Since hopping astride a bicycle a couple of years ago, my perception of Houston's physical landscape has altered utterly. No longer are my eyes subject to rivers of tail-lights and ceaseless processions of giant freeway billboards. Instead, I'm watching for cracked pavement and feasting my eyes on street art. People like street stencil artist Coolidge, or Lidge for short, have become my new billboards.
Coolidge's specialty is whimsical spray-paintings of mostly cuddly animals: Boston terriers, My Little Pony characters, T. Rexes, sea turtles, robots, parachuting pink piggies, sanctified bunny rabbits with halos around their heads, Ralphie from A Christmas Story in his bunny suit. You tend to find these in blighted areas of the Inner Loop - on concrete pillars and the walls of crumbling warehouses - and they invariably bring cheer to otherwise dismal cityscapes and a smile to your heart.
"btw Mr. Cool_Lidge....a friend found the pony just where you said she would be...i now am the proud owner of 3 pictures....and she is cutier than ever /em smile," writes one.
"I really like where your heading with all of this sir. Keep the world smiling," chimes in another.
And a third had this to say: "I think I love the penguins best. They are the only thing that made me laugh today. Thanks."
Okay, so that was a laugh and not a smile, but you get the picture. Or pictures. Art Attack chatted with Coolidge earlier this week, and Houston's answer to Banksy was as intriguing a guy on the phone as his art is on walls all over town.
We asked him how he chose his subject matter. "I just think about what I would want to see," he says. "One way to make sure I won't do something is when people suggest it. A lot of people are like 'Aw, you need to do a cat!' or 'You should do a rhino!' or something, and I'm like, 'Well, if I was gonna do that, I'm not now.'"
He says he likes to paint surfaces that have grass growing in front of them, as he believes the greenery gives the critter a little more verisimilitude. Paradoxically, while he loves animals, he says he is not a big fan of nature.
"My girlfriend's always wanting to move to Vancouver - she's Canadian. She's all into the woods and stuff, hiking...And that stuff has never appealed to me," he says. "I don't care about nature very much. For me, when I look at the skyline of Houston, I'm like 'Man, that is beautiful.' I would rather look at that than mountains. So I'm sort of an urban kinda guy and I really like to use that part of Houston. It gets to be kind of...sprawling. Is it beautiful? Nah, probably not. But to me I really like it."
Of all the animals in the world, he says he loves pumas best but has never painted one. "I work on a million things and some of them just don't work in stencils," he says. "Anything black and white is always good - I don't know if you saw the penguins. Those worked out pretty good." (Coolidge says they can be seen near Shepherd and the Southwest Freeway and the Taylor Street Katy Freeway overpass.)
The furrier the creature, the harder it is to capture in stencils, he says. "I could do them in four or five colors but that takes too long," he says. One multicolored example is his Pinky Pie from My Little Pony. "That one took a while," he says.
If you think you've been seen less of his work the past few months, you're right. He's been on something of a winter hiatus.
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"The cold isn't good," he says. "The paint won't dry." He says his much of his menagerie has fallen victim to the City of Houston's graffiti abatement squad. "It's almost like I should stop doing them on city property," he says with a chuckle. "I should probably stick to private property. Some people have contacted me to thank me after I've done their buildings up. The city won't mess with that stuff, but if it's on their property they've been taken them down pretty quick."
Coolidge says Houston might see an influx of flamingoes soon, and a few more bunnies for Easter. Whatever they are, expect to see them in prominent spots.
"Some people do stuff back in alleys and crap," he says. "Who's ever going to see that? I read an interview with some artist and he was saying that it didn't matter where you put stuff, because you could post pictures on the Internet. To me, that defeats the purpose. I mean, I get it, you want to take some time and all that, but I don't know, it's not for me."
And thank goodness for that. This city would be robbed of a great many all-too-rare chances to unexpectedly smile.