Celebrating Houston's MasterMinds
A long time ago, in another era of TV land, there was a show called The Millionaire. It wasn't reality TV so it didn't really happen, but it played to the daydreams of many viewers looking for a bit of luck.
The millionaire (never seen on camera) made it his business to give money away to people. He picked a different person each week, handing a cashier's check to his executive assistant. The assistant would go out into the world and deliver a check for a million dollars to a stunned recipient.
The Houston Press isn't in the position to hand out million-dollar checks. But it can do something real in terms of recognition and a monetary award (on a slightly lesser scale). The idea that there are worthy people out there, particularly in the arts world, whom we could recognize with praise and reward with a little seed money was a compellingly satisfying one — and one we decided to pursue.
We started talking about the MasterMind program with our readers last fall. We would recognize local artists working in all sorts of milieus: visual arts, performance arts, writing, video, whatever. We took in nominations and examples of work through the end of October, and then our critics and some of our staff members put their heads together and came up with a list of the best possibilities before narrowing the field to our winners.
This Saturday we'll hand out three $2,000 checks to the recipients of our 2009 MasterMind awards in an8:45 p.m. ceremony at the Winter Street Studios at 2101 Winter Street. It'll all be part of our first-ever Artopia bash, an extravaganza of food and drink and art and fashion viewing.
Through the process, we weren't looking for a lifetime or body of work. We were looking for artists on the cutting edge right now, people and groups doing some pretty amazing things, often on limited budgets.
In the end, the artists who caught our eye were an interestingly mixed bag:
• Patrick Medrano and Katy Anderson: a husband/wife team of visual artists who specialize in different mediums and combined their talents and work to transform an abandoned building into an East Texas art mecca.
• Hightower High School's Broadcast Academy: a group of high school broadcast students under outstanding teacher Ted Irving who's got them doing things both technologically advanced and ethically impressive.
• Nova Arts Project: a new member of Houston's alternative theater scene carrying live performances that introduce new audiences to theater.
The stories of each group are uplifting, the challengers overcoming more than plenty enough. Through them all weaves a common thread of determination, creativity and the search for excellence.
Patrick Medrano and Katy Anderson
When Patrick Medrano and Katy Anderson met, neither knew their most ambitious and exciting collaboration as artists — Medrano paints and sculpts; Anderson is a photographer — would involve buying an abandoned building in a Texas ghost town that everyone wanted to forget, and then transforming it into an East Texas art mecca.
"I really want to get people out there because once you're there you can feel it," says Anderson. "I want to get it cleaned up and show people how cool it can be and how close it is to Houston. It's only about two and a half hours away; it's a perfect day trip."
Fodice, Texas, is a tiny blip on the map in Houston County near the Davy Crockett National Forest. Settled by freed slaves after the Civil War, by 1914 the community was thriving. In 1938, the Works Progress Administration made improvements to the schoolhouse, which held classes until 1960, when desegregation caused students to be transferred to other area schools. As a result the population of the town dwindled, and the school was eventually abandoned. It received a Texas historical marker in 1997.
Now married, both Medrano and Anderson are familiar with small-town Texas. They grew up in little cities that are virtually equidistant from Houston. Anderson was raised in the East-Texas Austonio/Lovelady area to the north, and Medrano hails from coastal Victoria to the southwest.
Since forming the Fodice Foundation last year (2008) to restore the school building and host artist residencies, the two artists have realized that once you start digging up history in East Texas, there are those who'd rather keep it buried. "We're saving a historical site and letting the world know about a community that nobody knew about before," says Medrano. "Whether they want to or not, they're going to know about it. All we can do is tell the truth and make a really exceptional arts community out of it."
Anderson, who lived near the school and first started exploring the building while she was in high school, is aware of the local attitudes when it comes to Fodice, and it crosses racial divides. "We're going to be bringing trouble in their eyes — and change. Digging up all this black history, which no one wants to talk about there. It wasn't until I left that I realized the kind of ignorance that exists there."
Medrano and Anderson hope the foundation's outreach program — bringing artists into community schools and mentoring students — will change locals' perspectives on their own history and hopefully foster acceptance and a deeper understanding of other cultures.
According to the foundation's Web site (www.fodicefoundation.org): "Each year, we will offer up to six artists concurrent residencies for up to two months, for an estimated total of 24 artists per year. These visiting artists will have the opportunity to focus on their own work but will become integral parts of a very depressed community where the arts are currently neglected."
In addition to six artist studios, the Fodice compound will include housing, a fully equipped workshop, kitchen facilities, offices, a gallery space and a performance space, as well as permanent installations. The foundation also plans to have annual open house events similar to the Chinati Foundation. Call it "Marfa East."
