Gazing strongly and resolutely over Oklahoma City is a 22-foot bronze sculpture titled “The Guardian.”
It’s on top of the Oklahoma State Capitol Dome and was mounted there in 2002 during an eight-year restoration process of the building. The sculpture’s creator is Norman resident Enoch Kelly Haney, a national treasure who has been making art since he was a 2-year-old in rural Seminole County.
“In front of our home was a red clay gravel road,” Haney said. “I would take that red clay and make sculptures out of it. The first one I remember doing was a head of Abraham Lincoln when I was in first grade.”
That was predictive subject matter, because apart from being an artist, he’s a successful politician. Haney served in the Oklahoma Legislature as a state representative from 1980 to 1986 and as a state senator from 1986 to 2002.
He is Seminole-Creek, enrolled in the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and was sworn in as their principal chief in 2005.
“When I was 10 years old, mom bought me some oil paints,” Haney said. “She was always very supportive. I painted a buffalo standing over a cliff with a mountain background. It was my first painting and I gave it to my grandpa.”
Buffalo became a recurring theme in Haney’s art. A large acrylic canvas depicting one hangs on the wall of his Norman studio.
“Being an artist was born in me,” he said. “My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Harold Bay in Shawnee, was really instrumental in teaching me how to draw.”
Haney went on to study painting with Dick West at Bacone College. He received a Rockefeller Scholarship to study at the University of Arizona, and took a BFA with a minor in religion from Oklahoma City University.
“When I was a child, public school systems taught art and it made a difference in my life and many others,” Haney said.
In Mrs. Bay’s classroom he saw posters on the wall of work by celebrated artists. Later in life, he’d have the opportunity to see the originals in European museums.
“Techniques such as shading that I learned as a child I still use today,” he said.
One of Haney’s best-known paintings was done in the late 1970s. It was based on his father’s image with tears in his eyes while contemplating a strand of barbed wire. The painting is titled “Freedom’s End.”
“When you create, you start out with a concept and a vision,” Haney said. “All that interacts with life, background and planning.”
Haney sees a nexus between art and politics. They are both ways of life that he has enjoyed.
“I became a politician because I wanted to help people,” he said. “I think I have a way of getting along with, talking to and learning from people. I’ve communicated with people and they in turn have helped me. That’s a really good feeling.”
Haney’s father and grandfather served in the ministry and he has as well.
“I just thought I was supposed to be a minister,” he said. “And when it came down to it, another way to help people.”
Haney had his own weekly television program for three years in the early 1970s. He also narrated and consulted for the Seminole series of the Discovery Channel’s 1993 television documentary series, “How the West was Lost.”
This exposure helped his political career, but so did the genius idea of mailing out campaign postcards with images of his artwork printed on them.
“Years later people say, ‘I still have your cards,’” he said. “I did that when I ran for the Senate.”
Haney had to compete with other artists to get the State of Oklahoma commission for creating “The Guardian” sculpture on top of the Capitol dome. That project presented some unexpected challenges.
“They specified that they didn’t want the American Native warrior to be identified with any particular tribe,” he said. “I can understand that, there are 39 federally-recognized tribes in Oklahoma. That was the hardest thing about doing it.”
Haney was about to start a trip to Europe when he learned a drawing would have to be submitted to stay in the competition. He was in a time bind.
“When I got to Paris I went and looked at some sculptures,” he said. “I saw some such as ‘The Thinker’ which impressed me by their simplicity.”
Ten days before a deadline to submit a drawing, he was driving by Tinker Field and had an artistic epiphany.
“It was just an image of a standing man without a particular style or tribe,” Haney said. “I knew that was it. I sketched it out on an envelope in about five seconds.”
A young muscular Choctaw neighbor agreed to be Haney’s model for “The Guardian.” Now he enjoys telling people that’s him atop the dome.
“I tried to pick a time in history when Native people wore clothing that was basically the same,” he said. “Leather leggings, moccasins, a shield and a staff.”
At age 80, art remains a way of life for Haney. Dropping in at his studio recently, he was working on a painting titled, “Preparing for Battle.” It depicts a Native American warrior in a U.S. Army 45th Infantry uniform applying paint under his eyes in a Desert Storm scenario. Haney himself is a Thunderbird veteran.
“I’m working on paintings and they’re going well,” he said. “I have a sculpture here I need to finish and one at the foundry I like better than most.”
Haney has a special limited offer presently at his 2309 W. Main studio two doors from the Dugout Sports Cards shop. Hand-signed prints of his work are available for sale for $25, along with other selected original pieces until February 27, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.