Legends: Jay O'Meilia
Teacher, sculptor, painter and printmaker
Jay O’Meilia, 92, inside his midtown studio surrounded by past works, references and current projects.
If you ask Tulsa’s Jay O’Meilia when he first became interested in art, he will tell you grade school.
As a young boy, two teachers recognized his gift and love for drawing and painting and encouraged him to pursue his passion. He took art lessons twice a week and often carried a sketchpad. During and after his service in the U.S. Navy, he attended two prestigious art schools in New York City and Chicago.
He later returned to New York, where he worked part time at an advertising agency. When the demanding world of assignments and deadlines became too much, a former mentor told O’Meilia to go back to Tulsa and pioneer the city’s arts scene. He heeded the advice and taught art classes in his hometown at iconic locations such as Philbrook Museum.
When students and other members of the community began commissioning paintings, he learned how to maximize his value as a professional. He and his late wife, Jody, raised five children, and through the years O’Meilia established himself as a highly regarded painter and sculptor.
An athlete all of his life and fascinated by Oklahoma’s booming oil industry, his artwork specialties are sports and images of the oil patch. Today, he’s known internationally for his craft and has been inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. A few years ago, his son Matt authored the book “Father Figure: The Life and Work of Jay O’Meilia.” All of his children reside near him in the Tulsa area.
Where did you go to school/university? Why?
I went to Marquette Catholic School until the seventh grade and then to Wilson Junior High. There were two sisters at Marquette who were superb art teachers. They had trained at one of the top professional schools in New York. I attended high school at Tulsa Central.
Afterward, I went into the Navy, got top-secret classification and was in what they called the frozen reserve. I was only 17 ½ when I went into the Navy and got permission from my dad to enlist. I served at the tail end of World War II, and 10 days after the Korean War started I got a phone call and went back for 21 months. I was assigned to the Navy Art Department at 63rd and Broadway in New York City. While in the Navy, I went to school five nights a week, three hours a night at the Art Students League, which is like the Julliard of the visual arts. After I got out of the Navy, I had an opportunity to study at a top art school in Chicago for a year and a half.
You’re a painter, sculptor and printmaker. Do you have a favorite of the three?
Not really. They’re all so interesting in their own right. With painting, you’re working on a two-dimensional surface, creating a third dimension. In sculpture, you’re actually making three dimensions. Being the father of five, I looked for every avenue of income.
What was one of your most defining moments in life?
When I became fascinated with the challenge of sculpture in 1969. This buddy of mine who does sculpture got me into it, and the rest is history. I got commissions, and from then on I balanced painting and sculpture. Critics would say I couldn’t do both. It just takes guts to attempt a medium that is really sort of foreign to you.
What age do you feel right now and why?
I can still do 40 pushups, how about that? I’ve played tennis for 81 years. I play twice a week. I turned 92 in July. I’ve had few injuries in my life. I’m one of the founders of the Philcrest Hills Tennis Club. It’s fun. It’s a physical chess game.
How would your friends describe you?
They’re fascinated by what I do and that I can make a living at it. They call me an artist. I say I’m not an artist. I’m a professional sculptor, painter and printmaker. This is what I do. I was loaned a gift through my mother and Uncle Woody. (His mom was an artist as was his uncle, who influenced and encouraged him.) Why I am so fortunate, who knows? But I’ve accepted it and tried to pass it on and reward the Lord by doing the best I can.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’m very transparent. I don’t look like what they think an artist should look like. I don’t have a beard or ponytail. I don’t drink much. When I dress, you can’t tell if I’m a lawyer or a doctor or judge or anybody else. I make a point to not look like what they think an artist should look like. I don’t want to be labeled any way other than a professional.
If you could witness any event of the past, present or future, what would it be?
Every day is a challenge. I really don’t have a long goal because I’ve been doing this so long that this is what I do for a living. I am so fortunate to be loaned a gift to do this — making a living, raising a family and enjoying good health, which I work at pretty hard. I remember working for my Central High track coach at Camp Kanakuk down in Branson when it first opened. As a junior counselor, every morning I had to swim Lake Taneycomo because I was a lifeguard. Then, I would run 3 miles and do 100 or 120 pushups. Our coach would say, “Men, what you did today, do it the rest of your life.” It was like a branding iron right across my forehead. He taught us about food, exercising and things of this nature, and I’ll never forget it. I’ve always been involved in athletics, and my dad taught all of his sons to box. When I lived in New York, I’d run through Manhattan.
What was a “worst time” and how did you pull through it?
When my wife was passing away. I relied on religion. I’m a devout Catholic for many reasons. I was raised that way and it was a godsend for me in the service and life. My wife was a big supporter and influence on me. We started the first grade together, and we were married six months shy of 50 years. She was my buddy. She was a banker’s daughter, so she took care of me and kept my checkbook balanced. She was a great secretary and could write the most beautiful letters for me. She was a great mother and passed away in January 2001 at the age of 72. We had a great life. I was damn lucky.
What concerns you today?
I’m a constitutional conservative. We have a great guy in the White House. He’s a brash Ronald Reagan. We had a socialist in before him. The Democratic Party is run by progressives. My concern is that the left, the Democrats, are fighting for power. Years ago, I remember when Reagan was president and he would disagree with Democrats during the day in Congress or in the Senate, but at night they’d all go out and have a cocktail together. They never let politics affect their friendship. Today, you know what’s going on. Thank the world that Trump got in office because he is a true lover of the United States and a patriot. He’s a negotiator.
How do you measure success?
If you look in your mirror and say, “Hey, guy, you know you screwed up the other day, but you’re doing the best you can.” How else can I gauge it other than I’m using all of my resources to do and perfect something? Sometimes I win; sometimes I lose. When I lose, I don’t get down. I get mad and I get determined. I don’t understand defeat because if there’s a will, there’s a way, in my mind. I had to work very hard in business and society, where you’re not too well accepted in your field as an artist.
What is a favorite Tulsa memory?
That’s a tough one because I’ve got so many. I love Tulsa. I love the people. Good things come from Tulsa. I didn’t realize how special Tulsa was until I got older. I’ve lived in New York, and I’ve lived in Chicago. I’ve lived on the West Coast. I’ve served in the Navy twice but Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a really unique place with unique people. That’s what makes Tulsa is the people.
Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa or elsewhere.
I’m in my office most of the time. I never thought of my weekends as unique. I do the same thing every day. I’m having too damn much fun. Saturday is no different than Monday. I don’t look toward the weekend like a lot of people. I’m working because I have deadlines.
Are you still working seven days a week?
Yes, it’s a happy addiction. I’m a lucky son of a gun. I usually have about three projects going at once. I can juggle a lot of things. I always knew what it took to be in my field and do what I had to do to support a family and make a living. How lucky can I be? People would be jealous of me and say, “That damn O’Meilia, he’s having fun and he’s getting paid for it!”
What place in Tulsa do you miss the most?
Louisiane was downtown on 18th Street. It was the first really good seafood restaurant. We used to go there every Friday night. My dad knew the guy who ran it. That was a treat to get to go out to dinner.
What have been the most significant changes you’ve experienced in Tulsa?
I can remember Tulsa when it was a smaller town. I’m just totally amazed at how it has developed. The city fathers like the Mabees, Kaisers, Warrens and LaFortunes have turned this city into a giving city. It’s a unique place with Gilcrease Museum, other museums, the opera and ballet. In a place like this, they’re all recognized, not just regionally, but nationally.
Of all the sculptures and paintings you’ve done that have stayed here in Tulsa, is there one that is most important to you?
It’s always the next one that’s most important.