Art project at Tulsa Convention Center nears finish after more than three years
BY BRIAN BARBER World Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
12/12/12 at 7:17 AM
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Between the old and new sections of the Tulsa Convention Center, there's a visual explosion.
Ceramic tiles in hues of yellow, blue, pink, orange, brown and other colors come together on the three walls of an exterior courtyard to create an enveloping abstract artwork.
Designed by world-renowned artist Sarah Morris, the project is funded with $364,000 from Vision 2025 and should be complete by the end of the year, with extra lighting and landscaping to be done in the spring.
The city has an ordinance requiring that 1 percent of public construction dollars go toward art in an effort to beautify public spaces.
This money is tied to the $50.5 million spent to revamp and expand the convention center in recent years.
Morris and her staff have visited the site since the work began in November, but the two men piecing together this puzzle are local subcontractor Randy Smith of Tile By Randy and his brother, Mike Smith.
"It's been one of my nicer jobs," said Randy Smith, who primarily does tile work in remodels and new construction, but never before as part of an art project.
"Quality is the same, though," he said. "We're giving 100 percent."
Morris has provided them with an intricate grid to follow, specifying where to adhere to the wall and grout the different color and shape tiles so they come together in her origami-like vision - all 13,145 of them.
"You just have to be very careful and double check yourself as you go along," Randy Smith said.
Once done, the work will be displayed across the walls of the courtyard - 2,860 square feet. The area is tucked between the original convention center and the ballroom addition, next to the parking garage.
Getting the project to this point has taken nearly four years.
In 2009, the Tulsa Arts Commission began sifting through information on the 300 or so artists who were considered for the BOK Center's public art program and were being looked at again for the convention center. Eventually, they decided on Morris.
"We were trying to achieve a healthy balance with our selections," commission member Ken Busby said.
The arena is now home to two painting installations, a set of four floor medallions and a massive cloth-and-steel sculpture. Three of the four artists chosen for the building were local or have local ties.
With the convention center, the commission was looking to branch out to a different medium and an artist with national prominence, Busby said.
"If you just feature local artists, then where is the opportunity to grow, to learn, to experience?" he asked.
Morris is primarily a painter and a short-film maker but has done other works in which she has translated her craft to tile.
She has completed site-specific projects around the globe and is in the public collections of London's Tate Museum, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, among many other institutions.
But Morris said this is the first time she's gone three-dimensional, referencing original convention center architect Edward Durell Stone's use of uneven cinder blocks on the outside of the building, which adds a different dynamic to the project.
"It's a very unique space," she said in a phone interview. "I've got every inch of that courtyard plotted and planned out, colorwise."
A bit of controversy erupted after Morris was chosen for the project.
Initially, some commission members wanted her work prominently displayed on the outside of the convention center where more people could easily see it.
That prompted City Councilor Jack Henderson to publicly proclaim that the planned art was the "ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life."
Henderson and other councilors quit grumbling after the project's site was moved to the courtyard, which is still publicly accessible.
Morris said it's the location she wanted in the first place.
"Some may think it's more hidden, but I look at it as a treasure," she said. "I love the idea of doing a piece that connects the new building to the old building. It's kind of a moment right there."
In the time since she was selected, Morris created the artwork's plan and the thousands of tiles were fabricated, hand-painted and glazed in Guadalajara, Mexico, before being shipped to Tulsa.
"Getting the colors just right was a six-to-nine-month process," she said, adding that the shades were custom created from a palate she devised.
Then it was a matter of getting the work on her schedule and that of the busy convention center.
But that's the pace a lot of public art projects take, Morris said.
"You have to learn," she said. "You have to experiment, and you have to be patient while it all comes together."
Original Print Headline: The space between
Brian Barber 918-581-8322
Mike Smith wipes excess grout off the tiles decorating the exterior courtyard at Tulsa Convention Center last week. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World
Randy Smith works on the pattern created by artist Sarah Morris as part of a city-funded beautification project. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World
The art project at the Tulsa Convention Center cost $364,000 and should be finished by the end of the year. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World