Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Walk Through An Ancient Forest

I shall never forget the mortal toil of flesh and spirit and my wanderings through the Cross Timbers. ~Washington Irving.
When Washington Irving wrote about his tour of the American prairie in the 1830's, he was compelled to write about his travails passing through the Cross Timbers, the dense belt of hardwood forest that cinched what would become Oklahoma like a belt.  It was nearly impenetrable to his mounted expedition, slapped by low hanging branches and slowed to a crawl by the dense undergrowth.  The Cross Timbers extended from southern Kansas, across central Oklahoma, and into Texas.  It contained some of our nation's oldest forest growth.  Agriculture soon claimed most of the old Cross Timbers but isolated patches of the old-growth forest still exist.  One part that is easily visited today is the Keystone Ancient Forest, on the shore of Lake Keystone near Sand Springs. 
When I visited, Grant Gerondale, the Parks and Recreation Director for the City of Sand Springs, talked about the age of these trees.  "The oldest tree that’s been found out here is well over 500 years old, so we’re talking about something that goes back to about the time of Christopher Columbus, so where else can you go to see something that was perhaps a seedling or a sapling that was alive the day that Washington Irving passed underneath on horseback."
It is easy to dismiss the importance of the Keystone Ancient Forest at first glance because these are not majestic redwoods or lofty pines, they are gnarly oaks and twisted cedars, shaped by the hardscrabble existence on the rocky hillsides, stunted by drought, their tops knocked off by ice and wind.  In their own way, though, they are majestic.  They are a microcosm of the history of America, a last visage of treasured Native American hunting grounds, and survivors of natural and man-made disasters.  Again, Grant Gerondale, "Well, what you are looking at is the product of hundreds and hundreds of years of undisturbed forest.  We’ve got the Arkansas River to the south and lots of rocky, hilly terrain, and so over the centuries, Native American-set fires have changed the landscape.  These trees have survived."  
The Arkansas River created a barrier between this plot of forest and fires that swept up from Texas.  The land was too hilly and rocky to be desirable to developers, so while the land around the forest surrendered to suburbs, this plot was spared.  These days protection also comes courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.
Trails created in partnership between the City of Sand Springs and the Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department take you through the forest and even to the shore of Lake Keystone.  Guided walks can help you understand better the significance of what you are seeing.  Tours are arraigned through the Sand Springs Parks Department. 
The forest is a wonderful place for hikers, birders, and nature lovers but when you walk the trails, do not just look at these gnarled survivors-see them through the eyes of a bygone past.  Do not look for the beauty, for they are not really beautiful.  Imagine the hunting parties, imagine Washington Irving and his band of explorers fighting their way through the brush, consider the forest as a portrait of the way Oklahoma was, captured for all time by the luck of geography and the care of thoughtful stewards of the land.
  Photos by Ron Stahl

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Racing Back in Time

When I was a youngster I had a subscription to Hot Rod Magazine and every month I went through it like a beaver through a log.  I followed the exploits of hot rod heroes like Gas Ronda, Dyno Don Nicholson, and Wild Bill Elliot.  They blasted through the quarter-mile and around the oval at unbelievable speeds, at least to a kid with a '58 Ford Fairlane.  I loved reading about those guys and most of the kids I hung with were also obsessed with speed.  I grew out of that eventually and most of my friends did, too.  Brent Hajek never did.  Brent owns Hajek Motorsports Museum in Ames, Oklahoma and behind the doors of what was the elementary school in Ames lies every car-buff's dream.  Brent has been collecting hot rods since the 1970's when he started wondering what happened to the cars his  heroes drove.  "Back in the 70’s, after the gas shortage and all that, people were just disregarding these cars", he says.  "And  you could buy them for almost nothing.  We got to looking and said, you know, Dyno Don Nicholson, or Gas Ronda, or whomever, these guys are my heroes, you know.  I said, man, you could go out there and pay a couple of hundred bucks and buy one of Jungle Jim’s old funny cars or Gas Ronda’s Mustang, or something like that.  It was crazy.  It just seemed to me like it was a terrible waste that these cars were just being disregarded and thrown away. You know, I mean it was like walking out to a junk pile and somebody was stirring a trash pile with Mickey Mantle’s bat."
Brent is way too proud of these things to just lock them up and keep them to himself.   He practically invented nostalgia racing.  He took those by-gone glories to tracks all over the country and staged dream races.  After all, he had cars representing more than fifty world championships among them.  He figured other people wanted to see them racing again as much as he did, and he was right.  His biggest thrill might have been at Daytona when they had the 50th anniversary of of the Daytona 500 a few years ago.  He figured out that of only seven surviving Daytona 500 winning cars, he owned three of them.  They got another day in the sun and Brent still gets excited when he talks about it.
"At Daytona, we actually ran the cars around the track.  You know, pre-race ceremony.  That was kind of a cool deal.  And at the same time we had another car, the Gas Ronda Mustang at Pamona at the Winter Nationals.  It was on the west coast at the NHRA Winter Nationals going on at the same time, and we had that car out there doing some exhibition stuff."  You don't have go to Daytona to see these classic cars.  When they are not on loan to other museums or running a nostalgia race somewhere, they're on display at Hajek Motorsports Museum in Ames-a little off the beaten path but definitely worth the trip.  Make an appointment, enjoy some legendary cars and, if you're lucky, meet Brent Hajek, a hot rod freak who grew up, but not out of it.  
Photos by Ron Stahl
Hajek Motorsports Museum link

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Gourdaphile and the Zen Spoon Master

