OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — Even with a full slate of attractions showcasing the performing arts, live music, and the delectable art form of food, the OKC Arts Council’s Festival of the Arts is still primarily about spotlighting the city’s impressive (and lucrative) fine arts community.
As the fine arts and visual arts worlds are largely relegated to quiet galleries and word-of-mouth among fans and patrons, it’s easy for the average Oklahoman to be unaware of the booming viability that our state offers for professional-level painters, photographers, sculptors, and makers of all kinds.
The annual Festival of the Arts is an opportunity to remind the greater public of just how sprawling, varied, and accomplished the local arts scene really is by setting its focus on the cream of well-established and proven artists of the highest caliber.
“It’s a hard festival to get into,” Edmond-based painter Katherine Sanders told me, “but when you get invited, you come.”
‘A spiritual practice‘
This is Sanders’ second year showing and selling her work at the festival after being a last minute addition to last year’s event when another artist wasn’t able to make it.
“Last year, I got invited the night before,” she told me. “This year, I had time to prepare. So that’s awesome.”
Preparation is clearly key among the artists featured at the event. The lengthy roster is not drawn from amateurs or up-and-comers, but from well-practiced full-timers and professionals who have honed their craft, some for decades, and who bring something of a deeper reverence for the time and effort that goes into this level of fine art.
“For me, it’s a spiritual practice,” Sanders said of the inspirations behind her brightly-colored shape works and depictions of animals and flowers, somewhere halfway between light surrealism and pop-abstract. “It’s a lot from my faith or what I’m thinking or even from my dreams, and it just comes out on the canvas. I paint every day.”
‘Make it pop‘
Midwest City-based photographer Kurt McDaniel’s work is immediately striking to passersby, with vivid, intimate portraiture mainly of wildlife. The deep blue-green luminescence of a Luna moth right out front greets visitors to his tent space at the festival.
“I actually print my photographs on canvas and varnish it to kind of make it pop,” he told me. “My original intent was that if I use canvas and varnish, then you won’t have to put it behind glass and you won’t have that glare.”
That intention has paid off. Last year, he was so busy with paying customers and admirers of his work at the festival that he wasn’t able to step away for a break until the late afternoon.
Like all the other artists that I spoke to, this is a full-time, pro-level job for McDaniel, and he’s put a great deal of both time and personal investment (he says that his printer is the size of a piano) into creating a place for himself within Oklahoma’s fine arts world. Though he only started making a real push to pursue this craft full-time a handful of years ago, it was a culmination of a lifetime’s worth of practice and preparation.
“Well, I developed my first roll of film when I was 12,” he said. “By age 25, I had my own color darkroom. But then life got in the way, you know, and I got away from it. I didn’t really get back into it until 2016.”
Much of painter Dean Wilhite’s work is easily recognizable to OKC residents, with his paintings heavily focused on architecture and cultural landmarks all around the city. His hyperrealistic acrylic works, featuring dramatic shadows and shockingly vibrant coloration, aren’t all images from around OKC, but many of the most gripping ones (the neon Cock o’ the Walk sign, the entryway to Stockyards City, the legendary Charcoal Oven Hamburgers sign) are undoubtedly touchstones of the city.
“It’s just memories,” Wilhite said. “I paint memories.”
Though he takes loads of photographs for reference, he says that “photorealism” is never his intention. He prefers to twist the imagery ever so slightly and impart an almost dreamlike, romanticized element to these time-worn structures.
“I try to make them a kind of expressionistic realism,” he told me. “It ends up looking real, but I try to take it to the next place where there’s still brushstrokes and it still looks homemade.”
Wilhite’s attention to painstaking detail, and the amount of time and focus that requires, is on display across the number of his pieces that feature dense, intricate brickwork, an aesthetic staple of so many structures across the state.
“It can take forever, really a long time,” he said, “but I’m not really painting the bricks. I’m painting what the bricks are around. I’m painting shadows. That’s kind of what I’m searching for.”
Talking with Wilhite is a great crash course in the professional art world and how an artist can navigate it and make it financially viable. He says that while he’ll sell plenty of prints of his work throughout the festival, enough to make the week more than worth his while, he never really plans to sell his larger original works at these events.
Instead, he treats the festival as a golden opportunity for meeting and connecting with patrons that will approach him for personal commissions, further expanding that almost underground, word-of mouth world of fine arts in OKC that the Arts Council seeks to pull into the light and grow each year with this festival.
“Even if that hasn’t sold, it’s paid off already,” he said of the gorgeous, lush Charcoal Oven piece. “I got three commissions off of that one just last year.”
For more information on the OKC Festival of the Arts and the many fantastic artists included, visit artscouncilokc.com.
To follow these three artists, and to view more of their remarkable works, they call each be found on Instagram: @katherinesandersart, @kurt.mcdaniel, and @deanwilhite.
Last Updated April 23, 2022, 1:32 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor