Norman artist O. Gail Poole died at age 77 in 2013, less than a month after being diagnosed with bladder cancer. He was known in Norman, not just for producing a large and varied canon of fine art over decades, but for his large personality.
The man’s daughter, Nicole Poole, is heiress to the hundreds of paintings, sketches and prints he left behind. Her mission of the past five years has been to share the enormous collection in ways best honoring her father’s talent and character.
“I grew up with dad painting,” Poole said. “The paintings were my friends and have always been a part of my life. I knew I’d care for them in some way but didn’t understand the enormity of it or how soon it would be, because dad had always been there to help me along with advice.”
The first steps were practical ones — organizing the collection, then finding a local, secure and climate-controlled housing space. Poole received help from the community which she considers a testament to the way her dad lived. Both father and daughter are graduates of the University of Oklahoma.
“Dad’s friend Julie Droke, the recently retired registrar of the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History had been bugging him to let her do an inventory of his work,” Poole said. “He’d grumble and want to chat instead of working on that.”
After his death, Droke assembled a team of friends to catalogue every work of art in detail.
“They did it because they loved dad,” Poole said. “It was a humbling and selfless act led by a professional. It included an extraordinarily thorough database that’s infinitely searchable. Archivist Terri Jordan has also worked with me from those first days forward. She knows the collection better than I do and has associated sister paintings with each other, along with sketches and related correspondence.”
This was particularly helpful for Poole emotionally because every brush stroke in these works represents her dad’s voice from the past.
“He began painting professionally when I was a baby and these paintings do represent moments in my life,” she said. “Anytime someone tells me how much they loved dad’s work, that’s the enthusiasm I run on.”
Poole’s focus has not been selling the paintings through galleries but to keep the collection largely intact though she has donated some. Poole’s professional background is in the performing arts in New York City. Currently she narrates audio books for a living. Poole was new to the world of visual arts in terms of marketing and promotion.
“What I have here in this collection is important to the history of American art,” Poole said. “And immensely important to the history of art here in Oklahoma. I’ve been doing a lot of exhibits of his work.”
Poole shows have been mounted in Norman, Oklahoma City, Arezzo, Italy and Paris, France since 2015. The 2016 Oklahoma Hall of Fame exhibition in the Gaylord-Pickens Museum was titled “O. Gail Poole: Rediscovered Oklahoma Master.” Poole is presently compiling historical information about her father in collaboration with noted arts biographer Susie Kalil who is writing the first book about the artist. A prestigious art museum launch of his paintings is in the works.
Since becoming the collection director, Poole has come to fully appreciate her father’s dedication to and passion for his art. When she was growing up, he was simply dad, not a genius of contemporary art.
“He had a devotion to getting better and exploring his voice,” she said. “I see a man who struggled to keep his sense of artistic integrity even when that butted up against what the market wanted, which was to stay with one style that could be recognized from across the room as a Poole.
“He remained unswayed by the market. I’ve learned he was far more philosophical and emotional than I’d thought. He expressed himself in paintings of great joy, elation and great sadness. I wish I could go back in time, sit at his feet and just watch him paint. I can’t, but he’s left me a roadmap to his life and to my life. His search for meaning and identity mirrors us as Oklahomans.”