Inside the MasterMinds
Last year, we decided to spread a little good karma (and a little cash), and recognize some locals on the cutting edge Houston's arts scene. It's not like we're the Houston Endowment, and there were no foundation-imposed hoops through which potential candidates were required to jump; no grant writers needed — just a good reputation and some buzz.
And while we couldn't fund an entire theater season or provide a year's worth of studio rent, we could offer $2,000 apiece to three recipients and tell them to spend it however it helped — whether that meant supplies, rent, groceries...whatever.
The resulting MasterMind Awards didn't create any international superstars, but it allowed each of the recipients — at least in the short term — to take a deep breath, enjoy some local stardom and evaluate the next steps down their artistic paths. As far as we're concerned, that's a success. So why not try it again?
Last fall, we put out the feelers with our readers, and of course, our staff members and critics had some ideas too. After careful and considerate deliberation, we narrowed it down to three deserving winners.
So, in a ceremony at our second annual Artopia celebration, an evening of culture, fashion, art, food and music on January 30 at Winter Street Studios (2101 Winter St.), we'll hand off three $2,000 checks to our 2010 MasterMinds:
• Reginald Adams and his Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston, an organization that engages underserved communities with public art projects and arts education.
• Opera Vista, a young group that's developing artists and audiences for original opera works.
• SoReal Cru, an internationally recognized dance group specializing in hip-hop. SoReal recently opened a Bellaire studio as a springboard for young dance talent emerging in Houston.
On to the winners, then.
Reginald Adams and the Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston
When we think of public art in Houston, we might think of David Adickes's Virtuoso or Jean DuBuffet's Monument to the Phantom, two downtown sculptures that say essentially nothing about Houston life. While the city's public art is by no means offensive, it could be better. Artists like Dean Ruck and Dan Havel (Inversion) and the Art Guys bring a great local sensibility to their own public works. But one man is bringing public art to the people in a way that truly engages Houstonians.
Reginald Adams's lifelong relationship with art isn't a typical one. The dreadlocked 37-year-old was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and moved from city to city practically his entire childhood. His father worked for the Department of Agriculture, a job that required short-term stints in different locales. "Since I wasn't paying any mortgages around that time, I didn't really have a say in where we moved," says Adams. "It was great in the sense that we saw a lot of different environments. We lived in the suburbs, we lived in the city, lived in the mountains, lived in the woods." One of the only constants growing up was his love of drawing. "I've been drawing as long as I've been able to hold a pencil. You couldn't really punish me by sending me to my room. As long as there was a piece of paper, and I had a pencil, I was okay." Most kids with a passion for art beg to take art classes, and it sparks the flame. For Adams, though, an art teacher damn near snuffed it out in kindergarten.
For an assignment to copy basic shapes like circles, triangles and squares, Adams went above and beyond the call of duty, rendering them in 3-D. The teacher singled him out in front of the class. "She tore my paper straight in half, and then she takes my crayons and she crumbles them into like a thousand little pieces. And she says to the rest of the class, 'I did not ask you to do anything other than copy what you saw on the board.' I was devastated." Two things happened as a result of that traumatic experience: Adams decided never to show anyone his work ever again, and he kept drawing. Later, a family trip to the Grand Canyon inspired him to reignite his passion for art.
Adams's business-oriented father encouraged him to finish business school at Texas A&M, but he needed a break. He moved to Houston and began forging his art career. He worked at community centers and after-school programs teaching art and honing his skills. He could sense the impression he was making on the kids; their parents were pleased by Adams's positive influence.
One day he asked his students a question. "I said, 'by show of hands, how many of y'all have been to a museum, an art studio or a gallery?' And I was surprised by how many kids had never been to these traditional art spaces. I wasn't asking the question because I had something premeditated in mind; I was just curious as to who is exposed to the arts. Growing up, I had great exposure to the arts, but I wasn't 'pushed' to art. We went to plays, to operas. In school we went to performances and to galleries. But it was just part of your education to see it, and then you go back to your books." Adams's curiosity kicked off the idea that would eventually become the Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston.
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."
