MasterMinds 2012

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In its fourth year, the Houston Press MasterMind Awards process gathered in more of everything, as we continued to discover things about our area and its creative leaders.

As before, some of the winners come from applications sent in, while our in-house review panel contributed other names of artists they felt should be recognized for their outstanding work this past year. Again, this is not a lifetime award, but goes to creative types who are on the cutting edge right now.

There were a lot of names to go through.

We checked in with our 2011 winners and found all three to be thriving.

Foodways Texas, a collective of chefs, food historians and other epicureans seeking to preserve the food history and traditional Gulf Coast/Creole/Cajun cuisine of Texas, used most of its money to put on a symposium in Galveston, in which by-catch and fishing were discussed.

Catastrophic Theatre, which delights in experimental theater productions, was able to put on an extra play in the last year thanks to the money and recognition the company gained from the MasterMind Award, according to Artistic Director Jason Nodler.

Nameless Sound Founding Director David Dove says that his two-pronged music education nonprofit organization is getting ready to celebrate its tenth year of existence. In the last year it has been able to expand its staff and has had a number of sold-out shows.

There's no guarantee that a MasterMind Award will set someone up for life — a very few of our winners have not done so well — but to date, most have prospered mainly because of the recognition they receive.

All of this year winners will be honored in a special ceremony at the Houston Press Artopia Party — celebrating the arts and the people who love them — on Saturday, January 28 at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter Street.

This year's winners of a plaque and $2,000 in no-strings-attached funds are:

The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum: Headquartered in Houston and soon to move to a new home, the dream of Captain Paul Matthews keeps alive the history of the African-American soldiers in the United States, and other important historical events.

Alex "Pr!mo" Luster: Last profiled in a Houston Press cover story in May, the filmmaker is looking for the next step after the solid local success of Stick 'Em Up!, his documentary about Houston's street poster artists, which played to sold-out houses at the River Oaks Theatre.

The Pilot Light Restaurant Group: Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, a pair of adventurous chefs, turn out astounding meals from their temporary base in the back room of a boutique, while they marshal their money and resources to find a more permanent home.

The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum

It's a Wednesday afternoon and Captain Paul Matthews points out a Civil War relic at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum. Somehow, the museum's founder, who wears a thick mustache and round glasses, makes a package of hardtack biscuits, which most people today would call crackers, seem spectacular.

"You see those holes there in the biscuits? That's where bugs and grub worms would crawl into," explains the upbeat Matthews. "And what did those bugs and grub worms give the soldiers? Protein!

"Where do you think 'I'm gonna get me some grub' comes from? You're looking at it right there!" says Matthews, who has a gift for tying pop-culture references (ranging from slang to Tupac Shakur) to captivating dissections of the African-American fighting regiment that was active from 1866 to 1951.

Matthews, a Vietnam War veteran, opened the museum at its current 3,500-square-foot location on Southmore Boulevard in January 2001, more than 30 years after he read two paragraphs about the all-black U.S. Army Cavalry units. Instantly, he wanted to know everything about the soldiers who reminded the Cheyenne Indians of the wild buffalo due to the men's naturally curly hair and ferocious combat techniques.

But life had another plan for the Prairie View A&M ROTC student and future Army battalion sergeant: registering graves in Vietnam.

For three months towards the end of his deployment, Matthews was responsible for telling families of deceased American soldiers that their husbands, fathers and sons weren't coming home alive.

"I tried my best to personalize every letter, but it was hard because I wouldn't know anything about them except for their name," says Matthews, who adds that some mutilated bodies didn't always resemble a human being.

"Then there was that smell, the smell of death," remembers Matthews. "It was rotten and pungent and would hit you like pow! That never goes away. It still brings me to tears."

And you complain about your job that hooks you up with free Internet to mess around on all day.

The experience was too overwhelming for Matthews, who was flirting with enrolling in helicopter pilot training, to continue serving in the military. He eventually moved to Houston, where he spent a good chunk of his 30-year career at Merck as the head of the drug company's military division of pharmaceutical sales.

On the side, Matthews devoted much of his free time to collecting artifacts and information about the Buffalo Soldiers.

During his research, he discovered that 19 Buffalo Soldiers were hung in the aftermath of Houston's race riot of 1917. He would also make a connection between a late-1800s quote by Buffalo Soldier George Mullins and the U.S. Army's "Be All You Can Be" slogan. (Matthews says that years later, a retired Army colonel who helped launch the famous marketing campaign had no clue about Mullins's line until he visited the Buffalo Soldiers Museum.)

All of the objects and knowledge needed a home, so Matthews, with his wife's blessing, used $45,000 of his retirement savings to open the museum. Today, the space hosts approximately 35,000 visitors a year, and includes museum-goers from England and France (two countries where Buffalo Soldiers were stationed during World Wars I and II), who travel to Houston specifically to check out Matthews's place.

