The Oklahoma House of Representatives was recently presented by the Oklahoma Arts Council with a preview of “The Seminole Oil Boom,” a new painting offered for consideration for the Oklahoma State Capitol Art Collection by former Rep. Weldon Watson and his wife Cheryle. Watson represented House District 79 in Tulsa as a Republican from 2006 to 2018 when he was term limited.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, welcomed the presentation of the painting during an afternoon legislative session and thanked the Watsons for their generosity.
“Our Capitol building at one time was completely devoid of art,” McCall said. “Over time, our State Capitol has become the State Capitol with the greatest art collection in the nation.”
McCall said the collection is in large part because of the efforts of the late Representative and Senator Charles Ford who helped establish such gifts. Ford, who passed away last year, is the uncle of Rep. Ross Ford, R-Broken Arrow.
Watson, who spent 20 years at the Capitol, first as a reporter, then as a lobbyist and later as a lawmaker, said he and his wife were delighted to be back in the House chamber to present the painting. He said over the course of time, he’s seen the building change considerably.
“I never enter this building without a sense of awe for what happens here,” Watson said. “I’m so very grateful for the beautiful artwork, as the speaker mentioned, that has been added in recent years. I’m also proud to say that I was supportive as a member of the House of the funding for the renovation that has gone on here for the last several years.
Watson said Charles Ford was a mentor to him, first as his state representative when Watson was in high school in Tulsa. Later, he was a state senator when Watson’s two sons were in high school. Watson’s sons were in the gallery during Wednesday’s presentation.
Watson said Sen. Ford encouraged him to be an advocate for the historic preservation of the Capitol, giving him the book “The Art Treasures of the Oklahoma State Capitol” in 2005. The book depicted all of the art in the Capitol at that time. Ford was a founder and great financial supporter of the State Senate Historical Preservation Fund, which helped finance much of the art available to be displayed at the Capitol.
Watson also thanked Alan Atkinson, Director of Visual Arts and Capitol Collections with the Oklahoma Arts Council, who provided necessary guidance for how to proceed with commissioning the artwork.
Atkinson introduced the Watsons to artist Mike Wimmer, who was born in Muskogee, OK, and who received his bachelor of fine arts from the University of Oklahoma. Wimmer has produced other art displayed in the Capitol.
“He loves the state of Oklahoma every bit as much as I do,” Watson said.
Watson said he told Wimmer he and his wife wanted to focus on the oil booms of the 1920s, the decade when Oklahoma was the largest oil producing state in America.
“Although there were oil booms prior to and afterward, it was the decade of the 1920s that made Oklahoma a major oil producing state,” Watson said.
He specifically chose to honor the Seminole oil boom – which started in 1923 and continued into the 1930s – because his grandfather, Lee Watson, had been a worker in that patch. Watson’s father, Bud Watson, grew up in oil company camps in the area.
“Dad said that as a boy he could read a newspaper at midnight on the porch of one of those company houses because of all the natural gas that was being flared off,” Watson said.
After relating stories about his dad and grandfather, Wimmer asked if Watson could provide photographs of the two. They are depicted in the painting – his grandfather in a brown jacket and his dad in a pair of overalls working on the platform of an oil derrick.
“The Seminole boom was the last oil field to practice unbridled production prior to conservation reforms like proration and well-spacing,” Watson said.
He pointed out that in the painting there are a multitude of derricks in the background. He also noted the lack of safety equipment for the workers.
Watson said the painting would not have been possible without the efforts of Dr. Bob Blackburn, who served as the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society from 1999 to 2021. He provided the artist with historic perspectives and photographs that made the project possible. He was recognized during Wednesday’s presentation.
Watson also noted that among the 1920 oil booms was the one in Oklahoma City that started in 1928. The derrick in front of the Capitol was the Petunia No. 1 because it was drilled in a petunia patch. He said the derrick was still producing oil when he was at the Capitol as a reporter in the 1970s. Cheryle’s grandparents lived south of the Capitol on Eighth Street. When Cheryle’s mother passed away in the 1990s, she was still receiving a small royalty check from wells drilled in the neighborhood just a few blocks from the Capitol.
“There are thousands of native Oklahomans, like Cheryle and I, who can identify with oil booms of the 1920s,” Watson said.
“Cheryle and I are proud to say that through this piece of art future visitors to the Capitol, including those busloads of schoolchildren and native sons and daughters whose families were in the 1920s oil booms as well as other visitors, those visitors will have the opportunity to get a visual glimpse of how Oklahoma become a premier oil and gas state,” Watson said.
He expressed gratitude to Speaker McCall and House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, for allowing time for him to make the presentation as well as to the Oklahoma Arts Council for their help and support for this project.
Amber Sharples, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council, said the group was honored to advise and partner on this project and promised to be good stewards to preserve this work for generations to come.
Because of the Capitol Restoration Project, art was removed from the Capitol several years ago, but it will soon return. Plans are to begin replacing hundreds of pieces of art throughout the building in the coming months, Sharples said. The painting dedicated by the Watsons will be stored until it can be hung in the west hallway of the ground floor, she said. The hallway will feature pre- and early statehood events, industries and resources that have shaped the state, starting as early as the 1860s and extending into the 1940s.
“We believe that this work will resonate with many Oklahomans with roots in the oil and gas industry, which remain today,” Sharples said. “This painting helps to provide a more thorough experience and understanding deeply rooted in our strong ties to oil and gas, and we are grateful to add it to the collection.”
Sharples said the Arts Council will develop educational materials around hundreds of works of art, including this piece, and will start to design docent tours for students and visitors alike to have an illuminating experience in Oklahoma history as well as a better knowledge of art.
Source: House press release