Commission for The Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

Commission for The Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

This Place, Everywhere

There is at the center of all things a context that surrounds a given moment. This context is measured by the intent of purpose giving rise to the particular of this moment. The making of a symbolic object that will carry with it the weight of the past, the acknowledgement of now and the betterment of the future as it relates to something as historically significant as what humans have done to other humans, is no easy task. The subject is so deeply embedded into the psyche of us as a people that we cannot do other than leave signs and clues along our path through life to mark that it is a part of us. The Holocaust seared humanity in the deepest of ways. It scarred all of us. We, as human beings, have seared and scarred ourselves with self inflicted wounds from the beginning. All in the name of making distinctions between race and religion, color and kind. It is our responsibility to note publicly the way forward.

I have chosen images with specific intent and configured them in such a way as to make a statement representing something of great depth. I started with the idea of a prism, a particular cut of angular crystal that reflects light in such a way as to tell us of the smallest and the largest in equal measure. I have chosen to use three prisms as the configured core of this sculpture. Each prism has a triangle at each end, which means the core contains a total of six equal sided triangles. Each of these triangular shapes has three flowers and three eyes growing from them. This gives us a total of eighteen flowers and eighteen eyes.

The six petals of each flower make up the building block of the shape in nature called a hexagram. This shape represents the six pointed star within the Jewish tradition. This hexagram shape is represented in the building blocks of nature as well as in the bedrock of human belief systems. As is the the image of the eye. It is in the eye contact of the newborn with its’ mother that the life bond takes place. Taken in total, the idea of three, six, nine and eighteen has real and metaphoric meaning.

The sculpture is titled "This Place, Everywhere". This title is meant as a reminder that we are in This Place and that we are also Everywhere. It is our responsibility to state and restate our personal memory of human history and to express it into the collective future. The sculpture is held in an upright position by three extended eyes which give support to the body of the sculpture. The eyes representing vision, vision into our past and envisioning our future. Collectively these prisms, flowers and eyes show us the way of the future. Memory in the now is our gift to the future. We must keep it close at hand and hold it with intent in our grip, all the while handing it to the ones to come. 


Through the Thorn Tree - James Surls

(Carbondale, CO, October 17th, 2017) JAMES SURLS / THROUGH THE THORN TREE an exhibition of 52 works of art selected form the vast sea of art produced over the last forty years.

Opening: Nov 2nd, 2017 – April 28th, 2018 The Biblical Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas.  

When it comes down to principles, sometimes you just have to walk the plank. When you reach the edge, you have to make the leap. Some times you have to "trust your feelings" and go with them. I know that is what I am doing with this exhibition called "Through The Thorn Tree" at the Biblical Museum of Art in Dallas. Not all, but a considerable number of my friends have told me "Don't do it", but I have to tell you, I am compelled at every turn, at every consideration to do it. It is like "If I were me, being me, looking at me as me, I would want me to do this exhibition. But if I were me, being me, looking at me through their eyes, then I don't know how much I would like seeing me doing what I am doing.” I simply have to consider my personal history. The big question of the day is where do I stand as it relates to my time in this life. I can not abandon my history, which started in the early 1940's rural East Texas surrounded by church goers, deacons and believers with full intent to influence. 

I remember seeing our daddy baptized in a stock tank out in a pasture with pick-ups and sedan automobiles parked all around the open side of the tank dam. The congregation was dressed in their Sunday best, all gathered around to be a witness and watch as my father and the preacher waded out waist deep through the muddy red water. It was part of my life and part of my being.   

I feel as if I am on some kind of settling mission. I am sorting out the strata of my existence. I feel the need to say out loud how a belief system got me started on my life's journey. The need is so great that I have to clear the bower so as to be able to invite in the world to a totally new system of order.  I wrote in 1995 about a sculpture I had just finished called "Swimming in Forever". I wrote that I had looked deep through the crack in the cosmic egg and seen the depths from which all things are possible; nothing was like I had thought.

A few years before I had finished a sculpture call "Walking in Immensity" and before that a sculpture called "Tornado", a church with a magnified force looming large from its roof lines. Robert Hughes wrote in TIME Magazine that the tornado was chewing up and devouring the church that it was setting on top of. He had missed the mark. The church was not being eaten by or destroyed by the tornado, rather the whirling force was coming from the inside of the church. I did meet Robert Hughes on several different occasions, but never mentioned to him that he missed, he also referred to me as a "Master of Buck-eye surrealism", he missed again. But such is the world of critics. I never said anything to him on the subject. There is at the core of my work a certain message, meaning and content. There are questions and an attempt to give visible cause and information that is passed through the living vine of humanity. 

