Sitting down with Tulsa artist Joseph Buchanan.
Wanted: One sculptor/painter/furniture designer/ musician/poet/Sufi who speaks Icelandic and Tibet and prefers the color orange.
Meet Tulsan Joseph Buchanan.
As a designer, he creates tables of stone and glass that appear weightless. As a marble sculptor, his largest sculpture (24 tons) is in the Arkansas Capitol.
Here, Buchanan discusses his world travels, his love for language and his inspirations.
You work within so many media; how do you think of yourself? As a sculptor? As a designer? As an artist.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist? I made my first sculpture in Iceland when I was 9. My paintings at the time were used as test patterns to fill the void on the screen when the television signed off at 10 p.m. They were picked from my school. I would stay up late at night and watch them.
You were born in Florida. How did you happen to be in Iceland? My father was in the Navy and was stationed there.
How did world travel as a child influence you? I was raised with the concept of no geographical boundaries. Iceland influenced me more than any other place because it is so vastly created by nature. So little there is created by man. I saw nature’s way of design.
You graduated from the University of Maryland. You studied in Germany under sculptor Joseph Mueller and in Houston with Japanese-American sculptor Noguchi. More travel. More influences? Certainly furniture design from Noguchi (famous for the Noguchi table and lamp), and how to see things as art and to do everything artfully. Food, for example — one of the most artful things of our daily life.
I owe a great deal to Calvin Betche of Tulsa Upholstering for teaching me how to look at furniture as more than just furniture and see it as an art within an art. He has been building furniture for over 50 years.
And you spent some time in India? Yes. I was helping take refugees across the border from Tibet into India.
How did that come about?
I knew someone who was going and got information about a job there. I had the military training and skills necessary. And I just happen to speak Tibet.
Well, who doesn’t? What other languages do you speak? Icelandic. Spanish. German. I can read Sanskrit. I’ve been interested in languages since I was a child.
How did you become a Sufi? Many believe that you don’t become a Sufi so much as you are born with that mentality — a philosophy of thought that creates love in the community you are part of. It is being gentle but direct, much like a parent who can tell a child lovingly but directly when it is doing something wrong. I am a Christian now. I did have a history of being a Sufi from 1970-80. For me, it was a way of seeing love in all things.
What is a typical day for you? I’m a single father of a 3-year-old daughter. When she is with me (half of the week), I don’t work at all, but we do create art in the studio together. Then I work as much as I can the rest of the time. I also have three other children and three grandchildren.
You did not always work full-time as an artist. You changed careers, didn’t you? In 1996, I was in a serious car crash. My car was hit by two escaped convicts. I was nearly killed. I decided then to do only what I enjoy.
Any advice from your multifaceted life? Be genuine; never compromise who you truly are for anything. Not even money should change who a person is inside.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Buchanan’s work (furniture, sculpture, paintings) is available for sale at the Home Collection in Utica Square. For more examples of his talent, including his 2009 Infinity Collection of furniture, all created with his artistic motto, “Balance and Energy in the Finished Form,” visit www.buchananfinearts.com.
Pictured: Buchanan with some of his pieces available at The Home Collection in Utica Square.
More with Joseph Buchanan
You have been described as “Tulsa’s best-kept artistic secret.” Why is that? I’ve been in Tulsa since 1975, but I have not sought notoriety or to do shows. For the last two and a half years, I’ve been working exclusively on one commission — designing the interior and all of the furniture for a south Tulsa home. I still designed and cataloged new work for the future, but I didn’t work with anyone in Tulsa during that time.
And now? Locally, I’m working on a commission with a high-end downtown law firm. We’re doing an entire two-story house. Upstairs, we’re putting torn brown paper on the walls then varnishing them. It looks exactly like elephant hide. The one thing they particularly wanted was to use the color orange somewhere, but I couldn’t find a way to do it. When people come in for help, you want colors that resonate with certain qualities. Forest green, for example, is calming and relaxing.
What is your favorite color? Ironically, orange.
You work a lot with children. Tell me about that. Sometimes I’m commissioned by a family to have their children help with a painting. Usually that’s a large canvas — 5 or 6 feet. When I did the 24-ton marble sculpture for the Arkansas capitol, I worked with 3,000 kids. It’s titled “In the Mind of a Child.” I took their 3,000 ideas and broke them into similar shapes. After 9/11, I reflected how horrendous that would be to a child on a dirt road in Oklahoma or Arkansas. I wanted to lock in (some of that innocence of childhood) so they can come back later, if life has become overwhelming, and see it in that sculpture. This way, when they come to see the sculpture, they could not only remember, but also feel where it is their creativity came from.
What is it like to work with marble? I try to be true to the integrity of the marble. With other materials, the stainless steel sculpture (for sale in the Home Collection in Utica Square), for example, I took what is normally a cold material and created a warmth by changing its shape. It gives the sculpture a purpose and intent. It’s titled “Birth.”
Where do you get your marble? I used to get it from all over the world. I worked a lot with Carrera marble from Italy, which I have to get requested. But I found it took so much energy from the planet to realize the art. I have found a resource in Arkansas that is one of the oldest quarries accepted by the artistic community, so most everything else I can find near me.
What is the hardest part of working with marble? Transportation. And making something substantial look weightless. The largest table I’ve made is 800 pounds. One commission was for a couple who entertain a lot. They wanted an 8-foot-long table with a glass top that can be redesigned later for a quieter lifestyle. That was a challenge.
Tell me about your painting. Usually it’s based on feelings I have when I’m sculpting. Only so much can go into a work of marble. I can go only so deeply with marble. What feeling I’m not able to convey, I hold and put into my painting.
Is it hard in this economy to make a living as an artist? As hard as anything else. The one thing you have to want most is to have integrity of your work, beyond financial issues. If you can share that quality, after a while, you get recognition in your field.
What do you do for relaxation? Spend time with my daughter, Alma Grace. Create music. Write songs. Play the guitar. You can hear it on my Web site (www.buchananfinearts.com).