Aspen Times Weekly: On the Road with James Surls

by Andrew Travers

If You Go …

What: ‘The Journey’ at Aspen Shortsfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Tuesday, April 7, 5:30 p.m.

Cost: $15 general admission; $12 for Aspen Film members


More information: ‘The Journey” is among seven films in Shortsfest’s opening night program. Learn more at

Sculptor James Surls and a team of men in hard hats loaded one of his pieces onto a flatbed truck outside of his Carbondale studio last spring, beginning its journey to a busy intersection in downtown Houston. As the 3-plus ton, 35-foot tall “Tree and Three Flowers” went off on the road to Texas, Surls also began a journey of his own with two young Colorado filmmakers.

The acclaimed 71-year-old artist, who has shown work in the Smithsonian, the Guggenheim, and in public spaces across the U.S., had partnered with brothers Austin and Maitland Lottimer to film the installation of “Tree and Three Flowers.” In a mini-van, they followed it on the 18-wheeler out of the mountains and south to Houston, strapping GoPro cameras to the truck and speeding ahead of it to film it barreling across western vistas and, eventually, past a “Welcome to Texas” sign.

They then captured Surls at the dedication in April of last year, alongside the mayor and local dignitaries.

Once the piece was up and Surls returned home, he asked the brothers to keep filming. A year later, their cameras are still rolling. The product of their initial partnership, “The Journey,” will screen on the opening night of Aspen Shortsfest. By the end of this year, the Lottimers expect to finish a feature-length documentary on Surls.

“I just want to be working with people who I trust their creative bent,” Surls told me in the twang he’s held on to from his east Texas boyhood. “These guys are so young (Maitland is 26, Austin 28), I don’t think they’ve reached full throttle. They’re still trying to get the oxygen and gas burning at a good level. I feel comfortable with that, with growing with them.”

After the Lottimers tagged along with Surls for the trip to install the Houston piece, they made a second short, “Her World Returning,” about a Surls installation in Santa Fe. They released that last year, before returning to “The Journey.”

They plan to continue shooting through August — a period that will include the June dedication of his Carbondale sculpture, “Sewing the Future” — and hope to have the full-length film in the can by December.

“James is fascinating,” says Maitland Lottimer. “The more we get to be around him, the more he really expands our minds. He’s such an interesting character. It’s almost easy for us to make a movie about such an interesting person. Every time I talk to him he reminds me of what it means to be an artist.”

The gregarious Surls was comfortable with the filmmakers, and didn’t have trouble opening up to them about his life in art.

“I think just making art puts your head on a chopping block anyway,” he says. “That’s the nature of what artists do. I know it’s not easy for everyone to be scrutinized, but it’s not a problem for me.”

In a brisk 16 minutes, “The Journey” follows Surls home to Houston and back to the initial spark of his creativity. Surls’ signature organic style, borrowing the shapes and patterns of grass, flowers, trees and the natural world for large-scale steel sculptures, has been with him “from birth,” he says in the film. While he’s lived and worked in Carbondale for the last 18 years, his work still has its roots in the Texas soil.

“You can see this connection while he’s there,” says Maitland Lottimer. “Like that’s home. And everything that he started in art was because of that place, it’s almost like him becoming a kid again, finding where it all started.”


“Tree and Three Flowers” was the fifth of his pieces to be installed in public in Houston, and marked what Surls calls the end of his “Houston period.” His career in public art extends back to 1980, when a sculpture of a sea flower was selected for the plaza in front of a federal courthouse in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Its chilly reception from locals introduced Surls to the often bumpy road of public artists.

“Because it was on federal land, the mayor, the city council, the Rotary Club, the newspaper, didn’t know it was coming,” he explains. “So when I showed up with that piece in downtown New Bedford, they almost lynched me. … Some artists thrive on that controversy, like Christo — the controversy is part of the art. So he uses it. I just assume not do it. But there’s always context for anything you do and that’s part of the context with public art.”

Despite that initial reception, the New Bedford piece became part of fabric of the area, and has stayed there through the years, though in 2011 it was moved elsewhere on the property to make room for a Korean War veterans’ memorial.

“Public art is like watching grass grow,” Surls says with a laugh. “It’s hard to get decisions. You have a menagerie of humanity that you have to deal with. You have city councils, and everyone has to stand up and state their mind. But it’s public work, I guess that’s just what you do. It’s harder to deal with, but it’s rewarding.”

Most recently, his sculpture “Sewing the Future,” installed on the Carbondale roundabout at Main Street and Highway 133 in November, sparked controversy about the process through which it was selected (Surls donated it to the town, and no other works were considered for the prominent space). Surls says he understands how his modernist style might rub some the wrong way, as public art in Colorado tends toward more naturalistic representations of local wildlife.

“Rarely do you see something from an artist like me,” he says. “That’s just a fact.”

But he’s proud to have a piece up in his hometown.

“Me being in the roundabout in Carbondale, I look at that as a rewarding thing because my neighbors know about that, my friends at the Red Rock Diner know about that,” he says. “For awhile, it’s the talk of the town.”

In “The Journey,” Surls talks about moving into a new phase of work after the last Houston piece, about artistically “moving across a larger plane.” The next phase that has begun for him since then has brought Surls from Carbondale — where “Sewing the Future” will be dedicated in June — to Singapore, where he’s been commissioned to sculpt a piece for the Southeast Asian country’s 50th anniversary. Surls is currently at work on that piece, which will be unveiled during the national celebration this summer, with the Lottimers, of course, capturing it on film.

“I just think that energy begets energy and doors open because doors have already opened,” says Surls.


While Surls’ film plays on the opening night of Shortsfest, a short about another internationally acclaimed, locally based artist, “Pamela Joseph’s Sideshow of the Absurd,” will screen during the closing night of competition on Saturday, April 11.

The film gives viewers a insightful glimpse into Joseph’s imaginative world as an artist, focusing on her “Sideshow of the Absurd” exhibition, a hallucinatory body of work that draws on 20th century freak shows and circus attractions (read more about Joseph and the film in the Friday, April 10 issue of The Aspen Times).

Bookended by the Surls and Joseph shorts, this year’s festival showcases a plethora of films about the arts and the creative process. Shortsfest organizers don’t select films to fit any stated themes, but for the 24th annual festival, creativity has emerged as one. Among the art-oriented films is the stunning “Nefertiti’s Daughters,” about a group of Egyptian female street artists and the influential role they played during and since the Arab Spring. Earth works artist Bode Klein is profiled in “From Australia with Lov3,” while “Cindy Sherman: ‘Untitled Film Stills’” portrays the famed American conceptual photographer. Director André Hörman has two films about young artists in the festival: “Bhavini — I Just Wanna Dance!” about an 11-year-old Indian girl attempting to dance her way out of the slums, and “Andrew With Great Fanfare,” which follows a teenage New Orleans boy as he dreams of being a drum major in a Mardi Gras parade. In “Rick Was Here,” famed record producer Rick Rubin returns to the NYU dorm room where he co-founded Def Jam Records. And the animated “Dissonance” tells the story of a pianist on a journey between dreams and the real world.