The University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is well known for being a magnificent repository of artistic achievement.
Its collection of paintings, drawings and sculpture is arguably the best in the state and among the finest regionally.
Lesser well-known to many Norman residents is that virtually every other OU building has a multitude of fine art pieces gracing their walls and hallways. A survey of these demonstrates just how rich the cultural collection here is.
Bizzell Memorial Library may have the largest grouping of art, remarkable architecture features and ephemera of any of the buildings aside from The Fred.
Comic books in glass cases were an unexpected discovery earlier this year. Copies of Wonder Woman going back well into the last century were on display.
“From Tragedy to Triumph” is the title of an exhibition documenting the 1921 Tulsa massacre of African-Americans. The focus is on telling survivors’ stories with audio tapes and vintage photographs. Included is a smaller depiction of a Black Wall Street mural that exists is Tulsa.
Throughout Bizzell there are scores of framed drawings on walls by Native American artists including Quincy Tahoma (1921-1956), Beverly Blacksheep and Mars Biggoose. Many are from the James T. Bialac collection on loan from The Fred. The generous Arizona attorney has donated much of his private art holdings to OU over the years.
Unanticipated were Stars of David inset on handmade solid oak chair backs in the library’s Zarrow Reading Room. It’s an elegant space with leather couches, antique Iranian carpet and woven Navaho wall hanging. The quiet nook honors Jewish OU benefactors and brothers Henry and Jack Zarrow of Tulsa.
Among Bizzell’s most remarkable features is the Peggy V. Helmerich Great Reading Room. Visiting the enormous second-floor area with its 14 full-length southern exposure windows, 23 lamps hanging from the ceiling and bookcases lining all four walls is an inspiring experience.
It holds dozens of heavy wooden tables and chairs that could comfortably seat a regiment. Typically there are four or five OU students occupying the space. Remove the tables and chairs, and Peggy’s big room could host a jousting tournament.
Hard bound copies of graduate student theses pack the bookcases. A randomly selected one was “The Housing Problem in Egypt and the Applicability of Industrialized Building Systems to Egypt” by Master of Architecture candidate Ossama Ahmed Abdou circa 1981.
Outside the Great Reading Room is a somberly graceful anteroom. It contains a half dozen masterful oil paintings of personages such as Victor Hugo that were done in the late 1920s by Patricio Gimeno (1864-1940).
A visit to nearby Kaufman Hall, OU’s Language Learning Center, reveals that Gimeno was a professor of Spanish here in the early 20th century — there is a painting hung on a staircase landing of the gentleman holding an artist’s palette of paints. A brass plaque refers to Gimeno as “humanista, caballero, artista e hispanista, professor de espanol, Universidad de Oklahoma 1915-1940.”
Also in the building is what could be considered among the most important works of art at OU outside of The Fred. It’s also on a staircase landing, and is a floor-to-ceiling (8’x15’) mural painted on the wall titled “The Pan-American Family” by Emilio Amero (1901-1976).
The artist was an OU art professor from 1946 to 1967. He was a luminary in the Mexican Modern Art movement and the most famous on the OU art department staff in his day. The 1958 mural depicts Abraham Lincoln with a grouping of youth. The words “With malice toward none, with charity for all” are on an unfurling banner over Abe’s head.
OU Emilio Amero scholar Andrew L. Phelan has stated that the work is the last remaining Amero mural in the world. Phelan is quoted as saying, “‘The Pan-American Family’ might be one of the university’s first intentional acts toward recognizing what it means to be a member of the world community.”
Holmberg Hall, at 103 years old, is a personal trip down memory lane. An adolescent daughter was companion for witnessing an extraordinary poetry reading and art performance by Beat poet and writer Allen Ginsberg in 1993.
In the stately hall’s lobby, there’s a brass bust of American mezzo-soprano opera singer Marilyn Horne. Horne has had a long association and friendship with OU, teaching master classes annually here for decades. Brass is an apt substance to represent the beautiful and exceptionally talented singer.
Several years ago, while waiting for a face-to-face interview, an opportunity to eavesdrop revealed Horne speaking in no uncertain terms to an undergraduate student like a Marine Corps. drill instructor. The tall, strong, male would-be opera singer got his tuition money’s worth that afternoon.
Across W. Boyd Street at Catlett Music Center, there’s a quadriptych of large paintings on the wall overlooking the cavernous lobby. Titled “The Arbuckles” (1998), they’re a quintessentially Oklahoman picture by Norman’s own “Queen of Color” artist Carol Beesley.
She was an OU professor of art from 1973 to 1997. Beesley dedicated the enormous, eye-popping, dreamlike mountain range canvasses to her beloved late husband Michael Hennagin, who was an OU music professor and composer.