Although the couple's goal is to have it up and running in three years, they're thinking five is a more realistic timetable. They've been fund-raising constantly and dedicating sales of their own artwork to the cause — even offering it up for free as a bonus for donating. They've also produced a short film, No Paved Roads, to promote the project. "Since we decided to do this, every show we've done is about Fodice," says Medrano.
For both, the project represents a homecoming. For Anderson, the journey is literal. But for Medrano, it's a return to an adolescence that was both suppressive and nurturing. "I was a weird-ass kid," he admits. "I grew up weird; the whole school thing was weird. I didn't read a whole lot. I read biographies on presidents. Murderers and presidents and shit like that." Luckily, Medrano received mentorship from a teacher who recognized his talent and encouraged him. He developed a signature style and narrative quality in his artwork that seems elementally concerned with one subject. "History," he says. "I'm a big history person. I have a huge fascination with artifacts." But don't ask him to explain much further. "People ask me, 'Hey man, why do you do that art? Why does that art look like that?' I tell them, 'Man, I don't even know how to work my own stereo in my own studio, so how are you going to ask me what that art is about? Only the good Lord knows what that shit's about.'"
Much of Medrano's work feels methodically aged, but it doesn't belong to any particular historical era. His paintings sometimes feature hairless, nude humans and contain a mechanical element or a depiction of an apparatus that is merged with human elements. At times his sculptures resemble elaborate wooden frames that incorporate exaggerated puppets, mechanisms, electronic devices and lighting elements. The wood is usually darkly stained and coated with bright-colored paint, which Medrano scrapes and sands away, creating a kind of antique patina. Anderson's black-and-white photographs often feature prominently as backgrounds as well as main subjects.
While Anderson has her own business doing portraiture-for-hire, most of the couple's output is collaborative, and it started only two months after they met. Medrano was working on a wooden sculpture, and he had the idea to run strips of negative through a viewfinder and incorporate it into the piece. He asked Anderson for some general scraps. Instead, Anderson handed him negatives of photos the couple had taken together, of the time they'd spent together since they'd met. It transformed the artwork into a personal document — an omen of their creative relationship.
"Katy brings home what she's been working on," says Medrano. "I hang out with it and start drawing on it. Like Daffy Duck and the mustache. It's really more than that; that's just how I explain it. It's taking something and turning it into something else."
Some collectors wish it wasn't always "something else," though. They wish the couple would pick a medium and stick with it. But Medrano says tough luck. "We have a split audience. Fifty percent of the people who collect our stuff tell me, 'Why do you do the sculpture? Why don't you just keep painting?' and the other half say, 'Why do you keep painting?' Jimi Hendrix only set his guitar on fire once, even though people kept asking him to set it on fire. I don't want to do the same thing over and over again."
For Anderson, the Fodice School represents her creative birthplace, although the camera was always around. When she was four, her house burned down. To make up for lost photos, Anderson's mother started snapping and documenting everything, especially Katy. Then when she was 11, it all burned again. "At 11, I was old enough to be heartbroken that all of our stuff that we had collected was lost. That's when I really started taking the camera with me, and it was important to me to start my own collection of memories and photographs."
Her weapon was no Brownie or Polaroid, though. "It was an expensive camera; it was a Minolta. My mom trusted me with it, and if something broke it wasn't a big deal. I don't know if there was ever a point when I thought, 'This is what I'm going to do'; it's just something I've always done and continue to do. Once I found the school, that's when I started going there and shooting."
Her photograph Somewhere I Call Home is a captivating portrait of youth in Texas. Shot in one of the Fodice School classrooms, it depicts a little girl dressed as a princess, sitting on a chair with a jambox in her lap. A shirtless little boy stands at attention nearby, the barrel of his Red Ryder BB gun resting against his shoulder. There's a rack of antlers on the wall above the girl's head, and two flags (one U.S., one Texas) hang vertically in the background, flanking the princess. It's a nostalgic and haunting image that perfectly represents the artists' mission and the historical implications of the Fodice project. For Anderson, there was even a personal reference. "I built that whole photograph around the jambox the little girl is holding, because I had one exactly like that when I was her age."
Anderson tells another childhood story that relates the couple's passion for art and their concern for truth and transparency, especially as it relates to the Fodice School. As a child, Katy was watching a black-and-white television show with her mom, and Katy said, "I'm so glad I was born in color." And as she remembers, she adds, "'Cause it would suck to be born in black-and-white." — Troy Schulze
Hightower High School
The Broadcast Academy at Hightower High School is at the far east end of the school's campus, and students rush to the studio each morning for classes.
It's the end of the fall semester, and about a dozen of the students are responsible for a live news broadcast that's aired through the school. Before the show it's a typical scramble scene: teenagers yelling and dodging each other to set up lights, massive cameras and a jungle of cables.
