TVLSE, Oklahoma – If you grew up on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation, chances are you might be familiar with some of the most accomplished musicians born within its boundaries including Garth Brooks, Woody Guthrie and of course, Leon Russell. Tulsa was home to Russell where he recorded songs with his fellow musicians and friends in the historic Church Studio.
The facility serves two purposes; as a recording studio for musicians, and a museum to educate guests on Russell’s life. It houses many art pieces depicting Russell, including an original painting by Bill McCulley (Mvskoke/Seminole).
The story of McCulley’s connection to the Church Studio stems all the way back to his adolescence. As a teenager, McCulley would regularly eat at a restaurant across the street from the Church Studio. One day, his curiosity led him to walk through the front doors of that historic recording studio.
“I kept hearing music and seeing people coming and going from the front door,” McCulley said. “I got to talk with the men, Leon Russell and all those other people there. I didn’t even know who they were!”
McCulley recounted that he would later go on to work for a fellow MCN citizen, Bob Hicks at his classic car restoration shop. One of the shop’s clients just so happened to be Russell.
“Bob Hicks told me someone is bringing in their car and you’re going to be surprised whose it is,” McCulley said. “It was a Rolls-Royce.”
In addition to McCulley’s encounters with Russell throughout his life, he was also a fan of Russell’s work. Russell was particularly well known for his country, rock and gospel music.
McCulley’s idea to produce a Leon Russell painting came from a meeting with the Church Studio owner, Teresa Knox. McCulley knew he wanted to contribute his talents in some way. After he had finished his Leon Russell painting, he donated it to the museum. It now resides within the Church Studio’s art collection.
The painting depicts Leon Russell sitting down in a light blue color. He is equipped with his signature top hat, sunglasses and walking cane. His figure is set against an orange outline of his face. An eagle feather is included at the bottom. McCulley said the feather was an homage to Russell’s connections to Native Americans.
“I knew a little bit of the history of him, the way he was toward Native Americans,” McCulley said. “That eagle is a symbol of that Native love.”
Painting and creativity runs in the family, Bill’s wife, Roberta paints as well. She also handles the business side of her husband’s work.
McCulley said he created the painting at just the right time, and just the right place. The painting was donated to the museum last year on what would have been Russell’s 80th birthday. His advice for fellow artists is to paint what you know and paint what you love.
“It’s a wonderful feeling.” McCulley said. “It’s something I’ve always strived for. You have to love what you do, and let everybody see it and love it too.”
McCulley is set to be featured at next month’s Mvskoke Art Market and Carney Fest, an art and music festival hosted by the Church Studio.
The 2023 Mvskoke Art Market will take place April 22-23 at River Spirit. Carney Fest will take place April 15 in the Studio Row neighborhood on East Third street and South Trenton ave. Tickets can be purchased on the event’s website at carneyfest.com.