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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."
"My premise is, if you make it, we will show it," says Surls. "And that's something nobody is doing. Consider there are institutions, churches and schools with buses and spaces, who have the wherewithal to put something together but don't do it. To make a change in a community or a
government, to change their minds about art, that's important. If schools taught art and science and philosophy [and] tied them together like
the primary colors -- red, yellow and blue -- with those three colors you can make any color, and with those three subjects you can make the world. Art should be integrated into school, not sectioned off."
"If a kid comes up and hands you a great body of work, where do you show it?" Surls continues. "Who is going to show it? This institution or that museum or that gallery? Well, no, they've got their agenda and they're busy. The egg is hatched and here's this kid out in the world having to pin up the art, to show the art, to formally present the art, all for the sake of getting that psychological feedback and reward."
Amazing Space encourages artists of all ages who might otherwise be ignored by the institutions. In last year's "Fish, Fowl, and Fur" exhibition, Amazing Space packed in nearly 800 works by area schoolchildren. Upcoming events include a "T-show," for which four area teachers will select works, and a contest to design a mountain with a moat for Cleveland. Never mind what a mountain is doing in Cleveland -- it's all dreamy stuff.
Riskier still are Surls' nonhierarchical installations that place works by young children and teenagers alongside those by adults. Currently up at Amazing Space are self-portraits and landscapes by Betty Mobley, a sixtysomething widow from Corpus Christi who turned to art after her husband died -- she paints with a loaded brush in high-voltage colors. The freedom from Southern mores is evident not only in the exuberant and quite exotic images of herself, but also in her luxurious handling of the paint. Mobley takes otherwise mundane, decorative landscapes and turns them into full-throttle orchestrations of smooth and tactile surfaces -- the kind that you can sink your teeth into. The flowered jungle of Waterlilies is an explosion of churning visceral forms, of the very wellsprings of life. One senses that Mobley paints with everything she's got, or as Surls likes to say, "with both triggers."
Equally engaging is "Colors of Spring" -- local kids' drawings, paintings and collaborative collages of Matisse-like flowers, images of butterflies and even Frankie and Annette on the beach at Galveston. The unselfconscious works are curiously upbeat (okay, I really expected black-and-slash images from the teenagers).
Also showing are the post-apocalyptic paintings by Alvin Community College student John Rouse. Apparently, his art teacher told him that the highly personal images of the three graces on fire, a baby riding a crocodile, a woman in a bottle and a locust feasting on a burning landscape were too "ugly" to enter the local art competition. Pity. The smooth, thickly scumbled paintings intelligently combine the poetic mysticism of Symbolism, the lyricism of Romanticism and the free association of Surrealism.
Hanging alongside Rouse's provocative works are deliberately crude, raw images of figures drawn, gouged and burned onto wood by Connie Kelly, who is the wife of artist Bert Long. Surls tells me this is the first time Kelly has ever shown her powerful work, filled with tormented souls and monstrous beasts. There's also a couple of assemblages by Surls' mother -- little skulls, faces, eyes, a fish, various dangling charms and found materials from nature frame a garage-sale religious print and a mirror.
Back at their studio in Splendora, Surls and Locke show me dozens of drawings by Joey Madden, who also attends Alvin Community College and is a friend of John Rouse. His manic cyberspace figures and doodles are powerful visionary images derived from the media as well as from social inanities. He seems like the kind of teenager who might pore over such cyber-punk magazines as Mondo 2000 and Wired. There are figment dragons, constellations and cowboy hats, a demon coming out of a chicken's head, winged TV creatures and characters coughing their heads off.
"I think the idea of curating is like painting or making sculpture, taking the components and making a whole out of them -- something which I was able to do at Lawndale," says Surls. "It's great to look at something like this that comes your way and say, 'Yeah, I'll give that a show. We don't have to wait two years.' This is the kid who falls through the cracks. Here's someone who steps full-blown into all three areas -- art, science and philosophy.... I personally think it pays off if you treat a student like a professional. If they've already acted and reacted with professionals, if they've helped hang professional shows, then they've got the jump, the head start. But how do you solve the problem? If Amazing Space is a drop in the ocean, it is, nevertheless, a drop. So how do you make it one hundred drops without diluting the essence? That's the question. How do you extend the drop?