An iconic Texas artist makes his giant mark on the world.
By CHRIS O'CONNELL
Photos by ANNA DONLAN
And sun-drenched and parched on a concrete slab outside a South Austin head shop where he’s preaching to me the gospel of underground art in front of a poster for a retrospective of his career, he’s missing perhaps the most important one. So we head inside to make a purchase.
This is a normal Tuesday for the man they call “Daddy-O.” Wade and I have recently returned from a trip to San Antonio to see perhaps his most famous work of art, a 40-foot-tall sculpture of a pair of cowboy boots that have been stationed outside the North Star Mall for the last 37 years. A graying old-Austin holdover behind the counter of Planet K overhears us talking about the trip as he rings up Wade’s can of beer.
“Daddy-O, is it true?” he asks. “I heard there was a family of immigrants living in the sole.”
Wade taps me lightly on the arm. “See! Everybody knows the boots.”
True enough, as I’ll come to find over the course of three days with Wade, it’s not just the pieces of art that everybody knows. If you witnessed New Orleans win its first-ever Super Bowl at Austin’s Shoal Creek Saloon in February 2010 or saw Hot Tuna during their two-night stand at Manhattan’s Lone Star Cafe in January 1988 or were in Paris for the 1977 Biennale, you know Bob Wade. If you’ve patronized the Fort Worth Zoo in the last couple years or stopped for gas at Carl’s Corner in the late ’80s or even stepped foot inside the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, you know Bob Wade. He is the 74-year-old, white-bearded art star in a psychedelic, fish-patterned, short-sleeved button-down and aviator shades. He’s the guest of honor in every honky tonk and art gallery in Texas. He is, simply, Daddy-O.
Outside the store, he pops the top on his brown bag-concealed Shiner Bock in front of one of his latest public works of art, an enormous hog comprised of repurposed Harley Davidson parts. The title of it is “Hog,” and it sits in front of a mural atop a tiny stage where longtime Austin bands like the Uranium Savages sometimes play during art openings for Planet K’s neighbor, the South Austin Pop Cultural Center. The center is an arts nonprofit to which Wade is unendingly loyal, and the front of the building also boasts a large pinwheel sculpture created by his daughter, Rachel. Every four months or so, Wade says, he greases up the metal himself so that it’ll spin in the wind. Today, as cars whip by and the wind is breezy, the pinwheel is stagnant, its axis likely clogged with rust. Like many of the outdoor pieces created by the Wades, it requires some upkeep. “I feel a real connection to this kind of organization and these characters. This has got soul,” Wade says, tightening the grip on the brown bag in his hand. “This is something Austin really needs. You need something funky here that’s not a corporate deal.”
But like many of Wade’s public pieces—the boots, the enormous New Orleans Saints helmet, the giant iguana once entangled in a lawsuit with the city of New York, the Spartan trailer filled with Texana he shipped to Paris when he was 34—it represents a fading frontier. As mom-and-pop shops and, along with them, the art that would adorn their walls, facades, and roofs are thrown into the thresher of gentrification, and as Texas’ major city skylines continually crowd with condos and boutique hotels, there is less of a need for iconic Texas symbols made from refashioned VW bugs. The world that Wade manipulates through an injection of pure joy is perhaps a thing of the past.
From left: Wade's New Orleans Saints Helmet, atop Shoal Creek Saloon; his snake-shaped Ranch 616 sign; an old bus Wade refashioned into a taco truck outside El Arroyo; a hog-shaped motorcycle called "Hog," located behind the South Austin Popular Culture Center.
Robert Schrope Wade was born on Jan. 6, 1943, in Austin. A self-described “hotel brat,” Wade lived all over the postwar American Southwest, wherever his father, the hotelier Chaffin Wade was needed, like Galveston, Beaumont, and Marfa.
Wade finished high school in El Paso, where he would hop back and forth across the border into Juarez to get his hot rod painted and upholstered, back when that was a fairly safe thing to do. Along the way, he cultivated a greaser-cum-Texana aesthetic that would characterize his artwork for the next half-century. His oldest friend and fraternity brother Monk White, BBA ’64, describes the proto-Fonzie rolling up UT-Austin campus, to the back steps of the Kappa Sig House in a souped-up 1951 sierra gold Ford with slicked back hair.
