Magical and Fantastic: Patrick Renner Transforms Dream Images into Reality

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Walk through Eastwood Park on Harrisburg Boulevard and be prepared for a bit of visual hijinks. Depending on your vantage point, you might see an aluminum rocket ship jutting upward or a bicycle Ferris wheel spinning in the wind. An orange automobile plods through the air and a Chinese dragon boat floats through the trees as if enchanted. Get a little bit closer and grab one of the five handles. Make it move and change shape. It's the nearest thing you'll get to experiencing a daydream in the physical world.

What you're seeing is Conduit, the latest public art installation by Houston artist Patrick Renner. The sculptures of transportation through the ages are supported above a stream of interwoven wood panels painted in blues, purples and greens. The winding base takes its form from a section of Houston's intricate bayou system, a tribute to the city's development and progress through modes of moving into the future. And just like daydreams, Conduit is temporary; you have until November 30 to experience its fantastical charms.

When the Houston Arts Alliance started putting together its Transported + Renewed calendar of events, Renner seemed a natural fit for the scope of the three-month-long program of cultural activities in Houston's East End supported by an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. "I feel like Transported + Renewed is very much about participation, and it also speaks to collaboration and a lot of things that are larger than life," says HAA's Folklife + Traditional Arts program manager, Angel Quesada. "All of these things are intrinsic to his art-making." There's also the fact that Renner's final products tend to be beautiful objects that just about anyone can appreciate. "There's no pretension to his work," says Quesada. "It really is just what it is. You can see the hand in it. People really appreciate that somebody made that. If you can order it from a machine, it loses a lot of charm for me."

Conduit comes a year after Renner's breakthrough public art installation, Funnel Tunnel, located on the Montrose median across from Inversion Coffee House, and there's a clear relationship in its vibrant streaks of hand-painted color and its cascading, sinuous body. Funnel Tunnel emerges from the trees in an explosion of color, a giant serpent-like creature that looms over nearby vehicles that are nearly at a standstill. Its multicolored body enlarges at one end and then blooms into a wide-open mouth void of teeth, a sort of psychedelic cornucopia of thanksgiving. Renner's Funnel Tunnel isn't so much an imposing behemoth muscling for space as it is a benevolent titan eager to harmonize with its environment and the tiny beings that inhabit it.

For some commuters who travel down Montrose on a daily basis, the sculpture adds a bit of whimsy to an otherwise innocuous pattern of existence. For others, this monumental piece of public art is the source of transformational ideas and life changes. "When I came back to Houston, I saw the Funnel Tunnel. It's part of the reason I decided to move down here," says avant-garde opera singer Amanda Gregory. For Gregory, who grew up in the suburbs of Houston and left to pursue a performing career in New York City, Funnel Tunnel was indicative of a larger movement. "I was really moved by Houston and what it was doing progressively with art."

Renner's sculpture is a success on two fronts. Funnel Tunnel captures the imagination in the best ways that public art tends to do, but it's also a landmark project that has changed the way public art is commissioned and created in Houston. The tunnel sprung from conversations on how to make Art League Houston a more accessible and visible organization. ALH's visual arts director, Jennie Ash, and former executive director, Glen Weiss, immediately turned to the median in front of Inversion Coffee House as a potential site for the mass dissemination of art.

Weiss departed ALH before the idea could come to fruition, but before he left, he discovered a grant that would fund the creation of a piece of public art. "The deadline was literally 12 hours later," says Ash. "That's why I instantly thought about Patrick for the project. His work is aesthetically beautiful, but it involves the community, which is an aspect we were looking for." She managed to fill out the paperwork on time, only to later receive a phone call from the granting organization. "They said, 'We love this project. We think it could be really great, but there's no way we can issue the grant without an executive director.' " Luckily for Ash, ALH and Renner, Michael Peranteau (formerly with the Center for Art and Performance, DiverseWorks Art Space and Project Row Houses) was set to take up the post the very next day.

While Renner began working on his sculpture ideas with Ash's assistance, Peranteau took up the reins on the logistical and legal ends. "We had to ask, how does this work legally?" he says. "And we had to get approval for a 180-foot sculpture that would wind the entire length of the median. It was an engineering feet."

Using the median also meant that ALH would take possession of that space for the allotted time, which requires them to cut the grass and oversee its upkeep. "The Parks and Recreation Department deals with time-based things. They will only [issue permits] for up to nine months, but Funnel Tunnel has been extended and will be up for 17. We're starting to talk about what's going to happen to the piece, and we're asking why can't it be permanent? It's unusual to do that, so [Funnel Tunnel] has created a precedent." Since then, curator Gus Kopriva has created the "True North" exhibit along the esplanades on Heights Boulevard, also with the cooperation of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.

With two parents who have art degrees, Patrick Renner practically grew up in the creative process and was nurtured every step of the way. To show how deep he was in the art world from such an early age, he recalls a moment when he was five years old and experiencing his first Jackson Pollock. "I really liked Pollock. At five I saw a Pollock, and I looked up at my mom and said, 'Mom, isn't that beautiful?' " Renner says this with a chuckle, since he no longer feels the same way about the work of the abstract expressionist. But the memory makes one thing clear: There was never any doubt that Renner would be an artist.

Despite being exposed to art early on, spending a great deal of time in museums with his parents and developing a childhood fixation on Legos, Renner didn't take up art-making in the traditional sense until middle school. Shortly after he became aware of Houston ISD's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, he applied and got in, and it was there that he developed the interests that would mark much of his later work. "Part way through high school, I realized I had an inclination towards sculpture. I was already immersed in art, but HSPVA was part of a transition from simply doing creative things to saying, 'I'm really going to go for this on a professional level.' " His parents were encouraging but offered a realistic view of the life of an artist, in particular the financial side of living as a creative.

