On June 15, Jesús Moroles was driving from his home in Rockport, Texas, to Chickasha, Oklahoma, to continue work on the largest granite project of his career when he was killed in a car crash. The sculptor’s goliath works hewn in stone are installed throughout the United States, such as the step-pyramid “Houston Police Officers Memorial” (1991) that recedes into the earth, or the 64-ton “Lapstrake” (1987) sculpture with tiered granite towering 22 feet over Manhattan’s CBS Plaza on West 53rd Street across from the Museum of Modern Art. At 65, he’d spent decades finessing delicate details in colossal sculptures, celebrating the formidable rock’s granular texture and luminous embedded crystals. They’re the kind of pieces that could survive centuries, with their abstract shapes and compositions.
A less quantifiable but equally significant legacy is instilling his public art with a true feeling of community by encouraging participation with the challenging medium. In Chickasha, students he trained in granite earlier this summer are completing his final large-scale project: Coming Together Park at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO).
“Apart from getting over the tragic loss of a great man and a great artist, he was very much a teacher as well, and one of the things he taught was art is hard work and he embodied that,” Michael Nealeigh, USAO vice president for university advancement, told Hyperallergic. “He said it himself numerous times: he always credited himself as having some talent, but mostly he just worked hard.”
As the college’s first artist-in-residence, Moroles designed the park as a hands-on experience for the students, as well as a permanent public art space. Along with faculty and volunteers, the students are splitting and refining the last elements of the park, with the college offering salaries so they don’t have to juggle multiple jobs. At almost an acre in size, the park has serpentine stone paths, an arroyo for rain, and circular patterns surrounding trees that echo the college campus’s distinctive ovals and curves.
“He called it an environmental installation, and he was very keen on having his art be functional, with places for people to sit, so that they not only find serenity and beauty, but a place to rest,” Nealeigh said.
A lot of granite sculpture is all smooth surfaces, but Moroles loved to reveal the coarse, mottled hues and textures of the stone’s interior through a process called splitting, where holes are drilled in the rock and expanders allow pressure to push it apart. “The crystals of that section are maintained and whole, what he called ‘alive,'” Nealeigh explained. “But when you polish granite you close up the crystals, what he described as ‘dead’ crystals.”
Moroles received the National Medal of Arts in 2008, and although he worked internationally, his art remained very much connected to his home state of Texas and the surrounding area. In May, he told the Oklahoma-based Oxford Karma that with USAO he was “trying to fulfill one of my lifelong goals: to create public spaces” and to get people “to take ownership, work on and create the space. Encourage them to make things that cross borders, culture, and gender.”
Initially the park’s completion was planned for the end of the summer session. Heavy rains combined with the death of Moroles slowed the process, and now the goal is a September opening. On September 10, an event at the under-construction American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, initially intended to celebrate the park, will be a tribute to Moroles’s career and community influence.
Granite, with all its necessary tools and heavy lifting, isn’t a medium many sculptors tackle and certainly not on such a scale as the one that defined Moroles’s work. Yet there are formidable rewards in not just mastering the material, but giving it a dimensional life through sculpture. As he tells USAO President John Feaver in the video below: “I think what it does, it empowers people that they can do anything.”
A tribute to Jesús Moroles in honor of Coming Together Park (1727 West Alabama Avenue, Chickasha, Oklahoma) will take place at the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum (659 American Indian Boulevard, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) on September 10 at 7pm.