Three weeks ago, I posted a sampling of student responses to the exhibition that recently closed at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art, “Framing History.” All of the students in my ART 3663: History of American Art course wrote a paper about the exhibition after an in-class discussion led by our teaching assistant, Teresa Kilmer. This is the third week of three in which I feature longer discussions from three outstanding papers—this week, one by Lindsey Chancellor.
The “Framing History” exhibition at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art is a collection of paintings that document the history of the state of Oklahoma. The way the paintings are arranged, composed, and commissioned says a great deal about the purpose of the exhibition. Despite the fact that it attempts to create a picture of Oklahoma history, it also has a very potent political message.
There is an interesting array of art in the Oklahoma State Capitol Senate Collection. The variety of paintings ranges from genre and landscape to sculpture and engraving. This variety highlights the main theme of the collection while attempting to appear diverse. The images were all created fairly recently, but the subjects are historical events and people. This is one of the reasons why the frames are so important. The frames lend legitimacy to the paintings by suggesting that they are something to be gazed upon with an understanding of beauty and reverence. The audience is supposed to view Oklahoma history as a beautiful struggle that should be remembered with respect and appreciation. The paintings are generally light-hearted and peaceful rather than portraying years of war and inequality.
The image of Oklahoma portrayed by the Framing History exhibition is not entirely accurate—the collection celebrates a certain historical vision of Oklahoma. This vision is apparent in Sonya Terpening’s Community of Boling Springs, which depicts a diverse and joyful group of children playing outside a one-room schoolhouse (Burke 73). It is important to examine this image critically within the context of history. Although this image may be an accurate depiction of that particular community, it is incredibly unlikely that this was a common scene in early Oklahoma. Within the historical context, the image seems out of place. It is very nice and pretty, but it ignores the realities of life in rural Oklahoma. This image may be more realistic in the twenty-first century, but life on the frontier was far from harmonious.
Community of Boling Springs supports the values of diversity and education, but ignores the struggle that many Americans faced in trying to gain access to equal education. It is an interesting contrast to the painting Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, which depicts the Supreme Court case that resulted in the University of Oklahoma allowing the admission of a black woman into the law school (Burke 84). These two paintings depict a very idealized version of Oklahoma. The Fisher painting is one of the only pieces in the collection that illustrates a tenuous time in Oklahoma history. Artist Mike Wimmer chooses to celebrate the great African-American leaders who came out of this situation rather than critique the society that fostered the problem.
Art is not about the subjects it depicts. Art tells us more about the argument of the artist and the commissioning party than about the historical event. In this way “Framing History” is not about depicting Oklahoma, it is about depicting a carefully constructed vision of Oklahoma. It provides important insights into the motivations of Charles Ford and the artists and other politicians that contributed to this collection.
Senator Charles Ford was the main force behind this collection of art. In his desire to enhance the aesthetic appearance of the state capitol he began collecting and commissioning art. The State Capitol Collection is the result of his work. Catalogue essayist Bob Burke goes into great detail to explain the importance of Ford’s search for frames (11-12). In examining the collection, especially within the context of antique frames, Ford’s message is apparent. The collection seeks to inform people about the wonderful people and events that have come out of Oklahoma. Ford highlights events that are honorable or show the beauty and power of the state. There are several important parts of Oklahoma that are missing from this collection, most notably the Tulsa Race Riots, the Bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and the Trail of Tears. These events are excluded despite their importance. For a politician, it is more important to remember the good things than to be reminded of the bad. This is especially true for the above examples in which government played a significant role, contributing to catastrophic consequences.
The collection was co-curated by Senator Ford and Victoria Rowe Berry. Berry had two main goals in curating this collection. First, she, in accordance with the goals of the Oklahoma State Museum of Art, wanted to present a broad range of art and cultural experiences to the community. Second, she recognized Ford’s vision in creating a collection that celebrated Oklahoma (Burke 8). These goals are likely to align with those stated by other museum curators. This is a very prestigious collection for the Postal Plaza Gallery to receive in its inaugural year. It is reasonable that one of Berry’s motivations was to have a collection that would inspire pride and nostalgia in politicians and alumni in an attempt to gain attention and respect for the new gallery.
“Framing History” makes certain assumptions about viewers. First, it assumes most viewers have a relatively good understanding of Oklahoma history. The descriptions of each painting provide a very minimal explanation of each scene. In addition to these descriptions, the viewer is expected to recognize the importance of such events and people. The motivation is not to have mass appeal to an American audience, but rather to have a meaningful appeal to Oklahomans.
One of the goals of “Framing History” is to showcase the importance of fine art in Oklahoma. This, the exhibition does quite well. It is clearly well planned and well executed. The variety of art demonstrates the talent and selecting palette of Oklahomans. The exhibition tells the world that Oklahomans have an appreciation for fine art and it is something that the state has chosen to make a priority. Over and over again the state of Oklahoma has used advertising and other events to showcase the rich culture.
Through “Framing History” the legacy of Oklahoma is carefully crafted, and Oklahoma history is presented in a very particular way. To the curators, Oklahoma history should demonstrate the natural majesty of the state and the honor of the people who made it great. They choose to exclude information about the consequences of Indian Removal. This is a very important part of Oklahoma history, which is built upon the idea of the “noble savage.” Instead of highlighting the difficulties of ethnic tension during the development of statehood, this exhibition subscribes to the idea of the noble savage. This is especially apparent in Haney’s The Guardian (Burke 39). This particular sculpture has come to symbolize Oklahoma and even tops the state capitol dome. This image is strong, silent, and serene. The Native American subject gazes into the distance, out over the entire state in the case of the capitol version, and keeps a vigil. This view demonstrates the importance of Native Americans, but silences that voice. “Framing History” provides beautiful illustrations of Oklahoma history, but ignores the voices of marginalized groups.
At first sight this collection is a quite impressive representation of Oklahoma history. Certainly, Ford should be commended for his ability to foster a collection of this magnitude. However, when examined with a critical lens, the collection does not pass muster. It is a very calculated effort to display Oklahoma in the best possible way. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be taken for what it is. The political message of the collection is more important than the art itself. When these aspects are interpreted together, they provide important insights about how contemporary Oklahomans choose to interpret the past.
Editor’s Note: this essay has been edited slightly for length, but the substance of Lindsey’s content has not been altered.
Burke, Bob. Framing History: Highlights from the Oklahoma State Capitol Collection. Tulsa: Oklahoma State Senate Historical Preservation Fund Inc., 2014.