NORMAN — Paul Moore’s beginnings were humble enough, but the Norman resident and University of Oklahoma artist-in-residence is now well-known throughout the state, nationally and internationally.
Though many wouldn’t recognize him on the street, even as he passes to and from his studio space on Main Street, his iconic pieces — like the Seed Sower on OU campus — have granted Moore notoriety as a figurative sculptor.
Among his most famous pieces is his Oklahoma Centennial Land Run Monument in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown. Once completed, according to the city of Oklahoma City website, the 45 life and one-half size figures of land run participants racing to claim new homesteads will be one of the largest freestanding bronze sculptures in the world, spanning a distance of 365 feet in length by 36 feet in width and over 16 feet in height.
Now 13 years in the making — with another four to six years to complete the entire monument — Moore said the project is taking a serious toll on his body and that of his two artist assistants, his sons Todd and Ryan. But their efforts and sacrifices are not going unnoticed. Moore recently earned the Governor’s Arts Award in the Special Recognition category.
Moore took a break from sculpting and teaching to show me around his studio. Underneath all the clay is a humble family man working hard to pursue his passions.
For more information on Moore visit crownartsinc.com.
Q: How long is the process for creating a sculpture like this from beginning to end?
A: This project has been going for 13 years now. [motioning to one of the Oklahoma Centennial Land Run Monument pieces in his studio] But normally a big project — let’s say we did one of those sculptures — is a year and a half. The sculpting, we make the molds, and then from the molds we go in and take the mold to the foundry where the casting process begins.
Q: What’s the margin of error for something like one of these sculptures?
A: What do you mean margin of error?
Q: There’s no error? Is that nerve wracking for you?
A: The toughest part is when it leaves our hands and we have no control. Once it goes to the foundry all I can do is go in and inspect different stages, which I do, but you’re still depending on a foundryman and their expertise.
We do all the sculpting and all the molds. We’re getting to where we’re hoping to get someone else to come in to do molds for us. We’ve done too many over the years. With all our injuries it’s really slowing us down.
Q: How does it feel to be almost done with the Oklahoma Centennial Land Run Monument?
A: Well, it was feeling good until they raised the money for the next part. We’ve been on this for 13 years and it will be 14 years by the time we finish the 38 and now we’re looking at another four to six years.
Q: That’s exhausting.
A: Yeah, we’re worn out. Our bodies are beat. Because we’re not just doing this. I’m teaching at OU, I’m an artist in residence there and I teach figurative sculpture two days a week. On top of that I do a lot of work at the university installing other sculptures. In the meantime we’re doing work for shows, smaller works for shows, as well as doing monumental pieces. ...
We’re getting there. It’s just wearing us out. We’re battling it. It’s turned into an endurance test now. When you look at Mount Rushmore, it took 12 years and then Gutzon Borglum died 12 years into it and his son Lincoln went in and cleaned up everything after that. We went past the 12th year so I’m happy. [laughing]
Q: Do all three of you work on the sculpting?
A: I do most of the sculpting. Todd comes in and helps periodically, Ryan comes in and helps periodically. Ryan’s really been handling mostly molds — he’s one of the best mold makers in the country. And Todd is an extremely good mold maker himself. Ryan comes and works in the studio part of the day with me, more than Todd, but Todd handles all of my graphic design work, photography, scheduling, book keeping, pay roll. He’s a jack of all trades, he does a little bit of everything. Web page. He does everything. He’s the only one around here that’s that skilled. The rest of us just look at awe at what he does. It’s sort of magical because we can’t figure out anything about it.
Q: That’s really neat that you have a family operation.
A: Yeah, Todd has been working with me since he was 8. And he’s 32 now.
Q: Do your grandkids ever get to come?
A: In here? Oh, yeah, all the time. Did you not notice the little artist studio over there? [referring to kids table; laughing] That isn’t for us!
Q: I did see that! [laughing]
A: It’s for us to get in touch with our childhood. [laughing] No, they come in. Our grandson is 8 and our granddaughter, she is 5. They’re both really talented kids. They like to come in and help. They want to come in and work when they’re a little older. So we’re going to have three generations of artists in the studio some day. They’re both very talented kids. They’re amazing. They crawl up into the scaffolding with me sometimes and help me do some surfacing work. They know how to hold a tool properly and really know how to use it properly.
