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G. Oscar on midtown trees, drawing, and the city’s evolution

Gaylord Oscar Herron, photographer and owner of G Oscar Bicycles

Greg Bollinger

In 1975, Tulsa photographer Gaylord Oscar Herron published “Vagabond,” a semi-autobiographical photo essay set in Tulsa, to great acclaim. In the years since, he’s made a significant impact on Tulsa’s cycling culture as the owner of G. Oscar Bicycles, located at 16th and Main. 

In Herron’s upstairs studio above his shop, Donald Trump is bloviating on TV. Herron turns it off and recites a limerick he wrote.

GH: “Donald Trump for a little while/ Donald Trump for a little while/ Donald Trump for a little while/ Then he be gone.” And that’s probably the way it’s going to work out.

TTV: Let’s hope, anyway. So, tell me about the work you do through the bike shop with Family and Children’s Services.

GH: They said they have a lot of women who can hold a job but can’t get there. So, they figured a bicycle would be a good for a small commute to work and back. I came up with these bikes that would’ve [originally] been $500 bikes…and I go over them and make them ready to ride. I sell them for $100 and then I maintain the flats and tubes, calibration and upkeep. One of the ladies came in and she wanted a softer seat on her bike, so I put a big lounger seat on there and she rode off across the parking lot and she was so happy. She seemed so free and so energized by all of that—able to hold a job, go to work without having to struggle, and feel positive and contributive. So it’s a good thing all the way around. It’s funded by the Kaiser Foundation, but I’m not sure if it’s going to continue to be funded by them. I don’t know; that’s not my department.

TTV: How old are the bikes?

GH: They go back 15-20 years but they’re the kind of bike that will last for decades, as opposed to the throwaway bikes you come across in department stores, like a Next Bike. One of those full suspension things. They look the part, but they’re not. They’re counterfeit bikes.

TTV: What does an average bike go for, at your shop?

GH: The entry-level price of a new bike will be about $400 in a bike shop. Trek, or Specialized, or Fuji, or any of the bike shop bikes. We deal in old bikes, and we make old bikes new again. The cost is around $200, so you’re getting almost 100 percent of a new bike for about 45 percent of the cost. A lot of times people can’t afford to buy even a bike. People are in dire straits—a lot of our customers, anyway. So I deal with that kind of limitation.

TTV: You’ve said photography was the first love, and then came bicycles. Is there a correlation between the two?

GH: I’ll look at pictures I did years and years ago and I’ll see a bicycle here and there. So I was taking pictures of bicycles all along. Some of the first pictures I did in Korea and Japan were people on bicycles. But I didn’t have any conscious attraction to bicycles necessarily. But that’s a good question. I’ve seen the evidence of that kind of interest. Let me show you something.

We go into the next room and Herron pulls out a large black three-ring binder with small, old photographs pasted and numbered inside.

GH: This starts in ’62 in Korea and Japan. And here’s a bicycle in one of the very first pictures. When you look at these, you’re looking at the first gestalt of whatever I’m interested in. What a photographer does is wait to be called to something. It’s almost existential. You don’t just say, “I like that and want to take a picture of it.” You’re called to point the camera.

TTV: What are you working on now?

GH: I’ve got a book going. It’s not related to this (gestures to old photographs) at all, it has to do with the section of Tulsa that starts at 21st and goes to 51st, from the river to Harvard. It’s a little more than six square miles. In there is a stand of trees, or a “wood” … Tall, ancient, majestic trees that were there before the neighborhoods were built. They were from the silt from the Arkansas basin. All of that watershed coming down through the creeks and whatnot created this just incredible earth to grow big old hardwood trees. So I’m interested in depicting that.

We move to a side table where a large stack of white papers and photographs sits.

GH: These are photographs I draw on with colored pencils [and pastels] and then re-scan. These are real places. But I go in and make subtle changes to help illustrate the trees.

TTV: What is this text?

GH: This is Revelation chapters 21 and part of 22, which talk about the city foursquare, the New Jerusalem. I’m [showing] how [the images] line up visually with the description in the Bible. It’s a very strange combination, but that’s what I’m after.

Here is the Frank Lloyd Wright house. I turned it into a picket fence. And this is our house with a big old sugarberry tree. Here is Crow Creek at 26th and Utica; I added the Monet bridge. I’m taking delight in adding these modifications. Sometimes I’m putting in figures … “little ghosties,” I’m calling them. This was J. Paul Getty’s wife’s house. So there’s a lot of history in here, too.

