Tick Tock, Your Time Is Up
Ask Eliza how she came to be an artist, and she simply says, "I was already one," as if at her conception, genes marked the developing glob of dividing cells as an artist -- and she was born one in the same way she was born a girl.
Eliza grew up in a working- to lower-middle-class neighborhood in Europe. Her parents worked in scientific -- not creative -- fields. Still, they recognized their daughter's inchoate ability. Perhaps this was because when Eliza was four years old, her teacher pointed out the child's paintings and described them as "vital." Naturally, Eliza attended art school, then graduate school, making sculptures, installations and even doing a bit of performance art along the way. When Eliza graduated with her master's degree, she faced the daunting prospect of surviving as an artist in the real world. That's when she heard of the Core Artists in Residency Program.
Located in Houston, the program bills itself as a fellowship for talented young artists that helps ease the transition between structured academic life and the professional art world. Since the Glassell School of Art (part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) established the program in 1982, it has attracted some of the brightest artists from America and Europe.
Many foreign artists want to move to America because the environment encourages innovation and nurtures young artists more than other parts of the world -- even Europe. There are more opportunities to make that big break, especially in a residency like the Core program.
The Core program offers studio space, a modest stipend and frequent visits from well-known artists and curators. Glassell prides itself on injecting new culture into Houston, and many of its fellows settle in here after their residencies, contributing much of the vibrancy in the city's current art scene.
However, not all of those who want to stay, can. Although the Core program's growing prestige attracts an increasing number of international artists, it can keep foreign artists on student visas for only three years. After that, they're on their own. Some have struggled to find ways to stay in the country. Others have given up. They have been detained by the Border Patrol, prohibited from earning money for months at a time and forced to return to their original countries at a last minute's notice -- even when they maintained legal status. Although the government offers a visa for artists, the standards are exceedingly high, even for individuals talented enough to gain admittance to the Core program.
For Eliza, whose time at Core has run out, Houston is where she prefers to stay and feels she belongs. In Houston she launched her career, found a gallery to represent her and began to make her name. But that all may become a dreamlike memory unless she can convince the Immigration and Naturalization Service to let her stay.
"It's not a surprise that you're not allowed to stay, because you always knew that," she says. "But it's kind of difficult because you have to sort of start again in quite a big way."
With no choice but to return to Europe, Eliza is now applying for a new visa and asked that her real name and native country not be used in this story.
The dilemma frustrates Joseph Havel, head of the Core program and director of the Glassell, who has seen too many good artists leave.
"The art world is so international nowadays, as [are] so many areas of work, it's too bad there's not more fluidity in all of this," he says. "But governments are big faceless institutions And they're not necessarily sympathetic."
Art enthusiasts still talk about it -- the time that Leandro Erlich, like a magician, made a swimming pool appear within the Glassell building's glass block walls. It was spring 1999, time for the annual Core Exhibition, where fellows present their work to Houston audiences, usually for the first time.
Erlich's The Swimming Pool dropped jaws. On the outside, it looked like a huge white block. From above, it looked real enough to jump into. And inside, viewers enjoyed the uncanny sensation of calm weightlessness while walking around, bone dry. Erlich had achieved the illusion by pouring several inches of water on top of a clear Plexiglas barrier. A fan pushed air across the water, simulating the ripples and refracted light patterns of an actual swimming pool. A toy floated on the pool's surface.
Since then, Erlich has been included in some highly prestigious, career-making shows, including the 2000 Whitney Biennial in New York. Most recently he represented his native Argentina at the Venice Biennale, where he spent more than a month installing his swimming pool.
The success of globe-trotting artists like Erlich has enhanced the Core program's reputation exponentially in the last five years. Other rising stars include painter Jeff Elrod and current Core fellow Trenton Doyle Hancock (who also had a piece in the 2000 Whitney Biennial). The entire Texas contingent at the previous Whitney show in 1997 consisted of Annette Lawrence and Pakistani native Shahzia Sikander, both former Core fellows. Glassell director Havel has done well himself. His sculptures have shown just about everywhere, including the White House and the millennial Whitney Biennial. (His Curtain flanks the entrance of the new MFA building.)
"The Core program is one of the reasons why Houston is known in the art world," says art consultant Joan Brochstein. Local galleries eagerly await the new crop of fellows each year, she says.
