Carbondale artist lands international commission |

Carbondale artist lands international commission

Jessica Cabe
Carbondale artist James Surls and his studio assistant Tai Pomara pose next to "Fifty Wings," the sculpture they created which will be installed in the Singapore Botanic Gardens to celebrate the country's 50th anniversary in August.
Robert Millman / Courtesy photo |

Carbondale artist James Surls’ sculpture “Fifty Wings” left his studio on a journey to Singapore about two weeks ago. But to explain how his piece was commissioned to celebrate the country’s 50th anniversary, Surls has to go back about 30 years.

“I have to give you somewhat of a long story,” he said from his Carbondale studio.

It all started with Edmund Pillsbury, former director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Pillsbury collected art on the side, and he acquired multiple Surls pieces throughout his life. When Pillsbury died about five years ago, his art went to his daughter, Christine Pillsbury, and her brother. Surls and Christine Pillsbury developed a friendship and mutual respect that culminated in an invitation to visit her home in Singapore.

“She had been here to visit, and she had a house in Vail, and she said, ‘If you’re ever in Singapore, we’d love to have you over,’” said Surls, a renowned sculptor whose “Sewing the Future” that graces Carbondale’s roundabout was formally dedicated last week.

“Well, [my wife] Charmaine and I, a year and a half ago, went to India for a little over a month. On the way back, we wanted to go through Singapore and visit her. Well, she was the most gracious human I’ve ever been around in my life.”

Christine Pillsbury threw two dinner parties for Surls and invited a slew of friends, many of whom are movers and shakers in Singapore. Surls met one man in particular with whom he clicked particularly well.

“He was asking me about my dreams, and I was saying, ‘One of them is to do a big, major show in a garden somewhere,’” Surls said. “I’ll give an example: The Whitney can’t do a big garden show. The Guggenheim can’t do a big garden show. What museum can? There are very few that can because they have indoor spaces. They have a little courtyard, maybe, but they don’t have acres of gardens.

“So I was telling him that would be my goal. I would love to show in a major garden. And he said, ‘Oh, well I’m on the board of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.’”

A week or two later, Surls was back home in Carbondale when he got a phone call. The man from the party wanted to come see Surls’ work in person.

“Well, absolutely,” Surls said. “I love it when people come over to look at my art. If some guy’s going to come from Singapore to look at my art, that’s a big deal. We walked around and talked and looked, and by the time he left, he asked me if I would be interested in making a piece for Singapore, for the country. Well, are you kidding? Yes, I’m your man.”

Surls began creating sketches last fall of what the piece may look like. One early iteration had it at 20 feet tall with five orchids and his signature eyes. After a couple more edits, his client asked if he would consider a slight departure from his usual style.

“They wanted me to consider using a seed,” he said. “Instead of having a flower, would I have it more like a seed from a tree that grows in Singapore? I didn’t have to make a big leap, so it was an easy psychological transition for me to do.”

“Fifty Wings” consists of 10 Dipterocarp seed-inspired pieces with five “wings” each, symbolic for the country’s 50th anniversary. Over the course of the project, the piece shrank to just over 11 feet tall — still awe-inspiring to stand next to, and still fitting for an outdoor, garden setting.

The piece will be installed in the Singapore Botanic Gardens on Aug. 3 and 4, with festivities and celebrations around Singapore’s anniversary beginning on Aug. 8. A formal dedication of the sculpture is planned for Aug. 14, sponsored by the U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

Surls has had work in the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and more, but for the 72-year-old artist, having “Fifty Wings” in Singapore, in a way, validates his life’s work.

“I started making my art in a one-room house, and that grew into where I am today,” he said. “I’ve spent, as they say, 40-plus years in the trenches. I’ve dug my ditch. So to show in an international garden, that’s another jump. It’s a whole other level. I look at it as a psychologically comforting thing for me. I have a block of time left to do what I want to do in life, and, man, this is a great way to start your 70s.”