Douglas Shaw Elder’s Career Path Follows Common (Colorful) Thread
The Colorful, Common Thread of Art
What does a duck, a four-star general, a sculptor and a former college professor have in common? They all reside within the world of Firehouse Arts Center Executive Director Douglas Shaw Elder.
Elder, who joined the Firehouse Arts Center in 2007, came to Norman in a long, circuitous way reminiscent of his mixed-media sculptures that line his office walls.
Elder grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri, and joined the U.S. Army right after high school.
“I am a visual and kinesthetic learner and didn’t enjoy the memorization of school,” Elder explained. “So I decided to try the world outside the classroom.”
Elder’s military career as an E4 communications specialist took him south to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and Fort McPherson in Atlanta, and as far away as Buson, Korea, where he was stationed for more than a year. One of Elder’s military highlights was delivering personal messages to Gen. Collin Powell, who at the time was commander of the U.S.Army’s Forces Command.
“He was tall and commanding with four stars gleaming on his shoulders,” Elder recalls. “But he was personable and talked to everyone with respect and attention.”
Elder said relaying messages was a cloak-and-dagger process. “We worked underground and had to go through six different cipher locks, beyond the regular security swipe cards, to power up the equipment. We had code words on how to process the message and had to cross reference with other books. If it was the middle of the night, we would then follow another protocol to wake up whoever was in charge of that area of the world.”
Pursuing the Passion of Art
Eventually, Elders’ childhood passion for drawing and building beckoned him to leave the military and pursue a degree in drawing at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. He earned a post-baccalaureate degree in painting from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and a master’s degree in sculpture from Boston University, where he taught drawing and sculpture for six years.
When the position for the Norman Firehouse directorship opened, fellow Norman artist and friend Richard McKown advised Elder to apply. Elder has been the executive director for the Norman Firehouse Arts Center for nearly a decade.
“I love teaching and providing students with the tools to express themselves, but I wanted to make a difference on a broader scale,” Elder said. “At the Firehouse, our board and amazing staff get the opportunity to serve our community every day—the whole community, including kids, teens, adults and fine artists.”
Through partnerships with the Oklahoma Arts Council, Norman Arts Council, City of Norman and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, as well as the generous support of local businesses, organizations and individual donors, the Firehouse reaches more than 14,000 people through quality arts education, experiences and exhibitions.
A Masterpiece of Whimsy
Elder has elegant and sophisticated pieces of his artwork located in his office and around the country. He serves on the Norman Public Arts Board and committees for Creative Oklahoma, TEDxOU and the Oklahoma Artists Network. He recently traveled to Arezzo, Italy, through the Norman Arts Council Cultural Connections Program, where he spent two weeks creating 86 ink drawings of the Tuscan landscape.
“But, locally, I am known as the guy behind the duck project,” Elder said, chuckling.
Funded through the Norman Public Arts Board and the Norman Arts Council, Elder created the concept and sculpted the original design for the colorful ducks seen around Norman’s parks. The ducks are locally made, fabricated and enhanced by local artists. Since the Samo Ducky project was created with children in mind, the public art can only be placed in community parks with children’s playground equipment. To date, 21 ducks are resting in Norman parks with an end goal of 32 ducks.
“This is just another example of how great things happen when a community comes together,” Elder said. It is also another example of Elder’s life mission to empower people through creativity.
“While my careers have varied—from a soldier to a professor and now a community arts leader—there is a common thread in my life,” Elder said. “I always want to ignite and encourage a passion for individual and community expression.”