In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is
December 17, 2006 New York Times
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
ON a strangely balmy late autumn afternoon, while the art world busied itself in Miami with beachfront reservations and limo drivers, Rick Lowe was, as he generally is, on Holman Street in southeast Houston’s predominantly black Third Ward, greeting another out-of-towner.
In the gloaming, decrepit houses and weedy lots dotted some surrounding blocks, on the edges of which were new double-garage brick homes — signs of encroaching gentrification, an unwanted side effect of Mr. Lowe’s work.
Although it’s hard to tell at a glance, this stretch of Holman may be the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country — a project that is miles away, geographically and philosophically, from Chelsea and Art Basel and the whole money-besotted paper-thin art scene.
Mr. Lowe, a lanky, amiable, remarkably youthful-looking 45-year-old artist from Alabama, moved to Houston 21 years ago and lives here in the Third Ward, where he founded Project Row Houses. In 1990, “a group of high school students came over to my studio,” he recalled. “I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”
He tried to think afresh what it meant to be a truly political artist, beyond devising the familiar agitprop, gallery decoration and plop-art-style public sculpture. He considered what the German artist Joseph Beuys once described as “the enlarged conception of Art,” which includes, as Beuys put it, “every human action.” Life itself might be a work of art, Mr. Lowe realized: art can be the way people live.
And the Third Ward could be his canvas. He was inspired by John Biggers, the late African-American muralist who painted black neighborhoods of shotgun houses like the ones on Holman Street and showed them to be places of pride and community, not poverty and crime. “It hit me,” Mr. Lowe recalled, “that we should find an area like the one that Biggers painted that was historically significant and bring it to life.”
Behind him as he spoke, a phalanx of 22 gleaming shotgun houses stretched across two blocks. Built in 1930 as tenant shacks, derelict by the early ’90s, they were bought by Mr. Lowe and a coalition of artists and others. To Mr. Lowe they were like “found objects.”
Seed money came from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation. The director of the Menil Collection gave his staff Mondays off to help renovate. Chevron redid the outside of a dozen buildings. Hundreds of volunteers pitched in to clear trash and sweep up used needles, hang wallboard and fortify porches. A local church adopted a house, and so did people and families from the neighborhood.
One of those people was Garnet Coleman, the neighborhood’s representative in the Texas House. His father’s family has lived in the Third Ward for 100 years. “Art is about the human condition,” he told me when I phoned him the other day. “You wipe out a people when you wipe out their history. What Rick is trying to do is to restore that history.”
The campus, as Mr. Lowe calls it, now includes eight houses for visiting artists, local and international. “We give them a key,” he said. “They come for anywhere from a week to five months. They can do whatever they want. There are a lot of other places for artists to prepare exhibitions for museums or alternative spaces. We encourage them to figure out how to be creative within this community.”
The artist Sam Durant has told me that what he did at Project Row Houses nearly a decade ago was still “the show I am most proud of” because “my work could have meaning beyond the parameters of the Euro-ethnic art institutions, the status quo contemporary art world.” Whitfield Lovell made wall drawings of African-Americans, based on early-20th-century studio portrait photographs, in the only row house where the wallboards had been left intact. That project, he said, remained a “pivotal piece” in his career.
The painter Julie Mehretu was living in Houston in 1998 when she “started teaching art to kids spending afternoons at the project,” she said. “I loved it. The kids were full of energy and pride. The program evolved organically, out of the neighborhood. So it had a family vibe. Rick invented a context where art could create real social change. In 1999 he invited me to do a residency, and I collaborated on a video installation with Amy Brock about the Third Ward, using videos with maps and drawings in light boxes. Kids wandered in while we were installing. They had got used to feeling that this was their place, that the doors were always open.”
Some of the children walked over from the next block, where Project Row Houses has created the Young Mothers Residential Program, the brainchild of Deborah Grotfeldt, who worked with Mr. Lowe at the beginning. Since 1996, it has provided a year’s housing and support for single women struggling to finish school and get their bearings. It has been as successful as the artist residency program.
Assata Richards was one of the first mothers to move in. “Back then, I was 23,” she told me when I called her up in Pittsburgh, where she is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. “My son was 6. I was financially struggling and having a hard time with housing. I was low on self-esteem. I had been a high achiever, but motherhood, working and going to school were taking a toll on me.”
The program offered child care, classes in child rearing, workshops on spirituality and sexuality, and mutual support. “We learned that we didn’t have to be single mothers, even if we weren’t married,” Ms. Richards said. “We didn’t have to do anything by ourselves.”
I asked her what she thought was the artistic part of the young mothers program, if there was one. “Well, I had heard Rick was an artist when I got there,” she said, “but I thought, what kind of art does he do? Then I realized we were his art. We came into these houses, and they did something to us. This became a place of transformation. That’s what art does. It transforms you. And Rick also treated us like artists. He would ask, ‘What’s your vision for yourself?’ You understood that you were supposed to be making something new, and that something was yourself.
“We would also, gradually, go to a few of the art events,” she added. “Our children went to the art education programs, and there were poetry readings.”
I said I had read that a woman, a former finance administrator for Project Row Houses, recently pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Ms. Richards paused, then said: “I remember a different woman taking something when she left. We were creating a set of value systems, a community, and sometimes people take from their community anyway. The amazing thing was that Rick never got mad. I would say, ‘It’s so wrong!’ And he just said, ‘Yeah, it happens; that’s part of working with people.’ ”
She recalled that when Michael J. Kopper, who was the first Enron executive to plead guilty, started working at Project Row Houses as a volunteer in 2002, he was expressing “a lot of anxiety because of Enron.”