Running on less than a tenth of the Glassell School's budget, the Core program has put Houston on the map as a hotbed of contemporary art. Glassell, formerly the Museum School, was established in 1927 as the teaching arm of the MFA, offering classes to youths and adults alike. The Core program began in 1982, awarding residencies to eight visual artists. Each resident receives approximately 450 square feet of studio space and a stipend for nine months, from September through May. (It will be $7,500 for this year, plus $1,000 for materials.) Residents can stay for a second year. In 1998 the program also added two positions for critical writers.
The rare combination of a residency that offers a stipend and studio space and lasts for years makes it highly coveted. More than 200 people apply each year. (Because most fellows stay for two years, their terms overlap in such a way that some years six slots become available, and other years only two.)
Houston offers other prime conditions for artists: It is affordable and home to a thriving community of galleries as well as alternative spaces like DiverseWorks and Project Row Houses.
"Houston is a much better place to make work than New York," says Erlich, who moved to New York in 1999 for personal, not professional, reasons. "I have huge respect for the program, but the program is not just one program. It's the people who are supporting it, the collectors, the MFA. It seems to be that everything works like a team together. It's very organic."
And it doesn't hurt that Core alumni remain in town, lending support, says Francesca Fuchs, a Core resident from 1996 to 1998.
"There is a strong connection between past and present Core fellows. It's a historic line that continues," she says.
Some of Houston's more well-known and active artists are former fellows, like painter Aaron Parazette, sculptor Sharon Engelstein and Bill Davenport, who creates offhand yet charming sculptural projects. One unusual art space that has generated substantial national buzz is the Aurora Picture Show, a microcinema in the Heights devoted to showing cutting-edge film and video. It just celebrated its third birthday, says founder Andrea Grover, who is, you guessed it, a former Core fellow.
While Core has not achieved the prestige of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program, making it less well known abroad, its reputation is growing rapidly.
When former Core fellow DeWitt Godfrey went to Scotland to study at the Edinburgh College of Art, he inadvertently sparked a steady stream of artists from that school to Houston, including Robert Montgomery, Katrina Moorhead, Fuchs, Mailena Braun, Maggie Hills, Duncan Ganley and Fraser Stables. Core also has traded artists with other countries. For three years it swapped artists with the Taller de Barracas in Buenos Aires, an exchange that brought Erlich to Houston. This academic year, Core starts an exchange program with the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
Glassell brings foreign artists over on the F-1, or student visa, which allows them to work for Glassell and other parts of the museum but not elsewhere. After completing their residencies, artists can stay for a third year (called practical training) as long as they continue to work in the arts. After that, though, they have few options if they want to stay.
"I think it's the correct and natural way to do it," Havel says of using the F-1 visa. Glassell can't do more, he says, because immigration regulations do not allow the school to continue sponsorship once the artists finish their residencies.
Even wildly successful artists like Sikander and Erlich must navigate complicated immigration laws. While Erlich has had an easy time, Sikander's fate has been up in the air for years.
A year after Leandro Erlich unveiled his swimming pool in Houston, he made rain indoors at the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Erlich sealed two window panes together, leaving a small space between them in which he created a simulated thunderstorm -- lightning and all -- so that the viewer stood outside looking in at rain.
That show may have been his ticket to staying in America. Erlich finished Core in spring 1999, and in December he moved to New York to be with his girlfriend, another Argentinean artist whom he later married. Around that time, he also learned that he would be included in the biennial and filed for an O-1 visa.
The O-1 visa for "extraordinary ability" was created by Congress a decade ago for overachieving scientists, educators, businesspeople, athletes, actors and artists. Las Vegas regularly brings top-notch chefs from Europe on O-1 visas.
To qualify, a person must win a significant award (the INS lists the Nobel Prize and Academy Award as examples) or meet three of seven qualifications, such as showing national or international recognition through critical reviews and media articles, a record of major commercial success or participation on a panel judging the work of others. The applicant also needs a petitioner and a written opinion from a peer group.
Charles Foster, a Houston attorney who counts the ballet, symphony and opera among his clients, says if the petitioner is a prominent artistic institution, one letter from that institution usually does the trick. Artists, who often don't have the backing of a large institution, need more.
Erlich gathered 17 letters of recommendation from artists, curators and critics and asked a New York gallery to sponsor him. While he didn't have to show the exact amount of money he made, he turned in a copy of his contract with the gallery. He also photocopied reviews of his work from major publications.
