TULSA, Okla. — Willard Stone’s wood-carving style might be described as Art Deco Cherokee, with a distinct, streamlined movement and natural themes that reflect his indigenous heritage. He’d originally wanted to be a painter, but a childhood accident with a blasting cap blew off his thumb and two other fingers. So he slowly learned sculpture instead, forming figures from Oklahoma’s red clay. His 1940s work in particular responded to the threat and promise of atomic energy, while still including the Native American motifs expected by his patrons. To mark the centennial of his birth in Oktaha, Oklahoma, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa is exhibiting Following the Grain: A Centennial Celebration of Willard Stone.
Stone achieved a measure of national fame in his lifetime — his art was used in the logo of the Cherokee Nation — and his work remains popular in Western museums. However, he never quite got a major commission or exhibition to launch him to greater name recognition. Even in 2012, his bronzes were being sold at a discount to support his widow’s Alzheimer’s care.
Oilman Thomas Gilcrease, the founder of the museum, was Stone’s most significant patron, offering him a three-year residency in 1945. In Gilcrease’s words, Stone was to show the “Indian’s point of view of the 20th century.” During that residency, he had the freedom to create art full time, though the work would all become part of Gilcrease’s collection. It was a museum-building approach that the businessman took with several artists, including Stone’s 1930s mentors at Bacone College, Acee Blue Eagle and Woody Crumbo.
But Gilcrease and Stone’s story isn’t as simple as a rich, white collector with a fascination for American Indian art. Gilcrease himself was Creek, and it was his allotment in the Glenn Pool oil field that made him his millions. Stone, meanwhile, had no such allotment, as his Cherokee mother was not enrolled in the tribe.
According to the exhibition text, her family had been unable to reach Indian Territory from Texas for tribal enrollment and so was “deemed ineligible for citizenship and the allotments of land it would have provided.” Instead, Stone’s family were sharecroppers; his mother did most of the work after his father died at a young age. All of this history creates a subtext of Following the Grain: the variance of an “Indian’s point of view of the 20th century.”
Stone’s chisel and knife work is incredibly elegant, whether he’s transformed a hefty piece of ebony — brought back from Africa by Gilcrease — into a prone buffalo or morphed local hardwood — including sassafras, walnut, maple, and Oklahoma red cedar — into a playful, spindly-legged colt. Tense rabbits look like they’re about to leap from their crouched poses, while painstakingly scaled fish ride rippling waves of wood. Yet the most powerful sculptures are those responding to the dark uncertainty of World War II’s nuclear conclusion.
One of the most striking examples is “The Birth of Atomic Energy,” in which a woman emerges from a mushroom cloud. She wears its plume as an elaborate headdress, and arms pull open the cloak of debris to reveal her voluptuous form. According to Lisa K. Neuman’s Indian Play: Indigenous Identities at Bacone College, Stone wrote of the sculpture in a letter to Burt Logan at the Gilcrease Foundation: “Mr. Gilcrease will probably fire me when he sees it.”
Gilcrease must not have been too perturbed, as “The Birth of Atomic Energy” is joined in the exhibition by even darker work. “War Widows” features a series of women bent over in sorrow, their wild cherry bodies carved ever larger as if a representation of mounting grief. Two hands grasp each other through a mushroom cloud in “International Peace Effort,” and “Spoils of War” has a skeleton’s face visible under a veil. Part of the Gilcrease’s permanent collection, “Our Atomic Baby,” shows a child soaring from an explosion with two blades in his hands. “The world is now molding his character by giving him knives to play with,” Stone explained.
Given the variety of the more than 30 sculptures in Following the Grain, it’s easy to forget that the art dates mostly to just a few years in the 1940s. After working odd jobs for decades, Stone was finally able to devote himself to sculpture full time beginning in the 1960s. He worked until his death in 1985, at the age of 69, supporting his huge family (11 children) with his artwork. You can still visit his studio at the Willard Stone Museum in Locust Grove.
Stone’s story is compelling: He became an artist even when his hand was mangled; he rose from single mother sharecropper’s son to respected sculptor; he was able to bridge between Native American themes and nuclear terror. And with its incredible precision — visible in each line of buffalo fur or swoop of a figure’s body — his art deserves a wider audience. As David R. Milsten, Gilcrease’s biographer, once wrote: “A block of wood to Willard Stone was something that had once been alive and he wanted to make it live again.”
Following the Grain: A Centennial Celebration of Willard Stone continues at the Gilcrease Museum (1400 North Gilcrease Museum Road, Tulsa, Oklahoma) through January 22, 2017.