Burned Out

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

His career soared. In 1984, Thanksgiving was included in the now-famous "Fresh Paint" exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. Allan Stone, a New York dealer, soon gave Bert his first New York show. He won a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts. And in 1990, he won the Prix de Rome, a prize that paid for him and Connie to spend a year in that city, immersing themselves in its culture. In 1992, his solo show at the Contemporary Arts Museum broke attendance records. His paintings were bought by museums throughout Texas -- and by the Met in New York. Now, curators at the National Gallery are considering the purchase of Thanksgiving.

But climbing to the top of the art world doesn't guarantee financial success. Bert and Connie paid off the house in Shepherd five years ago, but while living abroad, they ran into trouble with back taxes. They're still struggling to pay the last $2,000, and they hadn't insured the house or anything in it.

"I used to wish I was a famous artist," Bert joked. "I should have wished I was a rich and famous artist."

In Houston, from the back seat of their rented Nissan, Connie warned Bert to stop talking until he found the freeway entrance. After missing it twice, he interrupted himself just long enough to notice that the ramp he wanted was under construction. He embraced the inconvenience as an opportunity to drive through the Fifth Ward, past his mother's tidy house on Gregg Street, past the shotgun shacks and little businesses he knew as a child.

"What Texas gives you is bodaciousness," Bert mused. "You say to people in Paris and Rome, 'Well, I can take you.' "

Texas, he said, has been the location of his greatest good times and greatest hard times. Even now, his work sometimes springs from observations in the state. On a recent trip, he photographed a piece of Houston graffiti: "Create a job. Kill a nigger." The slogan haunted him, and inspired a sculpture.

In Shepherd, he photographed a sign on a decrepit building there, one that denotes the building's "colored" entrance; that photo appeared in one of his shows. He's also photographed Klansmen in Shepherd, and in return, was photographed by them.

Photography, he said, is part of his art; he documents his world almost by reflex. On this day, he was carrying his camera to Shepherd, to photograph his ruined house and studio.

Over the course of the hour's drive, Bert described the wonders of the little village where he and Connie have lived for the last four years. Berzocana, a town of 600 people and eight bars, is located in the Extremadura, the poorest part of Spain -- one whose low cost of living appealed to Bert and Connie. The town is near the home of the Black Virgin of Guadalupe, the area's patron saint. Bert was fascinated by her, by the idea that Caucasians would worship a black Madonna.

He and Connie have made great friends in Berzocana, he said. Their Spanish isn't perfect -- verbs are still awkward, and slang incomprehensible -- but over 35 cent glasses of wine, they discuss art and politics and race with the Spaniards.

He turned off 59, onto the recently paved road that leads to their property. A fringe of trees, mostly tall pines, screened the house from the road. While Bert and Connie were in Spain, some of those trees had been stolen, illegally logged.

(Apparently, none of the mostly white neighbors noticed. Weeks after Bert and Connie filed a report, the San Jacinto County Sheriff's Department couldn't say even what month the house had been burned. Chief deputy Tom Branch, the spokesman for the sheriff's department, said that crime in Shepherd is usually limited to the garden-variety high jinks of rowdy kids. "The fancy thing around here," said Branch, "is knocking down mailboxes.")

When the burned-out shell came into view, Bert fell quiet for a few seconds. With some effort, he heaved himself out of the car. There in the yard, he used to keep a white Cadillac hearse from his uncle's funeral business. The car had been up on blocks, but somehow the vandals stole it. They also kicked in his boulder sculptures; the metal armature peeked out of the boulder's plastic-y shell like the skeleton of a dead animal.

While Connie stood in the yard, Bert walked, dazed, through the remains of their house. He looked hard at the charred remains, and realized that there was nothing left of their bed. It, too, must have been stolen before the fire.

He stared at a piece of graffitti, the word "Satan" and a pentagram painted in red. A paint tube lay on the floor beneath it. The paint had been stolen from his own studio; he remembered the project he'd bought it for.

When he could stand the house no longer, he crossed the yard to his studio. The studio hadn't been burned, but vandals had wreaked destruction. They'd pulled tin panels from the metal building's walls, letting in rain and leaves. Bert's 20-year collection of art publications and paraphernalia lay underfoot in two- and three-foot heaps. Found objects that he intended to use someday in his work were likewise scattered, broken, lost in the debris. There was a TV with a shattered screen, an upended chair, a tree trunk sprouting from a snowdrift of newspapers, a mannequin lying sprawled like a crime-scene corpse. Mysteriously untouched was one of the only pieces of art Bert had left in Shepherd: a large sculpture bearing the words "Where angels fear to tread."

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