6 artists who make Christmas in Tulsa extra festive
Meet the creative minds behind some of your favorite local holiday traditions.
Every December, thousands of Tulsa families celebrate the Christmas season with all sorts of traditions. Some go back decades; others are just getting started.
There’s decorating the tree with ornaments, driving around to look at Christmas lights, shopping at local businesses to buy the perfect accessories to wear to parties. Many people attend Christmas events featuring festive props that create unforgettable photo opportunities.
It takes a lot of creative people to help make those traditions each year. Here are the stories of a few Tulsans who devote hours of hard work to help create Christmas joy for their neighbors, family and friends.
Jacob Williams is under pressure. For the past three years, he has decorated his house with elaborate Christmas lights, props and musical sequences.
Every year he has increased the spectacle, and the crowds have grown with it. The first year it was just lights and no music. The line of cars in front of his home was up to six deep with maybe a limo sprinkled in from time to time. Then word got out.
The Williams house now has thousands of views on YouTube. It has twice been featured on local newscasts. It made the front page of the Tulsa World. There’s a Facebook page with more than 4,000 fans.
Last year, cars were in line for up to an hour and a half to see his 15-minute light show that featured a “Star Wars” segment.
“The pressure is there because throughout the summer people tell me they’re looking forward to it,” Williams says. “People get excited and want to know what I’m adding or what I’ll do different. I don’t want it to get too big or too crazy that it starts becoming a problem for my neighbors. They already call me Griswold.” Online forums, an annual learning expo and a supportive Christmas light community taught Williams the ins and outs of installation and programming.
At less than two months until he’s supposed to have this year’s show plugged in, Williams is now a father of a 1-month-old girl, which has brought his prep work to minimal at best. Williams says he told his wife, Jennifer, he might not do anything this year because he feels guilty spending time testing lights or creating new sequences when he can be changing Cayman’s diaper or rocking her to sleep.
Then he thinks about the families who visit his house. One has made an annual tradition of taking a picture with their child in front of the giant light-up tree. There’s the mom who started crying when she told him she struggled to buy gifts for her six kids, but visiting his house made them so happy, she brought them by multiple times.
It’s stories like those and the fact he now has a daughter of his own to share the experience with that motivate him to have the lights on and music playing by Dec. 1.
“It puts me and others into the Christmas spirit, which I love,” Williams says. “I hand out candy canes to people, and they tell me how they enjoy making memories for their families and want to come back each year. It’s awesome to hear those things and spread some love and joy.”
For years, DiAnn Berry has watched a stream of cars enter and exit her neighbor’s driveway as thousands attend Philbrook Museum of Art’s annual Festival.
Although she too has attended the event throughout the past 28 years, this season she created the popular Festival pin that’s available in the gift shop for $28. Collectors vie for the limited series each year.
She and museum officials call the collaboration serendipitous.
As Philbrook’s bees were making a buzz on social media earlier this year, Berry was experimenting with encaustic art, or hot wax art, which uses beeswax and damar resin to harden the material.
Berry, who has long wanted to create the lapel pin, realized she had a rare opportunity to accomplish her dream.
“I had all this wax available, so I did a few samples and brought them to Susan (Shrewder, the museum shop manager and buyer) who chose the natural color beeswax,” Berry says. “Since this year has been about bees in the garden, they thought it’d be a perfect fit.”
Typically, museum staff does a call for submissions to design the Festival pin, but this year, Shrewder says that did not happen because they loved their neighbor’s creation.
“We did not open it up because we found the perfect pin,” she says. “We really strive to have a lot of different mediums represented within the pin collection. We’ve certainly never had one made of beeswax before. It all just fell together.”
Berry made the pins in her home by melting down 5-pound blocks of wax in a slow cooker, then pouring the wax into a silicone mold. After it hardened, she painted each one and added a hand-formed star and the pin. On average she created 12 a day for a limited series run.
This year’s Festival — formerly known as Festival of Trees — is different than those in the past. It will have thousands of lights, a train for tours and a timed-light show, and Santa Claus will be at the museum’s new log cabin. The event runs select days from Nov. 23-Dec. 31, with limited tickets available for each night. Children 17 and under get in free, but still need to reserve a ticket. Museum officials say limiting the guests per night creates a better experience for everyone. Reserve tickets at philbrook.org/festival.
