In the Project Row Houses main office, Jessie Lott plays dominoes with three women. He's a funny gentleman with a thick white beard who sings random songs at random times. He likes to quip, too.
"As well? As well."
"My medium is medium."
Lott has a medium because Lott is an artist. He is also an activist and co-founder of the aforementioned Project Row Houses, a program originally started to combat the lack of African-American artists showing in local galleries.
"Some people thought that so-called minorities were not being recognized and represented in the gallery structure," he says.
"If you have a visual work of art that's not seen, it's just like that tree in the forest [that nobody heard]," Lott adds, his kind eyes sparkling with wisdom.
Rather than simmer with silent desperation, Lott and others in his Third Ward community were called to action, thanks to a neighborhood elder, "Ms. Courtney."
"If you really wanna do something, you clean this place up, and get these junkies outta here..." Lott remembers her saying.
In 1993, Lott, along with fellow artists and Third Ward residents James Bettison, Bert Long, Jr., Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, George Smith and Rick Lowe, purchased 22 abandoned shotgun houses, dubbed "rowhouses," on a Holman St. block, creating Project Row Houses, or PRH for short. The idea was to use the houses for multiple purposes: 10 of the houses would be designated for the Public Art program, for various art projects, exhibits and artist residencies; five for the Young Mothers Residential program, a two-year residency for aspiring mothers between 18 and 26 years old; and seven for the Arts Education Program, giving Third Ward artists a forum to display their work, as well as uplifting the community-at-large. (In 2003, PRH added Row House CDC to its roster, providing low-income housing to eligible applicants.)
Sprouting from the Public Art facet of PRH is Summer Studios, a program that selects seven undergraduate art students from schools in the Houston area. Each Summer Studios student is assigned a row house on Holman St., which they are then tasked with turning into a residential work of art. These row houses become "art houses," culminating in an annual exhibition, named "Summer Studios," after the program. "Summer Studios 2013" opened on Saturday with a hotter than hot mid-August reception that showcased the seven houses -- six filled with the art of individual artists and one completed by a group, Rice University's Houston Action Research Team (HART).
Though these studios are literally inches apart from one another, and are so identical that looking out of the window of one means looking into the eyes of the artist working next door, each artist's final product couldn't be more different -- in content and execution.
Maggie Hooyman's "Sharing, Understanding and Expanding" is perhaps the least artistically strenuous of the seven houses, but the most inclusive. Instead of creating an original work, the University of Houston senior turned the house at 2517 Holman St. into a "Community Shared Humble Abode." Markers, paintbrushes and bottles of paint are set up throughout the house. A sweet little note invites viewers to grab a bottle, a brush or a marker and decorate at will. The final product is a rainbow of colors and shapes splayed freely throughout, with positive phrases like Peace, Hope, Faith written on walls.
Another dynamic art house is Byron Harris' "Hammocks and Music Boxes," a work that disproves economist John Maynard Keyes' prediction that in the future, Americans would enjoy the luxury of a "15-hour working week." In fact, Harris' exhibit asserts, the work week currently stands at 35 hours, and "leisure has decreased." Visualizing this involves the use of various pieces of colored string hung throughout the house. Guests are invited to pluck these strings, causing them to sway. The most telling strings are the ones laced throughout a wooden bed frame. Bed frames are usually reinforced with strong wire, which mattresses, and ultimately, people, rest on. By replacing wire with string, Harris proves the argument that the bed, and by extension, leisure, has become obsolete.
Desira Garcia's colorful isosceles triangles, printed on the floors and walls of her house, make up "Identities through Pattern." Smaller triangles are etched into each bigger triangle. Like a family tree, her chosen theme, each triangle is given a different color, representing the millions of different families. The triangles inside represent the descendants.
Jessie Anderson's "House" at 2509 Holman, is a literal grassroots work. The artist collected found objects, located "within a 15-block radius of this spot," and placed each on the walls of her art house. By doing this, Anderson created a tribute to the natural community of Third Ward. This is equally celebratory and depressing: that these castaway pieces are so easily found in the community reveals an apathetic habit of haphazardly throwing items into lots, yards and streets. "House," then, is a metaphor for Third Ward. Pollution crowds the streets; there is still work to be done.
Emily Howard's "Home Grown" is a treatise on health that initially doesn't seem to fit into the community-at-large, but, taking into account the war on drugs that the community still wages, and the fact that drugs cause health to decline, her art house becomes very relevant and very necessary. Ceramic plants morph into the shape of various organs, which sit in pots around the house. Attached to each pot is an IV plasma bag. A hospital curtain hangs to the left; these organs are in critical condition and need immediate medical attention. However, instead of plasma, the IVs pump water into each organ. Plants need water leads for growth and repair. Human organs require much more. Because of this, Howard concedes, humans should consider becoming blood and organ donors, leading to the second part of "Home Grown": The floor of the house is covered in dirt. By entering and walking through, each viewer becomes a living organ, capable of giving life-saving help to others.
The viewer is not prepared to walk through Aldo Rodan's "The Struggle Continues: a Depiction of Mexican Dreams and Hopes," at 2511 Holman, no matter how much the title prompts feelings of dread. Immediately, the viewer's eye is drawn to four "dead" bodies in the house: three on the floor, and the fourth, hanging by toes from the ceiling. To the right of this suspended body is a memorial site filled with dirt and surrounded by candles, representing the Catholic religion. The scene, Rodan says, reveals the horror of Mexican drug cartels (hanging man) and the innocents caught in the crossfire (the three dead bodies.) Rodan created these dead bodies by covering mannequins in a substance he calls "fabric stiffener" and cloaking each with a gray sheet.
"I want you to feel like a Mexican citizen would," says Rodan.
In a new partnership between PRH and Rice University's Office of Fellowships and Undergraduate Research, four students ---Lauren Eggert, Asiya K. Kazi, Tanvi Nagpal and Kaitlyn Sisk -- have drawn up plans for the future of the El Dorado Ballroom, once a site of culture. Titled "El Dorado Ballroom Project," the art house is divided into sections: Plans, Elevation, Community and History. Blueprints and pictorial histories hang underneath each section. One side of the house is reserved for viewer interaction, making it partially like Hooyman's: a wall, covered in black paint, invites viewers to come up and write in chalk their response to the following question: "If the El Dorado Building were mine, I would..."
Lott looks over his dominoes, thinking.
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"Creative expression in the neighborhood is like the tide that lifts all boats," he says. "[It] uplifts the community." He feels that since PRH's inception, the climate for Black artists, as well as the Third Ward neighborhood has improved.
"But," he admonishes, "there's still work to be done."
Somewhere outside, a gun goes off.
Project Row Houses "Summer Studios 2013" will be on view until September 8. Visit projectrowhouses.org for more information.