The group's 2007 inaugural season, presented June 21-24 at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, was a critical success. The Houston Press's D.L. Groover wrote: "One thing's certain: In the contemporary world of opera, the fat lady's still alive." Later that year, Opera Vista presented the Texas premiere of Amy Beach's Cabildo at Bayou Bend as part of the 50th-anniversary celebration of Ima Hogg's gift of the mansion and her collection of American decorative arts to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Houston Chronicle's Charles Ward called the production "perfect for a warm southern night complete with the sounds of bayou critters in the background," and added that Opera Vista "served the goal of reaching a younger audience very well."
The buzz attracted the attention of the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, and the group was invited to perform the piece at the actual Cabildo, the place where Pierre Lafitte was imprisoned during the War of 1812. It was a huge success and garnered rave reviews in New Orleans.
But the company's main focus is on its annual competition, and submissions have skyrocketed since that inaugural season. "The first year we had 20 entrants; last year we had 100 operas, and this year so far it's 50," says Subbaraman. "They send a full score, so we see the entirety of the opera, and whatever recordings they have. Then we have a panel that goes through them. You can imagine the time it must take to go through 40 two-hour works. And we literally sit in a room and hash it out. It's so subjective, so we have pretty intense arguments. It does get pretty passionate."
The styles and subject matter are all over the map. "We get some that sound like they could've been written 100 years ago; we have some that sound like they were written next year," says Joe Carl White, a baritone opera singer and Opera Vista's executive director. "One of the competitors last year was about alien abduction. Some are based on classic myths. One, Edalat Square, was based on the true story of two Iranian teenagers who were executed in Tehran in 2006 for being homosexual."
"We got a death threat on that one," says Subbaraman. "We got a bomb threat letter. I was thinking, 'Wow, I never thought we'd do a production that got a bomb threat, but here we go!' But it was an important production and one that the audience felt was important enough for us to put on."
For Subbaraman and White, the real reward of the competition is watching how pieces evolve and how composers process what they learn from the panel and the audience. "Every single winner has revised their operas after the competition because they hear things differently," says Subbaraman. And Opera Vista takes great pride in its direct impact on the creation of contemporary opera.
The world is taking notice, too. Opera Vista has been asked to present the world premiere of a new opera from Thailand, The Silent Prince. It will be the company's first performance at Zilkha Hall, followed by a tour to Bangkok. "It's about a Buddha who reaches enlightenment when he finally says his first words," explains Subbaraman, "so the entire time he's growing up, he's silent, he doesn't say anything; he just kind of processes everything, and then comes to enlightenment. And then at the end of the opera he sings this huge aria — as all good operas should end."
For Opera Vista, enlightenment doesn't necessarily mean reaching the ranks of, say, Houston Grand Opera. "I have such respect for HGO and Opera in the Heights, but we don't feel the need to do what they're doing," Subbaraman asserts. "They cover it so well and bring great opera to Houston. We're just filling in the gaps that they leave us. I enjoy that, and I think Houston really benefits from it."
White sees the company as a kind of creative beacon. "When you think of new film you think of Cannes or Sundance. I want people, when they think of new opera, to think of Houston."
We'll drink a pint to that.
Phillip "Pacman" Chbeeb was in the house, and the stylish teenagers huddled around the front desk at SoReal Dance Studio were antsy. Chbeeb, a former contestant on TV's So You Think You Can Dance, was teaching a hip-hop master workshop at the Bellaire studio, and it was about to begin. A young African-American man and a young Asian lady were intimidated. They tried to psych each other up to take the class, which would undoubtedly involve choreography reserved for the most superhuman of dancers. A crowd of friends and parents had gathered to sit and gawk at the brave 12 or so students assembled, and the two reluctant ones were worried about looking bad.
"I'll go if you go," the boy said to the girl, and she immediately headed in to join the class. Not expecting his bluff to get called, the boy hesitated, pacing the small reception room, until Chris Baterina, the man behind the desk, rolled his eyes and commanded the boy to just do it. He'd regret it if he didn't. The boy paid up, collected himself and strode in.
This type of scene must happen a lot there. SoReal Studio is the home of SoReal Cru, the second-place finalists on the second season of MTV's America's Best Dance Crew, which is American Idol judge Randy Jackson's contribution to the reality-talent-show format. Each member of SoReal Cru must inspire similar fear in young students of hip-hop. The group, after all, remains the only one in the show's history — four seasons — to never find itself in jeopardy of being eliminated. In other words, they're badasses.