Another group of students is working on other projects, including a 30-minute community television program for Houston's Channel 55 and a documentary about the disappearing wetlands in Fort Bend County.
"It gets pretty tough," says J.C. Garcia, a junior who also plays baseball for Hightower. Garcia wasn't accepted into the Broadcast Academy his freshman year, so he took two years of classes as a sophomore.
"Balancing between baseball practices and getting my work done here on time is rough," he says.
Ted Irving, who runs the Broadcast Academy, also works on these projects outside of school, on his own time. He used to have a staff of four teachers, but that was dropped to two after the school cut some funding to the program. Now Irving teaches and handles administrative duties like setting budgets and writing grant proposals.
It makes for a busy schedule, considering he also teaches part-time at Houston Community College and does some freelance video production.
Motivation comes easy working with kids, he'll say, but he also says that many of his students will never work in the industry or even study broadcast or video production in college.
"These days, the American kid is not really into physical labor and science, and that's what we teach. If you look at guys in construction out there working, we're not far behind," Irving says. "Kids get worn out by the time they're seniors."
Still, Irving has advanced the program since he came to Hightower in 1999, one year after the school opened and the academy was created. The work produced by his students has won awards that include 14 national Telly Awards and an Emmy for a 60 Minutes-style program about breast cancer.
On a recent morning, Irving works with students in a hallway outside of the studio, helping them position light poles and secure them with sandbags, and roll out extension cords for all the equipment needed to shoot a couple minutes of video.
Garcia watches as Irving demonstrates how to film a panning shot, mounting a camera on a cart that rolls down the hall past the students.
"This makes me want to go in the business more and it keeps me interested," Garcia says.
Before Irving came to Hightower, he worked as a cameraman and news editor for the Fox, ABC and NBC affiliates in Houston.
He volunteered as a teacher when he was in college and taught some at Yates High School while still working at the local stations. Then he was offered the job at Hightower.
One former student is Doug Delony, who does the "My Tech Guy" segment on Fox 26 News in the morning, and three other former students work at Channel 2 News — two as editors and another as an assignments desk manager.
"Most of them want to be in front of the camera, but that's not what it's all about," Irving says. "They learn there are so many jobs and careers on the other side of the camera."
Savannah Fields, a junior, entered the Broadcast Academy because in middle school, she wanted to be a talk-show host. After three years in the program, she decided she likes video editing more.
"As I did it, I became more interested because I learned how to do it right," Fields says. "When I am on camera, I get really nervous and tongue-tied, but it'll be great experience for me when I apply for colleges."
Each year, about 300 students try to get into the Broadcast Academy, but only 45 new students are accepted. Irving looks at all the applications, reviewing TAKS scores and discipline records, and some students even submit a demo reel of video clips created in middle school.
If accepted, academy students follow a course structure from freshman year to graduation, and they must maintain an 85 average in all classes. Many students in the academy aren't zoned to Hightower High, so if they fail or drop out, they'll have to leave the school.
Freshmen take introductory classes, like media ethics, before learning technical aspects of broadcast and editing as sophomores. The juniors are on camera, working on the live news broadcast, music videos and other projects — this year the community television program and wetlands documentary.
Seniors make two short videos in the fall, and during the spring semester they work as a class to produce a film. Screenings of the projects used to be on campus, but Irving has expanded the event to the First Colony AMC in Sugar Land, promoting it as the Music, Video and Short Film Showcase.
"Since I've been here, I've been able to accomplish all the ideas I've had for the program," Irving says.
Irving also helps students land internships at places like the Houston Zoo, Missouri City TV and the Houston Aeros.
This past summer, Garcia worked as a paid intern for the national Web site schooltube.com, where he created, reported for and produced several shows.
"Films are what I'm doing this for, and I'd like to be a film writer because I'm really good at that," he says.
Several colleges are recruiting Garcia in baseball, but he says he wants to study video production and will choose the school with the best media program.
"He's one that's going to stick with it," Irving says.
The wetlands documentary is another ambitious project spearheaded by Irving. The idea started three or four years ago, he says, during his morning commutes to Hightower through constant construction, wondering what happens when developers raze and build over the land.
In September, Irving received a letter from the Captain Planet Foundation, a pro-environment program started by media magnate Ted Turner, saying that his wetlands project would receive $2,500 to cover production costs.
The students have started shooting some video, taking pictures and setting up interviews. The Captain Planet Foundation mandates that the documentary be completed by September of 2009, but Irving wants the film finished and premiered by this summer.
"Doing this documentary is a new experience for me and I love it," says Kaether Rosado, a junior working as a producer on the wetlands project.
