Designing the Museum: Stillwater Connections

Last Tuesday, Shawn Yuan, our associate curator, and I went to visit Jack Allred, a local businessman and artist who was once a student of Grace Hamilton. We wanted to learn more from Allred about the history of Hamilton’s mural (see last week’s post for more on its history)—and also to get his ideas about how the OSU Museum of Art might contribute to the downtown Stillwater experience.  To our delight, we discovered that Allred was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable resource—and our conversation ended up ranging much more widely than we expected.

Shawn Yuan and Jack Allred in conversation at Allred's studio office downtown.

We met Mr. Allred in his downtown office (on Main Street just below 9th), which is part art gallery and part real estate agency. A geology student when he was at Oklahoma State University (class of 1960), Allred had always known he had a talent for drawing.  When a couple of his friends encouraged him to start taking private art lessons with Grace Hamilton, he eagerly agreed.  “My parents were very nice about paying for all this,” he remembers, and “she was a fantastic teacher.”

Grace Hamilton, “Stillwater Cotton Pickers,” undated oil painting, collection of Jack Allred. There was a time when every county in Oklahoma produced cotton.

Grace and her husband, Don, had moved to Stillwater in the late 1930s when Don was offered a position in the School of Architecture.  “Stillwater hadn’t been here that long,” in the 1930s and 40s, Allred reminded us. “It was pretty primitive.” Nonetheless, the city had a thriving, if small, community of artists and collectors.  The Hamiltons were a big part of that: “They were probably the most sophisticated people I knew,” recalls Allred, “and we’d talk about Van Gogh, Cezanne, the French Impressionists…” It wasn’t all art, though—Stillwater’s limited resources meant that Grace would find herself drinking tea and talking art one day, and fixing her own roof the next!

When we asked him about the Postal Plaza mural, Allred had some fun pieces of trivia—did you know that she painted the dog running down Main Street in later, long after she finished the mural and it had been installed?—and some sobering news.  A year or so ago, collectors from Oklahoma City tried to buy the mural from the Postal Plaza’s previous owners, intending to remove it from the building.  Luckily, their attempt failed; but for us, it was a reminder that opportunities to preserve and retain Stillwater’s cultural heritage are potentially slipping away every day.

Jack Allred, untitled watercolor painting, collection of the artist.

Allred is personally doing his part to keep the history of Stillwater’s art alive: on view in his office gallery are works by himself as well as Grace and Don Hamilton, alongside a variety of others.  One of the featured artists is Milford Zornes, an Oklahoman artist who studied in California with the well-known watercolorist Millard Sheets. In 1963, Zornes purchased the studio of the Western painter Maynard Dixon, in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Allred remembers going up to visit Zornes on painting trips. Allred’s work—which you’ve probably seen around the city and on campus—ranges from the realistic to the abstract.  He thinks of his precise studies of local historic buildings as “architectural,” and at first it might seem strange that their detail sits side-by-side with much looser paintings. “I really like to paint abstract,” he explains, “because it’s more free.”

OSU Centennial stamps, based on a painting of Old Central by Jack Allred.

Today, Allred is an active member of the Stillwater Business Improvement District, an organization of property owners downtown who have come together to contribute funds and energy to the development of Downtown Stillwater.  Each year, they give grants to events and businesses that contribute to the downtown community, include the Arts Festival, Run for the Arts, and the annual car show. When we asked Allred how he’d like to see the OSU Museum of Art contributing to downtown, he said, “I would like it to be active.” We couldn’t agree more—and look forward to a dynamic range of programming at the museum that will complement the art on view!

Louise Siddons is the curator of the Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, and the editor of this blog.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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