Getting to the Bottom of Those Red Dots Around Montrose

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"Anyone know about these red dots painted around Montrose," a poster recently asked on the local music forum Hands Up Houston. "Keep seeing them, have always wondered."

The question included a link to a Google Maps street view of one Montrose-area dot. Another poster said he'd heard the artist painted the orbs while nude, a story that piqued our interest.

Art Attack has seen those red dots before, too. But for some reason they'd never really stood out in all the other weirdness that makes up the Montrose. But having never heard of the Red Dot Boys before that Hands Up post, we decided to do a little research and get to the bottom (pun intended) of the question.

The project is the brain child of former Houstonians Robert Ramos and Rick Carpenter, both artists. Several years ago, the two volunteered to help Rick's brother Randy with work on a farm Randy owned in Auburn, Kansas.

"I'm a painter," said Rick Carpenter. "Robert does multimedia and is a well-rounded artist. We didn't know each other well, but he came on the trip with me."

After about a week in the country, the duo was art-starved. During a beer run to the nearest town, they devised a plan to surprise Rick's brother.

"We were bored one afternoon so we said what could we do?" Ramos said. "We wanted to give his brother some visual art."

"In Kansas, a lot of the barns had advertisements painted on them," Carpenter said.

Randy had given Rick Carpenter a 53" steel hoop that had once been the frame for a surrey wheel. Carpenter, being a lover of round shapes, decided to use the hoop as a guide to paint a giant dot on his brother's barn.

"The only question was what color should it be," Ramos said. "Rick's brother's dog's name was Red, so that was pretty easy. We went to a Benjamin Moore store and found the brightest red we could find -- Carnival Red."

Back at the ranch, the men sent Carpenter's brother off on an errand, and proceeded to paint the very first of what would later become more than 100 red dots. When his brother got home, he loved the piece, and so it stayed.

"Nobody was supposed to see it," Carpenter said. "My dad got out the power washer -- he wanted to wash it off but my brother said no."

Pretty soon, "the whole town was talking about this red dot," Carpenter said. "A lot of people surrounded us, so we started painting a couple more and the reception was the same everywhere."

Pretty soon the dots started spreading like a case of chicken pox. On their way back from Kansas they painted dots in Wichita, Dallas and, eventually, more than 20 in Houston. The red dot locator on the duo's Web site shows the advancement of the dot.

The artists hit paydirt when they came up with a plan to travel cross-country, installing dots throughout rural America, using $7,500 in travel money donated by friends and patrons. The two created a route, and in advance of their travels, they sent press material to rural newspapers and placed classified ads hiring themselves out as creators of art.

"We'd even go door to door if we found a barn we liked," Carpenter said. "We were trying to bring art to rural America. It turns out the farmers are much cooler than I thought they were."

Ramos said he was nervous about the trip at first. "Being a short Puerto Rican traveling in middle America, I had this Easy Rider kind of mentality. But it worked out unbelievably."

Ramos said one of the turning points in the trip was when a man let them paint the black tobacco barn that had been in his family for generations. His feelings towards the project seem clear by the wording he uses. To him, they don't just paint the dots. They "give the dots away."

"It was such an honor," he said. "(This project) is one of my babies. I just light up when I talk about it."

Both men say that letting the viewers of the dots answer their own questions about art is part of the point. Many people have interpreted the works in many ways -- a pro-Japanese symbol, for example, or a cola advertisement.

"Is it art?" Ramos asks. "That's for you to decide. But it's a chance to talk about art in its simplest form."

"It really is the simplest of objects," Carpenter said. There's really only one center and everything is an equal distance from the center. Circles are a very simplistic image -- they don't have sharp edges. They don't hurt."

Now there are dots scattered across the United States, including one in Hawaii. And there may soon be one in Alaska, too, where Carpenter owns land. In Houston, there have been organized bike rides to view the more than 20 dots throughout the city, not to mention those in the burbs.

A few of the dots were painted without permission, but for the most part, the artists take commissions. Though Ramos says, "We always paint them, whether we can get paid or not."

"The ones without permission are a lot more fun," he said. "We could be considered street artists, though we never paint on private property."

In the early days, Ramos had a habit of posing with the near-finished images in the nude, "but I got in trouble," he said, without elaborating.

Today the artists are living in separate halves of the country, though they continue to make red dots when they can. Ramos lives in San Francisco and works in multimedia. Carpenter is in Boston working on a sculpture project for a gallery.

They still seem to share a kind of connection through the dots. In separate interviews with Art Attack, they both told the same stories and used the same phrases to describe the work.

"Robert and I are almost total opposites. I'm right-handed and 5'10". He's left-handed and 5'6". He can't even hold the hoop -- his arm span isn't long enough. But we have a system down. I paint the top and he paints the bottom."

Carpenter has the surrey wheel with him in Boston, but Ramos has " a pencil, a string and a nail" and each always has at least a gallon of Benjamin Moore Carnival Red so they can paint dots of the exact same specs even when they're not together.

"I always call him or he calls me before we paint," Ramos said.

"But it's a true joy to do art with somebody else," Carpenter said.

The men hope to eventually release a book about the Red Dots. You can find all the dots in the United States (including photos) using their red dot locator.

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