Studio visits with Christopher Blay, Devon Nowlin, and Diane Durant and Devyn Gaudet
I woke up to the sound of a torrential rain storm in Fort Worth. It was 6:30am, and anyone that knows me is well aware of my trouble with mornings.
Evidently, a storm was in the forecast. But I had no idea and was confounded with my confusion of where I was, how I got there, and where I had to be the morning of stop No. 1 of this trip was particularly and unnecessary stressful.
I wanted this trip to start in Fort Worth from the beginning and was happy things shuffled out to allow for the city to be the first. I've done tons of work in most cities in the state, but Fort Worth always seemed like a more marginalized and peripheral city in the grand scheme of things, and it's proximity to Dallas certainly doesn't aid in helping the city's art community maintain its own individual identity. As I was waking up that morning to the rain in Fort Worth, I also realized the shape and scope of this trip reflected, in many ways, the confusion even I have about the state. Evidently I was starting in North Texas, and if you ask anyone in Fort Worth, Dallas, or any of the mid-cities between, I was indeed in North Texas, something I really never understood, because technically and geographically there's a panhandle that's much further north than where I was presently.
Admittedly, I don't know much about Fort Worth. I know about stockyards and cattle, and the "fun facts" section of the random Texas highway atlas I bought a few months ago referenced Fort Worth being the namesake of General William Jenkins Worth, a man who never actually visited the city.
Fort Worth had long been a bit of a mystery. Matter of fact, most of North Texas still remained a mystery to me, but particularly in the case of Fort Worth, so much of the identity of the city seemed consumed by an "us vs. them" mentality, or "Dallas, not Dallas" definition. I wanted to try to understand that, deconstruct it, to ask if that really is the case or call out my own Dallas bias projected onto Fort Worth.
I had a full day of studio visits to get through with artists whose methods, techniques, and media were totally different. Then, that evening, a group of people who are leaders in the community (and generally incredible people) were to gather at a dive bar called the Bowled Oil Tavern, thanks to the connectivity and generosity of artist Christopher Blay. Fort Worth was finally starting to gain more depth than how I initially knew it to be, and I hadn’t even scratched the surface.
The rain finally cleared and as is so typical in Texas, the sun wasn't far behind. It was fitting to start this trip full of so many questions in a place that I really didn't know, and as I started gathering my things to head out, it seemed more fitting that this adventure was about to really begin in the studio of artist Christopher Blay.
While all the questions about Fort Worth continued swirling in my head, I was happy to get studio visits rolling. Visiting artists is my favorite part of the job, and talking with artists in their creative space is an intimate treat that is incredibly special. I got started in Fort Worth with a visit to the home and studio of artist Christopher Blay. Although I had never been to his studio, Christopher is a personality that I had known for some time through multiple degrees of connectivity.
I walked into the house and saw the remnants of ideas from present and past projects scattered around the place. Admittedly, Christopher had warned me that his studio is really in his head, and having followed his projects and after reading through his submission I wasn't surprised, and our visit began with a conversation between colleagues quickly becoming friends. We talked about his three-month installation at the Dallas Museum of Art that allows viewers to project their voice in the space through walkie-talkies in cycle one, then write letters from your past self to your future self in cycle two. It's a show about communication that converts the sterile, white, institutional cube into a space of humanity and empathy. We talked about how Blay's fascination of communication translates to communication satellites, and time-travel, about creating works that rely on word play to literally and metaphorically build bridges in communities, and the desperation in suffocation for an entire population of disenfranchised people of color.
We continued our conversation at a nearby coffee house only a few blocks away and shifted into talking about Blay's practice of connectivity, a topic that made it clear we were on the same methodological plane in many ways. Blay's work is not just about creating objects then placing them in exhibitions, but rather, his entire personality is about connectivity and creating the moments through which voices and perspectives can come together to build communities, be it in the gallery, a project space, or a tavern.
I left Blay caffeinated and happy. His visit and our conversation was exactly the brain massage and positive challenge I needed to begin the rest of the studio visits I had planned that day. I made my way in the general direction of the Fort Worth Stockyards (which will later be referred to as the Magical Wonderland) to visit painter Devon Nowlin, and I was greeted with an infectious smile. Devon is a painter’s painter. Her near obsession with patterning is remarkable, and her technical skill is impressive, neither of which was surprising once I learned of her commitment to her practice, which I also found admirable. Devon paints every single day. She has shifted directions slightly in her work and has started collecting antique photos which have become her source material for her newest series of works.
