quality of his work was noted by his peers and by Thomason. “When I took the painting to work, none of the guys could believe it was mine.” He also noted coolness from his “egg tempera mentor” that was unexpected but didn’t deter him from continuing to explore the technique.
In the fall of 1968, one of his Dad’s cousins who had struck it rich in the oilfields of west Texas paid him a visit. “One Sunday afternoon Dad said that cousin Bill wanted to look at some of my paintings but he was in a big hurry. When he got there Bill went back into the room I used as my studio while Boo and I waited at the table. We waited and waited and it was just dead silent, so I went back there, and he looked up at me and asked, ‘When did you start doing work like this?’ ‘Who represents you?’ and the long and the short of it was he was going to set me up with a gallery representative that he knew. Well I thought that would be the end of it, but my dad called the next day and said that Bill had offered to pay me six months’ salary to cover art supplies and living expenses so I could work as an artist full-time, and get into a gallery.”
His independent streak nearly got the best of him. “It just hit me wrong and I told Dad, ‘He doesn’t even know me, and I sure don’t need a handout,’ and left.” Fortunately, he came to his senses and accepted the offer with the understanding that it was a loan that he would pay back after his work started selling. His first one man show a year later at a gallery in Odessa, Texas, was great success. He left the gallery with more money than he had ever had in his life and a renewed sense of purpose toward fulfilling his dream.
During the next decade, his career began to take hold. Texas was awash with oil money and a burgeoning Southwestern art scene and the themes Summers explored in his paintings, the Civil War and the Old West, were subjects that appealed to art collectors in Texas. “Texas Longhorn” an oil painting depicting a regal longhorn bull standing apart from the herd in a idyllic Texas Hill Country terrain was selected by the Franklin Mint as one of its ten Gold Med- al Award winners when they began delving into fine art reproductions. In 1975, the Governor of Texas named Summers Texas’ bicentennial artist, and his project was a life-sized reproduction of George B. Erath, a renowned Texan. This was his first larger than life sculpture, and it opened up the doors that led directly to his selection as the sculptor for the “Trail Drive” in Dallas and ultimately the “East Meets West” piece in Tulsa.
he statue that Summers sculpted for the John Wayne Airport in Orange County nearly 30 years ago stands in the arrival level in the center of the Riley Terminal. Summers not only captured John Wayne’s walk and stance, face and expression, but he also outfitted him with the Red River D belt buckle first worn by Wayne in the 1948 film Red River and in eight of his subsequent westerns. At the dedication in November 1982, the Wayne family told the artist the sculpture made them feel like they were seeing their father for the first time since he had passed away three years earlier.
Summers has created over a dozen of what he considers major works, sculptures ranging from life- size to 200 percent scale that are scattered throughout Texas and other states, As he discusses his work it becomes evident that the practical and creative side of his make-up are always part of the internal dialogue. “To answer your question, as far as dreaming large, well maybe I do but it’s usually a matter of functionality. I recommend what I think the piece should be, but the size of the work doesn’t matter as much creating a piece that fits the site it will placed. Since resizing is largely a matter of mathematics, it’s just a matter of scaling and time… plus a lot of hard work of course.”
The process he uses to create these larger than life pieces is well detailed on his website, but it doesn’t help to explain why an artist would choose to veer off into a world where the creative act is nearly subsumed by negotiations, contracts, and wrangling with the bureaucratic process of public art. As he describes his lack of interest in money or fame it becomes clear he is driven by a motivation deeply rooted in his upbringing.
“When I was around 10, Mother asked if I wanted to take art classes from Mrs. Miller, a lady of German descent who lived in a small town that was nearby, and I jumped at the chance. This was in the late 1940s, early 1950s and our family ran a movie theatre in Glen Rose and television was making it rough on the movie business so money was tight. But nearly every Saturday for a year or so, I would take these classes until finally Mrs. Miller told Mother there wasn’t anything else she could teach me.”
Years later, he discovered that Mrs. Miller had also been his mother’s art teacher when she was growing up. “Grandfather used to give Mother a quarter for dinner, and this was early during the depression so it was a lot of money. Instead of eating she would use her money to take art classes, at least until her father found out and then he blew a gasket and that ended her lessons.”
Summers likes to talk about his work and he works like he talks, in paragraphs of details that inform and overwhelm, and for him, details matter. He doesn’t like labels, doesn’t want to be described as “self taught,” or as a “western artist” or as much of anything else for that matter except maybe Texan. He also prefers not to focus on the difficulties of creating work for public spaces; his vision is to create artwork that people can touch and be touched by. “In the end, I want them to be sculptures that kids climb on, that people get close to, and hopefully the work causes them to think about history a little bit.”
Looking at the past is a funny thing. There are times we would prefer to forget, memories we yearn to share and brief flashes that re-enter the present unannounced that give us perspective and bring clarity to our move- ment forward. Robert Summer’s sculptures are remind- ers of this: larger than life remnants of our past meeting the future. They are like the traces of dinosaurs and humans found in the Paluxy River a few miles from his studio, and while we may debate, disagree or even disregard them, they will remain footprints in time, embedded in a riverbed, out there waiting to be discovered.
Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 23, Dec. 1, 2012.