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Long Life

The MFAH showcases autobiographical work by a Houston legend

Their car had broken down, and they couldn't afford to get home, but the couple scraped up enough for Connie to go back to the children. Long wound up parking the trailer at a gas station across from Chicago's South Side Community Art Center. At the center's events, he met the likes of famed African-American artists Romare Bearden and Charles White. He made friends with the people at the center, and they gave him studio space and let him come in to warm up when ice formed inside his trailer. One day, broker than broke, Long decided he had to get a job. He wound up as executive sous chef at the Chicago Ritz-Carlton. His friends at the art center were flabbergasted -- the quirky Texan camping across the street in a trailer had mentioned he was a chef, but nobody really took him seriously.

Long stuck it out at the Ritz-Carlton for 11 months, living in the trailer without his family (Chicago's cold was non-negotiable for his wife) before returning to Houston, where he again went back to working in restaurants. In 1979 he gave up his $40,000-a-year job to live off his art. Long describes it as "the last year I worked for anybody. I quit it all and we went from new car every year to no money -- sometimes $500 a year." His wife Connie took a job at Brown and Root to help out.

Long rented a storefront studio in Rice Village, but he "was there for a year and nobody never walked through the storefront." This was back when Rice Village was "just totally dead." He started showing at the Westheimer Arts Festival and gradually began to enter and win competitions. All the while, Long's art had been evolving. He'd started out painting things in series -- 10 paintings about mushrooms, 10 paintings about water -- but the big change occurred when Long started to paint about his life. He considers his painting The Ghost of Material Wealth a turning point. It was a meditation on the fleeting nature of material things. Long painted an old man on a couch next to a ghostly figure, with a treasure chest of baubles at his feet. Onto the canvas, he collaged bits of mirror that reflected the viewer. He knew the painting was something different: "I wouldn't leave it in the studio, I brought it home and put it under the bed. I knew it was important."

Ride the Tiger's bright vivid colors, bold swaths of paint and surreal imagery will draw you in.
Copyright Bert L. Long, Jr
Ride the Tiger's bright vivid colors, bold swaths of paint and surreal imagery will draw you in.

Details

Through August 13
Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300

His big break came with a massive solo show at UH Downtown's O'Kane Gallery. A group of art heavy-hitters came by the show -- Jim Harithas, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and artists John Alexander, Salvatore Scarpitta and James Surls. Scarpitta cried in front of one of Long's paintings. He bought it, and doors began to open.

Long became a fixture on the Houston art scene. He was included in the MFAH's 1985 exhibition "Fresh Paint." He won a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 1987. His work was purchased for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He won the Prix de Rome in 1990, and his year in Rome reignited his wanderlust. With their children grown, he and his wife moved to Spain, coming back to Houston for visits and to check on their house and studio in Shepherd, Texas. On one such visit in 1996, they found that windows, air-conditioning units, the refrigerator and anything else of value had all been stolen, their house burned out, "Fuck you niggers" scrawled on the picture window alongside a swastika, and Long's studio trashed. No one had tried to put out the fire, and no one in the white-dominated community had told the Longs what had happened.

Three months after they returned to Spain, Long came home to find Connie lying on the floor. She was diagnosed with lung cancer and given four months to live. They returned to Houston to get her into M.D. Anderson, but the cancer had metastasized to her brain -- she died four months later. Art became a way of coping with the grief, and Long made an installation about her death at Project Row Houses.

In 1999, Long moved back into the Fifth Ward with Scottish-born painter Joan Batson. They live in a hip home that's been featured on HGTV. It's comprised of two shotgun houses revamped by architect Brett Zamore, a joint project of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation and Rice University. According to Long, "The Fifth Ward has the poorest per-capita income in the whole state. When I was a kid," he says, "it was called the Bloody Fifth, every day somebody died." Long has surrounded his house with vegetable gardens, and he's an active part of the movement to rebuild and rejuvenate the community.

Approaching 66, Long is still "riding the tiger." He just made it through double bypass surgery (he's already made several paintings about it). But right now, the former chef is working on an epic series of large-scale paintings about food, and there are rumors of a full-scale retrospective being organized. Each day brings new material for new art.

Thinking back over his career, Long says, "I don't want to forget where I came from. I don't want to forget picking cotton as a child... and I don't want to forget sleeping in a trailer with ice crystals on the windows and being separated from my family."

But he adds, "I do know this, I've been truthful to what I do." And in a wry nod to Frank Sinatra, the former Vegas chef says, "At least I can honestly say, 'I did it my way.'"

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