Anything having to do with spirituality, religion or the church is such a hot button issue in today’s world that I am drawn with force to speak my truth. At my age I have nothing but personal truth to tell. We as a society are in an existential crisis, we speak on a daily basis of the "Culture War", where division is sown only for the reaper.  I am compelled to release the voices of my creative calling, which came early to my Being and have only gotten stronger through the years. 

I was given total freedom by The Museum of Biblical Art. I carefully chose art from the extensive body of my work to represent me in this exhibition. Of the 52 works of art, I will say all carry the conviction of my thinking. The sculpture titled How Far Back is a large wooden figure with a church for its head, its torso is twisted so as to give it the ability to see back to the beginning of what it means to be human. It has a single hand cradling a large protuberance extending from its belly. The church head has many eyes at its entrance and on its back side. 

How Far Back , 1989, Red and White Oak, 100” x 62” x 55”

How Far Back, 1989, Red and White Oak, 100” x 62” x 55”

How Far Back, 1989, Red and White Oak, 100” x 62” x 55”

There is another sculpture titled "Rough God". This work of art is forged from heavy steel, hammered into the shape of a massive thread and covered in extended thorns reaching out into the surrounding space. Representing a reality that we are effected with the day to day existence of a force far greater than our own.

Rough God 3 , 2010, Steel, 46” x 69” x 44”

Rough God 3, 2010, Steel, 46” x 69” x 44”

Seven of the works of art in this exhibition are heavy granite stones, each with a drawing and poem. These works are each a collaboration between the poet Robert Creeley and myself. I spent much time with Robert, one of Americas great poets. He wrote the poems and I did the drawings. One of these stones carries the image of a pair of hands grasping the Universe, with the poetic words, "So Simply Vast / Placed / In this Space / Everywhere".

So Simply Vast , 1991, Hand Rubbing, 36 ½ x 58 inches

So Simply Vast, 1991, Hand Rubbing, 36 ½ x 58 inches

I am dedicating this exhibition to Bob and Linda Buford, life long "Believers" who have given their very Being to faith and trust in a higher order. We have been friends since 1973, through it all, the good and the bad times of life. They hold "the belief in" to be fixed and absolute. I see Creation as a living thing. I believe it was not a point in time, but rather is ever evolving through time, space and our beings.

James Surls


The Execution of "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes II"

The Execution of "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes"
by Charles J. Dukes


On August 9, 2003, under a withering sun in steamy Splendora, Texas, Louisiana-based artist David Bradshaw fired nine shots from a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol into the second edition of the James Surls’ print "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes."

The shooting, which took place behind Surls’ studio in Splendora before about 70 onlookers, was the result of a creative decision made by Surls that was also expected to put an end to a brewing controversy over the creation of the edition.
The following is a story about how and why the decision was made. (See photo captions and links at the end of this story.)

Controversy Erupts

March began in a heady way for Surls. His artwork, most of it made during the previous 12 months, filled half the exhibition space at the two-year-old Meadows Museum in Dallas. Surls considered the show one of the most important in his 38-year career. The reviews were good and the response to his work, particularly in Dallas and Houston, reinforced a close bond that has long existed between Surls and his admirers in Texas, a bond that had been somewhat strained by his 1998 move to Colorado.

About a week after In the Meadows: Recent Sculpture, Drawings and Prints of James Surlsshow opened, an unexpected telephone call from Houston art dealer Hiram Butler shattered Surls’ sense of serenity.

“He said a collector from Houston had attended the Meadows Museum show and had spotted a second-edition print of "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" ("II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes") on display there. We had included the print in the show almost as an afterthought,” Surls said.

“As an owner of a first-edition print of "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes," the collector objected to the very existence of a second edition of the print. He felt the existence of a second edition devalued the first edition.”

Surls said Butler, a former business partner in Houston, warned him that "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" should never have been made and would harm, perhaps even destroy Surls’ reputation among collectors of his work. 

It wasn’t long before that call was followed by another from Mark Roglán, Ph.D., curator of collections at the Meadows, who had also received a call from the Houston collector. Roglán first viewed "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" at Surls’ Colorado studio and decided to include it in the Meadows show.

“I would have taken any call like this from a gallery owner or museum curator seriously. But Hiram is very knowledgeable about things involving prints; I consider him an authority,” Surls said, “I was stunned; the calls caught me completely off guard.”

Momentarily on the defensive, Surls said he told Butler that if a mistake had been made, it was one of love for the print and naiveté about the process.

“I would never go out of my way to upset or harm the interests of a collector; I don’t need collectors going around bad-mouthing me.”