He popped these in the mail with a $110 fee, and within a month he received an O-1 visa, good for three years and renewable for one-year increments indefinitely. Next, he wants to become a permanent resident. An artist doesn't have many resources in countries like Argentina, he says, where the economy is so bad that people with degrees drive taxicabs.
"Just the fact that a visa exists for an artist to apply for is something very valuable," Erlich says. "You know, if you go to Argentina and say, 'I'm an artist. Can I have a visa?' people will laugh at you because there's not a consideration for things that are not like major businesses or careers that are of very ultimate use for the country. Being an artist, you're not saving lives, and you're not getting oil for the country or things like that."
While Erlich received his O-1 visa painlessly, most foreign artists find it an unrealistic goal to achieve that much success in just three years. Other options include marrying an American citizen or trying for an H-1B specialty worker visa.
"I can see why they want proof that you're an artist, or else it could be a scam and anyone could say, 'I'm an artist,' " says Fuchs, who creates wallpaperlike paintings and wall installations. "The ironic thing is that they want you to be making money off your art."
Three weeks after Fuchs (who is half British and half German) arrived in Houston in 1996, she met Bill Davenport at a party thrown by another Core artist. They hit it off instantly. After completing the program in 1998, Fuchs married Davenport at the Aurora Picture Show. They held their reception at No tsu oH, the grimy downtown coffee shop-cum-performance space that is itself an ongoing work of art.
"I'm not sure we're the marrying type. But Bill is the man I want to be with, and I am the woman he wants to be with, and we had to do something about the visa. So the most straightforward way of dealing with it was marriage," says Fuchs, who is due to have a baby any day now.
At the end of 1998, the couple began tackling the paperwork for a green card (which grants permanent residency) without a lawyer, which proved nerve-racking for Fuchs. Instructions were unclear, she says, and forms often bounced back. Fuchs had to obtain police reports from Germany, get them notarized by an official, and return to London for an interview and physical at the consulate's office. She received her green card in about a year.
"The whole thing was kind of scary. I don't understand it all, even after going through the whole thing I'd get some form back from the INS and want to burst into tears."
Not everyone is lucky enough to get married or famous in a short time. But even obtaining an H-1B visa requires some luck for an artist. The visas, good for two three-year periods, are usually granted to skilled foreigners to fill occupational shortages. Nurses and high-tech computer workers come over on H-1Bs.
When sculptor Mailena Braun finished her residency at Core in 1999, she moved to New York to find a job.
"The thing I kept coming up against was the arts organizations were interested in hiring me, but they weren't prepared to go through the visa process, partly because it's a risk," she says. "You don't know if the visa will be granted or not. And you have to wait several months to find out. Most people, if they advertise a job, they want to have the position filled as soon as possible."
Unlike with O-1 visas, Congress caps the number of H-1Bs that can be granted every year. Sponsors also must file with the Department of Labor and prove that there's not a single willing and able U.S. worker who can do the job. On top of the $110 filing fee, the employer must pay a $1,000 fee, which was instituted more than a year ago to fund computer training for Americans. The INS also recently introduced another $1,000 fee for expedited service.
"As you are aware, the salary in the arts is not very high," says Braun's attorney Adrian Halpern, who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "On top of that they have to pay this onerous fee." Some museums and arts organizations just can't afford it, he says.
After several rejections, Braun finally found a willing sponsor in the Museum of Modern Art, which has an international program. Braun speaks four languages. But she waited six months for visa approval, a financially difficult time because she was not authorized to work.
A strict visa that requires employees to be tied to their sponsors, the H-1B prohibits Braun from changing jobs or moving to another state without filing an amendment. And her salary is determined by a system of prevailing wages based on geographic area. But the visa does have its advantages.
"The beauty of an H-1B is it's valid for part-time work," Halpern says. Which leaves Braun time to work on her art.
Though Eliza could have filed for an H-1B, she opted for the O-1. After she finished Core, she flitted back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean on various visitor visas until she exhausted them.
"I understand why people just get jobs, and when I think if I should have done that, 'Nah,' I think. You should be able to come for the reason you were accepted in the first place, in the same situation as you were good enough to get into." She came on the merit of her art and wants to stay for the same reason.
