Huntsville

Studio visits with Max Manning and Edward Morin.

The drive between Tyler and Huntsville was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The landscape was lush and green and the trees that dotted the landscape were interrupted by tiny towns and lakes. Tyler had been the furthest “east” I had ever been in Texas, and I understanding that Shreveport was almost equidistant as Dallas was shocking to me. As I was driving I wondered what actually defines “east” and what are the actual parameters. The state had been so determined by region and geography and I wondered what that actually meant. Why is north Texas Dallas/Fort Worth and not the Panhandle, and why is Tyler East and what does Huntsville consider itself?

I drove directly to the University to meet with Michael Henderson, my host and contact with the Gaddis Geeslin at Sam Houston State University, a partner organization with the Biennial.the university was obviously experiencing a considerable amount of growth which was obvious by the cranes that dotted the skyline. I was curious about what that meant and if the art department was receiving resources for growth as well.

I walked into the gallery and was pleasantly surprised to see a curated show of work by alumni in the space and some names I recognized from the 1,200 submissions we received. Michael met me in the space and told me that the show is their nod to the students who went on to graduate programs. I hadn't realized that the school didn't have an MFA program and I was excited to learn that one is in the works, especially when Michael divulged more information about how the program will be designed. I've been sworn to secrecy but I can divulge that it will be one of the few of its kind in the country.

Michael walked me through the art department and pointed out the changes that were coming. Like the rest of the university the art department was also on the verge of major changes, including a new facility to resolve space issues within the department. For the time being they have been housed in temporary warehouses. I learned that the growth of the university is coming from the growth of Houston only about an hour away, and until that point I hadn’t realized the close proximity between Huntsville and Houston.

We hopped in Michael’s car and drove across campus and to downtown Huntsville to visit the satellite student gallery which was programmed based on social engagement and an interest in community outreach. It started to become clear that the university made a big impact in shaping Huntsville in general, but the art department was also an embedded component of the community. After visiting the school we hopped back in the truck and visited the Wynn Home and Arts Center, a 19th century style home that had been gifted to the city as an arts foundation by Samuella Wynn Palmer for the Ruth Wynne Hollinshead estate. The center is designed to bring inclusivity to the arts in Huntsville through workshops, and exhibitions that feature artists of any type, but there is an interesting focus on outsider artists. We were able to say hello to Linda Pease, the coordinator of the house who pointed out stand out artists in the collection. Many were professors or former students at the University, but there were also a number who were inmates at the prison, and whose work would pop up repeatedly in visits such as these.

Michael was kind enough to drive me around Huntsville, and we saw the iconic homes of artist and architect Dan Phillips whose quirky style also relies on the materials he builds with. Everything is salvaged, repurposed, and recycled, and the homes are built for individuals and families who work with Dan and learn the trade.

We ended our day at a popular Salvadorian restaurant, and as I stuffed my face on pupusas and fried yucca I was excited about everything I had already learned in Huntsville.

My second and final day in Huntsville began with a visit to the home studio of Max Manning. The studio was filled with sketches Max had been working on in an effort to push his practice past the stretcher. Max is a painter’s painter and our conversation ebbed and flowed between the history of painting in the modern era, the history of painting in pre-revolutionary France, the history of history painting, and the trend I have seen in a younger generation moving back to painting. Max had stacks of paintings off the stretcher pinned directly on the wall. The canvasses still had the fold lines in their corners and the combination of the folds, the composition of the work itself, and the layers that Max made with the hang worked together beautifully.

Max was kind enough to send me away with the offer of car nuts, a banana and more coffee. He reminded me once again that I am not on this trip alone, but have the eyes of an entire state paying attention with a genuine concern for my safety and care. I left Max’s feeling like I had just gotten a long overdue brain massage, our conversation was easy even though he challenged my lack of knowledge in the history of painting. I cut my teeth professionally in a moment of heightened political conceptualism in Mexico City. It was a time when painting was frowned upon generally, and the international shift back to painting in a younger generation of artists has forced me to revisit art history. When I left Max’s I was grateful for the challenges this job provide, and with the realization that the acquisition of knowledge requires constant attention.

I had some time in my day so I wandered down to the Sam Houston State Monument, a museum and garden commemorating Sam Houston, a lawyer and politician who was critical in securing Texas independence from Mexico in 1836. After leaving my visit with Max that morning I was hyper aware of the stories that museums tell, and how perspective influences those stories. My knowledge of the history of Texas Independence comes from the stories told from two perspectives, the Mexican story, and the U.S. Story. As I walked through the museum I had to ask myself what it would look like if Otabenga Jones and Associates had a chance to rework it into a less nationalistic story. After my jaunt to the museum I met my host Michael at the Ethician Foundation, a collection of historical homes bought by George Russell, a quirky collector of all things Texas. The buildings come from all over Huntsville and were slated for demolition by the city at different times, moved to a single street. Each building has since been filled with objects collected by Russell over the years, and have been organized thematically according to each building. One houses all things pertaining to colonization in Texas, another is devoted to items of kitch. Each of the buildings is packed with items that Russell has collected over the years and was an overwhelming display of everything. Michael and I stepped back out into the West Texas heat after a little more of an hour of looking at everything I made my way to the studio of Edward Morin and made plans to meet Michael an hour later at the Addickes Foundation.

I made my way a few neighborhoods over to talk with Edward Morin, whose stop animation videos interested me. Edward walked me through his process by explaining a new series of characters he had been playing with over the past few months. Edwards process is about play, and he mixes and matches shapes until the characters start to take form and gain life, and he places them into the narrative by shooting them one movement at a time. Edward pulled out collages he had been playing with that take imagery from antique Time Magazines, he reconfigures them much in the same way as his characters, and changes the narrative of historical “americana.” The collages question and challenge the references of images that define the image of the United States that Time Magazine was selling in the 50s and 60s.

I said goodbye to Edward after a cup of coffee and a wonderful conversation that I didn’t want to leave. I made my way once again to meet my host Michael at the Adickes Foundation just on the other side of downtown. David is a prolific painter and sculptor from the area and is most known for his his of presidents in Houston as well as a giant sculpture to Sam Houston on the road to Houston from Huntsville. David’s former high school was slated for demolition by the city in 2008. Built in the 1930s, the building functioned as a school well into the 70s. The history and stories that existed in those walls was tangible, the building was almost completely intact as a former high school. David had converted most of the bottom floor into a functioning showroom, and I wandered through the maze of walls that David had built in what was the former gymnasium, his trajectory as a working artist was completely laid out in front of me in the space. I wandered through his paintings that marked his time in Europe, when he apprenticed in Leger's studio in Paris, and his return to the states. It was remarkable to see David’s progression as a professional artist, and refreshing to meet an artist who had supported himself through his work his entire life.

As I drove out of Huntsville I thought about the growing University, the community of artists, and I was also relieved that my visit there wasn’t centered around the prison. Huntsville surprised me, and the direction the art department at Sam Houston State University is moving in a direction that will surprise academia and position the university and the city as an innovative educational hub that will further foster a community of artists. I rounded the curve in the road that was only a few miles outside of Houston and saw the David Adickes statue of Sam houston in sight. I knew my visit in Huntsville was only the first of many more to come.