Gallery America

S6 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Joe Slack: Iron Man

Joe Slack is Oklahoma’s iron man. His enormous, lifelike sculptures of steel are transforming public spaces across Oklahoma City. His latest project, though, is the biggest of all – a mural of steel birds and dancers that fills a median wall in Midtown that stretches over two football fields in length. Gallery America goes inside Joe’s art to show how his unique style with steel is making Oklahoma

AIRED: November 05, 2020 | 0:27:46
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TRANSCRIPT

Next on Gallery America.

Joe Slack is Oklahoma's own Iron

Man. Over the past decade, he's

become one of the state's most

prolific sculptors.

♪♪♪

Creating huge lifelike public

pieces of art with a lot of steel.

I would describe my art

is kind of constructivism

And deconstructivism, cause I

build step up. I take stuff

apart.

♪♪♪

We visit Joe in his studio as he

works on his biggest project

yet. So you can just get an idea

of the main part of the wall. To

transform an Oklahoma city

eyesore, two football fields in

length into something beautiful,

inspiring, and fun all with his

unmistakable style. I feel in my

soul that I'm supposed to make

giant things

♪♪♪

Hello, Oklahoma. I'm Robert

Reed. Welcome to Gallery

America. That show that brings

you the best of art in Oklahoma

and around the nation. Do you

remember the song? Route 66 when

singers like Matt King Cole,

Bobby Troup, Mick Jagger would

sing, Oklahoma City look so, so

pretty, but usually they would

sing it better than that.

Oklahoma city in recent years

has really taken to that heart

with all kinds of projects to

beautify the city like right

here in Bricktown. Public

artworks along the canal.

Nearby, is the Centennial Land

Run Memorial by Paul Moore, one

of the world's largest bronze

sculpture. Then there's the

Oklahoma river with its boat

house and walking trails.

♪♪♪

Neighborhoods have action too

like Plaza walls with an alley

fill with murals of featuring

some of Oklahoma's greatest

artists

And there is

new things too, like the

Oklahoma contemporary building

opened in 2020. As did Scissor

Tail Park a popular new hub of

public activity downtown like

kayaking, plus there's nice views

of the nearby Skydance bridge.

Today, we're meeting an artist

who's chipping in to help make

Oklahoma city to be beautiful

too. He got us creative start

designing skateboards, but now

he works with iron. He does big

things, big projects you already

see around the city, but his

latest project is the biggest of

all. It's stretches the length

of two football fields and its

name is almost as long, but

we'll let him explain that in a

minute. And the goal was to

transform this medium in the

middle of a split level road in

the middle of midtown, Oklahoma

city into something beautiful. I

mean, this is the thing that you

would drive by for years and not

even notice that is until Joe

Slack got his hands on it.

Check it out.

♪♪♪

This area here was very

thriving. Most of the people

that live around here, uh, could

walk to work at Robertson Steel,

that went bankrupt in 88. This

was a central, you know, source

of income and work in the area.

So this is the iron district and

you've got iron buildings, iron

producers. It's been in decay for

the last 30 years. And now it's

a lot of vacant buildings, uh,

which hopefully, you know,

people move in and create some,

some thriving businesses because

there's so much good

architecture. There's still just

a lot of potential here and It's

just waiting to be developed.

It's fitting that, you know,

considering I do steelwork and

iron work, uh, it's almost

kismet that, that my studio

falls within the iron district.

♪♪♪

My name is Joe Slack and I'm a

metal and wood sculpture. So

this is the Slack sculpture

park. And, uh, it houses a lot

of my inventory that I currently

have. I've got more of a

sculpture park over in that area

too. I try and just do things

specifically to what I want to

make and just kind of let my

imagination loose. And, uh,

these are some of the products..

♪♪♪

I am a figurative

abstract artist. Uh, you know, I

like simplified primitive forms.

I like to play a lot with

shadow. Um, you know, simpler

forms really just give you some

stark, nice crsip shadows.

lA ittle tongue in cheek humor,

kind of a touch of a mid-century

modern design mixed in there. I

add a lot of line texture, uh,

just to give it some depth and

really engage the light.

Moment I knew that I was like, okay, I

am on to something was when I

got my first public piece and

that piece is at Classen and NW

Expressway.

Um, it's Who Emotion, it's an

orange figure with long arms

walking. And so I got that piece

and got some recognition and it

just really kind of, you know, I

started getting some more sales

and so it, that was when I was

30 and uh, 11 years ago. And so

I've done, I don't know how many

public commissions sense and I

mean, it's nice to get

recognized. But that's not why

I do it. I do it for that moment

where it's just like, you're in

your studio and you can just

like, Oh my God, I love this.

