Tick Tock, Your Time Is Up

Foreign students at the Glassell School of Art get a stipend, studio space and three years to make it really big. They've had a huge impact on Houston's art scene. But if the INS isn't impressed, they've got to go.

Ask Eliza how she came to be an artist, and she simply says, "I was already one," as if at her conception, genes marked the developing glob of dividing cells as an artist -- and she was born one in the same way she was born a girl.

Eliza grew up in a working- to lower-middle-class neighborhood in Europe. Her parents worked in scientific -- not creative -- fields. Still, they recognized their daughter's inchoate ability. Perhaps this was because when Eliza was four years old, her teacher pointed out the child's paintings and described them as "vital." Naturally, Eliza attended art school, then graduate school, making sculptures, installations and even doing a bit of performance art along the way. When Eliza graduated with her master's degree, she faced the daunting prospect of surviving as an artist in the real world. That's when she heard of the Core Artists in Residency Program.

Located in Houston, the program bills itself as a fellowship for talented young artists that helps ease the transition between structured academic life and the professional art world. Since the Glassell School of Art (part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) established the program in 1982, it has attracted some of the brightest artists from America and Europe.

Sculptor Joseph Havel, head of the Core program, has seen many good artists leave the country because of immigration limitations.
Deron Neblett
Sculptor Joseph Havel, head of the Core program, has seen many good artists leave the country because of immigration limitations.

Many foreign artists want to move to America because the environment encourages innovation and nurtures young artists more than other parts of the world -- even Europe. There are more opportunities to make that big break, especially in a residency like the Core program.

The Core program offers studio space, a modest stipend and frequent visits from well-known artists and curators. Glassell prides itself on injecting new culture into Houston, and many of its fellows settle in here after their residencies, contributing much of the vibrancy in the city's current art scene.

However, not all of those who want to stay, can. Although the Core program's growing prestige attracts an increasing number of international artists, it can keep foreign artists on student visas for only three years. After that, they're on their own. Some have struggled to find ways to stay in the country. Others have given up. They have been detained by the Border Patrol, prohibited from earning money for months at a time and forced to return to their original countries at a last minute's notice -- even when they maintained legal status. Although the government offers a visa for artists, the standards are exceedingly high, even for individuals talented enough to gain admittance to the Core program.

For Eliza, whose time at Core has run out, Houston is where she prefers to stay and feels she belongs. In Houston she launched her career, found a gallery to represent her and began to make her name. But that all may become a dreamlike memory unless she can convince the Immigration and Naturalization Service to let her stay.

"It's not a surprise that you're not allowed to stay, because you always knew that," she says. "But it's kind of difficult because you have to sort of start again in quite a big way."

With no choice but to return to Europe, Eliza is now applying for a new visa and asked that her real name and native country not be used in this story.

The dilemma frustrates Joseph Havel, head of the Core program and director of the Glassell, who has seen too many good artists leave.

"The art world is so international nowadays, as [are] so many areas of work, it's too bad there's not more fluidity in all of this," he says. "But governments are big faceless institutions…And they're not necessarily sympathetic."

Art enthusiasts still talk about it -- the time that Leandro Erlich, like a magician, made a swimming pool appear within the Glassell building's glass block walls. It was spring 1999, time for the annual Core Exhibition, where fellows present their work to Houston audiences, usually for the first time.

Erlich's The Swimming Pool dropped jaws. On the outside, it looked like a huge white block. From above, it looked real enough to jump into. And inside, viewers enjoyed the uncanny sensation of calm weightlessness while walking around, bone dry. Erlich had achieved the illusion by pouring several inches of water on top of a clear Plexiglas barrier. A fan pushed air across the water, simulating the ripples and refracted light patterns of an actual swimming pool. A toy floated on the pool's surface.

Since then, Erlich has been included in some highly prestigious, career-making shows, including the 2000 Whitney Biennial in New York. Most recently he represented his native Argentina at the Venice Biennale, where he spent more than a month installing his swimming pool.

The success of globe-trotting artists like Erlich has enhanced the Core program's reputation exponentially in the last five years. Other rising stars include painter Jeff Elrod and current Core fellow Trenton Doyle Hancock (who also had a piece in the 2000 Whitney Biennial). The entire Texas contingent at the previous Whitney show in 1997 consisted of Annette Lawrence and Pakistani native Shahzia Sikander, both former Core fellows. Glassell director Havel has done well himself. His sculptures have shown just about everywhere, including the White House and the millennial Whitney Biennial. (His Curtain flanks the entrance of the new MFA building.)

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