Teachers from other area high schools visit Hightower three or four times each year to look for guidance on how to start similar broadcast programs, and Irving predicts that in the next ten years, all Texas high schools will have to offer some kind of certification.
"Already, a lot of colleges can't compete with these high school programs," Irving says. "We're offering stuff light-years ahead of what they offer." — Paul Knight
Nova Arts Project
"Theatre naptime is over." So goes the slogan of Nova Arts Project, a relatively new group in Houston's alternative theater scene. And while that slogan might seem over the top, given that some American cities' theater communities are wide awake and kicking, there is a general feeling among theater aficionados that the art form is struggling to stay conscious in our age of high-tech entertainment.
In Houston, we could definitely use a few more reasons to get excited about live performance, especially in the intimate, low-budget settings where our smaller groups are forced to indulge their passion to put on a show. For Nova Arts, that passion isn't a mere hobby. By its own words, at its Web site and Facebook profile, Nova Arts is on a mission to "re-create classics and inspire new works in a fearlessly theatrical way." The organization wants "a new theatre" that aims to "catalyze, provoke or even offend."
Nova Arts might still have to prove itself as a group of trailblazing radicals, but it's doing a great job introducing new audiences to theater in Houston. Formed by Amy and Clinton Hopper, as well as Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, in 2005, after Stephenson and Amy Hopper graduated from the University of Houston with master's degrees in directing, the nonprofit Nova Arts debuted with the original play Stella...Stella for Star and followed it up with planned seasons of shows that included "updated" versions of classic Greek plays and Shakespeare, peppered with contemporary works like Dan Dietz's wild tempOdyssey and Maria Irene Fornes's challenging The Conduct of Life.
The group followed a pattern many small arts groups feel they need to follow — nonprofit status, board of directors, build a brand, build an audience, plan a season and try like hell to keep on schedule and budget. But now, the group is ready to challenge that model, streamline operations and approach bigger donors. "I think in the beginning we tried hard, maybe even prohibitively so, to follow the rules," says Stephenson.
Artistic director Clinton Hopper agrees. "We wanted our audience to know we're doing this and we're doing that, and it all fits together in a season, and this is how our brand is working," he says. "But because of our size we've had both opportunities and hurdles come up, and we need to be able to go with the flow, but going with the flow costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you're our size, not going with the flow means you don't do a show or you miss a great opportunity or you miss a great script or a great actor or a great...something. So 'go with the flow' is appropriate for where we are now."
The husband-and-wife Hoppers spent six years in Austin before returning to Houston so that Amy could attend UH. In Austin, they were exposed to (and worked with) many of that city's offbeat theater groups like Salvage Vanguard and the Rude Mechanicals, outfits that explore new techniques in show-making and performance, and Nova Arts has adopted a decidedly "theatrical" approach that takes advantage of the intimate audience/performer setup. It also approaches classics with an irreverent attitude.
"We like classics," says Clinton Hopper, "and I'm personally attracted to the Greeks because people don't hold them in the same precious light as Shakespeare. The classics can be like a bolt of pretty heavy-duty material that's pretty well tested, and we know it works, and now I'm going to be so arrogant as to cut it up and make a new garment out of it. Use those universal themes, but deconstruct them and make something new."
Nova Arts also aims to make new audiences, but its approach is different from that of groups in the '90s, operating when Houston had a cohesive art scene. Today our city's theater/music/visual arts scenes feel insular and rarely mingle. Nova Arts has reached out to underserved audiences, especially the Asian community. Stephenson directed a stage version of The Joy Luck Club, and most recently, Nova Arts presented The Gate of Heaven, a co-production with the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association.
Nova Arts is committed to diversity, both in casting and production staff. To further develop audiences, the group is even considering a move outside the Loop, a tactic some might consider foolish but that Nova Arts feels could only expand its reach and unlock hidden talent.
But before it explores that wild frontier many inner-city dwellers would rather blaze through at 80 mph, Nova Arts will collaborate with Opera Vista on ten new ten-minute opera works, and after that, attend to the affairs of finance, grant-writing and bigger and better shows, which might include a drastic reworking, by Amy Hopper, of The Taming of the Shrew — one that explores the play's inherent misogyny.
"Here you have this play that everybody remembers so fondly, but the reality is that at the end [Kate] gives in to the man, so what message does that really send?" asks Clinton. "What, that Kate's really a toolbag and she's completely abused and she should probably kick his ass and go her own way?"
"We should do that with Grease," chimes Stephenson. "I hate Grease for the same goddamn reason," says Amy.
"Any show that's so ubiquitous and starts to get universal," says Clinton, "it's almost like you go and buy it at the fabric store and you take it home, get out your scissors and let's screw with it." — Troy Schulze
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