After several more conversations with Butler, Surls said he decided to contact the collector directly. “I called the guy and offered to take the issue off the market as a courtesy to him. I made a second edition of the print out of love for the image. I had no commercial thoughts in mind when I did it. Most of the prints were still in my drawer, all except for some proofs, one that was auctioned to raise money for a charity, and a couple that were sold to friends. The rest I was planning to keep for my daughters. I was not out on the market hawking them. But the collector refused my offer. He wanted the whole second edition recalled and destroyed.”

Surls struggled to find a solution that would end the impasse without sacrificing what he considered his rights as an artist.

“I am an artist. I depend on collectors to buy my work, but the artist is the creative force. Collectors need artists to make art, but artists are the drivers of the creative train. Collectors fuel the train.”

Artistic Decisions

Surls said the woodblock of "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" was made during the summer of 1986 at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado.

“I spent a week that was very important to me with Chip Elwell of New York City, one of the best woodblock printers of his time. As the week was coming to an end, we still didn’t have anything we really liked. We decided I’d cut another block. It took me most of a day, but the result was "Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes." Chip printed it on Okawara paper by hand-rubbing it with a bamboo spoon.
“We hung the test print on a wall to look at it. Usually when you hang a test print, you look at it and criticize each little detail that’s not exactly right. You make decisions about what you’re going to do to make it better. In this case we were elated with what we had and decided to make no changes. We took it down and both of us left Anderson Ranch the next day.”

Surls said Elwell took the woodblock and the unsigned test print back to New York City with the intent to print an edition, but the print was never made.

“Chip died unexpectedly within a week or ten days of returning to New York City,” Surls said. “I got a call from his sister. She said I should come and get the block right away, and that’s what I did.”

Later in the same year, Surls took the block to the Houston Fine Arts Press in Houston where 20 prints plus proofs were made. The sale of the edition was undertaken by Butler, and it was sold out within a year at $1,000 per print. Fifty percent of the price went to the artist. “And I was happy to get it,” Surls said, “Back then a thousand dollars was a thousand dollars.”

Thirteen years later, in the summer of 1999, Surls returned to the Houston Fine Arts Press on other business. “While I was there, someone reminded me that my block was there and asked me if I wanted it. I loaded it in my truck and took it to Austin where I was planning to meet with Katherine Brimberry of the Flatbed Press. I had not struck the plate to guarantee that another edition would never be printed.”

Surls said he really liked the block and asked Brimberry if a second edition of the print could be made simply because he liked it.

“She said Flatbed had never done a second edition, but if they did it, it would have to be clearly marked as such. It could not be an extension of the first edition. Each print would have to bear the Roman numeral II which would clearly mark it as a second-edition, as a second state of the print.”

Each of the 15 second-edition prints and printers and artist’s proofs were made on Arches “cover buff” paper using Daniel Smith Permanent Red Relief ink, according to the print’s documentation.

“We used a different paper, a different ink and a different printing pressure,” Surls said. “We all thought this was sufficient to distinguish the print from the first edition.”

After the print edition was completed, Flatbed printer Patrick Masterson personally delivered the prints to Surls in Colorado where they were signed and deposited into Surls’ massive print cabinet. There they remained, except for private viewing, until Roglán’s visit in connection with the Meadows show.

Shaken by developments and the collector’s refusal of his offer to simply hold the second edition off the market, Surls said he began investigating his situation. He called lawyers, print makers, fellow artists, galleries.

“I decided I had done nothing wrong,” he said.

Others tend to agree. Bud Shark of Shark’s Ink in Lyons, Colorado, said the main difference between the second-edition print in question and others was the amount of time that had passed between the time the first and second editions were made. “Second editions are made all the time,” he said. “Usually it’s when an artist likes the print, experiments with it and decides to produce it in a second state. It might be on another paper or in another color. It’s usually done at the time of the first print.

“In this case the difference was a separation in time and in the materials used, and in the documentation since it wasn’t made at the same time.”

On the other hand, Shark said, collectors usually take the words “limited edition” to mean a limited number of prints will be made and a block struck.

Mark L. Smith of Flatbed Press said, “We didn’t publish the print. James was the publisher, but we did what we felt we needed to do to do it right. As a favor to James, we clearly documented the print run and recorded it as a second publication. Each print was marked with the Roman numeral II. It certainly does not look the same as the first edition print. The color is very saturated and the coverage was very good. If he’d done this at the same time (as the first edition), there wouldn’t be any question at all, or we’d have the same question.

“Still, I’m not sure Flatbed would ever consider doing anything like this again.”

Enter David Bradshaw

Responding to the controversy, Surls said, “There was no attempt or intent here to deceive anybody. The print was clearly marked as a second edition. I recognize there are print purists who say second editions should never be made. I understood where this collector was coming from. The collector is trying to protect the value of his investment and he thinks the second edition will devalue his print. I disagree with his approach to the problem, but I respect what he’s saying.