Though Eliza has had more than a dozen shows in the last four years, some of them solo, she doesn't have that career-making show like the Whitney Biennial on her résumé. Not that the INS examiner reviewing her case would necessarily know what the Whitney is. The INS doesn't know if someone is actually a good artist, just whether they look good on paper.
"It's all very subjective," attorney Foster says. "I can present my case and win it and present an identical case and lose. There are certain examiners that would approve it because they take a more liberal view. But that examiner sitting in the next office may deny it because he takes a more technical view.
INS spokesperson Eyleen Schmidt says adjudicators have access to databases in case they have questions about museums, awards and galleries. Though the O-1 has high standards, the INS tries to make it fair by accepting a variety of evidence, she says.
"It can be difficult to get the O-1 visa. We do understand that not everyone is going to win the Nobel Prize, which is why you can submit -- and we do accept -- as evidence things like awards you've won, shows you've taken part in or had on your own, artwork that you've sold We accept a lot of types of documentation that you can use to prove you're promising," she says.
Still, Eliza feels her case is a big gamble.
"It's really hit-or-miss," she says. "It could be something as small as they like the images of your work."
It happened almost overnight. As Shahzia Sikander finished her tenure at Core in spring 1997, she was included at both the Drawing Center in SoHo and the Whitney Biennial. Her career skyrocketed. To be sure, Sikander has always been career-minded. She had been sending work to the Drawing Center for years.
Critics marveled at Sikander's fragile drawings in vegetable dyes that depicted veiled women and swirling shapes in pastoral landscapes. They praised her fluid murals, which were delicate yet jarring. Sikander had been trained in the classical (and taxing) art of Persian miniature painting, and writers often referred to her work in terms of dichotomy: She used traditional forms with contemporary flair. East meets West. Folk art mixing with pop culture.
Although Sikander is as successful as Erlich, she has found herself in many unnerving situations because of immigration. In 1993 she came from Lahore, Pakistan, to the Rhode Island School of Design on an F-1 visa. She came to the Core program in 1995, but instead of taking a new student visa, she used her year of practical training for the first year of the residency.
For the second year, not quite sure what to do, she applied for both a green card and an F-1 visa. Most attorneys recommend obtaining an H-1B or O-1 visa before applying for a green card, but Sikander self-petitioned for a green card. She never heard again about the new student visa but received acknowledgement of the green card case. That was five years ago. The wait for green cards -- even in Houston, which has one of the most backlogged offices in the country -- usually runs less than four years.
Sikander applied for the "extraordinary ability" category, which sets lofty standards similar to those of the O-1 visa. She must prove her prominence by listing awards, sending in reviews, cataloging her financial stability, and including affidavits from colleagues and critics attesting to her renowned reputation.
There were problems from the beginning. Her bag had been stolen while she was in Rhode Island and her original passport was gone, complicating paperwork. When Sikander moved within Houston, the INS never sent mail to the new address even though she had filed numerous change of address forms with them. Four days before the Whitney Biennial opened, while Sikander was in New York putting up a wall installation, she learned that she had one day left for a fingerprinting appointment -- or her case would be dropped. The original letter never reached her. Panic-stricken, she bought a one-way ticket to Houston, arrived that night and waited in the notoriously long INS lines.
Checking on a case is no simple task -- people can't just call in. Even if an immigrant shows up in person to ask about status, INS workers may not have an answer.
"I've gone through the line and asked one thing and come back through the line and asked the same thing and gotten a different response," Sikander says. "So basically I'm always nervous about what to do."
Sikander has good reason to feel nervous: Any small mistake can lead to great repercussions. Those waiting for green cards receive an employment authorization card that needs to be renewed in person yearly. To work without a valid card for even one day is illegal. In 1999 the Smithsonian showed Sikander's work, but she had to forgo the honorarium because she had renewed her card a little late.
Earlier this year Sikander attended a six-week residency at ArtPace in San Antonio. She was driving to Marfa when she was detained at a checkpoint for failing to carry her card with her. The Border Patrol chastised her -- it is the most important form of identification for someone waiting on a green card, even more so than a passport or driver's license -- and let her go hours later, only after someone went to her apartment to find the card and fax a copy over.
Sikander now splits her time between Texas and New York. Trying not to complicate matters, she kept her green card case in Texas. But the last time she checked on it in person, she learned that it had been moved to New York. Yet neither she nor her lawyer had requested the change. Even so, the INS requires her to continue getting her employment authorization from Houston.