Q: They’re lucky kids. They’re way ahead of the curve.
A: Yeah, but to them it’s just normal. It’s just a part of life. To them it’s not anything special. It’s just an average thing that we do. It’s a daily thing we’ve been doing — my kids have been doing it their whole life. And now my grandkids are used to it. They think everybody’s grandfather does something like this.
Q: How did you get involved in art to begin with?
A: I was raised in small communities in California and Oklahoma when I was young. None of them had art galleries, none of them had museums, there were no artists around me. I don’t know how I got into it. It’s just something that from the time I was young I always would draw and paint, and when kids were out playing football I was inside painting.
I started sculpting in high school and the Cowboy Hall of Fame was the only museum I ever went to as a kid. I went there one time. I think I was 12 or 13, and my mother told me she had a camera and that I could go pick out my five favorite pieces and photograph them. I had to take a lot of time looking at them and figuring it out. Two of my favorite pieces were James Earle Fraser’s “End of the Trail” and his “Seated Lincoln” which are still on display at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. In the back in my head I thought, “One day I’d like to do that.”
Q: What’s the creative process like for you?
A: It’s like saying what is the creative process for writing an article. You go with it, it’s what you do. You go in and you do basically what I do. You become creative, you figure out how to lay it all out. Writing and sculpting is basically the same. You lay out a skeleton format of what you’re going to write on and the main points you’re going to cover — I build an armature. And then you go in and start fleshing it out, and that’s what I do — I go in and I start adding the clay and start creating a form and the mass I’m trying to receive.
You have an idea of where you want to end up, same with me. The creative process is the same no matter what you’re doing — writing, sculpting, paintings — it’s all the same. We go in at the end and hit the flourishes and tie everything in, and that’s what I do. I try to find all the flourishes that will complete the piece, and try to make it the best piece.
Q: Are you ever intimidated when you start a piece?
A: It’s like any artist. Writer, musician, actor, whatever — you always have those doubts in the back of your head. Is it going to be as good as the last piece? But you just get in there and through confidence of doing pieces over and over again you have the confidence of knowing that the piece will eventually turn out.
Some pieces are easier than others and you know right off the back. Doing portraits, for example. I’ve been able to do portraits as fast as three hours. And other times it can take two weeks. It just depends on the facial structure, if my eyes are tired that day, if my lines are mush, if I slept the night before — all those things are a factor.
Q: Just like any other job.
A: Just like any other creative job. That’s all it is for us. It’s a job. We’ve been doing it a long time. I’ve been doing it for 36 years and like I said, Todd’s been with me since he was 8, he’s 32 now so you can figure that out. He’s been with me since he was young, working periodically in the studio, helping out. My oldest son has been with me for 14 years, maybe 15 now. As a team we’ve been working together easily over 15 years.
Q: What was the most difficult part for you in establishing your career and getting to where you are now?
A: I think the first 20 years is the hardest. It all builds slowly. you slowly build up, you get your body of work together and you continue to build on that your whole life. You get into shows, you get into building up your collector base and commission work is really nice. I have a great reputation with collectors and patrons who have commissioned me to do work. I’m fortunate enough to be where I don’t have to go out and look for commissions, they come to me.
Q: Are you able to be selective with the commissions you do?
A: Yeah. There was a time we took everything. Now it’s what seems interesting. After doing so many riders on horseback we look for anything that’s a little different to create some interest in our lives. [laughing]
Q: Do you do a lot of research to develop your pieces?
A: Oh, yeah. It’s fun. It’s half the fun of it, the research.
Q: How do you research?
A: Find great books or go online. One of my favorite things to do is to look up the ethnological studies from the Smithsonian from the 1800s of the Native American communities. They’ve done a lot of studies on them on various dances or the type of art they made or the type of lifestyle they were living. It’s amazing what you can find online today.
It’s a lot of fun to dig in as much as you can and find as much information to try to make pieces as accurate as possible. I also like a lot of Native American mythology and folklore. It’s one of my favorite things to do is read the stories. ... It’s different things like that that I like to do and I do spin-offs with my sculptures. I try to do different imagery than what is typical for Western art images. Some people like it, some people don’t. But I do it for myself.
Q: Is it easier to sculpt the older you get and the more experienced you become?
