Buffalo herd
June 2, 2004
Elizabeth Lowry
Copyright, Oklahoma Gazette

Bison are migrating back to Oklahoma, only they aren't shaggy-maned mammals. They're art.

When Steve Horning, plant manager at Quad/Graphics, first saw the proposal for the first "glass" buffalo, he knew he'd found the perfect match.

"That one just stuck out as the best signature of who we are," he said.

Quad/Graphics, a plant that prints the regional edition of Newsweek Magazine, in addition to hundreds of brochures, catalogues and other printed materials, opened in Oklahoma City last fall. The company, based in Wisconsin, has an extensive corporate art collection, so purchasing a buffalo to benefit The Nature Conservancy was a no-brainer.

The Spirit of the Buffalo is a public art project sponsored by the Oklahoma chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Oklahoma artists were invited to submit ideas as to how they would turn a fiberglass buffalo into a work of art. Then companies combed the files to find their match. The buffalos measure 5-feet-tall, 8-feet-long and 3-feet-wide.

Companies paid $3,500 for a buffalo – $1,000 of which goes to the artist. Corporations, foundations, civic groups, companies and individuals have purchased buffalos.

The money raised will go toward preserving Oklahoma's landscapes and streams. While many of the buffalos are located downtown, in Bricktown and around Oklahoma City, they are spreading across the state. Ardmore has several.

Gifted Oklahoma artist Sunni Mercer, of Bethany, created the buffalo that Quad/Graphics selected. Mercer is a painter and mixed-media artist who has shown her work across the country. Her assemblages are significant because of her attention to minute detail and her use of found objects.

While many of the buffalos are adorned simply with paint, Harry – nicknamed for the founder of Quad/Graphics – is covered with tiny bits of glass. Artist Mercer and four assistants needed 1,000 hours of labor to affix the shards to Harry's body. He wears a top hat and a large bow and carries a cane. The buffalo weighs 450 pounds without his base plate. Mercer attached the shattered remains from more than six plate glass windows on the buffalo with 30 tubes of adhesive, 3,000 cotton swabs to clean off the adhesive and 600 rubber gloves.

Her buffalo shines in the evening light like a diamond – or like a disco ball, depending upon your outlook. He stands in front of a bright red wall behind a glass window at Eighth and Broadway in a building owned by Chris Salyer.

Mercer said she is pleased with how her buffalo turned out and how it is displayed. "When you drive by the window, the small pieces of glass shimmering across his body catch the light," she said. "He shines like a faceted diamond. The movement past him creates a 'disco ball' effect. His glass also throws a sparkling pattern across the red wall like crystals reflecting the sun."

Sure, it's been done before. Pigs in Chicago. Horses in Amarillo. But at least the buffalo is indigenous to Oklahoma. The Nature Conservancy uses buffalos at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve to restore the landscape. And the buffalo project raises awareness of art and thrusts it into the public arena.

Once someone purchases a buffalo, the artist has six weeks to put the buffalo together. The sponsor can personalize the buffalo with a company name or logo. Harry sports Quad/Graphics's logo on his rump.

"Quad/Graphics has gone to great lengths to give him a perfect environment," Mercer said. "They had to cut through and repair the wall to get him into the window without damaging him. They even cut circulation vents into the wall to keep the heat from becoming too severe. He currently has black velvet around his base plate, but soon the entire floor will be draped with black."

Soon Harry will be accompanied by two more glass buffalos by glass artist Dale Chihuly. The Chihuly buffalos have blown glass horns and bits of glass covering their bodiess.

Other remarkable buffalos include Rick Bewley's Buffalo Nickel, which is a much-larger-than-life three-dimensional version of the buffalo nickel, sponsored by Bank One. Susan Morrison created an eye-catching Picasso Buffalo, inspired by the artist and sponsored by Chesapeake Energy. Vincent VanBuffagogh by Brantley Cowan holds a paintbrush in its mouth and part of its left horn has been lopped off.

Blue Suede Hooves by Julie Wells, and sponsored by Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbinson & Lewis Law Firm, is a clever take on the King during his Vegas stage – compete with chains and white jumpsuit. And Irving Middle School's art class did a remarkable job of creating Pollock's Patterns of the Buffalo Herd, sponsored by Chesapeake Energy Corporation. Jackson Pollock would be quite impressed.

The buffalos will be on display through September. To find out more about the Spirit of the Buffalo, and to discover where the buffaloes are located, check out www.spiritofthebuffalo.org.