James Surls is a giant of Texas art.
He has been creating popular, often multi-part sculptures, mostly of wood, for some 50 years. They are exhibited and collected everywhere.
What a surprise, then, to learn that his exhibition, “With Out, With In,” which can be seen at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum through Aug. 18, is Surls’ first major solo show in Austin.
Moreover, it’s a mild shock to discover that the artist — often pictured as a sort of gruff mountain man — is a big, warm-hearted, plainspoken guy who likes to socialize and put on alternative parties.
In Texas and Colorado, he raised a family of seven daughters with his wife, Charmaine Locke. One of those daughters, Eva Surls, has been running his former studio in Splendora near the Sam Houston National Forest northeast of Houston, while helping to sell his work, no longer available in commercial galleries.
Sitting in the smallish main indoor Umlauf gallery alongside museum curator Katie Robinson Edwards — who wrote the essential book on Texas midcentury modern art — Surls could not be more ardent and generous, even occasionally scampy, while talking about Texas, art and his family.
“The time is right,” Surls says of the 27-piece show. “And the museum wanted to do it. I always wanted to do it.”
“We were not in place to do a Surls show when I came here,” says Robinson, who met Surls while she was teaching at Baylor University. “We are now.”
Surls, who was born in East Texas in 1943, met museum namesake Charles Umlauf, who arrived in Austin in 1941 to teach at the University of Texas and died in 1994, several times, but only in social situations.
“”We were not big friends or buddies,” Surls says. “I certainly knew who he was before I met him. I was 19 when I saw a piece of his art, ‘Spirit of Flight,’ at the Love Field roundabout in Dallas.”
Not only were the two sculptors a generation apart in age, Umlauf and Surls came to art from very different cultural contexts.
“Umlauf was of the old ‘Royal Academy Art Institute’ school,” Surls says. “It was egotistical, ‘macho-istic,’ tough on clients and students. I came into art through the Mexican public artists like Orozco, Tamayo and Rivera. Their social messages blew things up. They showed peasants and people and armies. It was glorious, a kind of people-oriented world that had nothing to do with a jug of wine and a piece of cheese on the Left Bank.”
Without using a single word of irritating art-school jargon, Surls just laid out two very different ways of looking at how art is conceived and made.
Surls describes his boyhood in the East Texas woods as “rural pastoral.” Nature was his constant muse.
Cities were not, at first, the draw. The fact that while he was young, the center of international art moved from Paris to New York, missed him.
Surls: “I feel more closely related to Ben Franklin.”
It’s not as if Surls skipped the cities altogether. He made huge impacts on the arts scenes in Houston and Dallas and co-founded the influential Lawndale Art Center in Houston in 1979.
But rather, his view of art is longer.
“I use tools that are thousands of years old,” he says. “And materials that have always been used. And these images you can find on every continent on the planet. Artists always think they have invented something entirely new. ‘Look, I discovered the wheel!’ When in fact they had been rolling logs forever.”
He asks of his art: What does it mean?
“I don’t want my art to just sit there,” he says. “I want it to mean something.”
Surls, whose father was a carpenter, was for decades associated explicitly with East Texas, a period wrapped up with the key exhibition and book, “James Surls: The Splendora Years: 1977-1997,” at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery.
So why move to the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado?
“We really just loved Colorado,” he says. “We bought 55 acres of the most beautiful land you’ve ever seen. We camped with our passel of little girls on the mountain, which was not as fun as I thought it was going to be.”
Meanwhile, he helped create an alternative art space in Aspen.
“It was artist-based and artist-run,” he says. “We had the best openings, and locals devoured it. Then it became a museum. It grew up with a big board and big money. It’s a very different psychology now.”
In the summer of 1996, it was time to go home to Splendora. Charmaine had different ideas.
“I don’t want to go,” she told James. “I’m moving to Colorado. If you’d like to come with you me, you can.”
That was quite a turning point. James, a 2013 Texas Medal of Arts honoree, was not only attached to his large studio in Splendora, he was teaching at the time at Sam Houston State University.
“I couldn’t just walk off,” he thought. “But I did and left everything behind. I locked up the studio and drove off.”
As often happens in isolated rural areas, vandals wrecked the house they left behind. The couple rented out the big studio to a rock ‘n’ roll artist, but he died there. Surls’ daughter went back and took it over. They family still owns the place and is thinking of turning it into a special events space.
So the Texas connection is not lost after all.
Surls shares many reflections on the differences between the Dallas and Houston arts scenes. During his years between the two cities, he tried to get the status-driven Dallas art backers to loosen up and even tried to put them on a plane so they could experience the more adventurous Houston arts events.
Despite the fact that his work has been in constant circulation for years, he says nobody really collects it in the purest sense.
“Let’s say you collect rocks,” he says. “You have the rocks you’ve collected, but that makes you covet that other rock you see. The one you don’t have. True art collectors do that, too. They buy to fill gaps in their collection. I’ve never really had anyone to that with my art. It disappoints me. Plenty of people buy my art, but that doesn’t make you a collector.”