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Drive north on Highway 59 toward the forest and lake district of east Texas, out past the master-planned communities and shopping malls under development. The superhighway bypasses old timber towns such as Porter, New Caney and Splendora before it chugs down to a few traffic lights in Cleveland, giving you a glimpse of small-town life just an hour outside Houston. Just off Cleveland's main thoroughfare on a prime corner location you'll find Amazing Space, an unlikely alternative art space opened last summer by sculptor James Surls and his wife, artist Charmaine Locke.
With its bright blue exterior and "planetary" sign (Splendora and Cleveland become compass coordinates for the galaxy), Amazing Space has the appeal of a roadside stop normally found only in the movies. For years the building housed a raunchy pool hall, but now it's a place for getting the art message out to school kids and adults. Surls and Locke, who have three daughters enrolled in the Splendora school district, felt that there was a connection missing in the school's presentation of art, science and philosophy. That lost link provoked them to open Amazing Space.
"What do you do when you've built your nest, you've laid your eggs and they've all hatched and now they're out?" asks Surls. "It's a different stage of your life. Having seen the process in schools, there's no question there's a crisis. And if there's a crisis on that level, there's certainly going to be one at the next. How do you change it? How do you make a difference?... I've harped on education so long I'm tired of it. I needed to do something."
Running an alternative space in Cleveland certainly won't give Surls -- who's already Texas' most famous living artist -- a career boost. Surls carves magical forms from trees hewn on his woodland property, enhancing their natural contours and imposing on them his own fantastical vision, which has at its core the strong storytelling tradition of a rural upbringing. But he also realizes that the "magic" of his mythical figures and psychically charged organic forms wouldn't be nearly as powerful without a fundamental understanding of creativity and intellect. Indeed, there's something endearing about an artist who can exhibit at New York's prestigious Marlborough Gallery and then talk about bringing the Cleveland business community into Amazing Space through PTA meetings, junior high school projects and gumbo dinners.
"By definition, I guess, Amazing Space would be considered an alternative space, but it's not really an alternative in Cleveland because there's nothing to be an alternative against!" says Surls, who is known for founding the Lawndale Art and Performance Space, one of Houston's first alternative galleries. "You need an awakening effect. The pluses, the negatives, the friction flies, but what ultimately happens is you grow. The question is, for small-town America, how much do you egg on? What kind of goading can you do? My feeling is, you keep it honorable as [long] as you really like what you're showing. If you see something you like that may offend somebody and if you think it's worth showing, then go ahead and take that risk."
By acknowledging the importance of community, family and land, Surls reminds us that art is not an isolated act of the elite. In Houston, female artists beat their drums for social reform, and Rick Lowe's Project Row House refurbishes shotgun houses as studios for African American artists. As times change, it seems that more and more artists are becoming cultural workers.
But make no mistake about it: Amazing Space is as basic as they come. Electrical cords dangle from makeshift spotlights, and exposed light bulbs are camouflaged with newsprint lampshades. Curatorial niceties aren't at issue here. Education is the watchword, and there's no better way to relate the merits of art than to hang it, show it and talk about it.
"I think Cleveland is growing with [Amazing Space]," says Cleveland resident Doris Nelson, a retired school teacher and president of the Amazing Space board of directors. "The two ladies who just came by are a fallout from the women's club meeting the other day. And there's a meeting tonight at the Hot Biscuit -- a lady in town, the administrator of the nursing home, has been talking to her friends about what we all could do to make Cleveland a better place. She has sent out the call for whoever is interested. I thought I'd go and offer the support of Amazing Space."
Nelson is eager to engage the whole town; if you visit the gallery at noon on Thursdays, you'll find her sitting at a table with a red cloth and geraniums, where she conducts a "lunch bunch" open to anyone who wants to shoot the bull about art and its function in the community.
"[While] you don't want to popularize it to the point where it doesn't have any meaning," says Locke, "you want to have some connections to [people's] lives so that they respond. At one point we talked about getting a bus that went out into the communities, into parking lots at Wal-Marts, so kids could hang their art there and do plays. Take it out to the people."