In the Summer of 1976, my father took a church in West Texas. The tumbleweeds and Mexicans were glad to see us coming. The parsonage was white with red shutters and every day, I played in the fat junipers in the park across the street. I crawled inside them and nestled myself among the splintery branches where I made up stories and dreamed.
West Texas was a happy place. But, before our olfactory systems were deadened to the smell of sour crude, we bid farewell.
My father packed up our stuff and moved us to Fort Smith. He didn’t plan on becoming homeless, but that’s what happened. Lying on a cot inside the Salvation Army, I was so glad for one night of refuge from the noise and heat. My toys packed away, I spent the summer of 1978 entertaining myself with stories I wrote inside my head.
Writing saved me and it is this art form that has helped me make sense of my life.
I lived in 15 different houses, ten different towns and five different states between the ages of 6 and 17. Public places brought order to my glorious, frenzied childhood. Daily trips to the post office reminded me that life could be arranged in logical fashion. Every box had a number, every town, a zip code.
At the city pool, nobody knows you are poor or homeless. At the city park, the shade is free.
I especially loved public monuments that were central to busy American intersections and town squares. I remember the bronze statue of General William Jackson Palmer who founded Colorado Springs one of the places I lived as a kid. It taught me to pay tribute to our leaders; to honor the past. General Palmer was an anchor and I wanted him to be important to me.
All these experiences helped shape my democratic ideal of community sustained by public places. These social spaces are accessible to everyone. They’re our roads, bridges and sidewalks. Our parks, shorelines and government buildings.
In 2004, the Oklahoma Legislature passed the Art in Public Places program. It requires one and a half percent of the cost of construction on new state buildings be spent on artwork. Projects can’t exceed $500,000.
You’ve probably seen evidence of the program. It’s that Osage Seal on the Bridge over the Turner Turnpike and the buffalo charging down the retaining wall on the Centennial Expressway. It’s the painting of five notable African Americans inside the Oklahoma Judicial Center. It bears witness to a remarkable journey of overcoming the Tulsa Race Riots, segregation and income inequality.
These are just a few of the more than three dozen statewide projects made possible through the Art in Public Places program. In 2010, state lawmakers suspended the program for three years.
That moratorium expires next year, but, already House Bill 1430 threatens to extend it for another three years. They’ll basically kill it off if we can’t convince lawmakers to vote it against it. And, we just can’t lose this program. We can’t afford to lose anything that bolsters the cultural infrastructure of this state. Oklahoma can’t afford House Bill 1430.