You know,

I'm a sculptor who uses certain

medium. I'm not a welder. I'm a

artist who uses welding as an

application for, you know, to

achieve what I want. Okay. I'm

heating back here. Don't do

anything yet, getting that

butter churning. I'm not a

woodworker. I use wood to get

where I'm going. Um, so really

it's just, it's about exploring mediums.

I would describe my

art is kind of constructivism

and deconstructivism, cause I, I

build stuff up. I take stuff apart.

kind of like engineering

taken away and did building, you

know, reducing, uh, I use a lot

of positive and negative space

and it all really kinda falls

back into really simplified

primitive forms. We're wrapping

the piece. Basically we take our

front and back. We put one side

down, so it ends up looking like

a cookie cutter for a little

bit. And then we put the top on,

go back in and just start

tacking and we disperse the

tack. So the heat doesn't warp

the sculptor. Uh, then we'll go

back in and start finished

welding we'll we'll bend and

shape these insides. I'll make,

I'll do those on the slip roll,

um, and insert those. So we just

keep tightening it and rolling

it through the, make an electric

one. It's kind of fun. And I

just like the process.

And then we'll start adding out

all the finish,

Go back in and grind those out,

Start adding some texture on the

body and just,

Huh, make it pop!

My style is all I know how to do

it. It's innately comes from me.

And I think if you fake your

style or you know, your passion,

people see through that, so you

just really have to do, do what

comes up

Naturally. It's an honor to work

with him. We have years of

camaraderie and knowing each

other right through middle

school. I think the reason why

people really pick up on Joe's

work is it's simplicity, but

it's layered fun. It's got

really great composition, really

good layout. And the finished

work that really makes this

stuff really pop. And you know,

it's not just the silhouette. So

it's definitely made me a better

artist. Turning an art cookie

cutter into a sculpture, looking

and it almost looks as like we know

what we are doing! I think I

can do this for a living. Just a

thought.

The current piece I'm working

on,

Uh, it's a mouthful is, uh,

BirdsWatching OKC Lightning

Thunder Dance Party. And I

wanted to go with something

short, you know, just, uh, I

just, I thought it was fun to

say it, it catches your

attention and it's for Oklahoma

City Beautiful, it's for their

50th year anniversary project.

So the bridge, if you would call

it a bridge, I don't know really

it's, it's a median and one

side's elevated, one's not.

♪♪

It's 132 figures. Uh, that's

including the birds. Uh, it's a

total of 660 feet long, which is

massive. So it's over two

football fields I believe. And,

uh, it's a massive undertaking.

Yeah. I used to, I hand cut

everything or I would cut it

with templates that I would cut

out of wood. I was traced. Those

required a lot more clean up,

but the amount of work that's

going to require, I needed to

buy this machine and the CNC

plasma cutter takes your images

and it plots it out on the

steel, cuts it out for you. And

then it requires less cleanup. I

take my simple drawings

And convert them into vectorize

drawings for the computer. So

they're infinitely scaleable.

So you can scale up

scale down.

Uh, so now I'm creating the cut

path

For the machine to follow and

picking the order from the cut.

So you can just get an idea of,

of the main part of the wall.

This is the center part where it

starts to die down on both

sides. And I did one of the end

pieces with a few of the birds

just to relay the idea. This was

the model that I, uh, I showed

my presentation for OKC

Beautiful.

We called it the eyelid for

years and we thought that was

the perfect place to, to make it

something, uh, original and

improves the area.

Normally they, they focus on

landscaping and medians in

Oklahoma City and beautify and

plant flowers, shrubs, trees,

um, and adopt mediums. But this

was kind of a special project

for them, uh, doing this wall on

the median.

♪♪♪

There has been some studies that

have been completed by the city

on, uh, making that area more

walkable, letting the citizens

that live on the east side of

Classen and to be able to access

areas like the Plaza district

and Midtown and, and get to the

areas on the west side of

Classen.

It was in pretty bad shape. It

hadn't been painted or

maintenance or anything probably

since it was built. And, uh,

there was a lot of concrete

damage. I went in and repaired

all that myself.

We had 22 artists apply Joe

Slack was one of our finalist.

And when he presented this very

unique iron piece, we just knew

that had to be it.

Another one hot off the press

It is birds watching these

people dancing in the rain. This

is my cheesy dancer. It's doing

that stereotypical move. They

said, pitch something beautiful

and I seen my neighbors kids

dancing in the rain

Onto the next.

♪♪

And it just reminded me when I

was a kid dancing in the rain,

you know, in the eighties, like

we would go outside and do

whatever and thought man that's

nice. And then I just started

thinking like everybody can

dance until somebody says they

can't dance. And so the concept

behind the wall is, you know,

whatever your dance is, do it,

you know? And don't let people

tell you, you can't do it. You

know, get out there and dance,

no matter how bad you dance, you

know, just embrace whatever that

thing is you want to do.

