James Surls graduated from Sam Houston State University more than 50 years ago, but he will soon be making a return visit to Huntsville. His visit coincides with the installation of the appropriately-titled “Time and Time Again” exhibit at the Wynne Home Arts Center, where he will speak during the opening reception on Nov. 5.
“It’s wonderful to have an artist of the magnitude of Mr. Surls in Huntsville,” noted Linda Pease, the City of Huntsville’s cultural coordinator, as well as the director of the Wynne Home Arts Center. “And we are very proud to have him at the opening reception of what is a magnificent exhibit of his work.”
The exhibit, which will be on display in the Brown-Wynne Gallery, includes small sculptures, maquettes of large works, drawings, and paintings, for a total of 28 works. It’s an impressive collection, one created by an artist whose reputation has grown substantially in the five decades since he departed SHSU. “As a sculptor,” noted The New York Times in 1984, “Mr. Surls puts commanding craftsmanship at the service of a vigorous imagination.”
Frequently, Surls’ imagination explores beauty in organic terms, with depictions of spiraling forms, blades, and petals. Many of these motifs will be evident in the “Time and Time Again” exhibit, although his pine and oak pieces, which evoke his east Texas beginnings, are de-emphasized in the show. In their place are bronze and stainless steel sculptures — capturing the tension between natural beauty and an industrialized world — and more than 20 photographs and drawings.
Surls credits his animated imagination to his time at SHSU, where he experienced an epiphany of sorts. Walking toward the Old Main building, Surls encountered SHSU Art Professor Charles Pebworth, who was “making art from a log — with a chain saw, mallet, and chisels.” Raised in East Texas, Surls was no stranger to these tools, but it was the first time he recognized that such manipulation of manmade tools and natural materials could be called sculpture. He was, he recalls, “the right kid in the right place to be given a gift. I thank God that I took the gift and ran with its potential, and I am still running and still thankful to a great beginning.”
Since that beginning, Surls’ work has appeared at The Smithsonian in Washington, District of Columbia; the Guggenheim in New York City; and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in Dallas. But for the next six months, his work will be at the Wynne Home Arts Center in Huntsville.
At Surls’ wishes, the “Time and Time Again” exhibit is dedicated to Stephanie Smither, who passed away earlier this year. A long-time supporter of the arts in both Huntsville and Houston, Smither did much to enrich both communities.
So, too, has Surls, and not just through his art installations. Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing — the duo known as “The Art Guys” — exhibited at the Wynne Home in 2014, and Galbreth took time to praise Surls as an artist and as a person. “He is one of the most generous and energetic people we’ve ever met,” said Galbreth. “He’s an inspiration.”
The public is invited to join Surls and other guests at the opening reception for “Time and Time Again.” The reception — which is sponsored by the Friends of the Wynne — begins at 4 p.m. on Nov. 5, and ends at 6 p.m., with comments from Surls and others at 5 p.m.