Five days a week, the nonprofit's staff of four employees and two interns help conduct tours of the space's permanent and rotating exhibits for elementary and high school students. The staff also travels to Houston-area schools to talk about the Buffalo Soldiers and present re-enactments of key players in African-American history, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

Additionally, the organization has commissioned an original historical play — which has been presented to a number of local social, civic and religious groups — that chronicles the story of a Civil War slave who eventually becomes a Buffalo Soldier during the Reconstruction Era.

And thanks to the museum's work, Texas motorists can now sport a Buffalo Soldiers vanity license plate after the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board approved the design last November.

After 11 years, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum has outgrown its space. In June, they'll move into the circa-1925 Houston Light Guard Armory building, a captivating brick structure at 3816 Caroline that construction crews are restoring to its original look. When the build-out is complete, Matthews hopes to partner with Houston Community College (which had been using the building for storage), Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M to offer classes on military and American history at the new digs.

Matthews's love of the Buffalo Soldiers parallels his mania over local NFL football, an obsession that started when the Oilers drafted a young bruiser named Earl Campbell from the University of Texas. "I told my family that they're going to go to the Super Bowl so I signed up for season tickets."

As we know, that didn't happen (and still hasn't for Houston after the Texans' January 15 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Playoffs), but he held onto the Astrodome seats until Warren Moon "was run out of town," he says. "I sent [the Oilers] a letter saying that wasn't right and I gave my tickets back."

He eventually jumped on-board with the Texans. During the season, you can find Matthews and his family tailgating outside Reliant Stadium next to a truck that's plastered with Buffalo Soldiers Museum logos.

Inside the museum's future home at the Light Guard Armory, Matthews points to the empty rooms where the "Day in the Life of a Buffalo Soldier" re-enactments will take place. He's armed with his favorite quotes by and about the Buffalo Soldiers. You can tell this is Matthews's Super Bowl.

Alex "Pr!mo"

Luster, filmmaker

Alex "Pr!mo" Luster, seated inside his Shoot Edit Sleep studio in the Danny Clark Photography building on Bartlett Street, reflects on the ten months since Stick 'Em Up!, his documentary about Houston's street poster artists, played to sold-out houses at the River Oaks Theatre.

"After the movie and the story came out," says the friendly and humble filmmaker, referring to Houston Press's cover-story treatment of the DIY smash hit ("Up from the Underground," John Nova Lomax, May 5, 2011), "I added more than 1,000 Facebook friends.

"The first month or so was uncomfortable when I would get 100 likes and 50 comments on a status update from all of these people I didn't know. It was definitely a change for someone who used to be antisocial," says Luster, who's surrounded by wall pieces created by artists profiled in Stick 'Em Up!, including Give Up, Dual and Cutthroat.

Behind Luster on a tiny, four-foot-high table is the rock art of Nemo. Luster says that Nemo, a high-school-aged girl, was inspired to make street art by Stick 'Em Up!. But instead of wheatpasting posters to buildings or lampposts, the girl started drawing on rocks and distributing them all over. The piece on Luster's desk is Nemo's first, a gift from the young artist.

These connections mean everything to Luster, an advocate of all things Houston who grew up as "the eager kid with 100 questions that nobody could answer." Now that he's the one with some self-taught skills and a well-received film in the can, he loves relating to newbie filmmakers about a style he learned during still photography shoots in Houston.

Luster explains that he and his father would scavenge the city for photo opps. Later, his dad showed Alex how to print the negatives that had been exposed with Luster's first camera — one of those cheapo freebies that are tossed in with a Burger King meal — at a University of Houston darkroom.

"My dad said, 'Well, these have great composition, but there's something else: Your pinky is in every single shot.' And he was right. That taught me it's not about the equipment, it's the user."

Since then, his emphasis has been on doing a lot with a little. When he's shooting an independent project or on assignment for his day job at a television station that Luster won't disclose, he can usually fit everything, including cameras, into a small backpack.

Since Stick 'Em Up! dropped, he's been overrun with opportunities ("All of it positive," says Luster). He has taught editing techniques at a local Apple Store; sculpted beautiful short films for TEDx Houston and local jazz singer Tianna Hall; and spoken on panels about street art, filmmaking and about how awesome Houston is. Additionally, in May, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will screen Stick 'Em Up! six times over a three-day run.

However, it's not enough for an indie success like Luster to try and make it as a freelancer. He still needs a steady paycheck to fund his projects and to support his family, which includes a wife and two young children.

Luster says that one of the next challenges is to conceptualize his next full-length movie.

"Honestly, I don't know. I do have some ideas that are leaning towards a non-documentary project," he says. "I know I've been categorized as the 'street art guy,' but it's probably not going to be that."

Luster would also like to prove himself outside of Houston by getting Stick 'Em Up! in front of more folks, especially in Austin during South by Southwest. He's crossing all of his fingers and toes in hopes that the film will score an exclusive screening at the art and music blowout in March.

Says Luster, "Because most festivals like being the first one to screen a film, I haven't submitted Stick 'Em Up! to too many other festivals, in hopes that it will increase my chances of getting into South by Southwest.

"I think it's important to show the film in other cities in Texas. Plus, we can transport the entire audience up there," says Luster, who adds that he should find out if he got a thumbs up or down from SXSW around the time this story is published.

