My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What a fascinating read. I knew a very little of this story, being a native Oklahoman, but none of the details.
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Last night I was reading an e-mail from a friend in Norman, Oklahoma and it mentioned friends of hers who had died this year. I had missed in the news in October that Harold Stevenson had died.
Harold was a prominent artist who never quite reached the fame and popularity of his contemporaries. You can read an excellent obituary here that gives you some of his history, which includes working with Andy Warhol and having one of his paintings exhibited on the Eiffel Tower (it was taken down when it caused a giant traffic jam).
Harold's masterpiece was The New Adam, the most monumental male nude ever painted by an American artists (the actor Sal Mineo was the model). The paintings is forty feet long and was intended to be displayed wrapped around three walls of a gallery. It was to appear in a show at the Guggenheim in 1962, a show that made names such as Robert Rauschenberg famous, but the painting was rejected at the last minute. The Guggenheim finally purchased the work in the early Aughts, though it hasn't been on display in a while. In 2005 a detail from the painting was selected for the cover of the book Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art. I reviewed that book here.
So, how did I know this prominent gay painter?
He was from Idabel, Oklahoma, a small town in the pine woods of southeastern Oklahoma where he returned in his final years and he was friends with people I knew in Oklahoma City. It was my privilege to hang out with Harold on a few occasions. A few times he attended the church I pastored in Oklahoma City, including once being there for the annual pet blessing. He gave me a signed print.
Harold was a delightful person, funny and smart, and full of great stories of some of the most significant characters in twentieth century American cultural life.
Harold's other masterwork is less well known, though it has been exhibited in Paris. This work is entitled The Great Society, and now belongs to the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus, though it is also currently in storage.
The Great Society is 100 larger than life size portraits of the citizens of Idabel, Oklahoma painted by Harold in 1966. In 2006 the paintings were exhibited in Norman, Oklahoma and I reviewed the opening for Hard News Online (which no longer exists, though you can read the opening paragraphs of the review here). That night Michael and I were fortunate to be part of a small group that went to dinner with Harold after the premiere, where we peppered him with questions. That night, in answer to one of my questions about the paintings, Harold responded, "You must understand, Reverend Doctor, that each one was spontaneous; after the session, I never touched them again."
I hadn't seen or talked with Harold for some time, one of the losses of moving to Nebraska, but I was sad last night to learn of his death in October. He was a fascinating figure--this great erotic gay artist from rural Oklahoma who returned there and in one of his greatest works elevated its ordinary citizens into the world of fine art.
Back in February the Queer Omaha Archives Oral History Project housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries' Archives and Special Collections interviewed me. The interview is available online here.
Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America by Carol A. Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I met Carol when she was teaching at OSU and I was living in Oklahoma City. She was presenting on the connections between anti-Semitic discourse and the anti-abortion movement, which figured into her previous book. Later she invited me to participate as a presenter at a conference at OSU on reproductive justice along with a number of significant figures in the movement. It was an honor to participate, especially the after hours discussions over cocktails in her home.
This book is about the attempt by religious and economic conservatives to "unqueer" America, focusing specifically upon Oklahoma. She begins in the present and works backwards, with state representative Sally Kern up first. Of course, I dealt with Kern in my years in Oklahoma City, including our appearance together on Flashpoint, a televised debate show. Plus, I have a published academic article on her famous "gays are a bigger threat to America than Islamic terrorists" speech. So, the chapter on Kern was very personal for me.
The entire book resonated with my own personal story, and I think contributes some of the historical background and academic analysis for understanding my still unpublished memoir.
After Kern comes Anita Bryant, a chapter which also includes the ways Green Grows the Lilacs was unqueered in the making of the musical Oklahoma! This is also a chapter about the rise of the New Right.
Next is a discussion of Billy James Hargis and his evangelical empire built first on anti-communism and later on opposition to the sexual revolution and how Hargis himself was exposed as a sexual hypocrite. The white supremacist connections of the anti-gay movement are revealed in this chapter.
That's followed by a discussion of Bruce Goff, the great architect who was ousted from his position at OU as part of the anti-gay red-baiting of the McCarthy era. But Goff himself stands for a level of acceptance of the queer in the rural heartland before McCarthyism. Though Mason doesn't draw on it, I once heard a historian speak to how Oklahoma had been far more gay tolerant from the 1890's to the 1940's largely because of its frontier status, oil boomtowns, and military encampments.
