Late Texas artist Bob ‘Daddy-O’ Wade left us a brassy ‘Book of Big-Ass Art’
- Bob ‘Daddy-O’ Wade embodied the widescreen free spirt of his native state.
- He got his nickname, "Daddy-O,” from his University of Texas fraternity brothers in the 1960s, in part because of his beatnik look.
- Museums have collected Wade’s works, but many people read the larger pieces, often made of industrial materials, as signs for roadside attractions.
The first time I met the late Texas artist Bob “Daddy-O" Wade, it was hard to take in his scruffy charisma all at once.
At an outdoor party in South Austin, the gray-bearded man with slicked-back hair wore sandals, loose shorts and a scarlet surfer shirt. It was not until later that I learned that this easygoing ensemble was his “uniform,” and that he was attired this way almost any day of the year, almost any place where I ran into him. And he popped up all over the state during the following years, along with his wife and global ambassador, Lisa Wade.
With beer bottle in one big hand, Wade thrust out the other hand in greeting. He flashed a smile that almost reached his ears and his eyes twinkled as if he was ready to unload the tallest Texas tale ever told.
I was completely disarmed.
I had known about his enormous sculptures, often made from industrial materials, that seemed to embody the Texas chic of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most famous of all was Iggy, the vividly green, 40-foot-long iguana that was born at the Artpark in Niagara County, N.Y. In 1978, it was moved — by some inconceivable trick — to the top of the Lone Star Café in New York City, and later ended up at the Fort Worth Zoo.
After an unbelievably active and mostly merry life, which included years as an academic, Wade died in December 2019. Before he died, Wade teamed up with one of his daughters, Rachel Wade, and Austin author Kip Stratton to produce one last big project, “Daddy-O’s Book of Big-Ass Art” (Texas A&M University Press).
We are lucky to have it. The book is packed with images of his irreverent art, some of the pieces collected by museums, others employed as advertisements for roadside attractions. Wade didn’t need to stretch far to straddle the worlds of high and low art.
More than four dozen writers — including, unexpectedly, me — contributed essays, reviews, notes and love letters to the book that serve to remind us how many people Wade intrigued, impressed and just plain tickled. My tiny bookmark clocks in at a mere three short paragraphs under the headline, “Daddy-O’s double hitch to Roy Rogers.”
This newspaper item was accompanied by snapshots of Wade as a boy hanging out with his singing cowboy idol, who happened to be his mother’s first cousin.
An Austin native, Wade lived all over the state — Corpus Christi, Waco, Galveston, Beaumont, San Antonio, Marfa, El Paso — and the country. While a freshman at the University of Texas in the early 1960s, his Kappa Sigma brothers nicknamed him “Daddy-O" in part because of his beatnik artistic appearance. A helpful chronology in the back of the book sorts out his ceaseless adventures.
Three sentences that say it all about Daddy-O
Three quotes dropped onto the page opposite the book’s table of contents set the tone for Wade’s personality.
“If you can’t make it good, make it big; if it’s still not good, paint it red.” — graffito from the men’s room, Kansas City Art Institute, 1970s, as reported by Bob Wade
“Robert was taught right from wrong, but sometimes he prefers wrong.” — Bob’s mother to his middle school teachers during the 1950s.
“I don’t want to change you; just don’t get any worse.” — Lisa Wade
Wade through the eyes of Texas writers
Through the years, writers, curators and friends tried to crack the Daddy-O mystique. I’ve glued together a few excerpts from their efforts that can be read in Wade’s book.
W.K “Kip” Stratton (author and journalist): I first heard of Daddy-O when I was still in Oklahoma and accomplishing my higher education at a state college that prided itself on its mortuary science department. One day I picked up a copy of People magazine lying around in the student union — fifty-cent sloppy joes! — and opened it to a two-page layout concerning America’s bicentennial.
“Eat Your Heart Out, Rand McNally, Bob Wade Is Building a Map Bigger Than a Football Field.” It was a giant rendering of the United States, and indeed, it was wider than the length of the Dog Lick High School gridiron. People described the installation thusly: “The giant earthwork is located outside Dallas at a freeway intersection where 100,000 cars pass each day. Though still under construction, the map already has the major mountain ranges installed. The Mississippi River and Great Lakes, when filled with water, will contain the equivalent of two huge swimming pools.”
Joe Nick Patoski (author and journalist): I didn’t always put together the wild man I'd met with the art he created. I just assumed that giant 40-foot-tall pair of boots installed in 1980 at North Star Mall, the biggest shopping mall in San Antonio, were part of the suburban Loop 410 landscape, just another high-visibility icon along the frontage road, blending in with the tall signage for Whataburger and Don’s & Ben’s and the inflatable gorillas identifying automobile dealerships.
Anne Rapp (screenwriter, filmmaker, author): I have lived with Daddy-O’s “Thirteen Cowgirls” for over 30 years. My ex-husband bought them for me in the early ‘80s at a gallery in Santa Fe when we were working on a movie there. We were living in Los Angeles at the time, and the image hung on our wall until we split up.
Since then, the cowgirls have hung on probably 30 different walls. I’ve been a traveler and nomad most of my life, just like the girls in the photo, and wherever I go, they go with me. I still find myself staring at them, trying to figure out their personalities — which ones I would’ve been friends with, which ones had the best hair and boots, and which ones I wouldn’t want to meet in an alley.
John Kelso (late American-Statesman humor columnist): As they say, what goes around, comes around. And what made the loop this time was Kinky Friedman’s hat. We’re not talking about the cowboy hat the Texas humorist, writer and musician wears on his head but the huge Western hat artwork (by Wade) that decorated the front of a teardrop trailer Kinky’s campaign staff drove all over Texas when he ran for governor in 2006.
How Kinky lost the election beats the heck out of me. He had a great campaign trailer, named the Guv Bug — although the name Hebrew Hummer also was discussed. “That was a good one, but I think it hit the editing floor,” said Little Jewford, Kinky’s right-hand man. ...
After the campaign was over, the trailer was parked in back of Kinky’s campaign headquarters on Ben White Boulevard. Then it disappeared, said Little Jewford, who suspects it was stolen. Allegedly it ended up in a storage unit in Austin. And when nobody had picked up the contents, they were auctioned off.
Bob “Daddy-O” Wade by the list
The jacket of the book, naturally red, shows Wade riding bronco-style on an Airstream trailer onto which he had mounted an iguana head and tail, along with a giant saddle. Riding incongruous objects was one of Wade’s favorite themes, and photography was one of his best mediums for capturing it.
In the book’s pages, we note people riding giant cowboy boots, a rocking horse, Iggy, a floating hot dog, a large horned frog, armadillos (large and small), a bison, a skunk, a coyote, a person (Wade), a fishing boat elevated above a bombshell nose, extra-large longhorns, a big blue saxophone, a row of Harleys and a big bottle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
Rarely has a table of contents provided such insight into a subject. I’ll leave you with some of my favorites section titles: “Daddy-O’s Critter Fest: Or, Stressing Togetherness,” “Bug Lite,” “I Know What Shinola Tastes Like: Iggy,” “What Do You Say to a Giant Dragonfly,” “The Hog and the Altoid Alligator,” “The Saga of the Bigmouth Bass,” “A Healthy Shot of Texification,” “The Cosmic Tale of the Travels of Kinky Friedman’s Campaign Hat,” “Junkyard Dog and Skull,” “Laguna Putt-Putt,” “Freedom of Being with a Like-Minded Group of Women” and “The Eyes of Daddy-O Are Upon You.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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