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Long Life

The MFAH showcases autobiographical work by a Houston legend

In Bert Long's painting Ride the Tiger (2002), the artist depicts himself astride a tiger, naked save for a massive pair of eyeglasses. His long hair and beard flow behind him like a mane as the fiery tiger leaps through a vividly streaked sky. Instead of a hand, Long clings to the tiger with a hook. The tiger has the look of Asian kitsch embroidery, and its eyes stare out at the viewer with hypnotic power. You can't help but be drawn into the work's bright vivid colors, bold swaths of paint and surreal imagery. Surrounded by an equally dramatic frame daubed with color, it's the standout work in the exhibition "Out of the Life of Bert Long, Jr.," curated by his friend and fellow artist James Surls, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

The painting refers to Long's "ride the tiger" art career. The hook symbolizes handicap -- living the life of an artist and being African-American are among the many challenges Long has faced in life. Sometimes the biography of an artist overshadows the art; other times the art is so entwined with the life of an artist that the two become indistinguishable. In Long's case, his biography and his work are equally intriguing.

At six foot two and 250 (or so) pounds, Bert Long is a big bear of a man, and like his work, he's utterly unrestrained -- at turns funny, poetic and wildly opinionated. He creates paintings, installations, performances, photographs and sculptures made from found objects and from ice; he also once wrote and edited an art magazine. He has lived solely from his art since 1979, when, at the age of 39, he gave up a lucrative career as an executive chef.

Long's show at the MFAH showcases some of his best paintings. Like the rest of his art, they grew out of Long's experiences with travel, the art world, racism and his personal life. Most of the works have collaged elements, and Long's frames are heavily decorated and are as important as the paintings themselves. The Collector (1984-85) comments on the art world, showing a pursed-lipped woman in a big hat, the kind that wants pretty art to match her sofa. (Bert doesn't do "pretty.") The frame is gold-leafed and encrusted with fake pearls. Then there are intimate works such as Kidney Stone (1983-85). It has a rock-encrusted frame and depicts a massive boulder against the brown silhouette of a man. It's an elegant image that spikes gravitas with a dash of humor.

The show is by no means a retrospective of Long's large and eclectic body of work, but it makes you wish it were. Long is a talented artist and a fascinating character. The story of how he became an artist explains the gutsy individuality of his work.

Bert Long was born in the Fifth Ward in 1940. His father, who worked at Sheffield Steel, died after falling into a vat of molten metal when Long was three. He left Bert Jr., his two young siblings and a heavily pregnant wife behind. Long's mother worked as a maid making $4 a day; at an early age, Long began to help out, first picking cotton summers in Richmond, then, at 12, working at the Houston Club. According to Long, "There weren't any child labor laws then." When he left at age 19 to join the Marines, Long was the highest-paid back-room employee -- at $1.27 an hour.

Thanks to his experience in catering, Long wound up running the officer's club at Camp Delmar in Oceanside, California, where he amazed the brass with his ice sculptures. When he was discharged in 1965, Long went to Los Angeles and wound up as an executive chef of a chain of high-end restaurants. He married his childhood neighbor Connie Kelly in 1964, and they raised three children.

Stints as a culinary arts teacher in L.A., the proprietor of his own popular restaurant, Bert's Gourmet in Oregon, and executive sous chef at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas followed. It was in Vegas that he had his first art show, an exhibition of his paintings at MGM Grand Gallery. Wanting to play into the show business of being a chef in Vegas, Long's publicist had set up the show. With that experience, Long discovered what he really wanted to do -- be an artist. He gave his 30-day notice.

With his family in a travel trailer, Long made paintings and took them around to art fairs all over the country, sometimes trading paintings for groceries. He decided to make Houston his home base. His only art education had been with Mrs. Ladner at Phillis Wheatley High School; to encourage his talent, she'd let him do the seasonal bulletin boards. Now he set about reading everything he could about art history from the Houston Public Library.

Long was nothing if not determined. He'd heard about the Ebony magazine collection of African-American art, and he and his wife left the children with their grandmother in Houston and headed to the magazine's headquarters in Chicago -- in the dead of winter. They carried an eight-foot painting through brutal winds into the lobby of Ebony headquarters and called for the art director of the magazine. He came down and lectured Long about professionalism and appointments. Long, undaunted, said, "Well, I'm here now." He was unsuccessful. Unfazed, Long doesn't believe in appointments.

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."

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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