Bob Hawks doesn’t think that reaching the age of 100 is all that big a deal.
“Actually, there are quite a few of us (centenarians) around here,” Hawks said. “We just tend to keep pretty quiet about it.”
However, a number of Hawks’ friends and fellow artists decided that his reaching this milestone was something worthy of celebrating. Which is why 108 Contemporary, the Tulsa Arts District gallery devoted to fine and contemporary craft art, is hosting a retrospective exhibit of Hawks’ life and work.
“Celebrating 100 Years with Bob Hawks” covers the two major sides of his artistic output: his work as a high-end commercial photographer and the turned-wood sculptures he has been creating for more than 30 years.
The photographs in the exhibit include images of Tulsa’s evolution, such as an early incarnation of the Golden Driller and an aerial shot of Saint Francis Hospital soon after its construction, surrounded by large expanses of empty land.
“I show that image to people, and they can’t figure out where it is,” Hawks said, laughing.
The show also features some of his portrait work, as well as images of nature, from pristine snowy landscapes to startling images of hummingbirds captured in mid-flight.
“We used to go to Colorado every August, and the hummingbirds were just thick around there,” Hawks said. “I got interested in seeing if I could stop the motion, so you were able to see the texture of the feathers. I fooled around with that for a couple of summers — it was a lot of fun to do.”
The wood creations range from simple bowls to vessels created out of multiple types of wood fused together, or crowned with intricately carved leaf-like structures, or by thin sinuous lengths that twirl up like wisps of smoke.
Hawks’ wood creations have been exhibited around the world, and in 1993, he and another Tulsa artist specializing in turned-wood sculpture, Ron Fleming, were commissioned to create pieces that would become part of the permanent art collection of the White House, after displayed there in an exhibit titled “The Year of American Craft: A Celebration of the Creative Works of the Hand.”
“Bowls and vases, those types of figures, have always appealed to me because there are so many designs you can create using those shapes,” he said. “Because this is a subtractive process — once you carve something away, you can’t put it back — it means that with every piece there are countless problems to solve.
“And then, there are always unexpected things that show up as you work on a piece,” Hawks said. “I remember one time, I was working on this piece of wood, and right there in the middle of it was this part of a telephone line. The tree had somehow grown around it. I had no idea it was there until I was well into the piece.”
Hawks was born in Hiawatha, Kansas, and while he became interested in photography at an early age, “I never had the wherewithal to do anything about it,” he said. When he served in the military during World War II, he would strike up friendships with the combat photographers.
“I knew I was going to get out of the service at some point, so I would ask them about what they thought was the best place to learn photography,” Hawks said. “A couple of them recommended the Arts Center (College of Design) in Los Angeles. One of them had studied there, while the other knew it by reputation. When I got out of the service, I made it a point that the first thing I did was to apply, and I got accepted.”
Hawks studied for two years in Los Angeles, and upon graduation set out along Route 66 to find a place to set up shop as a commercial photographer. He thought Kansas City would be a likely place, but once he arrived in Tulsa, he decided he liked the look of the place.
“I went down to the Chamber of Commerce and asked them who was the best commercial photographer in town,” Hawks said. “I realized there weren’t too many that were doing the sort of high-end photography that I wanted to do. So we just decided to stay here.
“This was a time in Tulsa when industrial expansion was rampant because the oil business was booming,” he said. “I got contracts with several of the industrial design firms in the area that were designing refineries here and in Canada and Mexico. It was work that took me all over the country.”
Hawks said he made the decision that he would retire from commercial photography when he reached 65 and sold his business to a partner who has started working for him as an apprentice.
It took a bit of convincing from fellow wood-turner Fleming, who worked as a commercial artist for many years, to try his hand at wood-turning.
“I had a pretty good sized shop where I would make things like cabinets and tables,” Hawks said. “I had always thought that wood-turning was just what you did to make things like table legs. But it’s really bloomed in recent years, with more and more people doing some really interesting work.”
Hawks has used exotic woods in his art, but because it’s more and more difficult and expensive to import woods from South America and Asia, he prefers to use what’s close to home, such as walnut, sweet gum, Osage orange and sycamore.
“My favorite wood of all is native black cherry,” he said. “There’s not a lot of it anymore around here — but you can find it more to the east. The best bowl I ever did was made from a black cherry tree that I cut down around 27th Street and Harvard (Avenue).”
Some health concerns have kept Hawks away from the lathe for a while, but he intends to get back to making art as soon as he can.
As for his longevity, Hawks credits being able to do what he loves in a place he loves.
“I can honestly say there has never been a day when I did not want to go to work, whether it was photography or in the shop,” he said. “And the people that I’ve had the pleasure to work with and get to know here are just wonderful. I doubt I would have been able to do as well as I have any place else.”
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