Coming Together: A Tribute to Artist-Teacher Jesus Moroles

"Running his fingers through his long, tousled hair as he oriented himself to the lectern and slide remote, the sculptor introduced his talk by declaring that he remembered the name of every art teacher who had ever mentored him."

Jesus Moroles, "Square Spiral Arch" Image Courtesy of the Texas Tech University Public Art Collection

On Monday evening, June 15, 2015, internationally renowned Texas sculptor Jesus Bautista Moroles was driving from his home in Rockport, Texas, to Chickasha, Oklahoma. Just north of Georgetown, on I-35, the van he was driving struck the rear of a tractor-trailer rig, killing the artist. At the time, Moroles was returning to the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO), where he was serving as the college’s first artist-in-residence during the completion of the sculptural project Coming Together Park. During construction, Moroles brought in students and faculty from the university’s visual arts program, who worked alongside him on the granite installation. Moroles’s empowerment of students through participatory art education was a refrain that played throughout his artistic career.

I was in the audience when Jesus Moroles offered the keynote address at the 2013 National Art Education Association (NAEA) conference in Fort Worth. During his talk, titled “Listening, Seeing, Invisioning (sic), Drawing, Convincing, Creating,” he described his trajectory as a sculptor, from his first, humble studio space at Montgomery Monument company in Waxahachie, Texas, in the early 1980s, to becoming the youngest recipient of the National Medal of Arts, in 2008.

As he reviewed his career, Moroles marveled at the series of events that brought him back to that original studio site in Waxahachie in 2011. The owner of the monument company had died, and the First Baptist Church next door had subsequently purchased the property. The church invited the artist to create a sculptural plaza on the site where his vocation began. As he described the project, Moroles recalled his beginnings in that first studio of the now-razed monument manufacturer. He remembered quite vividly the old drinking fountain, which—even as late as the 1980s—was still labeled for use by whites only; it was a fountain from which he was never quite sure he was allowed to drink. When he saw the site that the church chose for the sculpture, which Moroles had designed as an X, he realized that the center of the X fell where he had slept each night during his tenure at the factory. Somehow he felt he had come an ironic full circle, from feeling a sense of exclusion within the space where his life as a sculptor began, to being invited to leave his indelible mark within that same space some thirty years later—his own monument on the site of a monument company that no longer existed.

Since I am art educator, what most impressed me in Moroles’s NAEA keynote address was his own dedication to art education. Running his fingers through his long, tousled hair as he oriented himself to the lectern and slide remote, the sculptor introduced his talk by declaring that he remembered the name of every art teacher who had ever mentored him. He cited the encouragement he received from those art teachers, recollecting his first solo exhibitions in elementary school, where he also sold his earliest artworks and first realized that art might actually become his profession. One line of the dedication now posted on the artist’s website reads, “When asked about the importance of art in education, Moroles said, ‘Because of art, I stayed in school.’” Moroles remained a vocal proponent for the arts in schools throughout his career.

Texas Cultural Trust

His support of art education was not confined to his speeches and interviews, though, for Jesus Moroles was an art educator. In his address, he described numerous projects where—like the USAO Coming Together Park—he included students in the creation of his works. He recounted a project in Omaha in which elementary students broke their own pieces of granite before carving them, polishing them, and placing them within a section of the installation. In a National Endowment for the Arts-funded piece, he enlisted school kids to carve images of seeds for a museum wall. For a carving workshop, he led students to create a bench for their city park. He also helped establish scholarships in Oklahoma for art students and their teachers. Moroles collaborated with students from all levels—elementary, high school, and college—in creating art for their communities.

During one videoed interview for the Coming Together project, Moroles pointed out, “You can hear the saws grinding in the background. . . . The students actually get to learn how to handle the granite, cut with diamond blades, install the granite, and mortar it in, so this [experience] is kind of all-empowering.” Moroles understood that public art is a force within a shared space and that such art needed communal participation from the constituencies among whom it would exist.

“I work with different schools,” he said once. “Wherever I go, I use the community to interact with my pieces.”

Many of the opening dedications for his public works included a performance aspect, which Moroles nicknamed “granite musicals.” These rock concerts represented one more way to bring the community into the work. Moroles reasoned, “In the performance, I always tear a piece of granite. . . and so the audience all gets two pieces of granite . . . and during the performance, they play along. And when I’m tearing the piece, they’re hitting their piece[s], and so when it splits open, they feel it because they’ve hit it at the same time.” Through these performances, artist and community simultaneously (and symbolically) engaged in the aural and tactile qualities of working with the stone in a creative act.

Old Jail Art Center, Albany, “Harmony in Stone”

Jesus Moroles’s enduring impression is found throughout West Texas and the Panhandle. His sculptures are housed in permanent collections at the Old Jail Art Center in Albany, the Amarillo Museum of Art, and the El Paso Museum of Art. His art has been featured in exhibitions at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art, the Ellen Noël Museum of Art in Odessa, the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, the Grace Museum and the Center for Contemporary Arts in Abilene, and the Adair Margo Gallery in El Paso. Likewise, his work is in public and private collections, and has appeared in exhibitions across Texas and the U.S., and in Europe and Asia.

Three of his works are here in Lubbock, at Texas Tech University. Moroles’s totemic Windmill sits at the National Ranching Heritage Center on Fourth Street at the north end of the college campus. (A similar version resides in the courtyard of Albany’s Old Jail Art Center.) His Lapstrake rests near the Boston Avenue circle toward the center of the Texas Tech campus, on the Discovery Mall. A pink granite arch, it is a larger adaptation of the 1987 version at CBS Plaza in New York City. A few hundred yards to the west, Lapstrake is echoed by another monumental granite sculpture, Moroles’s Square Spiral Arch. The almost-straight course between these two works brings to mind the bookend arches in Paris—l’Arc de Triomphe and la Grande Arche de la Défense—a virtual plumb line connecting two iterations of a form as ancient as Rome.

Jesus Moroles, "Lapstrake", Image Courtesy of the Texas Tech University Public Art Collection

The solidity and permanence of Moroles’s public works, grand-scale granite memorials that evoke his early residency at a Waxahachie monument company, ensure his place as an important twenty-first century sculptor. But more tellingly, Moroles’s greater legacy may be the two or three generations of students who have been especially touched by the presence of the artist-teacher and who—because of the empowering gift of collaboration that he shared with them—feel the void of his absence most acutely.

For more on Jesus Moroles, please see:

Glasstire : Jesus Moroles

Texas Tech University: Jesus Moroles

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