“He had this impish smile on his face and a grin that we knew something was completely different about him,” White says. Another brother, Bull Pettit, gave him the nickname that has stuck with him for the last 55 years, exclaiming, “Hey, Daddy-O!”
In a house full of rowdy business majors, Wade was the sly artist who was envied by the other brothers and loved all the same.
“The last thing a Kap Sig would be was an art major,” White says. “He was one of the funniest [guys] you could ever think of. Everyone loved him even though he wasn’t the typical Kap Sig.”
After graduating, Wade, BFA ’66, got married and moved to Berkeley for graduate school, eventually ending up teaching art at a small junior college in Waco, where he lived briefly as a child, then moving on to the University of North Texas. He taught figure drawing and created works of his own, presenting in the 1969 Whitney Annual and the 1973 Biennial. In 1970, Wade started creating Southwest-influenced photo-emulsion pieces, transferring images from 19th and early-20th century picture postcards—cowgirls on horseback, banditos, his mother’s cousin Roy Rogers atop Trigger—onto canvasses, colorizing them, and blowing them up. Wade and his wife Susie divorced in 1977 after having a daughter.
That same year, with his old buddy White at his side, Wade took the Daddy-O experience across the pond, filling a 25-foot 1947 Spartan trailer coach full of Texas artifacts, like stuffed armadillos and a bucking bronco that he borrowed from the science history museum in Fort Worth, white cowboy boots, an enormous pair of longhorns, and the piece de resistance: a taxidermied two-headed, two-tailed calf borrowed from the Lone Star brewery, which was removed from public display, according to Wade, because it “freaked out pregnant ladies and little kids.” They stuck it on a boat in Houston headed for Paris, and the “Texas Mobile Home Museum” made it into the 10th Paris Biennale with just hours to spare.
“We were trying to send this little freak show museum to Paris, and blow the minds of the French,” Wade says. “They loved it. They were walking around with their coats over their shoulders European-style, and would come into my deal, like, ‘Oh my god.’ But it was real slick.” Wade won an award and $1,000 for the exhibit, but they didn’t have enough money to get the trailer back to Texas and had to leave all the artwork behind.
In 1985, after Wade moved to Santa Fe and married his second wife Lisa, they doggedly tracked down the trailer during their honeymoon in Paris. Wade and White had previously made a trip to the French countryside, where the trailer was rumored to be, but they lost the plot somewhere along the way and ended up drinking and carousing with locals instead. This time, the new Wade couple found it. The front door was locked, but, making their way to the back side of the Spartan, they discovered that a hinged window could be pushed open. Wade was dismayed to find just a pair of artifacts remaining inside: one stuffed armadillo and a leather saddle they had once used to hide an air conditioning unit during the 1977 Biennale.
“He had this impish smile on his face and a grin that we knew something was completely different about him.”
“Somewhere in Europe,” Wade sighs, “someone has a stuffed bucking bronco in their house, and a two-headed calf with two tails. If I had the money and the time I’d go and be a detective and find out what happened to it.”
His iconic exhibit may have been lost forever, but by then, Wade had already become a star in his own right, and had created a duo of pieces that would make public art history.
After returning from Paris (sans trailer), Wade quit teaching to be a full-time artist. In two years, a giant iguana and a pair of ostrich-skin boots, both measuring 40-feet-tall, garnered him big-time national attention. In the summer of 1978, Wade was staying in upstate New York, near Niagara Falls, to work at a program called Art Park. He was invited to create a large, outdoor sculpture, and, not wanting to copy the popular poster artists of the time who had chosen the armadillo as the unofficial mascot of the Southwest, settled on an iguana. The shape of an iguana’s body reminded Wade of the fuselage of the Concorde Jet, so he found a guy who worked on jets, and together, they constructed a system of heavy wire mesh detailed with window-screen wire and sprayed with urethane foam, the same material used in roofing. Once the program ended, Wade needed somewhere to put the monstrous lizard, so he cold-called the Lone Star Cafe, a Texas-themed club located on the corner of 5th Avenue and 13th Street in New York City. They cut a deal, mostly in trade for booze and food (many of Wade’s deals involve credit for cold beer), and the iguana became an overnight success.