INS spokesperson Bill Strassberger says it is highly unusual, though not impossible, for the INS to move a case.
"At the end of the day, I'm still waiting," Sikander says. "In the end it does not matter if you're successful or not, if you've had more shows or less, or how much money you're making. That doesn't matter. It's really luck and it's very random or you need the topmost lawyer. And I think that matters.
"I've been here for eight years, and I don't know any other place to operate from. I'm not willing to drop everything and leave the country."
At least she has found a way, though temporary, to work and stay in the country. Others have not been so lucky.
Duncan Ganley drives a little red car that has rusted so much that acid rain couldn't make it worse. The front bumper is held on by a piece of wire. He acquired this vehicle from Maggie Hills, who got it from Francesca Fuchs. And maybe when he leaves, he will pass it on to some other impoverished Core fellow.
Ganley finished his residency at Core this spring, where at the Core exhibition he blurred the line between fiction and reality. He presented digitally altered photographs, some taken inside stately Houston hotels, that served as artifacts for a fictional director and his movie. Ganley makes myths.
When Ganley talks, his whole body talks with him, a lively enunciation of words and body movement. He is humorous and good-natured, but the thought of the INS tests his good spirits. He too was stopped by the Border Patrol in West Texas. Although he carried his passport, the Border Patrol demanded to see the arrival-departure record that a person receives upon arrival at the airport. No one ever told him he was supposed to carry it. Even INS spokesperson Strassberger says he does not know if one is required to have it at all times.
"I'm not a tourist. I live here," Ganley says. "This whole thing about being stopped in the country at a checkpoint We haven't even left the state!"
When practical training ends next year, Ganley will return to Britain. He doesn't have a choice. Though he was offered a teaching job, he couldn't take it -- not that it would be illegal, but because it required too much hassle, paperwork and money. He'll jump through certain hoops, but he isn't willing to plunk down thousands of dollars for an immigration attorney. (Legal fees for H-1B or O-1 visas run from $1,000 to $3,000 and from $4,000 to $8,000 for green cards.) And all for no guarantee.
"You always feel a little like a second-class citizen," he says. "I don't know what my status was, and then I found out it was called nonresident alien. How welcoming is that?"
This fall a new crop of Core fellows arrives. Among them are three international students, including Aiko Hachisuka, a Japanese citizen. Hachisuka came to study in the States when she was 17 and has lived here for ten years.
"One of the primary reasons of going to Core is to stay in the United States," she says. Already she has run into problems with immigration.
When Hachisuka finished graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts, she tried to get an H-1B visa during her practical training year. Like Braun, she looked for a job with an arts organization. But every time an employer agreed to sponsor her, it reneged when it discovered how much money and work was involved.
When her practical training expired, she applied for a visitor visa to buy time and received a notice saying that she'd get an answer in 365 days. Strange, she thought, since a visitor visa lasts for only six months. She never heard anything else, and started to get a bad feeling. Finally she consulted a lawyer who told her that just because she was waiting for an answer didn't mean that she could stay legally. She was in danger of getting out of status -- a situation that could bar her from returning to America for years. In three days Hachisuka rushed back to Japan, leaving most of her belongings, even dirty laundry, behind. She stayed there for two months until she obtained a new F-1 visa under the Core program.
"When I went back, I was thinking, 'Why do I even stay in the United States, going through hell?' " she says. "But the reality is if I go back [to Japan] my career will be vanished. The market here is more open to young artists than in Japan."
Hachisuka plans to work hard at Core and try to make a name for herself so that she might be able to apply for an O-1 later. When Eliza attended Core, though, she didn't know she ought to push for commercial success so that it would look good on a future visa application. She just wanted to make her art.
"You may just be concentrated on work, and if you don't know the goal is to be public with your work ," she says, trailing off. "I could have been more aggressive in terms of following every exhibition opportunity just to have material from that."
Eliza is now gathering evidence for her O-1 application and collecting the last recommendation letters from people in Houston, a process that's been delayed by the recent flood. The world wouldn't end if she didn't get it. She could start over elsewhere. Indeed, she is looking into other options.
But the words that slip out of her mouth betray her heart. When she talks, she says "here" all the time, meaning Houston, though she's really over there in Europe. When she returned to Europe, Eliza left behind some of her belongings, including her computer. That's how optimistic she was. Now, she's not so sure.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.