TTV: Do you get the sense that trees tell us about time?

GH: Yeah. I get the sense that trees are telling us more than we ever thought.

Herron shows me two images of the same tree at different times of year. In one, it’s wild, vibrant green, sprawling. In the other it’s rich brown, sparse, and bony, like arrested hands with fingers stuck in the air.

GH: There’s something I’ve realized in doing these drawings [on the photographs] that’s totally unconscious. Your hands are they key. You can…arrange and frame and compose, but until you start playing with pens and pencils and paintbrushes do you get that energy to come through your hand. Something else is going through you.

TTV: Do you have a name for that thing?

GH: A touch of God’s eye, a touch of God’s ear. I think that’s it.

The tree thing has got me driven right now. I don’t know how much to talk about this because I’m still working on it…I feel a lot of people won’t want to touch this because its Biblical.

TTV: Are you religious?

GH: I’m not religious. But I know the Bible. Let’s put it that way … I don’t believe it’s been interpreted right. Nobody talks about the city foursquare.

Herron finds a printout of commentary on the Revelation chapter.

GH: This idea is that we need to pay attention to God’s formula for building a city because he doesn’t like the way we’ve done it. We’ve created too much crime and chaos and angst—mainly by cramming people into boxes. In the 60s, once they [moved out] to Harvard, they went cracker box. Putting people in cubicles. All of those apartment complexes on the east end of town, where all the crime is—that’s the legacy of the cracker box. Crime. [The trees] establish what I call “dappled light,” and, you know, it speaks for itself. You get into dappled light, you feel good … it’s very soothing to people. You’ve got to have this if you don’t want madness. God says he wants us in nature; he doesn’t want us in the city, the streets, in cars.

TTV: You must have seen Tulsa change a lot over your life.

GH: It’s evolved a lot. And it evolved through legitimate commerce that was well funded by the oil industry. They built those gorgeous buildings downtown. They built neighborhoods and kept the trees. They built beautiful serpentine drives that weren’t gridded off, which tends to make your thinking rigid. Then they prevented commerce—CVS or anyone else from coming in on every corner. That needs to be maintained.

My main thesis here is that from the 20s to the 60s … they went into a selected body of trees—the Midtown Wood—and they built the best architecture they could and left the old trees as much as they could. You look at [a neighborhood] and think, “right next to Brookside? That can’t be elegant.” Yes, it is.

You know where the incursion that’s a sin is, right now? East of Whole Foods. That cracker box that just went in. Those people are from Texas. And now they want to do the same thing down at Denver and Riverside where they coincide. There’s a little triangle there. The same company wants to build cracker boxes in there, too. I think maybe—I’m hoping—that Kaiser has gotten hip to this and bought it. It could become a pocket park. If they put apartment complexes there, it’s just going to ruin it.

TTV: People see that land, though, and then see dollar signs.

GH: Yeah and that’s why Kaiser’s here – he’s got the dollars to just buy it up from under them, like he and Cadieux did with Turkey Mountain … And that’s what they’re doing all over the place. I love what they’re doing. My job and your job is to continue to talk about it until everyone understands we should be doing, preserving, keeping it from being desecrated by commerce.

When you look at Google you see this green rectangle, and then around it, it’s just mauve and manila…because of buildings and roofs and concrete, parking lots. It’s dramatic how things change outside that central midtown block of trees. I was looking at some of the street scenes from Mayfest. There wasn’t a tree to be seen anywhere, just buildings and easy-ups. It looked hostile because there was no shade.

TTV: I think about that when I see people at bus stops with no shade in the summer. Let’s build them something, or plant a tree.

GH: It’s costly. But the comfort of the culture should be the first priority. Why do we have to take a second seat to the economics?

TTV: Especially when the economics are supposed to make it more comfortable.

GH: Right, and they don’t work that way. The philosophy is that you give people enough money to go buy toothbrushes and tires and a little rent and food … they have to continually make all of these little transactions. Each turn that toothbrush takes creates a profit margin. That margin keeps gathering upward, until you get to the top and people are taking margins off of every transaction at the bottom. The network feeds itself, makes itself wealthy at the top, and allows only a certain amount of success at the bottom—just enough … to make those purchases. It’s constantly encroaching on its own success; it grows all the time. And we’re not going to be able to do anything about that, either. I mean, it’s going to be difficult. Donald Trump for a little while…

So enjoy the trees, acknowledge how we got here, and honor it.

For more from Liz, read her profile of Tulsa Artist Fellow Nathan Young.

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