To the cafe’s neighbors, however, the iguana was an eyesore. The Fifth Avenue Association filed a lawsuit stating that the piece was not a sculpture, but advertising, which was only compounded by the fact that the Lone Star Cafe was founded by two former ad executives. The iguana was removed from the rooftop, to the consternation of one of the iguana’s most ardent fans: then-Mayor Ed Koch. In 1983, in an unveiling ceremony including Koch and then-Texas Gov. Mark White, the iguana returned to the rooftop of the Lone Star Cafe, where it remained until the business shuttered in 1989.
“They kept calling the iguana a sign,” Wade says, still amused by the ordeal. “What, are you going to call the Statue of Liberty a sign? Case closed.”
A year after the iguana first arrived in Manhattan, Al Nodal from the Washington Project for the Arts called Wade. He had an empty corner lot three blocks from the White House, and asked if Wade would like to install a public piece. With the promise of donation funds and and a free place to stay, it was a no-brainer. “Just like the iguana, I had no plan,” Wade says. “I was of the bohemian mindset: Go into it, let it roll, have a good time.”
When Wade arrived in D.C., his accommodations had mysteriously fallen through. With a quick call to his hotel-connected father, however, he had a free room overlooking the Washington Monument for three months, a period in which Wade would create perhaps his most famous work of art: a 40-foot-tall, 30-foot-long sculpture of a pair of ostrich-skin cowboy boots.
“The term ‘Texas chic’ had been coined by then. Everybody was running around with cowboy boots, John Travolta had made Urban Cowboy,” Wade says. “I knew this thing was of interest.”
Bob Wade's iconic boots at San Antonio's North Star Mall.
Wade found a raggedy pair of cowboy boots and cut them apart, in order to surmise what held the footwear together. In theory, he’d just have to build a few pieces, except Wade had committed to a pair of boots.
“Later on I said, ‘I’m making the same sculpture twice. I’m an idiot,’” Wade says. “But it would have looked stupid to have just one boot.”
Three months later, Wade completed the boots sculpture. The only problem was, he was told, for all his trouble, that they would need to be removed by the end of 1979. That’s when a woman named Becky Hannum, a representative of the Rouse Company, came calling. They had a shopping mall in San Antonio that was interested in the boots, and, if he would sell them to her, they would split the shipping. Three flat-bed 18-wheelers were needed to haul the disassembled sculpture down to Texas, along the way snagging one of the boot toes on an overpass, which required removal by crowbar.
In January 1980, the reconstructed boots were unveiled as Wade and his friends sipped margaritas under the cranes while a mariachi band played. In the years to come, a local country-and-western station would occasionally position a DJ in a crow’s nest constructed at the top of the boots for broadcasts. Wade has returned to the site of his most famous piece countless times, on anniversaries for both the mall and for the boots themselves.
Over the years, the boots have been woven into the fabric of the city, inspiring tales both tall and true. Wade insists that one day, in a drunken stupor, an onlooker kicked a hole in the heel of one of the boots. Weeks later, Wade received a call that the boots were on fire; smoke wafted from the top of the hollow structure. “The boots don’t burn,” Wade responded. As it turns out, a homeless man had allegedly moved in and was using Sterno cans to cook food. When local teenagers chucked their cigarette butts near the boots, one of them caught fire.
But the boots endured. The mall has changed immensely—it was “ratty,” according to Wade, when the sculpture was first erected in San Antonio—and the addition of Saks Fifth Avenue has given what the artist calls a “high-class connotation.”
