Studio visits with Eric Schnell of Partner Organization Galveston Artist Residency, Nick Barbee, Ann Wood, and cocktail party with the local creative community hosted by Linda Darke.
Tropical Storm Cindy was scheduled to make landfall in Galveston and Houston in the early hours of the morning. I was scheduled to be in Galveston by 2 p.m. with the hopes that the storm would cause minimal flooding on the road. I woke up that morning expecting to hear the sounds of heavy rain and thunder, but instead things sounded calm and peaceful. I could hear a slight breeze blowing through the trees outside, and for a second I wondered if I had slept soundly through the storm, but as I looked out the window I realized the rain hadn't actually come, and Cindy was more melodrama than anything. It had been years since I had been present for the threat of a hurricane or tropical storm in Texas, and the drama of it all made a road trip during a Texas summer that much more romantic.
I threw my bags in the car and had one more visit before hitting the road to Galveston. Artist Bert Bertonashi had offered coffee and breakfast pastries as I was headed out of town and I was excited to talk a little about her work while we munched. Bert told me a little about her history as we talked, and shared with me her ongoing commitment to Project Row Houses, an organization that she is on the board of. Our conversation turned to her work which addresses the ongoing political climate in the United States, and uses a variety of media to explore the contradictions of politics. Much of Bert's work plays with the signs and images that we are accustomed to reading everyday in media outlets, and her visual language is both familiar yet complex.
I said my goodbyes to Bert and started making my way to Galveston. The humidity sat thick in the air, but we still did not get the rain so many feared. I had never been to Galveston and I was excited about what I was about to learn there. The Houston skyline drifted further and further away in my rear view mirror, and a mere 40 minutes later I was crossing the bridge into the island of Galveston, and only 10 minutes more I walked into the hug of Linda Darke.
Galveston was part of the Texas Biennial road trip on the invitation of Eric Schnell of the Galveston Artist Residency, and Dennis Nance, curator of the Galveston Arts Center. I had not yet met either of them, but I felt like I was following Dennis's professional reputation around the state. I had promised no less than 10 people that I would relay a hug to him, and I fully intended on keeping that promise. Not only did Dennis extend an invitation, but he organized a place to stay with Linda and her husband, and together they organized a cocktail meet and greet with artists on the island the following evening. I instantly felt the warmth of Galveston welcome me, and after my first home-made meal in over one week with Linda I made my way to the Galveston Artist Residency to meet the residents and talk with director Eric Schnell.
The Galveston Artist Residency is a gem of a program. It affords three artists a full living wage, a studio space, and a separate living space for an entire year, with a group exhibition at the end of that year. Eric met me, introduced me to everyone, walked me through the shows and had organized for all the artists to be there.
I met with Fidencio Martinez first, an artist from Oaxaca, Mexico, via Chicago, whose work challenges the definition of borders and even how borders are defined. Recently, Fidencio has been working with antique maps and cutting them in such a way that allows them to drape loosely onto the floor, and reminiscent of temporary plastic fencing used on construction sites. Fidencio has been thinking more and more literally about fencing and walls, as many of us have been but like so many affected by rhetoric of a border wall, his life will be effected by administration changes, which has manifested itself more literally in his work.
I moved next door to the studio of Leonardo Benzant, whose mixed media work reflects upon ritual, myth surrounding ritual, and the characters within the myths. Leonardo's finished works are large in scale, but he was generous enough to show me his daily sketchbooks in which he practices his hand, constructs his myths, and pulls together the cosmology of diasporic cultures in the America's as fodder for his syncretic artistic vocabulary.
Leonardo walked me next door to Pat Palermo's studio. Pat is a draftsman, and the first thing I saw when I walked into the studio was the outline of his next comic book, and I saw page after page hanging along the entire wall and wrapping partly onto the next one. The detail in each page was stunning, and the amount of information that Pat included in the story was dizzying. I couldn't believe the amount of work he had produced during his time in Galveston, not only was he producing a new comic, but he also committed to making a drawing a day while he was in residence. The drawings and comics were documents of his time in Galveston, and once again, each drawing was loaded with information, both visual and literal that it was almost dizzying.
I said goodbyes to Pat and wished him luck on his next adventure post-residency and made my way back to Eric, who hadn't planned on making his one of the stops on the studio visit tour. The walls of each studio at the residency are at least 20 feet high, and I walked into Eric's studio to turn the corner and completely stop in my tracks. He had been working on a large-scale, mixed-media wall piece that filled the tallest and longest wall of the studio space. The work was only about a quarter finished, but the detail within it could also warrant individual works just as strong. The entire wall was filled with visual vignettes that built on each other, worked with each other, and sent both the eye and the body moving from one section to another. I found myself moving into it, stepping back from it, and allowing it to physically move me through the space because of the intense amount of depth Eric imbued in the work.