A: Yes and no. the older you get the more tired your eyes get. But you know what to look for. I’ve done over 100 portraits so if you stick with the game plan and follow your steps that you’ve prepared over the years it’s not that difficult. The toughest part is really capturing the personality of the individual and getting it just right because everyone has various personalities and it’s interesting trying to capture that one look that everyone can relate to.
Q: If you weren’t sculpting what would you be doing?
A: Jeez, I don’t know. I’ve been sculpting since I was young so I don’t know.
Q: What do you do on your free time?
A: Sculpt. Seriously. When I’m not sculpting here I’ll go home and sit and sculpt.
Q: Do you get tired of it?
A: Not yet.
Q: That’s a good sign.
A: We’ll see. [laughing] I’m getting tired. I’m not getting tired of the work but I’m getting tired. This land run project has worn us all out physically. Normally when you work on a big piece its ware and tear on the body and when you finish it you’re worn out and you can sit back and normally it will take a year before another big piece comes through so your body can recoup. We always have three pieces going through the studio at all times and it’s been happening for 13 years straight. And that’s one project as well as what else is coming in. There’s some times where we’ll have five or six sculptures going on in the studio at once.
Q: Did you anticipate it being that exhausting when you started out on it?
A: When you’re young you don’t even notice it. It’s when you get into your 50s that you start feeling it. One thing I didn’t anticipate with this is getting older. I did well until I hit 50 and then my body started breaking down and I wasn’t healing up. I used to be able to heal up after a weekend and get back into it. My body doesn’t heal quite as rapidly. It takes months sometimes years to heal something that I’ve injured. That’s one thing I didn’t think about.
Q: Do you ever anticipate having to stop?
A: One day. I’ll always sculpt but one day I’ll stop doing the big ones.
Q: How do you think you’ll feel at that point?
A: Probably relieved. Right now I’m just juggling a lot of work so I don’t know — it’s one of those things where you just hang in there and do what you can do. We go in to every day like it’s a fresh day and just do what we can. You put in a good day and feel good at the end of the day that you accomplished a lot and you’re worn out. We’re trying to do the best we can given the circumstances.
Q: When did you feel like you “made it"?
A: I don’t think the majority of people really ever feel like they make it. I think that as long as you’re making a living off of your art work you’re successful. There’s very few people doing it. Most people have back up. I think if you can just survive as an artist, pay your way, then you’re very successful.
But I guess we all have goals in our heads where we think we should be eventually some day and what we consider successful. Some people say I am, I still have doubts about it. I keep working. We’re in the studio all the time so it’s kind of hard to get out except for some shows here or there. Other than that, we’ve been very successful in doing commission work. We’re probably one of the most productive studios in the nation. When most sculptors will do maybe 30 commissions in their lifetime, I think I’m on 138 or 139 commissions and that counts the land run as only one. We’ve been producing a tremendous amount of work. I couldn’t do it without my sons. They are amazing individuals and very talented as artists. We work as a great team.
Q: What do you hope to do next with your career?
A: I’m doing it. This is what I hope to do the rest of my life and I’ve been doing it for 36 years now. I hope to continue to just keep doing what I do.
Q: Why is it important for you to teach?
A: When I started out I had only one artist who gave me any time. He was a guy named Joe Beeler. He was founder of the Cowboy Artists of America and he actually was born in Arkansas but moved to Oklahoma. One of his first jobs was doing illustrations and he became a very well known artist and I contacted him and he invited me down for a day in his studio.
I was living in Northern California at the time. I was in my late teens, early 20s, we drove down to Sedona, Ariz., and spent the day with him and we kept in contact. He looked at my work as I did it and critiqued me. And it meant so much to me to have that one day of time. Because no other artist would give their time to me. Everyone was busy and I had some say, “Why should I share with you because you’ll just be my competition?” And they never gave me the time of day. It meant a lot to me that Joe Beeler wanted to do that. I swore that if I ever got the chance that I would teach. When President Boren asked me to come to OU it was one of the many reasons I decided to come here.
Q: So it’s kind of you paying it forward to other artists?
A: Yeah. Yeah, you have to give back. You can’t be greedy your whole life. You’ve got to give back.
Q: What kind of advice would you impart on a younger artist?
A: Work hard. Be dedicated. Determined. Disciplined. All those things. Without all that you’re not going to achieve much. You can have all the dreams you want to, if you don’t apply hard work and determination, you’ll never get anywhere.
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