Burned Out

Houston artist Bert Long returned home from Spain, only to find he had no home

From the driveway, Bert and Connie Long stared, shocked, at their house -- or at what had once been their house. Where the middle-aged couple expected to see their upstairs bedroom, there was now a big burned-out hole.

The bungalow's first floor still stood, sort of. The front door was missing; Bert and Connie walked through the gaping doorway. Whatever hadn't burned had been stolen. Someone had taken their beds, their chest of drawers, their cedar chest, their refrigerator and their two air-conditioning units. Thieves had pried a 200-year-old wood stove out of the wall. They took everything, including the kitchen sink.

It had been nearly five years since Bert and Connie had truly lived in the little house in Shepherd, a tiny town an hour's drive north of Houston; it had been a year since either of them had seen the property. But it was the place they always came back to, their home base, the one piece of real estate they'd ever owned. They'd been living in Europe since Bert, one of Houston's best-known artists, won the Prix de Rome in '91; after spending a year in that city, they moved to a tiny village in Spain. But they traveled back to Texas as often as they could afford it (when a museum or gallery would pay the airfare), and even when they couldn't (when Connie's mother had a stroke, Connie had to come visit). Texas exerted a pull on them; they always planned to return to this house.

They examined the debris, the insulation fluff on the floor, the rotting leaves where their living room had been. One window was smashed, and others were glass-less -- not broken, not melted, but with the panes carefully removed, presumably for use somewhere else.

Glass remained in the picture window. On it, scrawled in black paint, were a swastika and the words, "Fuck you niggers."

Whoever had wrecked the house knew it belonged to blacks.
Connie said, "They'll get theirs."

In the Houston art community, Bert Long cuts an almost mythic figure. A big, burly man, he wears a chest-length beard striped with gray and is given to large, interesting necklaces. His whispery voice is surprisingly insistent.

Bert likes to talk, and he gladly tells the story of his own life. "If I'd been white, I'd have achieved more," he allows -- but he recognizes that his achievements would be significant no matter what his race. He sees himself as a role model, and knows the value of his own remarkable history, a ghetto-to-the-Met fairy tale.

He was born 56 years ago in the Fifth Ward. His father, a steelworker, was killed in an accident when Bert was three. His mother raised her four kids on the $4 a day she earned as a maid. Bert grew up across the street from Connie, and as children, they both spent summers picking cotton on the farms south of Houston, earning money for school clothes. They recall those summers in the country fondly.

After a stint in the Marines, Bert made himself a successful chef. For a while, he ran his own restaurant in Klamath Falls, Oregon; later, he worked as a sous chef at the Las Vegas Hilton, and in the same job at Houston's Hyatt Regency. He was particularly known for his elaborate cakes and amazing ice sculptures.

Cooking, though, didn't satisfy him; he wanted to paint. He slowly weaned himself off the cooking jobs, taking them only to pay the bills. In 1978, he became, once and for all, a full-time artist.

He set up his first studio at his aunt's house in the Fifth Ward, not far from his mother's place. He founded ArtScene, a tabloid that alerted Houston that it actually had an art scene. And slowly, he began to build a following.

Like Bert, his sculptures and paintings are big, colorful and unruly. He riffs on high art, visually quoting Picasso, Van Gogh and Piero della Francesco, but he also makes shameless appeals to the masses with humongous outdoor ice sculptures.

Not all of his work is so lighthearted. In the mid-'70s, he painted Thanksgiving with plush red curtains pulled back to reveal an opulent mound of food -- perfect bananas, melons, tomatoes and the like. Atop the mound lies a black figure, its belly distended from starvation.

"My job as an artist is to diagnose what's happening in society, the way you diagnose an illness," Long explained. "If you diagnose an illness, you have a chance of curing it. Hate's not going to go away if you leave it alone. It festers."

By 1983, he'd sold enough work that he and Connie could afford a down payment on the house in the country that they'd always wanted. For $35,000, they bought a bungalow and three wooded acres in the flyspeck town of Shepherd, population 1,900, in the Piney Woods of San Jacinto County. The county is about 80 percent white, 15 percent black, and totally rural. It reminded Bert and Connie of their childhood summers spent picking cotton.

The house was modest: two bedrooms, heated by a wood stove. Trees hid the house and Bert's studio -- a 1,500-square-foot building -- from the dirt road. Bert planted a garden and sculpted four "boulders" for the front yard.

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