Artist James Surls Offers Insight on Creative Process

James Surls spoke to members of the community about his many experiences as a renowned artist. Surls work has been displayed in the Southern Utah Museum of Art since July 7 of this year, bringing in over seven thousand visitors to the museum in two short months.

“Art is my affliction, art is my achilles heel, and art is my glory,” Surls said as he shared pictures of the many works he has made over the decades with the audience.

Surls graduated from the Sam Houston State Teachers College in 1966 and received his MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1968. He has taught at several universities over the years, including Southern Methodist University and the University of Houston. He currently lives in Colorado with his wife where he works on his many pieces of art.

“You’re supposed to be able to have a relationship with art. You’re supposed to be able to ask it questions. Who are you? What do you do? What are you for? What are you saying? What’s the symbolism here? Where’s the metaphor in this? And art will give you an answer,” Surls said as he described his process of creating art.

“I want to make art that does not necessarily fit into the norm,” Surls said. “I actually make a connection between the universe… and the little spiral swirl on the top of your baby’s head. I don’t think those things are unconnected. I look at them as having a direct one to one relationship – the universe and life.”

“I always aspired to be Merlin. He could just go ‘POOF’ and make something appear. I liked that. I could do that as well, but my ‘POOF’ took weeks or months,” he explained with a chuckle. “I don’t need anything but a hatchet and I can make art.”

Surls explained that his deep-seated roots in religion and morality is a guide for him when it came to creating art. “We’ll never be able to avoid the paradox of what you call the good and the bad. The two sides of humanity. We can try though, and that’s what this piece is about,” he said, describing his piece named “Balance” where a reaper carries both a vine and a scythe.

“It’s an amazing thing… having a calling direct from the universe. I would liken my calling to the art world as a preacher would to the pulpit. You are engulfed in singular belief of art,” he said as he wrapped up his lecture. “That’s where I have been – in that belief – and that’s where I still am.”

Story by: Jessica Stagg
Photo by: Jessica Stagg