OCLA’s art history professor, Cora Oaks, held forth in a small room on the first floor of the Art Building. It was there that I first saw Jim Shehan’s big brother. He and Jim were from a military family, their father being an officer at Fort Sill. Jim’s brother, whose name I can’t recall, was probably the first beatnik I ever laid eyes on.
In Chickasha, Oklahoma in 1968, it was difficult enough to act out any socio-cultural affiliations through fashion and general personal appearance. Students were barely able to visually reflect any allegiance to the British invasion, much less the more esoteric realm of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, early Dylan, etc. There were, however, meaningful attempts at a Dave Van Ronk, Richard Fariña, Cambridge folky feel all through the mid-sixties at OCLA; Phillip Reed and John (TC can’t think of it) to name a couple as well as Shari Hood and Laura Reed added much needed progressive cultural tone to the college atmosphere. Jim Shehan’s big brother however, had the gravitas and charisma of a true beatnik; Greek fisherman hat, work boots, and general dishevelment mixed convincingly with worldliness and intelligence.
Mrs. Oaks, during a lecture on the Italian renaissance, somehow found an opportunity to observe that Venice is, and probably always was, a rather “dirty” city. I vaguely remember she might have supported this opinion by sitting the canal system and its use as a sewer.
Jim’s big brother took issue with this and elegantly, but with surprising force, situated Mrs. Oaks’ judgment of Venice and its Canal system as a product of her personal value system, one that was cultivated and fitted upon her by a particular, and regional idea of hygiene and city planning, and one that had little to do with any actual circumstance at work in the city. He went on to base this claim on his personal experience with Venice, something Mrs. Oaks graciously admitted she did not have.
Mrs. Oaks can claim at least one aspect of art history was stolen into my consciousness by her personal instruction; psychological perspective. It was on the first floor of the Art Building, not twenty feet from its entrance, the lintel of which is most likely still supported by the shiny marble Doric columns it was then, that I got my first exposure to Conceptual Art. I think it was from a Piero Della Francesca, perhaps a Ucello that Mrs. Oaks drew out a young woman’s face for our focused attention. The young woman had the gaze of the viewer locked with hers. She was saying, without a word, that this painting was telling a story for my amusement and edification. She was establishing a distance between me and the painting. She was setting up a “critical distance." One that allowed me to consider the context of the painting beyond the narrative illusions, the suspension of belief, that were simultaneously pulling at me. This idea is, to this day, a most important one in my understanding of art.
The head of the Art School was Darryl Swineford. He struck an almost clichéd image of the bohemian World War II veteran. I think he was an illustrator for a military magazine during the war. Here was a man progressive enough to consider art as a vocation, over and above farming, and confident enough in his personal style that he sported a mustache. A mustache was found on perhaps one in every five-thousand men in Oklahoma at the time. He kept it short and neat. Along with his hair, the mustache was a handsome salt and pepper. He was kind of short, chain smoked Lucky’s and had a sharp twinkle in his eye.
Reginald Marsh and Thomas Hart Benton are examples of the brand of representational painting that I now associate with Swineford’s work. Richly figurative, his compositions revel in the expressive power of the human body. There is an honest, hardy, social realism at work in all of his pieces, yet the woodblock prints, simplified and exaggerated these qualities into an almost cartoonish state.
Every Christmas he would give all of his students and friends an eight by ten woodblock print of a cowboy scene. These would be inky, simplified compositions depicting a bunch of men on the prairie, on a cattle drive, or maybe a domestic setting including more of the family, showing them at a dinner table, but something would make it clearly Western, perhaps some horses tied up outside the window.
Along with Clark Bailey, who a few years after I graduated, died in a hunting accident, Swineford handled all of the art classes. This curriculum included a decidedly traditional approach to art education. Figure drawing and classical composition were highly stressed. So serious was their commitment to figure drawing that they hired nude models for our drawing classes. Among others, Shari Hood and perhaps Laura Reed, did the modeling while I was there. I was stunned that this was allowed in Chickasha, Oklahoma and guessed that it was only because Swineford and Bailey could contextualize and rationalize the practice well enough to persuade the Bible-belt protectors of community morality that it was okay.
Doubtless, this made for a deeply charged atmosphere in the figure drawing classes. I admired Shari and Laura for mustering the backbone for it. I wonder if such things still go on today in the school. I rather doubt it.