The Mural High Ground

Artists across the state express themselves in large scale on walls or the sides of buildings.

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Mural artist Josh Butts takes a break in front of a work in progress. Photo courtesy Josh Butts

If you visit Tulsa’s Pearl District, you might find a vivid scene splashed along a wall: a girl bicycling past a stylized brick building emblazoned with the phrase, “The Art of City Life.”

In the background are billowing clouds; in the foreground, a hand clutches pearls spilling over a street sign marking the district. It’s a complex, colorfully detailed piece of art that you don’t have to pay a cent to see – which is the point, according to its creator, Josh Butts.

“I have always been interested in making art accessible to everyone,” he says. “I also appreciate the transformative effects of taking a dingy space and turning it into a point of pride.”

Butts owns Scrambler Creative, an agency specializing in branding, graphic design, illustration and public art. He says painting murals has been a “wonderful coincidence. The city is very open to the idea of promoting public art. Public art attracts businesses, brings people together and moves the needle for Tulsa.”

It also moves the needle in Muskogee, where visitors can find several murals by Lance Hunter, a professor of art at Northeastern State University. One depicts a server at a vintage soda fountain and is emblazoned across the outside of Gaddy Drugs on York Street. Another, “Our Future,” shows children in uniforms denoting potential careers.

“The scale is a challenge, but it reaches out to people,” Hunter says of his work. “It’s not in an enclosed space that people might be intimidated to step into.”

The challenge for Hunter is the physical effort of painting murals – these aren’t tiny canvases, after all, but large walls or sides of buildings.

“I’ve probably spent a year of my life in total on scaffolding,” he says. “I’m getting older, and I’m more aware of the challenge than ever before.”

Some elements of mural creation are easier, according to Oklahoma City artist Ben Stookey.

“I really like painting on a larger scale,” he says, “because you kind of see in front of you everything that you’re trying to accomplish. You have breathing room.”

Stookey’s work appears in places like the Oklahoma City Zoo and on Western Avenue. The latter work, a collaboration with fellow artist Scott Henderson, depicts a closeup of colorfully painted bugs amid vibrant sound waves and is titled “Vibratory Messages Generated by Tethered Bees.”

Stookey lauds the “found” element of mural art.

“It’s always cool to see some sort of creative thing or art when you’re not expecting it,” he says.

Butts says people should find murals for themselves because “it’s difficult to get a sense of scale through pictures. The viewer has to see murals to appreciate them fully. I would encourage Tulsans to take advantage of and embrace the blooming art culture happening … right before our eyes.”

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