The sun is shining down on Rick Lowe -- almost too much. The glare from a mosaicked table on Holman is making him squint as he greets passersby in the Third Ward. Everyone throws him a nod or a wave. The man, his famous dreadlocks now shorn, has become an institution here.
Lowe took two blocks of ramshackle shotgun shanties and turned them into Project Row Houses, an enclave of artistic installations and social programs. The site has become a model of community development, a way for blighted areas to battle both decay and gentrification. It's also become the epitome of Lowe's unique blend of aesthetics and activism.
"I can't make and I don't make pretty kind of things," says the man who is still a fount of energy at age 43. "I never thought of art in terms of the art market. I always thought of it as my tool and my voice for communication and expression. And that has a value that is beyond being consumed by somebody to put in their living room or closet."
Born in rural Alabama, Lowe was the eighth of 12 children. He studied at Columbus State University in Georgia and followed that up with a residency at the Springer Art Center in Mississippi, where he worked in various media. He packed his bags and headed to Houston in 1984. "I came here because of reading about the art world," he says, "but when I got here, there was just no way to get in."
Faced with a DIY-or-die scenario, Lowe hooked up with some like-minded bohemians and starting building out a warehouse east of downtown. Commerce Street Artists Warehouse was born. "It was out of necessity, just having studio space and trying to network in the art world," he says. "We were fairly insane then."
The burgeoning community at Commerce Street gave rise to the Union of Independent Artists, a group focused on the idea of freedom of expression. "We had protests; we had rallies; we had all kinds of shit going on," says Lowe. "It was really a pretty dynamic time for artists getting together and organizing and raising hell."
The group soon became involved in environmental causes, staging two-week-long protests outside Maxxam Corporation and helping shut down a medical-waste incinerator near Warren's Inn. (The latter protest was replete with a cow-patty-chucking catapult.) "That was the part that got me really fired up about the activist side beyond just creating works about political stuff," says Lowe.
Lowe's work had always been political (a Houston Chronicle scribe called him a propagandist in a 1991 review), but it was symbolically so. His 1988 installation about a Klan lynching was met with a lukewarm response by viewers at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Later works dealt with police brutality and homelessness. "Then the challenge came," he says. "How do you do something that is not only symbolic but also has some kind of practical application, addressing the issues that I was talking about in the work?"
The artist found his practical application in 1992, when he saw a string of run-down houses in the Third Ward. These shotgun shacks were just like those depicted in the work of John Biggers, who taught Lowe at Texas Southern University and inspired him onward.
With the help of a few friends and some well-timed grants, Lowe started renovating the houses, one by one. He didn't stop until 22 houses were done. Fifteen on one block form the artistic core of the site (eight host rotating installations by artists). The seven on the next block are home to the Young Mothers Residential Program. Single women with children are offered one-year renewable contracts for free housing, so long as they agree to pursue educational goals and maintain standards of conduct.
"I needed something very grounded, rooted, connected -- and also that would connect me back to a community I was very much a part of all my life," Lowe says. He concedes that he strayed from that background when he entered the art world. Project Row Houses was his way of "weaving myself back in."
And he wants to make sure that fabric doesn't lose its distinctive character because of the ward's continuing gentrification. "We live in a changing world, and things develop," he says. "The issue is trying to make development and the developers more conscious of the human qualities, the human aspects and the human consequences." Change is inevitable, but Lowe hopes builders will see PRH as an example of how they can rebuild a community without stripping away its uniqueness.
Lowe likens his work to that of Joseph Beuys, the pioneer of social sculpture. The German artist reached his heyday in the '60s, making pieces that were impermanent and even a little gross (like sculptures made of fat), to reconfigure bourgeois notions of art as a commodity. He also famously declared that "everyone is an artist."
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Beuys may have tried to break free from the notion of art as a commodity, but Valerie Olsen, associate director at the Glassell School, says he still sold postcards or pieces of his concept at high prices.
"That's where Rick and Beuys depart," she says. "Rick's not selling the totem. He's not selling really anything...It's just for the good of the community."
Says Lowe, "If we think of the world as this big piece of sculpture, every day we're changing it, we're sculpting it...We can either change it in a way that's responsible and high in social and aesthetic value, or we can change it in ways that are not. So it kind of puts the responsibility on everybody who lives in the world and says, 'Look, think about everything you can do as being something that has a huge impact on what the world looks like, what it feels like and what it is.' "
Everyone is an artist, but not quite like Rick Lowe.