Berry’s pin will be on display in the gift shop. “I feel so pleased. It’s not fine jewelry, but it has a lot of meaning to me,” she says. “It’s validation, and since I live next door to Philbrook, it’s a lot of fun to know I’m really connected to the museum in a lot of ways. It makes me really happy.”
TulsaPeople.com/podcast: Catch the Dec. 5 episode of TULSA TALKS, a TulsaPeople podcast, featuring Philbrook’s Director and President Scott Stulen discussing all things Festival.
There are many Christmas trees throughout the city decorated with Bobbie Whaling’s work. Since 1987 she has made the annual Tulsa Ornament. This year’s features Daniel Webster High School, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary.
“After I did Will Rogers High School (in 2014) for its 75th anniversary, a man from Webster contacted me and said I should do that one because it’s just as good,” Whaling says. “I agreed and said I’d make one when there was a good time to do it.”
Whaling says she gets requests throughout the year. She has a list of places she wants to do like Cascia Hall and the Mayo Hotel. She hinted Gathering Place could be next year’s ornament, so she will be dreaming up the design for the next six months before drawing it and then cutting out the pieces to assemble it into layers that are comprised of solid brass with a 24-karat gold wash.
The ornaments are available at seven stores across Tulsa and online at tulsaornament.com. Profits go to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, Neighbor for Neighbor and Catholic Charities.
“I’m an old Catholic woman who believes you have the gift of life, so you should give back,” says the former art teacher who retired after 24 years working at the School of Saint Mary. “I like the feeling I’m making a little mark on humanity. It warms my heart to give it all to charity.”
Her work on the ornaments started when she served as an advertising artist for Another Point of View, a local gift shop that closed in 2001. That year, there was no Tulsa Ornament, but her fans demanded she return to creating them on her own. In 2002, Whaling brought the ornament back and created one for 2001’s U.S. Open at Southern Hills to keep the tradition alive.
To date she says her favorite is the inaugural ornament that featured Swan Lake. The design was so popular she brought it back last year to fulfill demand. Another favorite was 1992’s Golden Driller, which kept going through reorders and has sold more than 2,500.
Whaling says she believes she can keep doing annual ornaments for at least the next nine years.
“My eyes are still good, but I sometimes have to use my cheaters,” says the 71-year-old. “I might stop at 80. There are so many beautiful places that are historic, and I want to keep doing them until I can’t anymore.”
This month, visitors to Hard Rock Hotel and Casino have the opportunity to see a gingerbread house unlike any other in the metro area.
The annual event is overseen by Executive Pastry Chef Rebecca Foy, who brought her award-winning skills to the job when she joined the staff nearly three years ago.
“I competed and won in local gingerbread house competitions in Louisiana, but until working at the Hard Rock, I’ve not made anything on such a grand scale,” Foy says.
Once complete, the scene measures 20 feet in diameter. Despite its size, there are only a few building materials used behind the scenes; it’s an edible, genuine holiday confection. Last year’s house was created with 1,440 pounds of gingerbread, 200 pounds of butter, 600 pounds of sugar, 600 pounds of flour, 1,680 eggs and 10 pounds of cinnamon. There also were 200 pounds of powdered sugar and 2,312 pieces of chocolate, peppermint and other candy from top to bottom.
Although no one gets to eat the massive creation, the Hard Rock hosts gingerbread cookie parties for visitors to enjoy from 4-8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays in December.
Each year, Foy and her staff come up with a fresh design early in the year and begin planning how to build it. In 2017, it was a giant castle guarded by nutcrackers with a dragon on top. This year’s theme? “Hard Rock Home for the Holidays.”
Foy says she feels the pressure each year to come up with something bigger and better than the previous year. “It’s discussed all year long,” Foy says. “It’s always in the back of my mind. The staff and I are usually talking about it, making notes and throwing out ideas.”
Once the design is finalized, it takes up to 20 staff members to start the massive undertaking. It’s a slow and tedious process that takes months to construct. Last year, it took more than 150 hours to complete the project. When they’re not cooking sweet treats for the resort’s numerous restaurants and private events, they work on the project when they can.