Devon's technical skill as a painter is undeniable, but it's also her dedication to the practice of painting that I found admirable. Lately she has begun collecting and exploring the stories of antique photography, and specifically converting the materiality of the photos into technical studies that dramatically change the meaning of the images, converting them to color studies that transcend time and make the images much more complicated given our current political climate.
We quickly walked through the other four studies in the magical wonderland (more on that later), and I drove off with the promise that we would see each other later that evening for our Fort Worth Community Forum.
My next stop was to visit 50 Boots, literally... sorta.
I remember being particularly intrigued by the submission of the collaborative team of Diane Durant and Devyn Gaudet because it spoke so clearly to the road trip I had embarked upon. Their story was funny and unique. When I walked up to the house, a pair of army-grade rubber boots greeted me at the entrance and I immediately smiled when I saw them. Diane welcomed me at the door, and Devyn wasn’t far behind. I said hello to the cats and followed the line of boots through the living room, past the dining room, and into the studio, where Durant and Gaudet began to tell me the story of the 50 boots that they schlepped halfway across the state of Texas. The journey was constructed similarly to 70s conceptual artist Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots, where Antin traveled across the country with 50 pairs of boots, staged them in various photographs that became 51 postcards, and mailed them to people all over the country, thereby dispersing the story of the boots and relying on the recipients to collectively piece together the boots’ story. In the hands of Durant and Gaudet set out to mimic Antin’s journey, yet modified to half the distance and half the number of boots, and the journey of the boots references Antin’s conceptual practice as well as Smithson, Baldessari, and Rusche just to name a few. Our visit was a walk through art history nostalgia via the journey of 50 boots.
The humor was not lost on me, and as I walked away with hugs, I had to acknowledge that stop number one on this epic road trip would include a stop to talk about a road trip. Very suddenly my car felt very empty and I smiled to myself thinking that perhaps I should grab a pair of boots to tag along for the ride.
My first day in Fort Worth built up beautifully to an intimate gathering of voices and minds orchestrated by Christopher Blay and William Serradet at the Boiled Owl Tavern that Friday. The entire day I had hopped from studio to studio, mostly between home studios, and was reminded of the distance involved in being in North Texas. As I made my way to the Boiled Owl, I wondered if this was part of the experience of being an artist in the area, and if this hindered connectivity in any way by shaping how artist communities are formed. I tucked the question away in my brain as walked right into the welcoming hug of Christopher who was equally excited to get things rolling.
We had decided to host a small, informal gathering to help me understand the arts community of Fort Worth. Much of my goal on this road trip was to get a temperature of arts communities around the state, and to find the common issues, strengths, and languages that can connect us. Conversations like the one we were having became a solution to help gain insight in the short amount of time that I had. We all began by introducing ourselves, and to my surprise many in the room were meeting for the first time that evening as well. The 20 people that sat in our circle that evening were all there because they worked at the local institutions, are artists, curators, activists, and are working to shift the arts narrative in the city.
Over the course of the next two hours we volleyed back and forth with opinions, questions, and even an explanation of the shifting tide within the city.
For years I had understood (after many years of being corrected) that residents of Fort Worth indignantly maintained their own identity apart from Dallas. Fort Worth had always been slower paced, less flashy, and smaller than its neighboring city about 35 miles west on I-30. Our conversation, however, illuminated that among the arts community the sentiment couldn’t be more different. Almost everyone among the group recognized the impact of sharing resources between the cities, including the mid-cities between. Across the board, everyone agreed that frequent trips to Dallas in order to connect and support are necessary. However, those frequent trips are not reciprocated, and it’s a rare event that brings the Dallas community to Fort Worth.
There is a sense of pride in Fort Worth and its institutions. The Fort Worth Modern, Amon Carter, and Kimball proved to be institutions that are accessible, working toward inclusivity, and actively hire local artists in their installation and education departments. Artists can actually work, make a living wage in a respectable job, and have time to devote to their practices. There was general excitement about the changes coming forth at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, a partner organization with our Biennial, and an organization with a long history within the arts in the city. We all welcomed Jonathan Levy, the most recent transplant to Fort Worth who has already proven his desire to bring more innovative and experimental work to the center, a feat that will be highly supported among his colleagues around our table.
The camaraderie around that table quickly turned to friendship among all of us, and we laughed together as the issue of viable studio spaces came up in conversation. Only one existing warehouse of studio spaces exists in the city, and it came together from the luck and gumption of a group of artists who needed studios. This spot on Grand Avenue near the stockyards is what was facetiously referred to as the Magical Wonderland. To my surprise, I learned that studio spaces are difficult to come by in Fort Worth, and many carve out a space in their homes to operate as a studio. In theory it seems luxurious to work from home, in practice it can be isolating and contribute to a lack of community, and healthy critique, and this lack of studio spaces was an issue for many around our table.