In 2015, he received an email from people at Guinness World Records Ltd., who wanted to add the boots to the 2016 edition of the book. The only snag was, to be included, an undertaking to officially measure the boots was needed. Wade invoked his inner Daddy-O, and (unsuccessfully) submitted a measurement garnered from using sunlight and shadows. Luckily, every winter, the North Star Mall adds a netting of light-up stars to each boot, so Wade glommed on to the mall’s crane rental to snag a quick measurement. He was surprised by the results. “I think they got it wrong; it came back at 35-point-something,” Wade says, before cracking a joke. “It’s OK, I think I’m shrinking myself. I used to be over six feet.”
Regardless, the measurement was accepted, and Wade now holds the record for largest cowboy boot sculpture in the world.
“Just like the iguana, I had no plan. I was of the bohemian mindset: go into it, let it roll, have a good time.”
“I heard somewhere along the line that the book is only second in sales to the Bible,” Wade says. “That’s quite something, if that’s true.”
He’s off, but not by much. In-all, upward of 115 million copies of editions of the Guinness Book Records have been sold, and thus, a small corner of Bob Wade’s Texas has been immortalized.
Wade’s studio in West Austin could be kindly called baroque—or more accurately a minimalist’s hellscape. There is so much detritus from the artist’s life that even the artist himself is filling up to the brim with joyous wonder as he darts from corner to corner, picking up forgotten relics and scraps of inspiration long past. On the same knick-knack-filled wall from which a pair of Miami Heat Dwyane Wade socks hangs is a decades-old self portrait that Wade drew on a tortilla, wrapped in plastic for safe keeping.
“Isn’t that wild?” he asks.
The space is a repurposed two-car garage affixed to his home near Mount Bonnell that is now a loft-like multi-purpose storage unit and painting studio. It’s here that Wade has created photo-emulsion canvasses that have hung in the offices of of Ann Richards, Rick Perry, and Prince Albert of Monaco.
As we explore, he grabs a Saks Fifth Avenue snow globe that the department store gifted him after it moved into the space directly in front of his cowboy boots at the North Star Mall. I note that it’s pretty meta for him to have taken the small-format boots and blown them up to Godzilla size, only for Saks to recreate them in miniature. His eyes wide, he stares blankly for a few beats.
“Isn’t that bizarre?” he asks.
There’s an enormous, close-up photo of Wade and Jean-Michel Basquiat and an ornate chair with an airbrushed portrait of Elvis on the seat that he half-heartedly tries to give me and a pristine pair of cowboy boots that Lucchese made his father in the 1950s. Next to his desk is a former forest of yellowing notes, names, and numbers from the last half-century.
“I still have a Rolodex,” he says. “Isn’t that crazy?”
He shows me a framed Bud Light print advertisement that featured another one of Wade’s wacky creations, called the Iguanamobile, an airstream trailer he fashioned with a fiberglass iguana head.
“They towed this Iguanamobile around Texas for a year. Gave me a big check, too,” Wade says. I sense another rhetorical question coming. “How fun is that?” he asks.
In the back of the old garage, where he stretches canvasses, there is a small shrine of sorts. There are pictures of his mother and father, friends from UT and beyond, and a newspaper obituary for an art dealer he knew in Santa Fe.
“When people pass away, you forget about them in a way,” Wade says. “But if you have a photo around, then you think of them without working at it.”
Wade in his West Austin studio.
Milagro hearts line the walls of Wade's bathroom, gifts he's shared with his wife over the years.
Wade looks through his files in his studio office, replete with phone numbers, jotted quotes, and photographs.
"Do you wanna make art, or stuff that looks like art?" Wade's office is adorned with mantras and reminders.
“Mostly he doesn’t brag about himself,” says Kevin Williamson, the owner of Ranch 616, an Austin bar and restaurant for which Wade created a 100-foot rattlesnake-shape sign with an upside-down motorcycle engine for a head. “There’s so much weird s---, you can’t cram it all into conversation or else they’ll think you’re crazy.”
Apart from Wade’s career making gargantuan pieces of public art and the large photo-postcard canvasses, the latter upon which Wade says he earns his living, it has recently come to my attention that the artist is also something of a yo-yo wizard, having been a Duncan junior instructor for the toy in 1953, and the subject of a short video celebrating the company’s 80th anniversary in 2009. Of course he is.
