Mary-Jane Buschlen remembers her first impression of Houston after her parents left Bermuda to follow oil money to the booming Bayou City in 1979. Then a high school junior, she made the drive in from Intercontinental Airport, amazed at the contrasts after a life amid the vivid colors of sea, sky and native Caribbean vegetation.
"My God, look at all the billboards and chrome," she recalls telling her folks. "What went through my brain was, Where are all the flowers?"
Some 23 years later, Houston may still be lacking in floral accents and overflowing in signage. But Buschlen and a handful of other arts supporters have made at least one stride: They've converted a billboard -- if for only one month out of the year -- into a coveted work of art.
Just north of Interstate 10 past T.C. Jester, Buschlen peers up at the Clear Channel Communications billboard and takes in the vibrant blue and red hues of Fish with Wings and Circle Red Abstract. Buschlen hopes the massive work by artist Michael Healey is just the modest beginning of a new public arts initiative in Houston.
Before an odd-angled railroad crossing, the 14- by 48-foot billboard climbs skyward from a bank of shrubs and vines on the edge of Buschlen and woodworker Jim Settles's property, home of the Watershed Art Collective. Eleven months out of the year this billboard blasts messages of consumerism at commuters to the tune of more than 150,000 people a day. For the month of October, the sign displays only the serenity of Healey's painting.
The collective is a smorgasbord of structure and contradiction. It's shielded from the freeway by thick rows of shrubbery and guarded by a fence of rusty iron waves -- the ocean for white steel dolphin silhouettes swimming toward the collective's corroded nameplate.
Inside, there are clutters of corrugated steel warehouses, a mason-block garage and some nicely finished houses that would be right at home in the Woodland Heights. Watershed has welcomed diverse disciplines: a music writer, musicians and an assortment of painters and sculptors.
Settles, a building contractor, says he is a veteran of the Montrose Beer and Gun Club, and totes a small pistol in his pocket as an apparent membership card. He explains how he's working on converting tank tracks into a moon gate for the compound. Next to that will be a Stonehenge made from real rocks and small enough, he says, to barely allow visitors to fit inside the inner ring.
Buschlen has a corporate communications business but is grounded in performing arts, first as a dancer and then as an actress. She and Settles bought the property for the collective almost a decade ago, and the gargantuan billboard came as part of the package. She declines to say how much they receive in lease payments from the signage company -- she estimated it as about as much as the rent for a downtown efficiency apartment.
She began blending art with billboards in 1999, when the Downtown Management District began its $1 million Wayfinding Project. That created downtown street signs that doubled as artwork, and Buschlen was one of the artists selected. She did a painting of birds sweeping down near the Market Square clock tower, for a large sign near the square itself.
When the billboard lease on her own property came up for renewal three years ago, she, Settles and Peter Buschlen -- a collective resident who is Mary-Jane's brother -- took action on an idea she'd incubated since moving to Houston. They structured the signage terms to get the rights to display what they wanted for the one-month period annually. She explains that with a city ordinance dictating that existing billboards won't be replaced, they were in a good position to bargain with Clear Channel.
"That creates an incentive for them to work with me and me to work with them," Buschlen says.
They had first-year funding problems -- she estimates it costs about $3,000 to create and mount an artwork on a billboard -- and a false start with an artist the second year. Buschlen last March was able to free herself from her full-time corporate communications job and start the nonprofit Watershed Art Collective with her friends. They met Healey, and the first effort began.
"His work was perfect for it, and he's just getting back into full-scale art production and was in real need of some exposure," says Buschlen.
The goal now is to generate enough funds to pay artists for their work. They're selling bumper sticker replicas of Healey's billboard art (see the watershedPublicART.org Web site) to help raise money, and have plans for a spring fund-raiser at the collective. Watershed hopes to get enough funding to open the billboard up in future years to a variety of arts groups -- even dance and music organizations and arts education groups. As for how they would illustrate their groups, Beschlen says that would be up to their own imagination, limited only by the laws of physics and finances.
The idea expands on an existing concept. According to Alison de Lima Greene, curator of modern and contemporary art at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, artists such as Felix Gonzales Torres and Jeff Koonz have done wonders with billboard canvases.
Greene points out that some of the best billboard art is in New York, where the Museum of Modern Art recently launched an exhibition of three artists using 15 billboards. Daniela Cabineri of the museum says the sizable costs would mean that Watershed has a major task ahead if it wants to expand its project.
Houston, in addition to the signage art program, hosted the Art Guys' Absolut Vodka collaboration project in the Galleria area, but Settles doesn't see the connection.
"That was an ongoing thing, that was a promotion for a liquor, to make money for big corporations," he says. "This is something we're doing for the artists for free."
As far as the artistic legitimacy of a billboard is concerned, Greene feels judgment should be reserved for the viewer.
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"If you consider a work of art a thing that gives beauty to the beholder, then I doubt a work of art could do that. But if you think of the world of art as being part of the world of ideas, then I think you can use a billboard brilliantly as part of that arena," Greene says. "You aren't going to drive past a billboard and say, 'Gosh, that's beautiful.' "
Of course, another option would be for the collective to strike a blow against the visual pollution of the city and simply take the billboard down after the lease is up, forgoing the revenue.
Settles says he's used to seeing things differently, and there can be genuine art in such displays. Buschlen also has seen beauty in standard billboards:
"It's like anything else: There is good and there is bad. And I think it's just the real tacky stuff people object to," she says. "In the past, there have been some great ads on that sign."