When Dean Codner was a young boy, he and two of his friends spent their time riding bikes to collect pop bottles. They would sell the bottles to buy candy and comic books, whose graphic style illustrations they would go home and try to mirror.
“Our whole quest, especially in the summer was to try to find comic books as much as we could and read and draw out of them,” said Codner, eyes lighting up as he referenced Marvel Comics and the Hulk, his favorite character.
Now, the 57-year-old artist is painting a mural on 588 Buchanan Ave. in the midst of Campus Corner commemorating the area’s 100th anniversary. The mural’s design is inspired by the comic book art of his childhood, but this time with with local superheroes: Sooner legends.
“Good job,” people would say. People walked by Codner and his mural on a rare breezy late summer day. He’d glance over, breaking his concentration to say thanks before returning to his work.
Art served Codner as an escape from a dysfunctional family. He says his parents were alcoholics, creating a lot of violence in his home. His grandmother would take him to Saturday art classes. She encouraged Codner to pursue art.
“She encouraged me to keep trying. She said ‘You don’t have anybody but yourself so if you never try you’re never gonna know if you can make it’,” Codner said.
As he reminisced about his youth, a little girl walked up to watch Codner paint.
“Come here Carly” said Michelle Boone to her daughter.
“No” she whined as Boone tried to get her to walk away.
The little girl stood and continued to watch Codner with concentration.
Every Monday, she goes to art class, Boone said. The pair, from Wichita Falls, Texas began talking to Codner.
“My grandmother used to take me three to four hours to paint.” Codner says smiling looking over at the little girl with an affinity for art like him.
A doodler by trade
As Codner grew up, he began to see differences in his artistic ability versus his classmates. He continued to develop his skills through high school when his father died
His grandmother wanted him to study art and he worked with his teachers to apply for college scholarships.
“As kids we did a lot of camping and hiking and we did a lot of outdoor activity and she always thought I was going to go into doing art or forestry,” Codner said of his grandmother.
He was offered a two-year scholarship at UCO. After switching his major three times he settled on commercial architecture and advertising design.
Barry Howe, Codner’s friend from high school was helping him paint the mural. Codner looked over “Here’s what you do,” he said demonstrating the brush technique. “See how it’s flat, see how there’s more control, take the brush sideways like that.”
Howe nodded, watching the brush strokes in Codner’s hand.
Howe graduated from OU with a degree in business. Codner and he were old wrestling buddies and had known each other for 40 years.
Although Howe doesn’t have much painting experience, Codner saw a talent in him, said Howe.
“I’m a doodler by trade,” Howe said, the corner of his mouth curling into a smile.
When the Norman Arts Council said they wanted to do a historical mural, Codner started thinking about the best way to present something that would appeal to college students as well as older generations.
He thought about Billy Vessels, the first OU Heisman trophy winner and OU basketball legend Wayman Tisdale. The two legends are painted as heroes on the mural, a sooner comic book.
Painting in the black lines that shape the words ‘Campus Corner’, Howe looked up at the wall.
“To have done something that’s going to be here for decades is a pretty neat experience,” he said.
Sitting on a stool in camo shorts and a matching hat, Codner stared intently at his paintbrush, detailing bits of the mural.
Codner painted billboards in the ‘80s and ‘90s when things were hand painted. He did work for companies like Coca-Cola and different restaurants. The large scale canvases appealed to him.
“If I want to live my own dream with the blessings God gave me then I need to make an effort,” Codner said.
His gold cross necklace beamed brightly against his white T-shirt.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Codner had always been a fan of OU football. He would gather with friends on Saturdays to watch the games.
He remembers the days of Sooner legends — Tinker Owens, Jack Mildren, Joe Washington and Barry Switzer.
“It was just part of a heritage for us growing up,” Codner said
Today Campus Corner is a sea of crimson and cream on game days. Before the game, people gather together in anticipation. After the game, people flood the area to celebrate victories said Erin Patton, executive director of the Campus Corner Association.
“Campus Corner and the university go hand in hand,” Patton said
The association sponsored the mural, and will be fundraising soon to expand Dean’s design. The expansion will feature iconic buildings and landmarks over Campus Corner.
As cars whizzed by, Codner looked up at his work. The grandiosity of comics book heroes and sooner icons melded together.
“It’s going to be meaningful,” Codner said