I left the residency nearly speechless, and as Eric walked me out I realized I was on visual overload and needed to take a minute to process. I decided to leave the car and wander around a bit to find a quiet spot to take a moment and soak in the heat of the city.
I wandered around through the historic downtown area of Galveston, not far from the residency program, and the stories of Galveston started to make themselves manifest. As I wandered I started spotting small aluminum markers on some historic buildings indicating water levels from two hurricanes that changed the course of history in the city: The great storm of 1900, and Hurricane Ike in 2008. While planning for this visit I had been in near constant communication with Eric Schnell who had kept me informed of the situation as Cindy became more and more of a threat, then a total dud.
When I met Linda and her husband our conversation turned from Cindy to reflecting on Ike and the residual effects it has had on Galveston residents. Indeed, the island itself was built as one big hurricane barrier, a topic I would learn more about when chatting with artist Nick Barbee much later. For the moment I wandered around between studio visits, sat on the sidewalk and enjoyed the ocean breeze and waited for Jordan Gentry and Shea Little, programming director and executive director of Big Medium, respectively.
The road trip has been designed so I would travel to all the site consecutively in two phases, the first four weeks, and the second three weeks, for a total of seven weeks or 42 days, with two days off in Austin in the middle. As the reality started to set it we realized that I would need support at most places, but no one was available to spend the entire summer in a car traveling the state of Texas, so the solution became that people would jump in and out at different destinations, much like running a marathon. In Galveston, Jordan and Shea were jumping in. They collected me downtown and we headed off on foot to Nick Barbee's studio only a few blocks away.
We walked up to Nick's studio space impressed with the proximity of his studio to a church right next door but thought nothing more of it when we walked into Nick's world.
Nick walked us into a back room and started telling us about a model that he had been building in the hopes to turn it into a finished piece. It was a mashup of different galleries and museum spaces that had a major impact on his memory. A room from the Menil from a visit in 2009 shared a wall with the National Gallery of Art in 1997, and a swooping, curved room taken from the Hirshhorn in 2012 connected the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2007 with the Frick Collection in 2003. It was a perfect introduction to Nick's work which plays with layers of history and art history through which he then collapses those layers into each other, and the personal memory and official histories vacillate between each other, vying for validity and meaning. Through the work we started talking about history and meaning, specifically how the two are constructed and we followed Nick into another room of the studio where he was playing with just these issues with work referencing shapes and forms of minimalism, way finding, and sources of information.
We bounced around the studio talking references, histories, stories and analyzing the work from every angle for an hour. As we were gearing up to leave Nick offered to show us the church next door which revealed his obsession with history and story-telling even further. Come to find out, Nick also worked at the Galveston Historical Foundation and had a particular knowledge of Galveston itself. Connected to his studio was St. Joseph's Church which was built in 1859, making it the oldest German Catholic church in the state of Texas and the oldest wooden church building on the island. The structure is a simple white Gothic Revival building that was built to serve the growing German immigrant population that arrived in the state when Texas was a major point of entry and Galveston a thriving port city. Nick was giving us an entry into Galveston that I didn't expect, and we agreed to talk again the following day for a city tour.
We said our goodbyes and made our way to the Sea Wall and Pleasure Pier because learning about a place means sometimes playing outside of art.
I woke up the following morning to a text message from Alison Starr in Dallas. It was an encouraging note to wish me luck, to remind me to build in rest, and to generally just remind me that she is on my side. It was a small gesture from her but went so far for me and also served as another reminder that people are paying attention, they care about the Biennial, and they are genuinely concerned for my well being as I am followed through the state. It was a note of encouragement that gave me a much needed boost.
I met Jordan and Shea near downtown Galveston at the studio of Anne Wood. It was a large warehouse space, and we followed her up the narrow stairs up to the second floor where Anne had taken over much in the years she had been at the studio. Most things in the room were in progress, and the studio was covered in resins, paints, brushes, molds and every other manner of material filling the room in the trompe l'oeil world of Ann.
A series of newer mixed media "paintings" struck my eye from one side of the room, and I soon found out that they are a new series Ann had started exploring. They were a fusion of classical renaissance and baroque painting, such as Goya's "Sleep of Reason" but mixed with modern day narratives of fairy tales that further contribute to heteronormative gender roles.
We said goodbye to Anne by riding the operational antique freight elevator down to the first floor and promising we would all see each other later that evening. Dennis Nance of the Galveston Arts Center and Linda Darke my host had graciously arranged a meet and greet with the arts community in Galveston later that evening, and in the meantime, we made our way to the Galveston Arts Center to finally meet with Dennis Nance and visit the exhibitions.
