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It's a woman? It's a flower? James Surls explains his towering sculpture that's sprouted on Kirby

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James Surls Surls on Kirby Tree with Three Flowers April 2014
Tree with Three Flowers by James Surls. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
James Surls Surls on Kirby Tree with Three Flowers April 2014
Surls at the base of the sculpture, which is to be lighted and the median landscaped in the near future. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
James Surls Surls on Kirby Tree with Three Flowers April 2014
The top of the sculpture featuring the flowers, tree branch and spire at top. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
James Surls sculpture going up on Kirby April 2014
The installation phase. GONZO247/Twitter
News_James surls show_March 10
Surls in a file photo. Photo by Jenny Antill
James Surls Surls on Kirby Tree with Three Flowers April 2014
James Surls Surls on Kirby Tree with Three Flowers April 2014
James Surls Surls on Kirby Tree with Three Flowers April 2014
James Surls sculpture going up on Kirby April 2014
News_James surls show_March 10

Spring has truly sprung in Houston with Tree with Three Flowers, a 38-foot-tall sculpture created by world-renowned artist James Surls, sprouting overnight at one of Houston's busiest intersections as a symbol of growth, potential and inspiration.

Surls was on hand Sunday to oversee the "planting" of his stainless steel and bronze creation in the median at Kirby and Westheimer. Here, it will bloom permanently for drivers and passengers in the more than 50,000 cars that pass through the intersection each day.

 "I like the idea of us aspiring to something greater, so the spire aspires." 

Surls transported the sculpture from his studio in Carbondale, Colo., where he and his wife, artist Charmaine Locke, live. The installation demanded a multi-member expert crew and involved screwing in smaller pieces to the large base, loading it on a crane and erecting it in the median. The project is a 50/50 partnership spearheaded by the Upper Kirby Management District and the city's Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) and was also made possible with public and private donations.

A dedication ceremony led by Mayor Annise Parker is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. Tuesday at West Ave, 2800 Kirby Dr., at which Surls will be on hand for comments.

His wood, steel and bronze sculptures, drawings and prints, which reflect his unique sensibility to natural forms, are in major art museums and public and private collections throughout the world. During an interview on Monday at West Ave, where the Tree with Three Flowers can be seen from multiple vantage points, he explained the sculpture, talked about his latest projects and discussed why he remains passionate about his craft.

CultureMap: What was your inspiration for the whimsical sculpture?

James Surls: In the context of the site, I knew I wanted something that can't be climbed on, but rather pushed up out of the street. How to make it stand up was the next consideration. A vase, or vessel, is a life-giving form and by definition, female. It's a classic shape, not new to humanity, but a metaphor used throughout time.

One flower is a morning glory, like you see growing on the side of houses in East Texas. Flowers, in general, like a rite of spring, represent rebirth. The other is more in the realm of cactus blooms, particularly Night Shade, which is pure white but with an edge to it: It's poisonous. 

The tree shape is a branch that begets the branch that begets a branch. I could have added more and more, but it's inherent in its division. And the spire sticking out on top, it's pointing to something. I like the idea of us aspiring to something greater, so the spire aspires.

CM: In the past, I've asked artists to tell me more about a work, even my own artist brother. They turn the question around to ask me, "Well, more importantly, what do you see?"

JS: I remember that time. But for an artist not to know the answer, well, that's not good. I've known artists, when they were building these enormous sculptures, to give lectures with slideshows. Clicking through them, they would say, "That's my so-and-so and it's so-and-so tall and weighs so-and-so pounds." And then click to the next slide.

  "I know now that my work will last as long as someone loves it." 

CM: What are you working on now?

JS: I'm one of the judges at the Lawndale show in August. Sculpture is coming in from across Texas. Texas State University in San Marcos has commissioned me to make a sculpture for a garden area for a new multi-use complex. Sculptures for gardens are my favorite things to do now.

(Surls is also preparing for his annual sculpture invitational, set June 26-30, with exhibits open for an entire month in Santa Fe. He's collaborating with Wade Wilson at his studio there to host the event, set to begin on opening day of the Santa Fe Opera.)

CM: Public art. I've written about public art and its regretful neglect.

JS: Public art. You build only what you can afford to maintain. I've learned the hard way. When a public art piece is unkept, it does something psychological to those who see it. I know now that my work will last as long as someone loves it.

(Thankfully, Tree with Three Flowers comes with a maintenance agreement.)

CM: (The 1986 book, 50 Texas Artists, that CultureMap brought to the interview, includes a quote from Surls, who is featured in the book. "It's the puff I'm after. The hocus-pocus the Merlin types used to produce. I love it that they could wave a wand and from a flash of a light and puff of smoke would appear an object.") Does this passion still hold true with you today?

JS:  Yes, I still believe that. The p-o-o-f actually takes a day, a week a month to happen. This project took me more than two years.

It's making the intangible tangible. That's what the poof is.

("I make objects. It takes so long," the rest of Surls' quote reads. "It would take me a lifetime to build just what I can dream in one day. I want a hundred lifetimes and one day. To do my best.")

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