Following high school, Renner received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and his MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. ("I never touched any ceramics the entire time I was there," he points out. "But I got to play with a lot of materials, and my art started to develop in a different direction.") A hallmark of his work is his use of found materials, particularly repurposed wood. There is a quality about his art that approaches that of a living spirit, as if the history embedded in the materials is at play with the present.

Sometimes that's exactly what's going on. Renner's first big commission when he returned to Houston came from his old kindergarten teacher, who asked him if he'd make a sculpture for a wall of the school's new building. The result was Giving Tree, a silhouetted oak made from reclaimed wood and topped with bronze leaves with the names of teachers cast into them. The reclaimed wood came from the previous building before it was torn down, the old materials welcoming the new space. His work, even in photographs, has a warm aura that endears his subject matter to the viewer, even if it's a personal exploration such as Bounded Operator, a piece inspired by his grandmother's loss of memory due to Alzheimer's.

His work also appeals to both art circles and the general public. When Art League Houston donated a four-foot-long model of The Funnel Tunnel for its annual gala, CAMH Director Bill Arning was determined to win it in the silent auction. "A few people were bidding against me, but I prevailed, and now it's sitting on my dining room table," he says. "One day I had some friends over and I had three pizzas delivered. The guy from Star Pizza comes up, and I tell him to put them on the dining room table, and then he walks up to me and says, 'That's the thing on Montrose Boulevard. I know the artist. I love it.' Seeing the model of Funnel Tunnel made his evening."

Since returning to Houston to pursue his art career, Renner has been producing work at a prolific rate. In addition to making sculpture and collaborating with artists across a variety of mediums, he has maintained ongoing teaching engagements on either a full-time or part-time basis. He teaches at Sharpstown International School, and has discovered an affinity for working with public school kids who may not have had an early exposure to art.

"I think now he wants people to see art and grow up around art," says graffiti artist Daniel Anguilu. "The more that we become aware that people are creative and have a need to share whatever they do, it helps to have an open mind to many things."

To a Houston outsider, however, it may not seem as if the Bayou City is the appropriate stomping grounds for a mid-career artist who's just been introduced to the general public, but Renner is very much here and invested in the community. "Houston has a really ideal blend of culture," he says. "The culture is multifaceted. People are from all over the place. It's low-key, and there's not as much hustle and bustle as New York. I liked the spread-out nature of it, and I like the climate." (The last bit is no joke; he prefers the perpetual summers to cold-weather climates.) There's also the fact that he's a fourth-generation Houstonian, with most of his dad's side of the family living here. "There's also good food," he jokes. "I'm a hometown man, I guess."

On September 27, the day Renner debuted Conduit, he also premiered another work in Houston's East End. The second of the two was a collaboration with Amanda Gregory, a one-hour show titled The Call of the Ouroboros that premiered as part of the seventh annual Houston Fringe Festival. The piece sees Gregory transform into a space-opera diva of mega-proportions as she sings work by The Knells, the "post-rock, neo-psychedelic chamber prog band" she performs with when she resides in New York City. The sculpture she inhabits was designed in collaboration with Renner. If Funnel Tunnel is a benevolent giant, this larger-than-life figure has a touch of sci-fi malice, which is a testament to Renner's versatility not only in scope but in character and nuance.

The three-part vocal arrangement was brought to life by two additional mouths in the form of puppets that Gregory operated on her hands. With her eyes covered by a black mask and the two smaller heads similarly disguised, the figure dominated the Super Happy Fun Land stage. The sculpture, which Gregory and Renner plan to make mobile for future performances, was the perfect visual accompaniment to The Knells' otherworldly music. Asked why a visual artist would collaborate on a project involving a medium as far removed from sculpture as opera is, Renner says: "It's just fun. For me, it's super-exciting because I have a nearly infinite list of things that I want to make. It's fascinating when I can mix what I have with what someone else is thinking and land on a conclusion that I would have never found by myself."

Collaboration seems to come easy for Renner. "I trust him because he has a lot of integrity when he works with people," says Gregory. "He's not afraid to ask for help, and that's comforting as an artist. He doesn't want to take all the credit, so he's not afraid to give away aspects of the project." He's also not afraid of a little bit of variety. Just last year he completed a float for the Houston Thanksgiving Day Parade with sculptor friend Alex Larsen, who was also instrumental in the construction of both Funnel Tunnel and Conduit. Renner spends a lot of time with other artists, including creatives such as Eric Tom, Stephen Kraig and Johnny DiBlasi, members of {exurb}, the collective he co-founded.

Renner also doesn't seem to mind working on a time crunch. Just hours before The Call of the Ouroboros, which he set up and broke down, he was on hand for the celebratory unveiling of Conduit at Eastwood Park.

Conduit and Funnel Tunnel may be Renner sculptures, but he's made them a part of the cultural landscape they inhabit. The creation of both works involved painting parties to which members of the community were invited to leave their imprint on the sculptures by painting pieces of the materials. "He breaks the sort of traditional models of public art," says Ash. "A city will usually commission a work by the artist that doesn't live in the community, and it's like a spaceship lands and the community is left to deal with it. Patrick's pieces are built by the community, and in this way they are making a community through their art."

Though Renner produces gallery pieces and work on a much smaller scale, his public art is what's drawing the most attention, not least because of its immediate accessibility. "Art can become this very insular kind of insider thing," explains Peranteau. "Art is really not about that. It's about people and what happens between those people and their environment. When it gets cut off in museums, art becomes an exclusive thing, which is not how art is thought of historically." It seems that there is a need to take art back from confined spaces and exclusive institutions and give it to the people, and it looks as though Patrick Renner is doing that one gentle giant at a time.

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