Date posted:  April 27, 2017

Both Willard Stone and Thomas Gilcrease were born into families of mixed Native and European American ancestry. But where Gilcrease’s Creek citizenship granted him an allotment of 160 acres atop the Glenn Pool of oil that provided him with tremendous wealth, Stone’s early life was marked by the formidable challenges of economic struggle and personal tragedy. Stone’s mother, Lyda Headrick, was of Cherokee heritage and her family hoped to receive allotments in the Cherokee Nation. Due to difficulties in reaching the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah in Indian Territory from their home in Texas before tribal enrollment closed, the family was deemed ineligible for citizenship and the allotments of land it would have provided.
The Headrick family ultimately settled in the Creek Nation near Oktaha, south of Muskogee, in present-day Oklahoma. There Lyda met and married George Stone.  Willard was the last of their six children, born on leap year day, February 29, 1916. George Stone died the following year, leaving Lyda to support the family as a sharecropper in the area’s cotton fields. Despite their hardscrabble existence, Lyda encouraged Willard’s artistic interests. But tragedy struck at age thirteen, when Willard’s curiosity led him to pick up a strange object – which turned out to be a blasting cap. In the resulting explosion, Stone lost most of his right thumb and first two fingers. Unable to hold a pencil or brush to draw and paint, Stone withdrew into solitude with little sense of purpose.Yet Stone could not deny his innate artistic talent. By age fifteen he taught himself to hold a pocketknife with his damaged right hand to sculpt small birds and animals. By following the grain of his artistic genius, Stone developed his gift to reanimate blocks of wood into expressive, lifelike works of art.  

To commemorate Oklahoma sculptor Willard Stone’s birth one hundred years ago on February 29, 1916, Gilcrease Museum presented Following the Grain: A Centennial Celebration of Willard Stone. This exhibition highlighted Stone’s 1940s artistic association with Thomas Gilcrease and the new Gilcrease Museum, which opened in Tulsa in 1949.  
In late 1945, recognizing Stone’s potential, Thomas Gilcrease offered him a position as the first artist-in-residence for his Gilcrease Foundation. In the process Gilcrease became both patron and collector of the artist. Stone’s appointment was for three years, 1946–48, and included a stipend of $200 per month with a year-end bonus of $600. As was typical of Thomas Gilcrease, their agreement was sealed with a handshake. The arrangement benefited both men: all the art that Stone created during his residency would belong to the museum while Gilcrease provided Willard a steady income to care for his family.
Willard Stone received his formal art education at Bacone College in Muskogee from two other noted Oklahoma artists, Acee Blue Eagle and Woody Crumbo. Both would follow Stone as an artist-in-residence at Gilcrease Museum. But it was Thomas Gilcrease that Willard credited as his greatest influence. Stone would later reflect that “Tom Gilcrease gave me the chance to find out what I could do with wood and clay and to develop a style of my own. I would not have been recognized had it not been for him, because he gave me the courage to try.”
Works in this centennial exhibition embody several of the themes that inspired Stone’s art, including reverence for the natural world, affinity for Native American life, and interpretations of world events of the 1940s. Regardless of subject or inspiration, Following the Grain: A Centennial Celebration of Willard Stone provides testimony to the gift and creativity of the man who transformed “whittling” into exquisite art.  

Sculpting the Human Form

With swirling wood grains rippling across smooth surfaces, Willard Stone’s sculptures of human figures seem to take on a life of their own. Wood patterns form concentric circles around shoulders and faces, and flow through elongated limbs. With glowing natural wood tones and minimal detail, Stone celebrates humanity with the beauty and simplicity of polished wood.
With a personal connection to Native Americans through his mother, a non-government enrolled Cherokee, many of Willard Stone’s artworks were inspired by Native history and culture. By carving Native figures in traditional regalia with a modern, simplified style, Stone created a contemporary image of Native cultures.
Stone’s sculpted figures often convey a sense of motion. In The Wood Carver, Stone creates a subtle self-portrait showing a sculptor’s hands in the act of creating an idealized female form. By contrast, Stone’s sculpture Tomorrow portrays a streamlined figure hurtling forward into space. Influenced by the repeated geometric lines of modern Art Deco design of the early 20th century, this figure is a symbol for the speed of the machine age—carved in a soft, natural wood. In sculpting human figures, Willard Stone found inspiration in both the past and the future. 

Finding Inspiration in Nature

In the teeming, lush countryside of eastern Oklahoma, Willard Stone created artworks based on the natural world around him. From local hardwood trees, he found wood stock to create his polished, streamlined sculptures. Inspired by the wild creatures and domestic livestock on his Oklahoma farm, many of Stone’s sculptures capture the graceful motion and fluid power of the animal kingdom.
Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Stone carefully observed the fields and creeks of Muskogee County and filled scraps of paper with drawings of animals and birds. He later purchased a 30-acre farm in Locust Grove, Oklahoma. “We have a variety of chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, cows, pigs, and one horse, along with cats, dogs, and ‘possum,” Stone described. “There is no money in it but it’s a lot of fun … and I gather ideas from them.”
To capture the essence of a particular creature, Stone rendered animals with elongated lines and abstracted, simplified forms. The Mighty Colt stands tall on outrageously long legs, exuding child-like pride and confidence. Stone’s animals seem to contain human emotions—calling to mind an innate connection between humanity and the natural world.

Shaped by Global Politics

Willard Stone’s youth and early art career were marked by the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the rise of nuclear power—sweeping world events that left an indelible mark on the 20th century. Following his conviction that “an artist should present the period he lives in,” Stone used sculpture to interpret the consequences and emotions of turbulent global politics.
In the 1940s, the profound effects of World War II reverberated across the country—even extending to the peaceful communities of eastern Oklahoma. Stone’s 1946 sculpture War Widows portrays a series of bowed women holding their faces, huddled in grief. By gradually increasing the scale of each figure, Stone represents the growing anguish and sorrow they felt. Rather than glorifying combat, this sculpture portrays an ever-deepening sadness, offering a reflection on the terrible impact of war.
Observing the rise of the nuclear age, Stone created a series of sculptures reacting to this new, inconceivably destructive force. In International Peace Effort, Stone portrays two hands grasping at the plume of a mushroom cloud. The cloud rises between two hands as they reach to shake in agreement, representing the effect of atomic power on Soviet-American relations in the 1940s. In his sculptures of a polished, pristine atomic mushroom cloud, Stone invites viewers to question whether the potential of nuclear energy is worth the considerable risk.