“I told my dealer, “My god, he just wants me to shoot the damned thing!” He wants me to destroy them. That’s when the idea of shooting the prints and getting David Bradshaw to do it came to mind. The idea to shoot them was a creative decision.”

The collector has refused to comment publicly on the issue, but Surls said his conversations with the collector led him to believe that transforming or destroying the second-edition by shooting the entire edition and striking the block would be sufficient to satisfy the collector’s concerns. Surls then began planning the August 9 event in Splendora.

“Texas was the only reasonable place to do this given our state’s reputation for solving problems by executing living things.”

Butler did not wish to comment at length on the controversy, but wrote in an e-mail, “ 'Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes' is among the best prints made in the eighties. James Surls has told me he is taking the block and impressions and firing a bullet through them to create a conceptual piece…it is brilliant.”

As he prepared to “execute” "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes," Bradshaw, 58, of Cecilia, Louisiana, who has long used dynamite, C-4 plastic explosives and firearms in his own work, and in collaborations with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and William Burroughs, said, “I disagree with James somewhat on the stand-alone veracity of this print. There was nothing wrong with it. During a print run with Robert Rauschenberg in Captiva (Florida) in 1971, we made an edition of 29 and 20. One was green, one was brown.”

Bradshaw said he knew of an edition of lithographs that were sold as an edition despite the print block cracking while the first print in the run was made. “The crack got a little wider with every print, but Robert said to keep on printing. The edition ended up being, in effect, a set of monoprints,” he said, implying that "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes" might be considered in the same way because of the way he expected his bullets to affect the prints.

On the morning of August 9, while Bradshaw, in his role as ballistics expert and national-champion pistol marksman, carefully experimented with different bullets and firing-powder loads, Surls and Smith meticulously collated the entire edition of "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes", including all the numbered prints. They stacked the prints face down on the woodblock used to make them just as they were printed. The duo, with the assistance of friends, neighbors and colleagues, created a kind of press to hold the block and prints to keep them from moving when being shot. The second edition was then escorted without ceremony, but in the manner of a condemned prisoner, to the rear of Surls’ long-time studio where they were shot by Bradshaw, who used dots carefully placed on the prints by Surls as aiming points.

Bradshaw said, “James wanted this done by someone with a certain amount of dignity. Someone couldn’t just pick up a gun and do this. Many people view pistols and firearms as tools of violence, and they can be. But I view them as tools that involve control.”

In addition to carefully controlling the speed and mushrooming of the bullets used as they punched through the prints and block, precision was desired in the execution of "II Cut Hand/Hurt Eyes." Bradshaw said that’s why he used a “Les Baur Model 1911 .45 caliber ACP originally designed by John M. Browning. “I can put a group (of shots) into the area the size of a coffee cup at a hundred yards with this pistol.”

But Bradshaw, who sometimes makes sculptures by blasting large sheets of metal with explosives said, “You can overdo this. If you look for too much precision in art, you do it at the expense of spontaneity.”


After the execution, the transformed prints and block were returned the studio where they were carefully parted, signed by the now co-artist Bradshaw, and returned to their owners. The block, along with Surls’ copies of the prints, were loaded into a pickup for their return to Surls’ print cabinet in Colorado.

Outside the studio, people dug in the dirt and leaves behind the execution ground to retrieve the bullets that had shattered the block. Several left with mushroomed, full-metal-jacketed souvenirs that had been designed by Bradshaw to fall harmlessly to the forest floor.

“I was totally satisfied with the whole event,” Surls said, “I got out of it exactly what I wanted.”

Jack Massing of the Art Guys of Houston, who with his partner Michael Galbreth videotaped the event, said, “James built this into something special. It was nice the way he allowed the public to participate in this moment of creativity. “Usually people don’t get to be a part of art until the creativity ends.”

“As far as I know this is the first time an edition of prints has been shot and a plate struck by shooting through the prints and striking the plate,” Surls said.

Sinclair Hitchings, keeper of prints at the Boston Public Library’s print department said, “Prints are multiples. The whole object of making prints is the prints. But the wood print lends itself to confusion. I’m sorry the prints were shot; there was no reason to do it.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing before,” he said in reference to the way the block was struck.

“This will certainly make it a limited edition,” said master printer Sheila Marbain of New York.

Masterson of Flatbed Press, who now resides in Houston and who owned a printer’s proof that was shot by Bradshaw, said, “Considering the controversy, this was a perfect response to the situation. Prints are very precious. For James to be willing to shoot this thing is very special; it’s what printmaking is all about.” (end)

For more information about Bradshaw, search "David Bradshaw" on Google or your favorite Internet search engine.