The question turned to what we want to see in Fort Worth in five years, and everyone took turns answering it. Aside from studio spaces, another consensus was the lack of more residency programs. Joshua Goode has built an incredibly strong international residency within the Tarrant County College, which has offered an astonishing amount of support and resources. Goode's work is more than commendable, and the value of what he has built can be seen in his position of community leadership and respect. However, with the amount of arts institutions in the area it's surprising that only one person is filling that gap. It's a careful balance to maintain, but supporting the local arts community while providing the opportunity for an exchange of ideas with visiting voices simply provides more moments of critique, and thus connectivity. This, however, is always an issue of resources, and as I expected, there was a definite lack of granting and general funding sources in the city. Much of these issues will take an enormous amount of time and resources to build, but everyone in the room seemed optimistic, especially with the emergence of Art Tooth, a young artist-run initiative that has taken up the charge of arts accessibility in Fort Worth.
Our collective conversation came to an end right around the two-hour mark. We talked about so much more, than I can include here but these issues were the ones that kept coming up amongst the group, and I'm still so grateful for the trust that was in that space to share so openly. In the time we were there talking the sentiment in the room changed, and in the end it felt like we were all long time friends. Everyone stuck around to chat, share a few more beers, and spend more time catching up over the next few hours.
I learned that night that not may conversations of that type happen, and it was clear that we had all been re-energized by it. I was eager to see what was similar in other parts of the state, and to find the ways in which the Biennial could be a source for connectivity. This was stop one, and my head was already spinning.
Special thanks to everyone that offered their time that evening: William Serradet, Rachel Livedalen, Tiffany Wolf Smith, Dee Lara, Joshua Goode, Raul Rodriguez, Tim Harding, Greg Bahr, Devon Nowlin, Erin Stafford, Fabiola Valenzuela, Jesse Hernandez, Jessica Fripp, Christopher Blay, Bill and Pam Campbell.
As I was in Fort Worth I started to realize the potential for connectivity that our Biennial has. This year we received 1,217 submissions, the most in our entire history, and a remarkable amount considering we are all coming back after a four-year hiatus. Clearly there is a want for this Biennial to happen, and while the work has been enormous, the opportunity to meet and visit with artists who are living and working outside of the pool of usual suspects is incredibly rewarding. It was my second day in Fort Worth and the day was beginning with a visit to the home studio of Mark Renner, an extremely talented figurative painter. I walked into Mark’s studio and was astounded by the amount of paintings filling the space, all of which are reminiscent of his childhood home in a working class suburb of Baltimore. His Benton-esque figures and muted color palette illicit a sense nostalgia for that place and time, and his canvasses range in size, but regardless his output is enormous, and works lined the walls, sat on shelves, and were stacked on the floor, but it was the mount of sketches and sketchbooks that revealed Mark’s commitment to his craft. We talked about Benton, about painting, about Mark’s particular technique and interest in further exploring the landscape behind his figures.
I left Mark’s home appreciative of our conversation, and grateful for the opportunity to talk about painting, it’s history and tradition, and I made my way to the Fort Worth Community Art Center, a Partner Organization with the Biennial, and an organization very much in transition. The Center was host to the exhibition Magnatron Parfait by Dallas collective Chuck&George, or The Brians, a prolific artist couple in Dallas whose highly Baroque, stylized work is politically personal and unapologetic. Viewing the show in what has been a historically conservative arts center was refreshing, and I walked away even happier that I was getting time with the pair in Dallas in just a few days.
The rest of the day panned out to focus on very young, talented artists, and again I was grateful for the Biennial to allow the opportunity to meet with so much emerging talent. My next stop was to the Texas Christian University campus (TCU) where I was visiting Casey Leone, a student in her final year of the BFA program. Even in the summer there is always an energy to college campuses that I find infectious, and I was thrilled to see Casey actively using the facilities available to her at TCU to produce. Casey referred to herself as a printmaker, but has expanded that definition to include methods of photography and even ceramics. The body of work that Casey was excited to show me pulled screenshots of films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a 1930s film about corruption in the government in the United States. In each image Casey blocked out the figure of Mr. Smith with a bright red square creating an ambiguity of image that very much mimics the ambiguity of politics within our current climate. As I left Casey I thought about how it was relieving to see a younger generation of artists making critically engaged work that was relevant to, and challenging our current political climate, and my next visit with Fabiola Valenzuela simply reinforced that thought.