“It’s all about scale, figuring out what pieces need to be made and how to get them produced with our equipment,” Foy says. “Initially, we just break things down into smaller sections and work on those sections individually. Then, with a lot of teamwork, it all comes together.”
The gingerbread house is just part of Hard Rock’s decorations for the holiday season. There also are a 24-foot Christmas tree in the grand lobby and more than a dozen smaller trees decorated throughout the casino.
“My staff and I really appreciate the support from everyone,” Foy says. “We all love working on this project. It really helps get us in the spirit of the holidays.”
Among the many longstanding holiday traditions are business windows painted to display a cheery message of the Christmas season. Since 1990, Denise Denison Smallwood of Holidayz Distinctive Designs has been a highly sought-after painter in Tulsa.
Every year she begins work on Nov. 1, painting two to three locations a day. One month and more than 50 businesses later, she’s finished for the season. Among her longtime clients are Albert G’s, Kilkenny’s, Caz’s, Los Cabos and the Tulsa Transit station.
It’s a classic look that creates a feel of yesteryear. It helps when Smallwood continues to get calls to paint traditional pictures like the old-school Rudolph and the other characters from the classic stop-motion animated TV special. Those nostalgic scenes recall memories for young and old. Another favorite was last year’s recreation of “The Grinch” on the Jenks Riverwalk windows.
In recent years she has received more modern requests, like Olaf from “Frozen” and “Elf on the Shelf.” She says she’s happy to do whatever the client wants but also enjoys when she’s free to do her own thing.
“I love it because it allows me to have a childlike imagination,” Smallwood says. “I start dreaming about them the night before the job. I get excited about each one of them.”
Smallwood’s window painting all started with one car dealership and then grew to 28 of them before 9/11 slowed the automobile industry. Although she lost most of those clients, she started gaining restaurants and others, and business has remained steady throughout the year.
“Every year I ask myself if this is the year people will stop calling, but it keeps growing,” Smallwood says. She has always been an artist, and loved creating as a child. Throughout the year, much of her business comes from commissions for murals and furniture.
As the years progress, Smallwood admits she doesn’t paint as fast as she used to. There are days she’s not thrilled to work in the cold.
“My daughter, Lindsey, helps me when she can,” she says.
She admits it’s hard to believe she has been painting windows for nearly three decades. Smallwood loves it so much, she’s unlikely to give it up. “If I won the lottery, I’d still paint Christmas windows,” she says.
It’s 85 degrees on the third day of October and SMG’s Devin Levine, certified executive chef, is thinking about Santa Claus, snowmen and reindeer made from giant blocks of ice.
For the past eight years, he has been the artist behind the ice sculptures at SMG’s annual holiday party at the Cox Business Center. It’s something listed on his résumé, but often overlooked.
During preparations for his first holiday season as the SMG executive chef, Levine revealed his talent to management. “We were planning the Christmas celebration, and among the list of items were ice sculptures. It was three Christmas trees and two snowmen,” Levine says. “They asked if we needed to order it in, and I told them no and that I could do it if they just bought the ice.”
His work was such a hit it became an annual tradition. This year he’s planning a more contemporary theme featuring four to five Christmas trees with a light shining through each one. He says on average it takes 20-30 minutes to do a carving with the outsourced ice blocks. He can take more time if he’s working in a refrigerated environment.
Among his favorites were the six reindeer displayed outside the building. They lasted four days before melting. One other creation really stands out to him.
“One of my favorites was a candlestick with a flame. It looked like it had wax melting down,” Levine says. “It was simple, but very realistic.”
Levine didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming an ice sculptor. It came with the job when he was working in food and beverage at the now-closed Camelot Inn in the early 1970s. Every Sunday brunch, Friday night dinner and special event featured an ice sculpture, which meant Levine had to learn how to do it and then do it a lot. Back then it was a five-prong ice pick and a pocket knife for indentions. Now he uses a chainsaw and various shapes and sizes of ice sculpting tools and die grinders.
Levine also created ice sculptures during his 34-year career at Southern Hills Country Club and for side jobs like weddings and many other events, including the Tulsa State Fair. In recent years, he typically only does it for his day job.
“I don’t do it as often as I want. It’s kind of a lost art,” Levine says. “It’s something I’d like to see become more popular again because they’re fun to do and fun to look at when they’re completed.”