Gertrude Barnstone Headlines Design Fair 2011's Texas Co-Op

Gertrude Barnstone helped desegregate Houston schools in the 1960s, kicked it with Susan Sarandon in Nicaragua during the '80s and was once married to the man who helped quell the drama over the Rothko Chapel construction. Beginning Friday, her sculptures will certainly hip some art-scene newbies to some blow-you-away work at Design Fair 2011.

Part of the reason Barnstone, 85, may not get the love that she deserves is because, for years, she was in the public eye for her other endeavors. During the '60s, she caused racial segregation to go kaput in the Houston Independent School District. In the '70s, she served a long stint as president and treasurer of the Texas ACLU Foundation board.

Then, in 1983, she wasn't feeling what former President Ronald Regan and the U.S. were doing in Nicaragua so she, actress Susan Sarandon and a team of predominantly Texas legislatures traveled to the country as a delegation. (Sarandon was "very distant," Barnstone remembers. "You couldn't even say hello to her.")

Outside of politics, she was eclipsed, especially locally, by her former architect husband Howard Barnstone. Along with Eugene Aubry, Howard was hired by Mark Rothko to finish the Rothko Chapel after the building's namesake and Philip Johnson had a falling out. (Gertrude and Howard eventually divorced; in 1987, Howard took his own life.)

All the while, she had been and is still making original sculptures for artistic and commission-based projects. Barnstone's involved process sees the artist welding and manipulating steel into sweeping and often colorful forms.

As she prepares for Design Fair 2011, Barnstone tells Art Attack, "I guess I'll keep on [making art] as long as people come up with things they want that are fun and things that I cannot resist because I really get drawn into it."

Currently, Barnstone works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, in a Montrose garage studio behind her home that's she's lived in since the mid-'70s. In that studio is a radio where she never misses Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman (she also has a soft spot for John Cage, Steve Reich and free/improvised jazz). "The only thing I will stop work for is to turn off the radio if a Republican comes on and says anything," she says.

She's also a member of the eight-person Texas co-op, which is a new component to Design Fair. The group, organized by University of Houston art collection curator Michael Guidry, was formed to promote vintage modern and contemporary designs created by Texan-based artists.

Barnstone will unveil four pieces this weekend: a painted and galvanized bench that "incorporates things that gardens are about"; a slumped and colored glass floor lamp that lights up with the aid of a touch switch; a small table that features embedded chunks of glass that she smashed with a hammer; and a candle holder that wows with its two-by-three feet of swirling quarter-inch steel.

On Friday, Barnstone will be present during the Design Fair 2011 preview party and sale, which is scheduled to take place at Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main Street, from 6 to 9 p.m. Admission costs $60 to $75.

DF11 continues at Lawndale from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. General admission costs $5. Go here for details.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen