Surls was in town checking out his new domain, the sculpture building in the university's art complex, where works-in-progress reflect a wide range of talent amongst his students. Not that Surls, whose work has been shown in places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, would say one student has more talent than another; he doesn't seem to think that way.
"I usually see 10 times more potential in my students than they do themselves," Surls said. "I think everyone is born with an inherent ability. If you really love doing something, no matter how absurd, you will inherently work longer and harder at it."
He speaks from experience, having up to 1,000 works of art to his credit during a career spanning more than 30 years.
So it's practice, practice, practice if you follow the James Surls formula for artistic success, though it doesn't hurt to have what he calls "singular belief." That's the unshakable belief held by an artist, usually one without formal training, that his or her creations have merit. Surls thinks he's blessed in having both formal art training and singular belief.
The 1965 SHSU graduate admitted he might shape his creations differently if he traveled back in time and had to resculpt everything from scratch. Yet he's satisfied with what he created three decades ago because, as he said, that was the best he could do at the time.
He attributes a good deal of his success to his parents. Surls said his mother has an "incredible" imagination and always encouraged him to exercise his creativity. His father, a carpenter, lacked the imagination of wife and son, but made up for it by being good with his hands, a trait the younger Surls inherited.
"Sculpture, by its nature, deals with physical materials," Surls said. "You need mechanisms and devices to do it, you need a person with the psychological ability to handle that. A lot of people can't saw boards, a lot of people can't chisel or carve wood. But for those who do, this (the SHSU art department) is a good place."
Surls was impressed with the dramatic changes in the art department's physical plant, which was limited to a single, cramped building during his student days. Now the department boasts five buildings with plentiful space and equipment for upcoming artists and their necessarily messy work.
Surls' own work often contains recognizable shapes, such as people, knives, leaves, hammers, diamonds, axes and houses. He's primarily known for his fine wood carving, but uses steel and cement on occasion. His pieces range from small, indoor objects to a 13-foot-diameter bronze flower destined for display in Irving.
"People call my work abstract, but I don't," Surls said. "My works are patterned after natural things. That could be the cowlick on top of your head. That could be a nebula seen through a telescope."
Or a figure of a man with butcher knives piercing its body, as a Surls' creation called "Me and the Butcher Knives" portrays. His work often has qualities of violence and energy that disturb even as they attract. Hammers and axes, as well as seemingly harmless objects like plant leaves, become cutting, bludgeoning instruments for mysterious purposes each viewer must decipher for himself.
"I would like for anyone looking at my art to ask himself the questions, 'What is this? What does it do? What's it saying?' And to look at it long enough to get some answers," Surls said. And there are correct answers to those questions, he said, but that shouldn't deter anyone from venturing a guess; even someone with little knowledge of art.
"Most people are very reluctant to tell you how they feel about art or a particular painting," he said. "They don't want to look dumb. I think that's sad."
Teaching is nothing new for Surls; he did it from 1970-1984 at Southern Methodist University as well as the University of Houston. Like many a teacher, Surls took a long sabbatical from teaching, allowing him to concentrate on his own creations. Doubtless, his seven daughters liked having daddy around their home in Splendora, which doubles as an art studio.
Surls' work is so widely admired today he could skip teaching and easily support himself with his art. But something keeps drawing him back to the education profession. Perhaps it's because he learns something himself while trying to explain to others.
The artist feels a close connection between himself and nature, often communing with trees and wind for inspiration and insight. He listens to his "inner voice" and goes with his intuition, which is seldom wrong, if the staggering number of galleries and museums his works are seen in are any clue. Or maybe it's the challenge of taking young, would-be artists and giving them a chance to create for a living - just as he has done and will continue to do if given the chance.
"I think we all need to grow," Surls said. "I'll probably keep growing until the day I die."
June 12, 1996