The Oklahoman

‘Persistenc­e and grit’

At 90, renowned Oklahoma artist Bert Seabourn still painting.

- Brandy McDonnell

Bert Seabourn is surrounded. The renowned Oklahoma City painter’s home studio is practicall­y bursting with colorful canvases, with expressive faces peering around him from many of them: a droopy-eared hound wears the proverbial hangdog look, a ready cellist coolly regards her audience, a sharpeyed falcon watches over a Native American elder.

At 90, the internatio­nally known artist never worries about what he will paint next. He just paints.

“I paint every day, since probably when I left OG&E (in 1978). I used to paint a painting every day, and I did that for several years. And then I slowed down and started painting larger ones, maybe (with) a little more detail,” Seabourn said.

“I’ll even sit up in bed, thinking about subject matter.”

The influential painter, printmaker and sculptor is being honored for his contributi­ons to the state’s cultural landscape with the inaugural Focus Award from Oklahoma Contempora­ry Arts Center, in conjunctio­n with its biennal exhibition “ArtNow 2021.”

“I think that Bert can serve as an inspiratio­n for all of us of the power of persistenc­e and grit,” said Oklahoma Contempora­ry Artistic Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis.

“Even someone who has achieved as much as he has in the art scene in Oklahoma — and who is definitely due retirement should he choose — he still makes the choice day in, day out, to pick up the paintbrush, go to his studio and get to work. I find that commitment inspiring.”

Hitchhikin­g for inspiratio­n

Born in Redbarn, Texas, Seabourn began making art at a young age and found inspiratio­n at a local park.

“There was a young man who was always out there painting ... and he’d go over there and watch him,” said Connie Seabourn, one of Seabourn’s three daughters and a fellow artist. “My dad was really impressed with that guy.”

Although Seabourn grew up poor, seeing that artist making and selling paintings opened him up to the possibilit­y of pursuing art as his vocation.

“Whenever he was about 12 or so is when he moved to Purcell, and whenever he was a young man ... he used to hitchhike out to different art shows,” Connie Seabourn said.

“He would go up to Oklahoma City and to Tulsa and to Dallas, sometimes hitchhikin­g, but he and this friend, they would also just jump on trains to go wherever they were going.”

Seabourn worked as a Navy journalist and artist from 1951-55 during the Korean War and then as an illustrato­r and commercial artist for 23 years with Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co. For six years, he went to night school at Oklahoma City University, where he majored in art.

“During that time, I started painting at night and entering shows that way. The style and subject matter all have (been) pretty much the same: People, animals, birds. I don’t do still lifes or landscapes or anything like that,” he said. “I do cats and dogs, buffaloes, Native Americans. ... For three years, I did nothing but abstracts, but then I branched out from that.”

Taking art around the world

In 1978, Seabourn left OG&E to become a fulltime artist, and he has exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and South America.

“When I was younger, I had shows in England, Ger

Works by renowned Oklahoma artist Bert Seabourn are exhibited through Sept. 13 at Oklahoma Contempora­ry Arts Center as part of the exhibit “ArtNow 2021.” In conjunctio­n with “ArtNow,” Oklahoma Contempora­ry selected Seabourn as the recipient of its inaugural Focus Award for his contributi­ons to the state’s cultural landscape. many, Russia, Taiwan. ... We had annual shows in New York, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado ... and Bonnie’s always been with me,” he said, referring to his high school sweetheart and wife of 71 years.

Seabourn has paintings in the permanent collection­s of the Vatican in Rome; China’s National Palace Museum in Taiwan; Moscow University in Russia; the American Embassy in London; and the Smithsonia­n Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His work is in the President Gerald R. Ford Library Collection and the George and Barbara Bush Collection.

“We were on the road a lot. I sometimes wondered how he painted as much as he did because we were on the road. But it was fun,” Bonnie Seabourn said. “We met so many people. We’ve met presidents and movie stars. It’s been a fun, exciting life.”

Showing his signature style

The walls, shelves and tables of the couple’s Warr Acres home are lined with an array of paintings, prints and sculptures to rival most galleries.

“We used to, if we had a good show, we’d buy paintings somewhere in that area,” he recalled.

He continues to show and sell his paintings at 50 Penn Place Art Gallery, JRB Art at the Elms and North Gallery and Studio. Locally, his work is part of the Oklahoma State Art Collection, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and Oklahoma Attorney General office grounds. Seabourn exhibited at the downtown OKC Festival of the Arts for more than four decades.

In 1976, Seabourn was designated a Master Artist by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. In 1981, Gov. George Nigh presented him with the Governor’s Art Award, and in 1997, OCU honored him an honorary doctorate. He received a Lifetime Achievemen­t Award from the

Paseo Arts Associatio­n in 2009, and Oklahoma Contempora­ry surprised him with its first Focus Award in July.

“The idea is that we’ll have an exhibition within an exhibition at each ‘ArtNow’ and the award recipient will then have the opportunit­y to showcase their work,” Davis said.

“The works in his show are not brand new — some of them are newer, some of them are decades old now — and it gives the viewer the opportunit­y to see how Bert developed as an artist, but maintained really a strong signature style.”

Turning to teaching

As he got older and traveled less, Seabourn started teaching classes at Edmond Fine Arts Institute and Oklahoma Contempora­ry.

Longtime Chickasha artist and art teacher Carrie Chavers said she was fortunate to get into one of Seabourn’s popular Oklahoma Contempora­ry classes in 2017. She hoped Seabourn could help her break through her anxieties about painting portraits.

“My first night, I had my sketch done of the face I was gonna paint. But I wasn’t painting and I wasn’t painting, and he comes around and he goes, ‘Is everything OK? Do you need to get started?’

“I said, ‘Look, can you tell me some good colors for skin tone and stuff ?’ And he put his hand on my shoulder, he looked me in the eyes and he said, ‘You’re kidding me, right? ... Paint him any color you want,’” recalled Chavers, the owner of the Chickasha Art Center and recently retired art teacher at Chickasha High School.

“I think maybe just his confidence and his quiet demeanor helped me learn to just calm down ... he really impacted the way I painted — and you can see the color and the style reflected in what I’m doing now.”

Seabourn retired from teaching in late 2018, after he fell down the stairs of his home during a Christmas party, fracturing his skull and sustaining multiple injuries.

“It was pretty awful and the recovery was long. ... He couldn’t paint for so long, then he was in rehab for so long,” Bonnie Seabourn said. “After he got into rehab, he had them bring him a sketchbook, and he would sketch there in rehab almost every day.”

Although he has to take more breaks to rest these days, Seabourn said he plans to keep up with his daily painting sessions.

“There’s no discipline about it: I enjoy it,” he said.

 ?? PHOTOS BY DOUG HOKE/THE OKLAHOMAN ?? Renowned Oklahoma City artist Bert Seabourn sits with his wife of 71 years, Bonnie, in his studio in his home on Aug. 23.
PHOTOS BY DOUG HOKE/THE OKLAHOMAN Renowned Oklahoma City artist Bert Seabourn sits with his wife of 71 years, Bonnie, in his studio in his home on Aug. 23.
 ??  ?? A photograph in one of Bert Seabourn’s books depicts the artist and wife Bonnie with President Gerald Ford and first lady Betty Ford along with with one of Seabourn’s paintings and a thank-you letter from President Ford.
A photograph in one of Bert Seabourn’s books depicts the artist and wife Bonnie with President Gerald Ford and first lady Betty Ford along with with one of Seabourn’s paintings and a thank-you letter from President Ford.
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