Discovering Tulsa, Oklahoma

By Barbara Rizza Mellin

I’ve traveled the world, but I continue to be impressed by the magnificence of our own country.

As I view a monumental waterfall rushing down rugged mountains with majesty and beauty, I cannot help but be awed by the sight. Thomas Moran (1837-1929) painted such scenes as he accompanied the official survey expedition to the West in 1871. His watercolors were the first views of this uncharted land seen by many Americans. He so captured the grandeur of our western wilderness that his art was influential in persuading Congress to create our first National Park, Yellowstone. You can view the world’s largest collection of works by Moran at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Perhaps because I was born in Tulsa, I feel a particular pride in this museum and its outstanding collection. Located on 460 acres at the foot of the Osage Hills, the Gilcrease is only five minutes from downtown Tulsa. Once there, you can also walk acres of gardens and parks. Created by collector and oilman Thomas Gilcrease (1890-1962), the museum possesses over 10,000 artworks and more than 350,000 anthropological artifacts and rare manuscripts, all relating to the expansion and settlement of North America.

Here is the world’s largest, most comprehensive collection of art of the American West—paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Charles M. Russell, photographs by William Henry Jackson and Edward S. Curtis, 18 of the 22 sculptures by Frederick Remington, and Allan Houser’s sculpture Sacred Rain Arrow, an image of which appears on approximately 3.2 million Oklahoma license plates.

Oklahoma is inextricably linked with its Native American heritage, and the Gilcrease showcases with dignity and pride an extensive collection of Indian art and artifacts and provides archival resources for research. The museum possesses over 600 American Indian portraits—one of the largest collections anywhere—painted from life during the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a collection of works by George Catlin, second only to the Smithsonian’s. Like almost everyone from this state, I am part Indian (Cherokee), and I love to share that heritage with the world by letting people know about this important museum.

Another Tulsa museum on the outskirts of the city with a large collection of Native American art is the Philbrook. Founded by the Phillips Oil mogul, it is one of finest museums in the country. It’s collection of Native art features works by 20th century artists and iconic pieces from across Indian Country with particular strengths in basketry, pottery, paintings and jewelry. Built in the oil-rich high times of the 1920s to resemble an Italian villa, the Philbrook offers a wide variety of art from Antiquities to Renaissance paintings to African sculptures.

For a change of pace, head into the city proper. Contrasting with the wonderful Art Deco architectural elements is another museum not to be missed: The Woody Guthrie Center, home of the folksinger’s archives, music and more, including his handwritten lyrics to This Land is Your Land. One of America’s most influential songwriters, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), sang of the plight and determination of farmers and laborers, the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the promise of the future. This museum, which opened in 2013, is set with vintage newsreels, clips from Ken Burn’s Dust Bowl film, and period music to allow visitors to experience this time in history.

From Native American traditions to Moran’s early wilderness paintings to Guthrie’s songs of the endless beauty and spirit of all America, Tulsa reinforces our belief that “This land is our land/It belongs to you and me.”

Barbara Rizza Mellin is an award-winning author and artist. She is a member of Winston Salem Writers and Associated Artists. Her art can be seen throughout 2018 at PTI Airport, Executive Center, Main Terminal, Greenhill Center for N.C. Artists, Greensboro, and Artworks Gallery, Winston-Salem.


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