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Working with Rick Lowe at Project Row Houses was an eye-opener. Adams got to oversee installations and see a more conceptual side of the art community. "The people it exposed me to began to forge the direction in which MOCAH was going to be birthed," he says.
He started dating a fellow artist, Rhonda Radford, after the two (then just friends) won a costume contest at a fund-raiser downtown. The prize was a trip to Europe. While in Barcelona with Radford, Adams saw the intricate mosaics of Antoni Gaudí, and they inspired him to propose to Radford. The two were married, and when they returned to the States, they began laying the plans for MOCAH.
MOCAH's mission is "to use public art and creativity as tools for social awareness and community development." MOCAH's "museum," in effect, is the public sphere. The organization works with underserved communities to create public art projects that reflect the culture and history of those communities — with the community as the artist, guided by Adams. Having been floored by Gaudí's mosaics, it just made sense that mosaic would be the medium for the projects.
This may be the first time you're hearing about Adams, but over the past seven years he has become one of Houston's most prolific public artists. He's produced more than 80 public art projects across the city. Typical locations for these projects include schools, community centers, hospitals, housing developments, colleges, religious buildings and other civic spaces. MOCAH works with the SPARK School Park Program, created by Eleanor Tinsley in 1983, to increase park space by developing public school grounds after school closings. Many of these park spaces have become sites for MOCAH projects.
Most recently, MOCAH completed "This Is Houston," the mosaic mural at 2615 Montrose Blvd. at California Street, on the Hubbard Financial Services Building. Its next project is an ambitious collaboration with Neighborhood Centers Inc. on a new community center.
Adams sees public art as way to serve both artists and future generations. (Every artist wants to leave a mark, after all.) He thinks public art should be durable and permanent, like the mosaics he creates. He likens them to present-day artifacts. "Five thousand years from now, when they're digging up this place called Houston, they're going to find these mosaics, and it's going to tell a story," he says. "They will be our hieroglyphics."
It started the way all worthwhile endeavors are supposed to start — under the influence of alcohol. "We were at the Gingerman," says Viswa Subbaraman, a 33-year-old orchestra and opera conductor, and the artistic director and co-founder of Opera Vista. In 2006, the west Texas native was in Houston visiting his friends Elizabeth and Chris Knudsen, and over a few pints of beer at the popular Rice Village bar, they started talking about "what Houston needed." Subbaraman chuckles at the memory.
"Houston needed another opera group. And we needed to have an opera company that fostered new works and was edgy and different and outside the box." He says this with almost a roll of the eyes, like it's such a cliché, but in reality it's exactly what's supposed to happen. It's the way things must start. You have to tear down the establishment to get establishment, before you eventually become part of the establishment, and then it's someone else's turn to tear you down.
There was a good reason to start such an endeavor. "There are a lot of good singers in Houston; that's one of the things we have in droves," says Subbaraman. "When you have that kind of talent in the area, an opera company seems like a great idea." The next morning, I said, 'All right, I'm moving to Houston and starting an opera company!' So here I am."
Now in its fourth season, Opera Vista has stayed true to its original concept, even though the Knudsens are no longer involved (Chris has since moved to Los Angeles and started a band), and the company's launch was more of a merger. Another group had similar ambitions. With the help of Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts, Opera Vista got its 501(c)(3) status, started talking itself up around town and ran into the fledgling Houston Opera Theatre. "We met with them," says Subbaraman, "and as we talked about it, it just seemed stupid to start two organizations. Since we had our 501(c)(3) and they didn't, we just decided to go with Opera Vista. It just seemed pragmatic."
Opera Vista had an idea for an American Idol-style opera competition in which composers present staged snippets of their original operas in front of an audience and a panel of judges as a way of developing new talent and new audiences for opera. The winning opera would receive a full-blown production produced by Opera Vista as part of a festival in conjunction with the next year's competition. Houston Opera Theatre also wanted to develop original works through educational outreach. "They weren't exactly the same concepts, but we kicked it around and unified it," says Subbaraman. "We incorporated the educational aspects that they had with our competition aspect and the new works and fostering Houston singers. We agreed on more than we disagreed about. It seemed like a good fit."
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