Studio visits with Philana Oliphant, James Pace, Lisa Horlander, Chance Dunlap, and Derrick White.
I hit the 500 mile mark on my odometer as I was driving into Tyler, and almost at the exact moment that I realized most radio stations were Christian ones. The scenery had changed dramatically along the drive from Dallas, and between breaks in the tall pine trees I began to see more and more churches until the it seemed you couldn't drive even a block in Tyler without a church anchoring that city block.
I had never been to Tyler, and I was eager for what I was about to learn. I was invited to Tyler by Derrick White, an art teacher at the Tyler Junior College, also a partner organization with the Biennial thanks to Derrick. I made a commitment with this Biennial to go to the places where Partner Organizations invited me to go, and Tyler, vis-a-vis Derrick was one of the first places to send that invitation. I wanted to know what was happening in the city centers that we consider peripheral and outside of the bigger cities that are typically the focus. I had heard that Tyler has a burgeoning arts community centered around the junior college and the University of Texas at Tyler. It's no surprise to me that places with strong schools and universities have growing art scenes, after all, education is at the heart of critical thinking. My first stop was to the home studio of Gregory Zeorlin whose work space is tucked into the lush green woods that geographically define the area, and his work space basically feels like a very large tree house and is filled with the remnants of an art practice spanning decades. Gregory's work has vacillated between painting, sculpture, and writing based on his intuition, and lately he has been playing with the banality and playfulness of the human form.
Derrick met me at Gregory's studio with artist Paul David Jones and together we drove to campus with a stop at the Tyler Museum of Art along the way. The museum is a modest one, but a to say I was impressed by the exhibitions and programming is an understatement. I was lucky enough to meet with Caleb Bell, Curator of the Tyler Museum of Art who had put together two wonderful exhibitions, a solo by Ed Blackburn, and a group show titled Making a Splash with artists Kelly O'Connor, Leigh Merril, and Shannon Cannings. Both exhibitions were well curated, and I was incredibly impressed with Caleb's attention to detail both with his groupings as well as his actual installation of the work. I commend Caleb for the work he is doing at the museum and can't wait to see more. I was also lucky enough to meet executive director Christopher Leahy thanks to Derrick who made sure an introduction happened. I was able to recognize the support that Caleb has in his team in order to be the great curator that he is, and Leahy openly stated that he has made sure Caleb has budget to travel, research, and meet artists. Even in much larger institutions I rarely witnessed such a trusting relationship between a director and curator, and it was refreshing.
We sat down to eat our sandwiches at the Museum Cafe and we had a little bit of time to talk Tyler, and I learned that the city was actually dry until about five years ago, and my jaw nearly hit the floor. I couldn't wrap my head around the implications around lack of choice. I learned that bars did exist in the city, even when it was wet, but one was required to buy a membership. I learned that one had to travel half an hour to buy any alcohol, and even now liquor is not allowed in the stores in Tyler, just beer and wine. The changes have also been a factor in much of the renaissance Tyler is experiencing, and allowing for alcohol within the city limits is ushering in a new sense of entrepreneurship and creativity behind it. I had a million questions about it, and both Derrick and Paul were patient to answer all of them, even as they continued throughout the day.
We finished up our sandwiches, I had a little more time to wander the galleries and we walked across the street to the Tyler Junior College where both Derrick and Paul teach. The campus is absolutely stunning, and even though it was summer the energy on the campus was palpable. As we walked through the hallways I could see the respect that Derrick and Paul garner in the school, and students made it a point to say hello, and the openness among everyone was warm. The art facilities are better than in some bigger universities I have visited in the past, and I learned that the president of the school is a major supporter of the arts and fosters mentorship between teachers and students which changes the dynamic to one that fosters professionalism and careers. I learned that everyone teaching at the school is a practicing, professional artist and is also expected to show their work in the world. Teachers are not just expected to teach medium and technique, but offer insight to professional practices, and as I talked with Derrick more and more I learned that he has been responsible for a shifting narrative in Tyler that accepts the profession of visual arts—an arts career is a feasible one, and a respectable one. Derrick's commitment to his college and the students there is inspiring.
We popped into the small art gallery at the school and talked about the plans in place to expand it, into a courtyard space and make it a place for students to show their work and projects. We left the Junior College and made our way to UT Tyler campus. I was able to see first hand the connectivity between the two schools, and particularly in the art department, the Junior College offers students the opportunity to begin practicing in one environment of high expectations while preparing students for the rigor of a UT system school. That said, within both schools students have a very special network of mentorship, and the communication flows easily between both campuses. We stopped to chat with Lisa Horlander, an artist that began her career at the Tyler Junior College, moved to UT Tyler, had just finished her undergraduate degree, and was preparing to start her Master's degree in the fall. Lisa happened to be taking advantage of the moment of transition and was enjoying an experimental moment where she was playing with materials. Her collections of objects, notebooks, and organic materials were manifesting into playing with juxtapositions of fragility and longevity. We met with Nora Schreibner, whose work walks a social practice line, and her community engagement has pushed her to think more about exhibition practices and objects on view in an exhibition space, particularly the white cube.
We peaked into the Meadows Gallery and saw the thesis exhibitions, and I was particularly drawn to the work of ceramicist Jessica Sanders and Carrie Mason Davis, both of whom filled the space with small and simple gestures, and we made our way back to the Junior College to disperse and take an art break
As I arrived at my car I realized that I was happily, and pleasantly surprised by Tyler. There is a community there that has found ways to sustain itself and grow. The artists I met were talented, practicing their technique, and asking mature questions of themselves as professionals. I had only been in the city just a few hours, but I wanted to learn more after a power nap and a cup of coffee. Next stop was bed.
