One hundred years ago, Oklahoma sculptor Willard Stone was born February 29, 1916 — a Leap Day birthday. To mark the occasion, Gilcrease Museum presents Following the Grain: A Centennial Celebration of Willard Stone. This exhibition highlights Stone’s unique artwork and the legacy of his collaborations with the museum.
In 1945, recognizing the sculptor’s potential, Thomas Gilcrease offered Stone a position as the first artist-in-residence for the Gilcrease Foundation. A three-year appointment with a stipend, the residency provided Stone with the opportunity to concentrate on his art without the worries of supporting his growing family. They sealed the agreement with a customary handshake, beginning a mutually beneficial arrangement: All the art that Stone created during his residency would belong to the museum, and he was able to earn a steady income to care for his loved ones. With the freedom to create, Stone developed a distinct streamlined style of woodcarving influenced by modern Art Deco design and his own Oklahoma heritage.
Stone would later reflect: “Tom Gilcrease gave me the chance to find out what I could do with wood and clay and to develop a style of my own. I would not have been recognized had it not been for him because he gave me the courage to try.” Stone credited Thomas Gilcrease as the single greatest influence on his artwork. Given his impact on Stone’s art career, the museum that Gilcrease established is the perfect venue to celebrate Stone’s remarkable sculptures.
Following the Grain: A Centennial Celebration of Willard Stone features more than 30 woodcarvings as well as several drawings, photographs and correspondence between Gilcrease and Stone. Works in the exhibition represent several themes in Stone’s art, including depictions of the natural world, Native American figures and carvings that speak to world events and politics of the 1940s. By highlighting the unique forms of Stone’s work, Following the Grain: A Centennial Celebration of Willard Stone reveals how this singular Oklahoma sculptor transformed “whittling” into exquisite artwork.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.
Whether you go or not, Willard Stone, presents the life and work of woodcarver Willard Stone. As a boy growing up in eastern Oklahoma, Willard Stone spent much of his free time drawing. Admiring the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, he dreamed of becoming a painter. When he was thirteen, a dynamite cap he was holding exploded and he lost segments of two fingers and the thumb of his right hand. Deeply affected, he withdrew, thinking he would never become the artist he hoped to be.
But Stone’s deep desire to create motivated him to rise above his disability. He began shaping little animal figures using the wet clay from the ditches near his home. Eventually he discovered that the medium of wood appealed to him more, and he adapted carving tools to fit his injured hand. He was transformed by his love of wood and his desire to shape it.
Four authors, including staff of the Gilcrease Museum and one of Stone’s grandsons, provide insight into the artist’s biography, his carving techniques, his sources of inspiration, and his legacy as an Oklahoma artist. These essays and more than 200 full-color and black-and-white photographs of Stone’s pieces follow the grain of a human life, visible in sublimely carved wood. Stone’s sculptures exhibit his love of nature, representing fertility, birth, regeneration, and the seasons while reflecting his deep understanding of the balance of nature. His masterful use of the wood grain, an integral element in his carvings, demonstrates his thoughtfulness in the planning stages of the artistic process. Referring to himself as a “folklorist in wood,” Stone carved his philosophy of life into his works, creating stories that glowed with universal truths and resonated with his own personality. In addition to his ability to create beautiful forms, it is his gift of storytelling that lends the carvings of Willard Stone their profound mark of distinction.