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Volume 71, Issue 18, Thursday, September 15, 2005

Life & Arts

Art center founder returns to campus

James Surls' work to be shown at Blaffer Gallery

By Stephanie Martens
The Daily Cougar

Former sculpture instructor James Surls will return Friday to UH for the opening reception of James Surls: The Splendora Years, 1977-1997. In the decades since the last major exhibition of his work, Surls has created some of his most noteworthy pieces, many of them in his studio in Splendora.

Born in Terrell in 1943, Surls graduated from then-Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville and received his masters of fine arts from Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He returned to Texas in 1969 to teach sculpture at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In 1976 he came to UH to teach sculpture. He founded and directed the Lawndale Annex on the UH campus in 1979, which later became the Lawndale Art and Performance Center. He encouraged many artists including Michael Galbreth and Jack Messing, who are known as The Art Guys, as well as Sharon Kopriva.

Surls left Lawndale and UH in 1982, dedicating himself full time to his studio work at his Splendora compound. 

An East Texas native, Surls' work glorifies the woody stomping grounds of his youth. Although his mediums include bronze, steel, graphite and paper, he is best known for his contemporary wood sculptures. Utilizing oak, pine and mahogany, Surls transforms organic materials into fanciful, imaginative pieces.

His influences include surrealist Rene Magritte, minimalist Agnes Martin, assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, contemporary mixed media artist Louise Borgeoise, as well as Clyde Connell, who, much like Surls, incorporated various indigenous materials from the Louisiana landscape that surrounded her into her sculptures and paintings.

The wooded landscape of Splendora provided inspiration for Surls, as well as the raw materials necessary for his often large-scale pieces. Surls regards this time as his "romantic" period.

One piece that is not included in this show, "Burning Dog" (1977), actually came from a live oak that died in the Fine Arts Building courtyard. 

"Burning Dog" has had an interesting life all its own. In 1979 it came completely apart when it was submerged in water in the basement of the Contemporary Arts Museum. Surls waded in and found every single part floating in the flood waters and reassembled it. Since then, it has been on display in several museums as well as in more than one private collection. Today "Burning Dog" resides in Dallas.

Surls will speak at the reception at 7:30 p.m. Friday. He will return for a book signing at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

The Blaffer Gallery will host The Splendora Years from Saturday through Nov. 12.

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