OKLAHOMA CITY – Jason Stone remembers the passion his father, Willard, conveyed in each piece of wood he carved. Willard’s studio in Locust Grove, Okla. is where Jason learned the craft, too.


“My father’s spirit and heart was in each piece of his work, and I think that anyone that’s really familiar with his work can see him in each piece,” said Jason.


Though world-renowned sculptor Willard Stone passed away in 1985, he lives on, both through his artwork and his son. Living Legacy, featuring wood and bronze sculpture by the father/son duo, will open March 17 at the Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.


The son of a Cherokee sharecropper, Willard was raised by his mother outside of Oktaha, Okla. He dreamed of being a painter, but at age 13 an accident with dynamite claimed his thumb and two fingers on his right hand. Willard lost ambition for creating any kind of artwork for a while. A rainy day, turning the red Oklahoma dirt into clay, produced a discovery for Willard that would stay with him throughout his life. He began working that clay into shapes he was familiar with. Without any formal training for his art, Stone began to develop a passion for wood carving, learning how to get by with only two fingers on one hand.


“He never felt like that was a true handicap,” said Jason. “He told me one time if he had those fingers back, they’d be in his way.”


Friends encouraged Willard to seek formal training, and he entered Bacone Indian College in 1936. After college, he worked at common jobs to support his wife and growing family, which would eventually include 10 children. Thomas Gilcrease gave him an opportunity to pursue his passion and feed his family at the same time with a three-year grant as an artist in residence at the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art. Though Willard had to work common jobs again after the grant expired, experts slowly began to discover his work. The demand had gotten so great by 1961 that Willard resigned his regular job and devoted all his time 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.


Willard referred to himself as a craftsman rather than a fine artist. Known for his intricate details and the fluidity, drama and expression in his work, he grew over time to be one of America’s foremost sculptors. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1970. Until his death in 1985, Willard worked in the same simple, crowded studio, striving to create the perfect pieces of sculpture.


He always said that he could see what was in a block of wood,” said Jason. “He could see it already finished. He said the only reason he would carve it was so everyone else could see what was in that block of wood.”


Jason, also an award-winning sculptor, studied under his father and shares his ability to recreate emotion through his artwork. Jason’s inherited talent combined with his deep respect for his heritage and unique interpretation of his subjects has created a style all his own. His carvings each tell a story, many of them depicting the Native American way of life and their admiration of nature.


Using chiefly native wood like walnut and sassafras, Jason carves his original pieces with a variety of chisels and knives. He sands them by hand, finishing by hand-rubbing Tung oil into the sculpture to enhance the beauty of the grain and to protect the wood. 

With Jason as narrator, Willard is also featured in the Gaylord-Pickens Museum’s Optimism exhibit in its Oklahoma Through Its People Gallery, alongside the likes of baseball giant Mickey Mantle, country music superstar Reba McEntire and Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller. The interactive video captures the tenacity and grace with which Willard lived his life and created his art.    


“Students especially are drawn to Willard’s story – he certainly faced hardships, but he never let that stop him from achieving his dreams.” said Shannon L. Rich, president of the Oklahoma Heritage Association and Gaylord-Pickens Museum. “It’s stories like Willard’s that accomplish our mission here – kids watch his story and are inspired. They leave with the sense that they can make their own dreams come true and make a positive impact, right here in Oklahoma. I can’t think of any message more important to convey.”


Willard is also featured in the Museum’s Oklahoma Hall of Fame Gallery.


The Stones’ exhibit in the Tulsa World Gallery will include 29 pieces, 12 bronzes and three wood pieces by Willard and 13 bronzes and one wood piece by Jason. Each will be accompanied by the story of what the artist was feeling, replicating or hoping to convey while creating it. Most pieces will be for sale.


Living Legacy will be on display March 17 through June 18 at the Gaylord-Pickens Museum. An opening reception will be held Friday, March 18 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Museum at NW 13th Street & Shartel Avenue. The reception is open to the public and is free for Museum members and free with paid admission for non-members. RSVP to Corie Baker at 405.523.3212 or clb@oklahomaheritage.com.


The Museum Store will have various prints by Willard Stone for sale. Willard Stone’s work can also be seen in the permanent collection at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa and both Willard and Jason’s work can be seen at the Willard Stone Museum in Locust Grove.


Through high-tech, interactive exhibits, the Gaylord-Pickens Museum allows visitors to experience Oklahoma’s story through its people. Video-driven displays and computer touch screen provide guests a unique look into the lives of famous and everyday Oklahomans who have impacted our state, country and world. For more information about the Museum, the Tulsa World Gallery or Living Legacy, visit www.oklahomaheritage.com or call 405.235.4458.




Director of Communications and Marketing

Oklahoma Heritage Association

Gaylord-Pickens Museum