When I ask Wade why he didn’t mention this during the many hours we spent together driving around Austin and San Antonio, he has a simple answer.
“You didn’t ask,” he says.
Like the studio crammed with memorabilia, Wade’s brain is stacked to the ceiling with oddball ideas, hippie optimism, and, in this case, hidden talents. Despite having such a varied resume, however, Wade remains, to both his friends and the art community writ large, as unpretentious.
“He’s a serious artist,” says close friend and longtime Whitney board member Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo. “[But] he’s not the least bit aloof or condescending.”
“He loves being the Daddy-O,” says Dan Bullock, a member of Wade’s inner circle and a longtime member of the Austin art community. “He loves the attention, but he earns it, and he gives back. You see a whole lot of jerks; people who express themselves through their art but have lousy personalities.”
Will Larson, a local metal artist who helps Wade fabricate many of his larger pieces, says that his working relationship with Wade got off to a bit of a rocky start.
“It wasn’t a perfect fit at first,” says Larson, who met Wade in 1989 when he was a student at the now-defunct San Antonio Art Institute. “I was younger and thinking about things my way, kind of like a job. You’re cranking away at something, you get to work. That’s how I can be. It rubbed up against him, where his outlook was, ‘Let’s look at this a while, crack a beer, hang out.’”
Eventually, Larson translated the tao of Daddy-O for himself, and the two have been tight-knit ever since the younger man learned how to stop worrying and love the Bob Wade process. Together they worked on the Saints helmet atop Shoal Creek Saloon in Austin, the hog sculpture on South Lamar, and with Photoshopping some of the old picture postcards that Wade eventually paints on his canvasses.
“He’s culturally a person that you don’t see a whole lot anymore,” Larson says. “He’s always checking in. I feel like one of his sons.”
Williamson, who says he was aware of Wade as an iconic art personality during his time at SMU during the ’80s, also finds a father figure in Daddy-O.
“He’s kind of like the dad I never had,” he says, laughing. “He’s like the dad that likes me.”
Though it’s likely that you’ve seen a Bob Wade sculpture and not known it, it’s also quite possible that, because of the roads each piece has traveled, they conjure different memories for different people.
When the Lone Star Cafe closed, the iguana was sold at auction to a couple in Virginia. When they divorced, it moved to a pier in TriBeCa at the behest of Cassullo before reaching the Fort Worth Zoo, where, after 11 years decaying in a barn and being partially eaten by livestock, it rests over the entrance.
His six iconic 10-foot frogs, created for a long-gone Dallas nightclub called Tango owned by the son of the Six Flags Over Texas founder, and named, aptly, “Six Frogs Over Tango,” moved to Carl’s Corner, a truck-stop just north of Hillsboro, Texas. When part of the building burned down, the frogs were untouched, but eventually the sextet was split up. Three reside above a Chuy’s in Nashville and the other three have come full circle, resting on the rooftop of a Taco Cabana at 1827 Greenville in Dallas, the original address of Tango.
The 25-foot pair of longhorn steer horns that adorns the foyer of the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center were actually created to be the backdrop of a smoky nightclub stage in Dallas.
The boots, seemingly inextricable from the city of San Antonio at this point, were, again, built for a three-month installation in Washington, D.C. before being trucked down to Texas in three semis.
The pieces for which Wade will be remembered are anchored in the memories of the patrons who grew up and grew old counting on them as landmarks. Though almost every piece has moved at least once and has been repainted or repurposed because of weather or the economy or suburban sprawl. The man they call Daddy-O, who spent his childhood traversing the Southwest like the blown seeds of a dandelion, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You just let it go, just let it roll from one deal to the next,” Wade says. “I was able to do that, and let the creative juices be unhindered.”
On the way back to his home, where we’ll part after a four-hour tour of every public Wade piece in Austin, we pass the pinwheel on South Lamar again. He perks up.
“Now it’s spinning,” Wade says excitedly, as the wind blows through his daughter’s creation. “Now it’s happening!”