The God he believed in gave Willard Stone a superb gift—a mind and a soul and hands that could transform a block of wood into rhythm and movement and poetry. Stone, the wood sculptor, is the study of humility, quiet warmth and penetrating vision. He was a man close to the soil. He lived on a rocky hillside farm east of Locust Grove, Oklahoma. In this rural setting, surrounded by children and animals, he found his inspiration. As a boy, Stone knew the harshness of the land as well as its beauty. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother raised the family, working as a sharecropper in the cotton fields near Oktaha, Oklahoma. An accident (a dynamite cap explosion) almost destroyed his zeal for living at the age of 13. His keen interest in drawing was thwarted by the loss of portions of his right thumb and two fingers, and he withdrew from school. His natural ability found a new outlet—that of modeling in clay the things he knew. Willard always relished rainy days, for as a boy, they provided his only respite from the cotton fields.


Walking home, he could scoop up damp, red clay from the banks and carry it home to mold into animals and things in nature with which he was familiar. Friends, aware of this, encourage him as a teenager to enter his work in the Muskogee State Fair. His models drew the attention of Grant Foreman, the dean of Oklahoma historians. Foreman was impressed with the talent of this reserved, part-Cherokee boy, and he encouraged him to seek formal training. Stone entered Bacone Indian College in 1936. Acee Blue Eagle and Woody Crumbo began guiding him along a path of an artist. They soon discovered that he already knew much of what they had to teach him, so they made a studio for him by cleaning out a storage closet. Here he began to develop his own style of sculpting. He would search for the exact piece of wood, which would portray with color, grain, and mass, the image he strove to produce. As he worked with wood, his fascination with the medium grew. After leaving college, where he won national recognition, Stone discovered that a knife and chisel earned little money for food for himself and his bride. For several years he worked at common jobs to support his growing family. In the 1940s, oil patron and art collector, Thomas Gilcrease, gave him an opportunity to strive for perfection and feed his family at the same time. A three-year grant as an artist in residence at the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art made it possible. Today, the Institute owns a large collection of his work, particularly from that period. During his tenure at Gilcrease, an art critic wrote, “This young artist shows promise of becoming the finest wood sculptor in the United States . . . any subject seems to lend itself to his individual effulgent style.” Upon leaving Gilcrease, Stone againfound it difficult to support his large family with “critic’s praises.” Some people sought him out to buy his carvings, but he still found it necessary to work—first as a pattern maker with an iron firm and die finisher with an aircraft firm in Tulsa. Experts, slowly, one by one,

across the country began to “discover” this “rare genius” that resided in an unknown community somewhere in Oklahoma. Galleries began to respond, and individuals became more insistant in their demands for his work. By 1961, it reached the point where he could resign his regular job and devote his hours to his art. His sculpture became so popular with collectors, and he had such a backlog of commissioned pieces, that he found it difficult to retain enough pieces to honor exhibit requests. This schedule continued until his death from a heart attack on March 5, 1985.

          Willard Stone was a Non-Government Enrolled Descendant Cherokee American. Although he was of mixed heritage, his Cherokee heritage was most important to him, and he raised his children to be proud of this heritage. He sought to preserve this through his art. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma adopted Stone’s “Exodus” sculpture as that Nation’s logo. He would always find time to represent the Cherokee nation at local, state and national functions. He was always encouraging young artists—of all nationalities—to be all they could be. Stone is buried in the Stone Family Cemetery at his home in Locust Grove, Oklahoma. Also located on this farm is the “Willard Stone Museum,” which houses the largest collections of his works.

Willard Stone had a native sense of line and form which won him recognition as the foremost wood sculptor in the United States.

His work is highly stylized, emphasizing the aspect of the subject which best expresses the idea he had in mind. With a chunk of wood, a chisel, a hammer and a pocket knife, he comments on the pathos of “Today’s Full Blood” waiting for commodities; captures the bond of love between mother and child, and transfers human foibles to fur and fowl.

Stone’s is an art concerned with human values. His workshop stands behind the house where he and his part-Choctaw wife Sophie have nurtured ten children. Life permeates the Stone farm. There is always a human element in his work, and animals represent the Indian’s attitude toward the wild life around him. It is in his creative pieces—those he conceived and developed for his own satisfaction—that Stone demonstrated his genius. These are the pieces that are so alive, so fluid, so dramatic, so expressive. To produce a piece, Stone sketched his mulled-over idea on paper, then selected a seasoned wood that had the right grain and suited the color of the subject. His figures are executed in maple, walnut, sassafras, cherry, and Oklahoma red cedar. He felt that the warmth, the color, and the grain of wood made it the ideal medium, and that by playing the grain, the sculpture was strengthened. He sketched on the chosen wood, blocked it out with a knife and chisel, and then, slowly and precisely, carved the details with a pocket knife. While in this phase of work, Stone worked without stopping until he had created the image he sought. The pieces are intricate in detail and striking in appearance. Many of them have flowing lines and a feeling of movement. After the carving was completed, Stone would work for weeks on the finish, using linseed oil and polishing the wood with his hands. With the finished piece on the shelf, Stone would go “pishin,” as his then 4-year-old Rocky called it, to relax and clear the image from his mind. He sought solitude, more than a string of catfish, to sit and sketch ideas for future pieces.



A critic and personal friend of Stone has written:

“Stone combined the Indian’s love of symbolism with his deep understanding and appreciation of nature, and the result is art that transcends its regional origin and becomes universal in expression. Nature is his source of inspiration, but he renders is in terms of personal interpretation, rather than in terms of imitation. It is this dimension of his work that gives it stature in the ranks of contemporary American art.”

For all of his life, Willard Stone worked in the same simple crowded studio, striving to create the perfect pieces of sculpture.
“A man spends his whole lifetime trying for perfection, but he never makes it . . . this is for God alone.”



   © 2007 Willard Stone Museum. All rights reserved.