Hungry Holler Art Center is tucked away in a quiet corner of Grand Lake in northeast Oklahoma.  You can find it by looking for the bicycles in the trees on the driveway and the large peace symbol that welcomes you in.  It is home to two of the most interesting and unique artists you will ever meet-Jan Meng, the Gourdaphile, and her husband, Marc Meng, The Zen Spoon Master.  In 1989, the Mengs bought a newspaper in Grove, Oklahoma and settled in the nearby community of Eucha.  After retiring from the newspaper business, they assumed their new identities.  Jan is an artist who shuns the canvas and clay.  She prefers to work with gourds and not just any gourds.  She really loves lagenaria siceraria gourds, large and lumpy specimens that soon sport comic features and bottle cap eyes.  
It's not that she hasn't tried to work with conventional art media.  She says, "In fact, my father is an artist and for a number of years he would send me a canvas for my birthday or Christmas.  He was always trying to paint on something white and flat.  And I’ll tell you what, flat and white is intimidating to me.  I need a curved surface with bumps and imperfections on it.  And I still have those canvases stacked up against a wall in my bedroom."
Jan and Mark grow the gourds in their yard and each year's crop is stockpiled until they become what they would be anyway if nature had Jan's imagination.  
In finding her medium, Jan also became a gourdaphile, an unapologetic champion for gourds. "They’re wonderful.  They’re like the world’s first Tupperware.  I like them because they are organic,  they’re useful.  They are eternal in human scale.  The ones you keep indoors can last thousands of years.  In fact, gourd using cultures consider them heirlooms and they pass them down through generations, their favorite gourds.  And that’s how I feel about them.  So if they’re going to be forever, I want them to be fabulous."
And fabulous they are!
The lawn at Hungry Holler is also an art gallery, strewn with Marc Meng's metal sculptures.  Box fans become large wind catchers that come alive when the breezes blow.  Other found objects are incorporated with small mirrors that change the artwork when sunbeams and reflections become part of the piece.  If it can be welded, soldered, wired, or otherwise connected, it can become art in Marc's clever hands.  Art festival goers, though, probably know Marc Meng by his other name, The Zen Spoon Master.
"The spoons got foisted on me," Marc says.  "Jan asked me to make her a spoon about 15 years ago.  And I was sculpting and as I was sitting making that spoon, I thought, this is the most boring, tedious thing I ever did.  Hope I don’t have to do this for a living.  And I’d say since then I’ve probably made 10 or 15-thousand spoons."
Marc uses more than 80 different kinds of wood, both common and exotic, to carefully create beautiful spoons, creations that are also utilitarian.  To alleviate the boredom, he also produces graceful and lovely wood sculptures, using the natural shapes, grains, and hues of the material to guide him.  After years of dealing with fact in the newspaper business, the Gourdaphile and The Zen Spoon Master have settled into a world of fantasy, turning gourds and blank wood into fanciful works of art.
Photos by Ron Stahl
Hungry Holler Website  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Art of Family

For Cherokee artist Bill Rabbit, finding inspiration was as easy as a childhood romp.  As a youngster growing up in Wyoming, he saw the shapes of animals and people in the clouds over the sagebrush prairie and he reveled in the colors of the western sunsets.  Those colors infuse his paintings with a vibrancy that borders on psychedelia-see the skeleton on the wall behind him.  He told me, "I’ve never seen a rainbow I didn’t like.  So think of the flowers, the trees, just the world full of color.  I tell you, all you have to do is decide what you want to use and how do you want to use it.  I guess I’m really in love with color, the brighter the better, and, you know, I’m just so fortunate there are people out there that like what I do." 
Fortunate, indeed.  Among Cherokee artists, Bill Rabbit is one of the most noted.  His work hangs on the walls of collectors and in private galleries all over the world, and in tribal galleries and buildings throughout the Cherokee Nation.  
One of his greatest works of art, though, may be flesh and blood; his daughter, Traci.  From their studio in Pryor, Oklahoma, Bill and Traci Rabbit are practicing the business and creativity of art and basking in the love of family tradition.
While Bill Rabbit's inspiration came easily and almost as an afterthought, Traci Rabbit's own muse was somewhat harder to find.  Her father encouraged her when she was a small child by giving her brushes and canvas but her style took time and courage to emerge from her father's broad shadow.  
She says, "When I first started painting, inspiration was difficult to come.  I had probably in-the-shadow syndrome; that I couldn’t create enough or couldn’t do it well enough or come up with my own ideas.  And then as I finally started coming into my own, I realized that it was okay because I was being taught.  I was being taught what my dad knew. And then I kind of let go of that disappointment within myself and just kind of let it start flowing."
What flowed out was a gentle stream of Traci's muted portrayals of contemporary Native American women, as visually soft as her father's paintings are jarring-as subtle as evening shadows are to the shock of the noonday sun.
Traci brings something of her own to the family art, a business degree, and it has become invaluable. There are a billion starving artists in the world who cannot make a living, but art from the Rabbit Gallery is available for almost any price range and it sells.  Collectors with a few thousand dollars can have an original to hang on the wall but fans with no great fortune can also take something home for just a few dollars.  The art is on prints, tiles, cups, cards, and jewelry.   The successful marketing efforts allow the Rabbits the freedom to follow their artistic urges and expand.  They have recently become involved in collaborative efforts that are also becoming noticed.  It is this development that brings the most joy to Traci.  "Yes, it’s funny when I started out, being Bill Rabbit’s daughter, people wanted some of my work, being his collectors.  And then as my work grew over the years, I have collectors who only collect my work, not his, and visa-versa.  Now, with our collaboration works, we’re kind of finding a new little area of collectors that like the idea that we’re a father-daughter working together."
The key word is "together" in this family enterprise of art and love. 
Photos by Ron Stahl