“He thought people would judge him,” she said. “But nobody at the project cared. We’re all stigmatized. We know people make mistakes but that people are not their mistakes. He was surprised. But that’s the thing about Project Row Houses. Rick has a lot of expectations for himself, and so he has for others. This is his family. It’s his life’s work, the work that defines him as an artist.
“You know,” she added, “I would have made it one way or the other. But Project Row Houses made me a whole person.”
Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum, who used to run New York City’s Percent for Art Program, put it this way: “There are so many art projects around the country that have the aspiration to be transformative. To me it doesn’t matter whether you call this art or not because, either way, it puts to shame a lot of so-called political art, which preaches to the converted. Doing something that’s actually valuable in a low-income African-American community, staying there for 12 years and continuing to be imaginative, that’s Rick Lowe’s legacy as an artist. I also think this project truly is an alternative space, whereas a lot of alternative spaces have become just part of the art industry, like farm teams for the museums.”
A couple of years ago, Mr. Lowe made some photographic collages and drawings for a show in Houston, but that kind of work now “doesn’t excite me and, frankly, I’m not very good at it,” he laughed. His staff at the project now totals a dozen people, not counting the teachers, drummers, Afro-Brazilian dancers and gardeners for after-school education, or the counselors for the young mothers. Mr. Lowe answers to a board of 21 trustees. There have naturally been differences of opinion, as with Ms. Grotfeldt, who left earlier this year. Mr. Lowe sees the project as collaborative — “my work relies heavily on people whose creativity and energy far exceed what I can supply” — but the project remains fundamentally his vision. More than 150 artists have had projects in the row houses so far, and more than 40 women have graduated from the young mothers program.
In jeans and a Target T-shirt, hands in pockets, Mr. Lowe was now standing outside the gate to the houses for young mothers, where children’s toys were strewn about. A trio of teenagers passed; he greeted them by name. They live in the new two-story duplexes behind the row houses. Designed for the project by students in Rice University’s Building Workshop, they provide low-income rental residences for nine families, including some graduates of the young mothers program. This doesn’t count the half-dozen older houses in the area the project renovated and now rents to people, including the project’s resident organic gardener, Terry Reed. Mr. Lowe’s plan is to build 16 more of the duplexes, toward which, just last week, he received a grant of nearly $1 million from the city.
“I’ve thought a lot about what makes this art, as opposed to urban renewal or whatever,” he mused while strolling past the houses. “And I guess I see it as a program that encourages in the women who come here a state of mind, a way of thinking about how to live, which you could call the work of art.
“People interested in housing and social services have a narrow focus. From a developer’s standpoint, the houses we’ve built are not cost-effective. But to me, they’re not just housing. They tell a story about a community. The process by which we arrived at the design involved looking at the history of shotgun houses, out of which came the desire to preserve traditions like having the houses be off the ground and use pier-and-beam, not slab-on-grade, foundations. Everybody I used to work with when I did carpentry and house painting, which was how I earned a living years ago, told me the design was crazy. But to me, it translates the symbolism that John Biggers painted into another visual form, which is architecture.”
Past the duplexes, Mr. Lowe opened a large storage shed, with an office inside full of maps and models of the neighborhood. Two blocks away on Elgin Street, he pointed out on one of the maps, is the formerly defunct Eldorado Ballroom, once the swankiest Third Ward nightspot, where B. B. King and Count Basie played.
A local oilman named Hubert Findelstein, who used to go there in the 1950s when the neighborhood was segregated and would sit on the street outside listening to music waft through the ballroom’s windows, donated the building to Project Row Houses in 1999, after it had closed. Mr. Lowe got it spruced up, started inviting musicians back and also devised a studio for artists in residence, beginning, in 2004, with the collective Otabenga Jones & Associates. Other landmarks in the neighborhood (hospitals, churches) were colored on the map, whose lines and arrows made it look like a military plan. They represented Mr. Lowe’s goal of a district, including the project (now nearly five city blocks), but also encompassing a much larger part of the Third Ward, roughly 40 blocks in all.
“When we realized real estate values in the area were changing and upscale houses moving in, we knew we had to participate in the development or be relegated to existence as an oasis of 22 little shotgun houses in a gentrified neighborhood. As a neighborhood project, whom would we serve as an oasis? Rich kids who ran away from home? So we needed help.”
Mr. Lowe enlisted John Walsh, a local corporate developer, and Miguel Garcia, an old friend, now at the Ford Foundation. Their strategy calls for “winning over community partners like churches, schools and hospitals, who share our vision of how the neighborhood should grow,” Mr. Lowe said.
He has another partner in Mr. Coleman, the state representative. Mr. Coleman is on the board of the Midtown Development Authority, which has been spending millions of dollars buying property to maintain low-density, affordable rental housing. “Rick’s objectives dovetail with ours,” Mr. Coleman told me. “We don’t want this area to be a historic exhibit. The goal is to keep a cultural mix. We want people whose families have lived here for generations to stay here.”
Mr. Lowe echoed that. “We’re talking about continuity. Our interest is not just in affordable housing. It’s also to create opportunities for artists to live here. Diversity allows people to grow, through each other.”
Clearly it does. Places like Philadelphia, Delray Beach, Fla., and Watts in Los Angeles over the years have approached Mr. Lowe about doing urban renewal projects. “I talk to them,” he said, “but never with the intention that I could reproduce what I’m doing here.” Change depends on people who know, live and stay in a community; it has to come from inside, he points out, and starts with an artist’s mind-set.
“We can approach our lives as artists, each and every one of us,” he said. “It’s a choice people have. You don’t have to make houses the way people always have. If you choose to, you can make every action a creative act.”