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.

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."

Bert examined the windows, most of them broken. "Connie!" he yelled suddenly. "There's a bullet hole! Connie, come here." She came, examined the hole in the glass without comment, and left.

Halfheartedly, he snapped a few photos. From the mounds of paper, he retrieved souvenirs from his past: old ArtScenes, "people bags" from Big Bert's restaurant, an old car registration. He found an invitation to a long-gone show at Lawndale Art and Performance Center. He read the title aloud: "Art: a healing force." He snorted, "Is it?"

Outside, among the refuse dumped in the yard -- an abandoned toilet, mysterious mounds of dirt, around 30 empty motor-oil bottles -- Bert found a hubcap emblazoned "Special Edition." He picked it up, examined it and put it in the rental car's trunk. Later, he said, he might incorporate it in one of his sculptures. The hubcap seemed to mean something to him. In the devastation, he'd found something he could use.

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