Oklahoma Arts Council tours Okemah
By Justin Scrimshire
Okemah News Leader Reporter
The Okemah Chamber of Commerce initiated a progressive economic development program before the pandemic. Because of the pandemic shutting down so many events and activities, progress was minimal. Following the pandemic, activity has ramped back up and Okemah is beginning to see some positive results.
Atlas Community Studios was hired as a consultant to present ideas for economic growth and development. They have developed a full plan that can viewed at www.placemakingokemah.com.
One of the steering committee members is Pamela Thompson, Owner of Pamela’s Flowers and Gifts and the Okemah Office Supply. Part of the recommendations of the Atlas Community Studios is to create connections through interactive art. They wrote: “A public art initiative would be a powerful way to “live the legacy” of Woody Guthrie and provide a fund and engaging opportunity for locals and visitors alike to no only celebrate but participate in and experience the music of not only during the Woodiest by year around. We recommend a public art strategy that will invite both professional artists as well as community members to help create seven anchor art installations, the first will be a ‘Looking Glass’ concept at the Homestead.”
Thompson held a meeting in July with Amber Sharples, Director of the Oklahoma Arts Council (OAC) and discussed ideas on how to promote Okemah through public art. Since July, Pamela has worked with her staff in setting a meeting in Okemah with the Arts Council executive team to discuss specific ideas and projects for Okemah. Amber Sharples, Executive Director for the OAC and Molly O’Connor, Assistant Executive Director, were joined by other members of the council as well as Tonnie Dosser, who serves as the Executive Director for the Oklahomans for the Arts, a state arts advocacy organization.
Thompson met the group on Thursday, October 27 for an afternoon tour of Okemah. She started the walking tour at Okemah Oil with the painting by George Alexander of Chief Okemah. Other murals on the tour included the Map by Libby Crimmings in the Farmer’s Market. This was an interactive art project during Woodyfest this year. In the Farmer’s Market is also a mural of “Johnnie” by Deanna Mauldin. Two other murals in town by Deanna Mauldin are located on the bank wall behind Okemah National and also at the Woody Park Downtown.
One of the highlights of the Art Council tour was the US Post Office to see the painting by Richard West entitled “The Grand Council of 1842”. This painting brings to life the peace treaty between multiple Indian Tribes and Texas. West is one of the most treasured painters of his era. The painting that many of take for granted at the post office is very valuable, some even estimating its worth around seven figures. Not only does the council want to promote art in Okemah but it also seeks to preserve it as well. “The mural inside the post office is an absolute treasure and we want to look at the best way to preserve that,” said Sharples
Thompson also gave a tour of the History Center, the 1921 Crystal Theatre, Benson Media Center, the London House (childhood home of Woody Guthrie), the Pecan Bowl and the Old Armory.
While time did not allow, she told them about Pastures of Plenty, Okemah Lake that is on the Oklahoma Fishing Trail and also White Lighting Buffalo Ranch.
The Oklahoma Arts Council is a state agency that not only has the power to award grants but serves as the state’s ambassador to promote the arts and educate Oklahomans about the value and impact that art has in Oklahoma, both broadly and specifically to the individual communities. Created in 1965, the OAC helps fund 250 organizations and schools throughout the state with approximately 500 grants per year.
While it’s easy to envision big cities such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City as the home of artists, art museums and galleries, rural communities have long provided their own contributions to the art world. The OAC looks to create opportunities that will help foster that creativity for years to come.
“We want to leverage the arts in rural communities,” said Sharples. “We saw numerous spaces here that could be used for community engagement such as after school programs, songwriting classes and other forms of art appreciation.”
Okemah has a rich history of contributors to the arts, ranging from the well-travelled legacy of Woody Guthrie to the works of world-renowned sculptor Dan Brooks. Throw in Grammy nominated John Fullbright, and singer/songwriters Shawna Russel, Melissa Hembree, Jamie Coon, as well as others for good measure and it’s easy to see Okemah as a reliable source of talent and expression.
“I’m really impressed with the history of this town,” said Tonnie Dosser of her first visit to Okemah.
While it may have been Dosser’s first visit, the OAC is not unfamiliar with Okemah by any stretch of the imagination. The OAC is an annual financial contributor to the Woody Guthrie festival held each summer.
“We are here to build a relationship with the community and empower Okemah to present art,” said Sharples. After touring Okemah, the evening culminated with a gathering of community leaders and business owners joining the OAC members inside the home of Senator Roger Thompson and Pamela Thompson for refreshments to discuss further cooperation in promoting Okemah through the arts.