Derrick was right on time at 5:30 to pick me up for an evening of visits. He recommended we take only one car because the drive to the home and studio of artists Philana Oliphant and James Pace was somewhat hidden. Personally, I’m always happy to not drive, but I realized Derrick was definitely right, and the road wound between the tall pine trees that define the character of the place. Derrick explained that the trees make for a landscape that feels more isolated than it is, and building community is different when the nature of the place literally confines it. It was an observation that resonated with me and I wondered how the character of the landscape defined the character of people in the Panhandle or west Texas.
We pulled up to the beautiful home, and as soon as I walked in I could feel the calm of Philana and James. There was so much love and respect among everyone in the room, and I felt lucky to be there. They had prepared a small spread of bites, handed me a beer, and we all walked outside to their shared studio to talk about their work. Visiting two such prolific artists who happen to be in one space is always a little intimidating, but James and Philana have a way of welcoming people that makes you feel you’ve known them for decades. James explained his compositions and the reference that popped into my head immediately was Rauschenberg. The found materials were converted back into compositions that reflected the beauty of the natural state in which they were found but built off the stretcher to allow them space to move off the wall. The three-dimensionality of the work challenged painting/sculpture definitions with a mix of media, writing, and composition. I walked over to Philana’s area of the studio and we began talking about the foundations of drawing. Her work is meticulous, but the concentration and focus of her mark making is completely embedded in the sound that the mark is making as she places it on the paper. Philana’s marks operate in two time frames, the present and the immediate past. She listens to the sound of the mark and the sound offers direction for the next mark. It’s a micro-moment of noise that she has the sensitivity to hear, and after speaking with both Philana and James about their practices, it was clear how they had become such important mentors in the arts community. Both truly listen while also remaining empathetic to their surroundings and conversation, and the pair of them have shaped many artists into their own careers.
It was while visiting Philana and James that I really realized I was on a road trip with the entire state of Texas. The blog had gone up at some point between Dallas and Tyler, and everyone in the room had already read the content that was up. We returned to the house and talked more about Biennial things, what I had learned in Fort Worth, and a bit more about the growing arts scene in Tyler. We talked about the general need for connectivity between places in the state, and how I hoped the road trip could provide some of that. As we all said our goodbye’s I walked away feeling like I truly had a community in Tyler, and that the Biennial could do a job bigger than just an exhibition. At that moment I also realized the amount of support that the project was truly receiving, we began as total strangers in a place I had never been to, and I walked away with the support of a new community.
We drove down the street to visit Chance Dunlap, who moved to Tyler just a few years prior to teach at the Tyler Junior College. I had met Chance earlier that day, but was excited to see his work since it was so unique to things I had seen in submissions and in studios up to that point. Chance is a sculptor, but he is also a collector, and his collections inform his practice in a very exciting way. He pulled out a collection of antique fishing lures that he had been researching and collecting for a number of years. He also pulled out a few of his own, and I was able to see his attention to detail as an artist and fabricator. Chance can make work out of anything, and it’s clear that he does.
We decided that Barbecue was necessary. Derrick, Paul, Chance and myself met at Stanley’s Famous Pit BBQ, a famous place in the city for BBQ, and one that had been renovated and reopened after the dry laws were repealed in the area. We talked more about Tyler and the changes it had seen after the area became wet again, and all three told me about the excitement of a younger generation that was infusing more life into the area again. Breweries were starting to become the norm, and even shared work spaces were popping up. I was excited about a new workshare model called the Innovation Pipeline that provided a space for artists to use equipment such as 3D printers, laser cutters and sound recording studios for the price of a monthly membership. This model has been lacking in many places, and I was happy to hear that Tyler was ahead of the curve in its resources.
I ate my (delicious) brisket sandwich and Derrick surprised me with two Stanley’s TShirts as a souvenir from Tyler, and I have happily work them interchangeably almost everyday since. I left full, happy, and hopeful for the positivity that was Tyler and settled in for a good night’s sleep. Huntsville was next on the agenda, but not without visiting Derrick’s studio first in the morning.
I drove over to Derrick’s studio the next morning before hitting the road once again. I could easily see that Derrick was serious about proving he is a professional artist and educator to his students. When I walked in I was astounded by the amount of work Derrick was producing, and he pulled out painting after painting to show me his process and how it has developed. Derrick mainly works with painting on traditional canvas with elements of collage and a repeated circle motif, the work is intuitive but Derrick’s finesse with the paint was obvious. Derrick works on a flat surface rather than an easel, and hovers above the canvas as he paints, and physically moves the canvas in order to push the paint into the composition. Talking with Derrick and seeing his practice was a welcome relief, balancing the life of an educator, and being an artist with a professional practice is difficult, and Derrick is not just practicing but he is also shaping careers.
I said my goodbyes and wish that I had decided on a little more time in Tyler. Meeting Derrick and spending time with his community was special, and I learned so much about the place and felt like I was walking away with a genuine community. Being on the road, and traveling is not glamorous, most of the time it’s isolating and lonely, but my time in Tyler was warm, inviting, and friendly. It was during a conversation with Philana that I realized this road trip was existing in three time zones: the past, immediate present, and future. I was present in the moment of one place, planning for the next place, and writing about the place I had just been in, and the observation was just another moment that I realized the empathy that existed in their community of artists, and I was even more grateful to be invited in.
I made a stop downtown for coffee and to take a few photos of the city center. As I hopped in the car to head to Huntsville I realized that visits like Tyler were exactly the reason this road trip was both necessary and wonderful.