So we'll take each piece and

sand it down to clean paintable

metal. After we prime it, then

we paint it, Do the finished

coat and then it's ready for

install, Painting them was just

a nightmare, just cause it was

so many of them. And once we

would paint them, they started

filling up the entire shop. So

we had to figure out, okay, we

need to go and start installing

them before they're all finished

because we don't have enough

room in the shop to have all 123

figures. So we need to do 30.

You get 30 over there.

Challenges really was just not

to damage the pieces, get them

their nice unscratched

undamaged. Once they are on the

wall. They're fine.

Today we are drilling. Oh,

there's like seven mounds per

piece. We got to drill seven

holes, uh, to a proxy to figures

into the wall. So the epoxy is

stronger than concrete. So

they're not going anywhere. The

idea is they'll be here and you

know for 40 years. Only like 600 to

go! I ended up with 24 different

figures because I didn't want it

to be like every third one,

repeat. I want it to be like,

you don't even know, you know,

it's a hundred feet down the

hall, you see the same figure

there. And then 15 different

bird designs. Like maybe that

much more higher. That's

probably good. And they range in

size. So they start off at like

36 inches and the wall

progresses and tapers up and

arcs. Uh, they go up to 84

inches in height.

321..dancing figures!

♪♪♪

There's between six and four

dancing figures per panel, each

panel. I'm considering a section

or scene.

I think the whole thing needs to

move down a little. And I was a

little nervous. Cause usually,

you know, if you make an error,

it's small, you know, even if

it's a 15 foot piece, it's small

that one up like right where it

is. If you can spin it, you make

an error on 640 foot piece. And

it trickled down. There was a

little bit of sleep loss, six,

seven... I Kind of wanted to

capture all the different dance

moves that I see. It's kind of

the cheesy, cheesy, old guy

dance move. And then he got, you

know, a couple of sexy ladies,

Maybe we'll edit out the sexy

ladies. We have some upside down

summer goofy, you know, some are

break dancing. So the birds are

watching all these figures

dancing. That's why all the

birds have eyeballs.

This project

It's gonna take, it's gonna take

as long as it takes. You know,

there's a, there's a soft

deadline, but I mean, if it

takes a month, it takes months.

It takes six months. It takes

six months. It's a, you know,

it's a passion project for me.

Yeah, come here. YoYo,

I drove by this building for

five years before I made an

offer on it.

This is my dream building. Uh,

It sits in the Metro Park

neighborhood.

You get that skip. Yah, it was

beautiful!

I was working out at 800 square

feet in my backyard. And it was

getting really tight, it was

like all my medals,

and material there's barely room

to work.

This right here is called the

shape of things. It's whopping

1200 pound piece.

So it's about what shapes you as

a person and what forms, who you

are as a whole. So I went from

800 to 4,000. So I'm able to in

this building, which I couldn't

have done there

is build a piece in Edmond, the

total sculpture is 17 feet

tall. This piece right here is,

uh, it's called directions. And

it sits in the crossroads of

middle America. You could head

to Kansas this way. You could

head to Dallas this way, This

piece was commisioned by the,

uh, Edmond Arts Commission and

the

OnCue. You got

these three heads, a lot of

texture. This piece was quite a

massive undertaking. I had a lot

fun making this piece. Like I

said, it's my favorite piece of

all my pieces. I feel like in my

soul that I'm supposed to make

giant things. And so I'm

fascinated in a name or by

cultures that did that.

I call it primitive modern. So

it's a mixture of primitive, you

know, designs. Kind of like

Henry Moore, he was influenced

by primitive art, Roberto

Giacometti, Alexander Calder, he

did giant steel pieces. A lot of

the arts are really like, just

like these simplified forms. And

so I'm kind of influenced by

people who were influenced by

primitive art. So it's kind of

like, uh, in, in those

sculptures were really thriving

in the mid-century. Mine is kind

of a spawn of the two.

So

I just, I'm drawn to,

♪♪

everything's been done to some

level and things seep in and

just, you know, it's just, you

gotta find your, where your

influences come from and kind of

listen to your, your own kind of

inner thoughts.

♪♪♪

The texture of it to me, a lot

of times and the voids are about

scars and experiences and the

things that you collect in your

life that make up who you are.

So as I get more scars and you

know, more memories than my, my

work can be affected by all

that. So today I'm going to lay

out the composition for Void

Matrix. This is a piece I

started a few months ago and,

uh, I've got a rough idea where

I want to go with it, but I'm

going to lay these out and just

kinda see what happens and let

it kind of happen naturally.

This one, I want it to be more

geometric and more like

circuitry on it.

♪♪♪

Great art and great artists

work intuitively it should be an

extension of themselves. Like

the work should represent them.