Chris Baterina started SoReal in 1998 as an alternative to the usual high school extracurricular activities. "Back then, if you didn't play sports, if you weren't a mathlete, what was there to do? So I started a dance crew," he says. At first it was just for fun, but then the Southwest Houston-based crew started entering local talent competitions...and winning. "We gained popularity throughout the Houston community from those small talent shows," says Baterina. "Then we started winning bigger competitions, college dance competitions. It was like a rollercoaster; we won five years in a row."
In an effort to keep the group young and vital, Baterina "gave" the crew to his younger brother Andrew. Andrew recruited a younger generation of dancers, guiding the crew toward bigger contests, like California's World of Dance in 2008, America's largest urban dance competition.
"That's when they were scouted by MTV," says Chris. "It was a big deal for Houston, because the dance scene is largely on the East Coast and California. A group from Houston was kind of unheard of." SoReal had also won as a crowd favorite.
The success was so overwhelming that Chris realized the young group needed a manager. He took the reins back. "All they would focus on was dance," he remembers. "They needed headshots; they needed résumés. I got all that done for them and used my background in marketing [he has a degree from the University of Houston] to start marketing them the minute they were on the show."
Chris realized that when you're on TV, you're only a star for that long. "The minute you're off that show, it depends on what you do with it. So I started gathering fans online and communicating with them and getting support, and SoReal was never in the bottom two the whole show."
What happened next, Chris can only describe as "crazy." Even though SoReal won second place, the group was booked. They were flying from city to city, state to state, performing at dance competitions, making appearances at clubs and signing autographs at stores. "It was huge that we were so big and we weren't from an industry city."
Chris started the YouTube channel SoRealTV, so as soon as they were off the show, fans had an outlet. "That hit worldwide; we got to, I think, 7 million worldwide views, and that catapulted the popularity of the group." The channel features videos of the group's travels through Europe, including one stop in Hanover, Germany, in which Andrew blows German minds with his fluid, precise and somewhat provocative moves. Another video documents the crew's opening performance for hip-hop star Drake at Warehouse Live.
Sensing the Houston dance community's need for an outlet that catered to hip-hop and youth culture, Chris developed the idea for a dance studio where the SoReal members could teach classes; it would be a home base for projects and operations. The Bellaire studio opened November 7 of last year, and already the next season of America's Best Dance Crew held its auditions there. Chris is pretty proud of that fact. "JC from 'N Sync and the producers were all here. They'll air the footage on the premiere of the next season," he says.
Located in a strip center at the corner of South Rice and Ashbrook, the studio is spacious, with dark wood floors, a long mirrored wall and a nice array of electronics and sound equipment. There's a lounge area with black leather couches and comfortable chairs for spectators. Classes range from $20 for a single class to monthly package deals. Because of the group's popularity, only two members from the MTV show's lineup teach regular classes, but now even the newer teachers are developing their own fanatical followings. Although SoReal Cru's core members are based in Houston, they're constantly booked for classes and appearances all over the world, so it's a rare event to get them all together. And Chris is just fine with that. In fact, it's what he imagined all along.
"It's a true springboard," he says, "a launching pad. That's the whole point of it. Ten years ago, I'd have never thought it would be where it is right now. We get comments and fan letters from all over the world. Some countries are just now watching season two of ABDC. In China and Portugal, they just found out about SoReal. To me, it's all in the marketing."
And now, it's all in the expansion. "We want to add a second studio for private lessons," says Chris. "We're developing contemporary classes, ballet classes. When we added ballet, it was full — and not with ballet dancers. It was hip-hop dancers who wanted the technique and discipline to be better at hip-hop."
SoReal Studio's newest strategy hopes to cash in on the ballroom craze and attract a mix of youth and adult students.
Already, the diversity on display is impressive. "Pacman" Chbeeb's master class showcased an even-rounded mix of black, white, Hispanic and Asian students who were comfortable, once they got over the initial nerves of attempting the daunting choreography, to pop and lock together with abandon. It looked like a lot of fun. As we bid Chris goodnight, he asked, "You sure you don't want to take the class?"
"Not tonight," we said. But you never know...
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