He's already heard a "no" from Park City, Utah's Sundance Film Festival, which caused a friend to offer Luster consolation in an online chat room. Luster, who wasn't all that upset about the rejection, replied with an "It's okay, dude" and then walked away from the computer for a bit.

The friend shot back a response that Luster didn't see. Minutes passed and the friend, who wasn't hearing back from Luster, assumed the filmmaker was heartbroken about Sundance.

Says Luster, "When I finally returned to the computer, he had written, 'Hey, man, don't worry about that because you're still a hero in these parts.'

"That made me realize something: Wouldn't you want to be a success in your hometown rather than a place you've never been to? That's why being in Houston is very important to me."

The Pilot Light

Restaurant Group

Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan are prepping for a series of private dinners when a well-dressed guy walks in from a propped-open outside entryway, through the kitchen and into another room. A few minutes later, a fashionable woman walks the reverse of the man's path and out a door labeled "Mortar."

Chefs Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan, who recently moved from New York City to form the Pilot Light Restaurant Group in Houston, are used to the employees of Mortar, a high-end men's clothing store on Westheimer, coming and going as they please. Since September, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan have been cooking in the back room of the boutique while trying to find a space for their own restaurant.

So far, they haven't had any luck. Instead, they spend six days a week in this setting that, though a bit left-field for a professional kitchen, allows the heavy-hitting chefs to try out adventurous culinary ideas that they hope to present on a larger scale very soon.

The space is also the scene for Pilot Light Dinners, which features up to eight people eating the duo's oft-times audacious creations — onion toast with bone marrow; a root vegetable sundae that includes beets, parsley, carrots and ruta­baga — in this adventurous setting. Tickets for the meals sometime disappear in less than 30 minutes.

"We wouldn't be able to do this if we were sitting on the couch watching SportsCenter reruns," says Siegel-Gardner, who stares through a pair of glasses to concentrate on rolling dough for kimchi bread (which will be adorned with poached eggs and caviar) with a right arm coated with tattoos.

Next to Siegel-Gardner is the significantly taller and chattier Gallivan, who scribbles down notes in a medium-sized Moleskine notebook after chopping veggies. "It's a great space to hash out ideas," says Gallivan. "A lot of the dishes may not make the menu, but it gives us a chance to try out new concepts."

Though they're thankful for the opportunity to get out of their homes to cook, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan are definitely itching for the next step, something they first started talking about five years ago in the kitchen of Gordon Ramsay.

Siegel-Gardner, a Houston native and Lamar High School graduate, grew up cooking with his mother and reading books by his icons Ramsay and Marcus Samuelsson. After graduating from the University of Denver with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, Seth followed his future wife Hannah to New York City, where he engaged in what he calls the "lost art of handing out résumés in person to try to meet my idols in the kitchen."

The strategy worked: He was brought aboard at Aquavit, where Seth's hero Samuelsson was the restaurant's executive chef.

Meanwhile, Gallivan, who spent his childhood in Fredericksburg, Virginia, began his foray into the restaurant biz about as unspectacularly as possible: He washed dishes at a tapas eatery. At the time, he didn't even know that he was interested in making food services a career. But later, a friend suggested culinary school, which Terrence made happen by graduating from the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.

After cooking in New York at Charlie Palmer's Aureole and Danny Meyer's The Modern, Gallivan joined the staff at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2007. One of the first people he met was Siegel-Gardner, and the two would talk about opening a restaurant together, because of their like-minded takes on modern styles and flavors.

Each would move on from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay — Gallivan stayed in New York City, Siegel-Gardner lived in Chicago and London — so the two wouldn't cook together again until the Just August project, a pop-up restaurant that posted up in the Just Dinner space on Dunlavy Street in August 2010. The partnership went so well that Gallivan and his wife Annalea made the move to Houston last May. (For months, Terrence and Annalea piled into Seth and Hannah's place in the Heights. The couples have since moved into their own homes.)

Now here they are, in the former storage room of a clothing store, so close to the dream.

"All of our focus is developing this concept," says Gallivan, who steps on a creaky hardwood slat as he transports dirty knives and plates to a sink that's located across from a chocolate brown couch and love seat (a.k.a. the "office" part of the kitchen).

Siegel-Gardner, who hasn't had a steady paycheck in a year, seconds Gallivan's opinion, and explains that working out of the space has been a great way to trial-and-error.

"We've really been able to get to know each other and play off of each other's ideas," says Siegel-Gardner. "It doesn't always go over well, but we're comfortable with each other enough to say, 'I don't agree with you, but I'll support you so that it gets done and gets done right.'"

As for a location, Siegel-Gardner explains that the Montrose would be ideal.

"It's great, it's always going to be great. It would be a home run instantly," says Siegel-Gardner, who adds that he and Gallivan aren't ruling out spots in the East End and the Heights.

Though the location is unsettled, Gallivan says the single-minded focus on opening a restaurant is anything but.

"We would be foolish if we didn't have some trepidation," says Gallivan, "but we're both really confident that Houston is the place to do this."


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