The final chapter is about how Wal-Mart (founded by Oklahoma native Sam Walton) created a global retail version of homogenized rural family values which unqueers the real stories of the heartland. Particularly in Oklahoma where Native American narratives were also erased.
A cursory reading of Oklahoma history introduces you to a wild and eccentric group of characters. And much of the early twentieth century is filled with progressives. My own essay, "Capitol Ironies", develops that theme.
Sadly the current image of my home state is a very homogeneous, white, Republican, evangelical fundamentalism that betrays our heritage.
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In 2007 as Oklahoma celebrated the centennial of statehood, I decided to immerse myself a little more in Oklahoma itself, reading its history and visiting places I'd only heard of. The highlight of this endeavor was a November trip in Western Oklahoma. Having grown up in Eastern Oklahoma, there was much of the western part of the state that I had never seen. So, I packed up may car, took along a handful of books on Oklahoma history, and spent almost a week visiting places like Quartz Mountain, the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Antelope Hills, Boiling Springs, Alabaster Caverns, Little Sahara, and the Gloss Mountains.
Also that autumn, our congregation was visited by Susanna Labsch on an ecumenical visit from the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany. Over dinner at Iron Star Urban Barbeque, we were discussing Oklahoma history and how the stories were biblically resonant when she mentioned that it was filled with suffering and displaced persons. I found these intriguing theological concepts.
That conversation, combined with my fascination of the bison skull with the red lightning bolt discovered at the Cooper Site and on display at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History (something I've spoken, preached, blogged, and written about numerous times), fired my imagination to compose an "Oklahoma Theology." An idea that expanded, once I moved to Nebraska, to write a "Theology of the Great Plains." This remains an idea in the works and maybe a liftetime project, though I do continue to work on it in a more informal sense, mostly in themes developed in my preaching.
While in Oklahoma, I began to enjoy spending my days off hiking and visiting places--Fort Reno, Roman Nose, the Great Salt Plains, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, etc. And, fortunately for me, Michael was also into inexpensive little trips in the area and excursions to quirky sites and fun diners. Memorable was our night in the Price Tower during a thunderstorm. Or the St. Valentine's Day weekend spent at Quartz Mountain.
When we first arrived in Omaha, we made a plan to see sites in the area every other weekend. That didn't last once we got to know more people and got busy with other things, but we've continued to enjoy the excursion here and there (and have made plans to renew this idea this year). We've enjoyed eating at the Black Crow in Beatrice, admiring the State Capitol, and visiting the Antiquarium in Brownville. We also get into Iowa some, where we've enjoyed weekends at Lake Okoboji, shopping for antiques in Walnut, driving through the Loess Hills, and I even went fossil hunting in the Nishnabotna.
Our first day in town, we went to Barnes and Noble and I bought travel guides and books on Nebraska history. I've also immersed myself in the rich literary tradition of the state--Cather, Neihardt, Sandoz, Aldrich, Kooser, etc.
So, one theme of my Thirties has been the development of a richer sense of place.
The Freedom to Marry posted an article on-line about 13 Oklahoma Same-Sex Couples. These couples come from different parts of the state, are all ages and kinds, and represent the wide range of issues involved in the struggle for marriage equality.
So, it appears that the GOP primary race for Tom Coburn's seat is now set. And no Democrat has yet announced.
What surprises me is the list of who are not in this race. Oklahoma has prominent leaders and politicians who are taking a pass.
On the GOP side there is the former Governor Frank Keating who was once on the short-list for Vice President. And there are former Congressmen such as J. C. Watts, Steve Largent, and Mickey Edwards who held more prominent state and national profiles. Even Earnest Istook, whose electoral success I never understood, would make some sense. And of the sitting Congressmen, Tom Cole would be the more obvious choice, and was the name floated when Coburn first announced.
The obvious Democrat candidate is popular former Governor Brad Henry. That he is sitting out the race is quite the sign of the times. I was never a fan of former Congressman Dan Boren, but there is a time when someone with his record would have been a potential candidate. I've always said that in the Oklahoma I grew up, Robert Henry would be a long-serving Senator (one can dream). There are so many skilled Oklahoma politicians who have no current hopes of moving up the ladder of public service, though they would have once -- Susan Savage, Drew Edmondson, Kathy Taylor, Jim Roth -- not that all of them would be potential Senate candidates of course.
Normally these are the sorts of folk who would run. That they aren't is a sign of how very different politics in Oklahoma now is from what it was in living memory.