It was my first time in Galveston and my first time in the Galveston Arts Center (GAC). The center had been badly damaged during Hurricane Ike in 2008 and operated in a temporary space while funds were raised to renovate the badly damaged space. The GAC completed renovation in 2015 and moved back into its original historical space. Dennis Nance's reputation had preceded him across the state and I was excited to finally meet him. Dennis had actively begun shaking things up at the center since his arrival, and the two exhibitions on view were perfect examples of his thoughtfulness. On view in the main gallery was a collaborative exhibition with Robert Hodge and Tierney Malone and examines the history of Juneteenth in Texas vis-a-vis a musical collaboration between the two artists in 2016 which was further elaborated upon through a collaborative exhibition of mixed-media works. In the second-floor galleries was an exhibition titled "Salt" by the Houston based collective Roux with Rabea Ballin, Ann Johnson, Delita Martin, and Lovie Olivia, four women who challenge traditional mediums and approach their practices through their lenses as women of color in Texas. Both exhibitions addressed issues of identity and race in Texas, and the language of references so specific to Texas that it was obvious Dennis had placed great care into his selection of artists and exhibitions. Both were also planned to coincide with the Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, a history I would come to understand further in just a few hours.
We walked through the education rooms, saw the space for summer camps, and workshops. We were lucky to meet the staff and talk about programming, audience and reach. It's exciting to see what Dennis has cooking up for the future, and the amount of support he has to be great in his role as curator will undoubtedly foster his greatness.
We spent the rest of the afternoon riding in the back of Nick Barbee's truck learning about Galveston history, which is a story for another post that is coming. But that evening we all gathered at the Palisade Palms to enjoy bites and beverages.
It was an incredible evening of love. More than 25 people arrived to say hello and chat about the Biennial and generally just catch up with one another. The room was full of philanthropists, board members of local arts organizations, and of course artists. Familiar faces from Houston made the 45-minute drive into Galveston toast with us and celebrate, and I was thrilled to be able to give more hugs to Rabea, Hodge and Angelbert. It was a room full of beautiful minds and tons of laughter, and as night progressed from appetizers to pizza I looked around the table at the people that remained in the room and really realized that Galveston is a very special place.
There was so much about Galveston that I hadn't known before visiting. It was one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, and certainly in Texas at the turn of the 20th century. It was a major port of industry and people, and immigrants flocked to Galveston, creating a city with incredible diversity of both wealth and ethnicity. It is an island of people that have survived storms and floods and have stood resilient to both, and it is a piece of land that was never meant to be occupied by inhabitants.
I remember the moment Nick Barbee explained to me that the island of Galveston is actually not a true island, but a sand bar—a landform that is mostly underwater and formed of sand, rocks or pebbles. It is a transient formation made mostly from converging elements and not meant to hold permanence. Knowing this it came as no surprise that residents of Galveston were both resilient and flexible to the elements, and were also flexible in life in general. Time was fluid, suggested and relaxed.
However, the island had undoubtedly suffered its fair share of trauma. The Great Storm of 1900 still remains the most destructive in the history of natural disasters in the United States where an estimated 6,000—12,000 casualties. I learned from Nick Barbee that Galveston is a haunted city. After the storm the bodies were dumped into the ocean, and naturally with the tide were washed back up on the beach, then collected and dumped in different corners of the city and burned in open bonfires. People witnessed the destruction of the corpses of their family members, friends, and loved ones, and to this day older residents can still be seen walking around holding mirrors to ward off the spirits of the dead.
We spent an afternoon with Nick who is a walking encyclopedia of Galveston history. We met him at the Ashton Villa, built between 1858-59, is one of Galveston's first brick homes, and was owned by Bettie Brown, a painter in her own right. The home was used as the Union headquarters, and in 1865 the balcony of the home was the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was read publicly, two years after slavery had been abolished in the rest of the state.
As we walked through Ashton Villa Nich told us the stories of the wealthy elite that lived in Galveston and the remnants that were left behind. As we walked through the parlor, the various bedrooms, and the master bedroom of Bettie herself the disparity between race and class became more obvious. Galveston was a city of prosperity and slavery, it was a booming city of disparity unlike any other of its time.
We hopped into the back of Nick's truck and made our way to the Galveston Garten Verein, or the Galveston Garden Club. It was a social club for families and friends of German speakers or people of German origin until anti-German sentiment became widespread post World War II. It was becoming more and more clear that the history of race, class, and disparity of wealth was also part of the story of the island, and as we hopped back in the truck to drive up and down historic Sea Wall Boulevard, the beauty of the city suddenly looked much more complex.
Nick took the long way back to the Galveston Arts Center and I climbed down from the back of the truck. The heat and humidity of the island felt refreshing and my brain was buzzing from the lessons that Nick had taught me. Galveston was a memorable place, and in that moment I knew it would bring me back.