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Artist James Surls to debut sculptures at DFW's new Duty Free

Claire Woodcock/Aspen Public Radio News

Artist James Surls has a new sculpture exhibition he’s preparing to open at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport early next year.


In his studio near Carbondale, James Surls carved a petal out of a block of wood with his hatchet.  

“This is big, more like a fence post,” he said. “Whereas that one is more delicate and formed like the petal of a flower. But either way the process is the same thing.”


His warehouse-sized studiosits on the hill of a county road in Missouri Heights. It looks out at a snowy Mount Sopris and the jagged peaks of the Elk Range. The studio smells like fresh cut wood. Sculptures, made of wood and steel, spring from the floor, cling to walls and dangle from the ceiling.


Though Surls’ has expressed himself with other mediums, he’s long preferred woodworking.

When creating a piece, Surls said the philosophy and the science of his work carries as much weight as the aesthetics.


“I mean, when you look at art you really do have to ask it, you know, the basic questions, What are you? What are you doing? What are you saying?” he stated. “And it's kind of nice when the art can take you somewhere.”


Credit Claire Woodcock/Aspen Public Radio News
Wood sculptures hang from James Surls' workshop.

On this day, Surls didn’t have much time to tinker in his shop. He was about to leave town for a gallery opening with his wife, artist Charmaine Locke. The pair relocated to Carbondale together in the late nineties after raising their family in Texas. That’s where Surls grew up.

“In what I call nature’s lap,” he began. “And my grandmother had a thorn tree hedge around her house that was virtually impenetrable. When I was little I was very aware of it because hummingbirds would make their nests in those thorn trees. And there were flowers, thistles and there was another one … it was called bull nettle, and bull nettle would really sting you. And, as a kid, it was all through the fields. So we would run through the fields and playing and there would be things that would stick you.”


Although he’s exhibited in major galleries worldwide, he said he’s used to his work landing in unconventional places, like the roundabout in Carbondale. His latest venture takes his sculptures to the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport’s new duty free shop.


“Man, it’s kind of a high dollar enterprise,” said Surls. “They sell lipstick and perfume and really nice bottles of whiskey. That’s really what they do.”


In the center of it all will be several of Surls largest sculptures, as part of a rotating exhibition.


“Where I’m taking my art to is not a traditional art place,” he noted.


In order to see it, you need to be a ticketed international traveler flying in or out of Dallas. According to the airport, 13 million people pass through that international terminal annually from all over the world. A “river of humanity,” as Surls calls it.


“It’s people who have the means to travel,” he said. “It’s people who have the means to fly from one capitol to another.”


Fine art versus commercial art. He said he’s not above trying out new venues.


“It's just a fact of life, if you want to make a living doing what I do,” he said. “So yeah, I would go there. I would go show in the terminal, I would go show at a Duty Free. I'll go play in their river.”


The new Duty Free at DFW will open the first week of February.