A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. Marcus Garvey
Maybe its true what they say about nostalgia, that its just a subtle form of advice. Maybe all of us cast glances over our shoulders as we age, straining our eyes in the dimming of day to see a time when we couldnt even imagine the sun setting.
The older we get, it seems more and more instinctual, the need to convey to younger generations that email didnt exist when we were in high school, that we didnt get our first cell phone till 2002, that the corner CVS hasnt always been there. After all, what are we but collected heaps of knowledge and experiences that have been piling up since we walked out of the caves? Arent we all standing on somebody elses shoulders?
Its hard to think that way right now in Oklahoma City. The word renaissance seems to be on everybodys lips, and for good reason. The Paseo and Plaza districts hum and throb with the joyful intensity of a city twice as large. Midtown, already to the point of saturation at ground level, now seems to be reaching for the sky. Public art projects are being awarded with the same regularity as parking tickets.
But for those of us swimming in this towns surging current of creativity right now, its all too easy to imagine that were the ones who made it rain. What about the people who were here when the local arts scene more closely resembled a dry lake?
Man, back in the late 60s, early 70s, there was literally absolutely nothing for us here, said Paul Medina, a 64-year-old artist and author who has been in the local arts scene for decades.
This state and this city have always had very, very talented artists, but there was almost nowhere for us to show our work, almost nowhere to promote it, and nobody to buy it. It felt like we were on an island, a barren one.
Stephen Kovash agreed. Kovash, a 57-year-old artist, gallery operator and curator, was born into the arts scene here, as he puts it, accompanying family members to the few galleries scattered around the metro when he was as young as 6. And although he said the late 60s in and around OKC saw a surge of creativity, by the next decade, it had dried up.
There was a scene in the late 1960s that although it wasnt as widespread or big, obviously rivaled whats going on today as far as quality, Kovash said. I can remember in 68, 69, some kids at OU art school were doing some really challenging stuff. I can remember thinking, even back then, Man, this is as good as any shit coming out of New York City right now.
Kovash mentioned a place called Contemporary Arts Foundation (CAF) and Medinas face lit up like a pinball machine. They both agreed that CAF was the hub around which the tiny OKC arts universe would spin.
It was like IAO before there was IAO, Kovash said. They were into poetry, video, music, art shows. It was pretty much the only place there was back then that was reminiscent of what were doing now.
Medina had more to say.
It really was the only alternative art space The CAF was the place to go when you wanted to see who was out there, what was going on with young artists. But other than that, there was nothing going on that was pushing anything. There was an interior decorator who did art shows at his antique store, and I remember trying to get on his radar just so I could have someplace to show, Medina said. Imogene Mugg had a sale gallery at the fairgrounds art museum, and there were a couple of commercial artists with galleries on the Paseo, but those werent places we could show.
Medina said he and other working artists would take any gig they could scratch up.
The three or four spaces in the entire metro that showed art were scattered from 36th Street and Western Avenue to Will Rogers Park, so part of an artists creative energy not only had to be put into the work but in finding a place to show it.
Festivals, street carnivals, even costume parties anywhere a group of artists could come together, that became the hot spot in town that weekend, a tight, fiercely determined core of a scene that has lasted to this day. Both Kovash and Medina drop names that still echo through the streets of the Paseo and carry weight with Plaza gallery owners: DJ Lafarge, Michi Susan, George Oswald, Ray Baldridge, Tom Lee, John Belt.
They talk about old haunts that no longer exist, about the Paseo Plunge and Medinas Cafe (a Paseo coffeehouse Medina used to own), about The Bowery and the Psycha-Deli.
As they reminisce, their voices swell. Their eyes lighten and their mouths loosen. They laugh more, interrupt and interject, piling their stories on top of each others as if they were running out of time to tell them. Its like watching your dad talk to your favorite uncle about his bachelor party.
I used to swim at the Paseo Plunge in the early 70s, Medina said, laughing. That corner honestly did become the Haight-Ashbury of Oklahoma City. There were clubs, studios, head shops. There were no galleries there then, but that was still the center of the local counterculture. We had a blast.
When asked if they knew they were laying a foundation for the artistic revival thats going on today, Kovash said it didnt cross their minds.
There was nobody doing anything with mind to the future, Kovash said. We were just scratching out a place for ourselves. It was just an organic thing. We were all young artists in a city that wasnt really conducive to what we were into, and we found each other.
Medina said they found each other by choice.
Back then, we didnt have a lot of options, he said. We sought out the shows, sought out the parties, sought out this group of people.
Finding each other meant sharpening each other. Both men admitted that most artists (up until the mid-90s, at least) began their careers, if they had one, by showing out of state. If a local artist could attain some kind of success locally, it became an obstacle to overcome and an aspiration. The slowly rising tide might not have lifted all the boats, but it did set a new standard for what could be accomplished in this town.
At that time, Santa Fe was becoming the mecca for Southwest art, which is what I was doing at the time, Medina said. I got into my first out-of-state gallery there, and I remember thinking, Im going to have to do this to make a living. And even then, I had people telling me I was selling out for leaving town. But I figured, hey, I gotta go to where there are things going on.
Kovash added that even going to art shows was different.
There was no social media back then, Kovash said. There was nobody trying to prove how cool they were by going to this show, going to this party. Its kind of a velvet rope mentality now, I think. But it was all word-of-mouth, all DIY back then, and Im proud of that. It feels good that we might have set an example for whats going on now. I want people to look at me and say, If this dipshit can do it, why cant I?
Medina smiled again.
Hes right, he said. There wasnt a scene before, so we fucking made one.
It bears mentioning, however, that these arent grumpy old men pining for days they believed to be better. They arent bitter. Rather, they both seem to take a sense of pride in the idea that the beauty and vibrance so abundant now was nurtured in its infancy by a group of people committed to art as a lifestyle.
Kovash said hes happy with the decision to stay in his home base because he believes its a place where he can affect the most positive change, kind of a fertile breeding ground for artistic revolution in an already growing scene. Medina, although he admits he sometimes questions his relevance (something he also admits any good artist should do), said its a joy to see what their city has become.
I think its wonderful, he said as he looked wistfully over the Plaza District streets that were just starting to come alive in the days fading light. At the end of the day, nobodys taking credit for this. We might have played a part in creating it, but we were just links in a chain.
Print headline: Historic beginnings, Two Oklahoma artists reflect on the birth of Oklahoma Citys thriving art scene.