As I drove to the mid-city of Grand Prairie, I thought with more profundity about the political work of Casey and Fabiola. I was struck by the intelligent, thoughtful work the two artists were producing, and felt a sense of pride in their voices as women. While I still needed to get to Fabiola's studio, I realized there was a conversation happening in the work—like two sides of a coin—where both artists were exploring how policy and rhetoric can affect people's lives on such a personal level. I walked into the home of Fabiola's parents where she keeps a studio in her childhood bedroom, and the personal relationship with the work that I was seeing and feeling became much more relevant in the setting.
Fabiola proceeded to tell me her story, and thus the story of her parents which has informed the majority of her work. In particular, the story of her parents road to U.S. citizenship which was also the source for her most recent participatory project at the Kimball Museum. In an exploration of the process of citizenship, and specifically the test to be granted citizenship, Fabiola created a series of cakes on which the congratulatory letters of the last five presidents were transferred on top. Each letter reflected the rhetoric and semantics of the policies of the individual presidents, and during the opening the cake was offered to the visitors who proceeded to cut into it, then physically eat it, as if it was an offering of assorted birthday cakes. Fabiola's project problematized the congratulatory right of passage achieved by citizenship, and the celebratory nature surrounding it. The celebration is a nationalistic gesture that disregards the personal histories of people moving to the States from beloved places, and Fabiola's treatment of this celebratory sentiment also illuminates a sense of personal loss for what we call "freedom."
I thought about Fabiola's work on the drive back into Fort Worth, and realized that my day was coming full circle as I pulled back into the Magical Wonderland studios to visit Timothy Harding, which was also my last visit of the day. I had seen an immersive installation at the Fort Worth Community Center, talked about corruption and politics with Casey, and walked through the personal history of Fabiola through audience participation. That morning had begun with the fundamentals of painting and it seemed fitting that it was ending in a similar (but different) place.
We all know that painting has a long history within the history of art. At times it is problematic, subversive, or just simply beautiful for the sake of being beautiful. In many countries painting was the prescribed method to control and diffuse information, and this road trip will be full of painters manipulating the history of painting in various ways. Tim Harding's paintings do much more than act as canvasses to be viewed on four stretchers. His work plays with the intersectionality of painting with sculpture and architecture, and while the work is deeply embedded in the history of painting, it also challenges that history by engaging with space and questioning the preciousness of painting.
Tim paints on properly fitted stretchers, removes the canvas from the stretchers, then forces it to fit on a stretcher that is far smaller than the painting itself. This forces bends, and folds in the canvas that crete kinetic and optical games, where together with the color of the painting it's hard to see if the depth is manipulated by light sources or color. The work is playful, it doesn't take itself too seriously, and I noticed Tim's playfulness further when I saw he had wedged scraps of painted canvas in the gap between the wall and the floor. The scraps made the architectural flaws of the space obvious, but also made them visible and beautiful. It was a subtle, playful painterly gesture, but it was also a perfect subversion to the history of painting.
There was one more studio that I visited, and it was in the home of Jesse Meraz, a friend and prolific artist from Fort Worth. Our conversation lasted a few hours almost two days in a row, and I learned about Jesse's trajectory and specifically his glitter paintings that directly reference the tradition of color field painting. Jesse's work has shifted to reference high advertising and the farce of it, and specifically he has turned to photography as a medium to stage faux advertising photo shoots with a non-gender specific model. The images are beautiful, follow the same compositional techniques as traditional advertising, and subverts it with the simple twist of falsity.
My visits with Jesse were the final of my time in Fort Worth, and the first stop of this epic Biennial road trip. I was received with warmth and hospitality, and learned so much about the arts community in Fort Worth in a surprisingly short amount of time. I want to thank Jesse for hosting and taking care of me. It's been a number of years since I could rely on a homemade breakfast every morning and dinner waiting for me every evening. Jesse's hospitality made the beginning of this feat possible, and set the stage for the outpouring of generosity that I would receive along the way. A special thank you should go out to Devon Nowlin and Tiffany Wolf Smith for offering their washing machines for laundry, to everyone that showed up at our forum, and to all the artists that welcomed me into their studios. Fort Worth set a precedence for support and it was at this point I began to realize that I am not on this trip alone.
As I threw the suitcase in the trunk and prepared to hit the road for Dallas, I knew it wouldn't be long before I was back in Fort Worth. I had made some genuine friends while I was there, and I fully intend for this Biennial to be a connector between such amazing communities.
Next stop: Dallas