I should see the work and go,

wow, I understand a little bit

about that guy. It shouldn't be

forced. And that's why I just

kind of roll with what, you

know, my subconscious tells me,

♪♪♪

You just want to be doing what

you want all the time because

the commissions are nice.

When a client comes to me,

generally. I hope they come to

me because they liked my style.

What I do. I mean, if they come

to me and say, Hey, I want you

to make a square, but I'm the

guy that makes circles, you

know, they came to the

wrong guy,

Otherwise I would just be

building stuff. I don't want to

build all day. What's the point

of that? I would just go get it

for regular day job.

I've had for the last three years.

one big public work, uh,

commission per year, which is,

has been a really nice run.

♪♪♪

The wall is only 1,324 steps

from my studio. Uh, and it's

right on the edge of downtown.

Yeah. I have my way. It's going

to be a thriving district with,

you know, public art and in the

median and, and just hopefully

be, you know, real attribute to

the city.

♪♪♪

♪♪♪♪

For three monts we were half time on this

Then the last three months nothing

but this project.

Some weeks we were putting in

100 hours or more.

♪♪♪

For the last five years Gary

has worked for me.

He's got a good eye.

Even it's his idea, his creations

It's good to have somebody that you

knows your work and that can

on it as well.

♪♪♪

All the colors, every third one.

So we have, we've got like light

blue, blue, you know, so three

different shades of blue slash

green. The pieces are going to

come in and out in and out. So,

uh, along with, you know, the

scale changing and there's in

and out playing on the shadows too,

because even though one's only

like half inch or more, that

shadow passes a little further.

You know at first look, you may

say, Oh, that's kind of a simple

piece. It's not, I mean, it's

subtle nuances of complication.

Probably there is roughly a

thousand to 12 to 1500 lightning

bolts. I'm going for a random

pattern. So it'll be like, boom,

boom, boom, boom, boom. I think

people take time and slow down

and just look at it. You know, I

didn't cut on anything. As far

as cutting corners, it was just

a hundred percent. ♪♪♪

Project turned out great. We've got

probably 1800 hours in it. We're

moving along. And I, you know,

it's just exciting to see it

growing and getting close to the

end. I'll go up there and hand

it down to you. Last one!

It does amaze me on the scale of

it, that it turned out, you

know, and it came out better

than I expected, which is always

a nice surprise. And that's just

for you. And it just, it, it's a

nice confidence booster for

other, you know, future big

projects. Like if I can do this

and it looks exactly the way I

want. Yeah. Then, then maybe,

you know, I figured something out!

♪♪♪

I want the generation of kids

right now seeing it, uh, you

know, to be my age at some point

and driving their kids by it

and, you know, telling them when

they used to go by there with

their family. And that to me is

like the greatest thought of it.

♪♪♪

It was a long, hard project with

lots of traffic. And, uh, he

spent hours in the cold making

it just beautiful. We're so

proud of it. We couldn't be more

proud.

Hopefully, you know, people come

from out of state to see this,

you know, or that, you know, if

they're in town, they want to

see it. You know, it becomes a

landmark, a destination spot.

That to me would just be cool

And it's really building it for

me, but it's just nice to get,

see other people engaged with

something that you created with

your hand, you know, give them a

little slice of you and just,

it's just fun to see the

response.

We're out here today and

it's raining. And, uh, you know,

this is kind of the thought

figures dancing in the rain and

the lightening, uh, you know,

just, uh, getting funky on the wall!

It's fun. I mean, it's

cool. And then the birds that

just the birds crack me up. I

don't know. They make me smile.

♪♪♪♪

You know whatever your dance

is, do it, you know, and don't

let people tell you,

You can't do it.

♪♪♪

So you heard it from Joe, ladies

and gentlemen find, and do your

dance like this

Back forward, back forward, back

forward, shuffle shuffle.

♪♪♪

That's my version of the

Charleston. I do have some

homework to do. Definitely when

you're in Oklahoma city, check

out Joe's project Birdwatching

OKC Lightning Thunder Dance Party

just northwest of

downtown on Northwest Classed

and Boulevard between seventh

and ninth streets. And while

you're in the area, be sure to

check out the neighborhood, all

kinds of changes as these

modernist homes and the newly

reopened Classen Inn iand a 1960s

motel, that's already the

darling of Instagram. To see

more of Joe's artwork, visit his

website, at Joeslack.com or go

to his Instagram account

@JoeSlackOne. Oh and while

you're there be sure to follow

Gallery America online. We post

all sorts of additional bonus

videos on Oklahoma artists,

galleries, museums, just go to

@oetagallery That's all the time

we have for gallery America.

Thank you so much to Joe for

inviting us into his iron man

layer. And thank you for joining

us until next time. Remember

stay arty and don't forget to

do your dance.

♪♪♪

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