In 2011, one-third of the Art in Public Places budget for the Oklahoma Judicial Center was used for conservation and preservation of the Veterans’ Monument. The sculpture was hand-washed, waxed and buffed, maintenance that had not been performed for many years. In addition, black granite plaques inscribed with the names of Oklahomans who defended their country in battle were installed over the existing rose granite monoliths. Going forward, Oklahoma Art in Public Places will check the condition of the memorial and conduct maintenance on a regular basis.
“It is very fitting, these men and women died defending the Constitution and our oath of office requires the Court to work every day to defend the Constitution,” said Justice Yvonne Kauger. “The Supreme Court decided it was most appropriate to allocate a major portion of the Art in Public Places budget to the Memorial.”
Vietnam Veteran, an eight-foot bronze figure wearing a 1960’s combat uniform is a tribute to the 54,000 Oklahomans who served in the Vietnam War. His M-16 rifle is relaxed, but ready, as if he has just returned from a patrol. Artists Jay O’Meilia and Bill Sowell used an 18-year-old of Osage descent as a model for the monument.
O’Meilia served as a Navy artist in both World War II and Korea. He studied at the Chicago Academy of fine Arts and at the Art Students League in New York. He also attended the Cape School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and the University of Tulsa. O’Meilia also studied with artists Eliot O’Hara and Frederic Taubes. O’Meilia is a colleague of the National Sculpture Society in New York and was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1999. His work has been featured in leading galleries and museums including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Design in New York.
Another of O’Meilia’s iconic monuments honors the Oklahoma oilmen, led by Lloyd Noble, who took part in a secret mission in 1943. The roughnecks helped the English drill a hundred wells, increasing their oil production tenfold and fueling the war effort. The seven-foot bronze, Oil Patch Warrior, was dedicated in 1991 in Duke’s Wood, Sherwood Forest, England. A decade later, an identical statue was installed in Noble’s hometown of Ardmore, Oklahoma.
O’Meilia and Pawhuska sculptor Bill Sowell were selected by a panel of six Vietnam Veterans to design the bronze and granite monument following a statewide competition in 1984. Sowell studied at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. His works are featured in several venues throughout Oklahoma and in New Mexico.
The memorial also includes four panels of rose granite featuring a bas relief scene of each of the wars fought since Oklahoma became a state – World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Names of Oklahoma service members are inscribed on each stone. Eight flags, representing the five branches of the armed forces, the MIA-POW flag, as well as the Oklahoma and United States flag fly over the memorial. The Eternal Flame is part of a previous monument placed by the American Legion in honor of veterans in 1969.
After fundraising for the memorial stalled, Governor George Nigh appointed 44 leaders from across the state to the Veterans Memorial Task Force in April 1986. The group was successful enough that the first phase of the project, the Vietnam bronze figure, was dedicated on Veterans Day, 1986. Ceremonies included a speech by Governor Nigh and a flyby of F-4 Phantom II fighters. Phase two, the bas relief panels were dedicated on Veterans Day the following year with a keynote speech delivered by Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala.