Six historical paintings at Houston's federal courthouse have raised some hackles with two federal judges, who believe the paintings dredge up offensive imagery of slavery.
The paintings, depicting the Houston Ship Channel in the late 1870s, were completed between 1938 and 1941, and were displayed in the courthouse entryway from the 1970s until they were removed for restoration in 2006. In 2010, they were once again displayed, this time in the jury assembly room.
But U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore took umbrage at the art, especially a 1941 painting by Alexandre Hogue called "The Diana Docking," showing laborers and spectators along Buffalo Bayou. In an e-mail to her fellow judges, she pointed out the presence of a white fellow with a gun, a black fellow with a bundle of logs and no shirt, and a Native American fellow who is made out of wood.
Gilmore wrote that she received comments from employees who felt "this picture as well as others in the series are offensive to persons who would rather not be reminded about that period in history or their part as either overseers or 'workers.'"
I brought a boy scout troop here over the holidays to earn their citizenship badge and while I was very proud to show them the historical time line with information about our court, it was rather awkward to have to walk them past the old, antiquated murals with pictures of shirtless black men hauling wood and bales of cotton. It said nothing about our court except that maybe we are too insensitive or oblivious to let some of these images die. We finally managed to get these dreadful images out of the lobby. Now can we please retire them for good.
(Unfortunately, she didn't mention the most perplexing part in our eyes; that old woman with the picnic basket, in the lower left-hand corner. What's her deal? She is clearly not a child, yet she appears to be roughly three feet tall. Was 19th-century Houston teeming with Keebler elves?)
Her fellow judge, Keith Ellison, replied in an e-mail that "I share all of Vanessa's concerns. I have received many complaints about the murals which are, in addition to what Vanessa said, bad art."
But Ellison was also curious about "how such tasteless images came to be where they are. Were they the subject of a memorandum that I missed? Did the court vote on it? Did the Port of Houston put them there?"
Actually, as explained by the aforementioned Chron story, the paintings are owned by the General Services Administration, which seemed quite proud of their work in restoring the paintings at the time.
Both Hogue (1898-1994), and artist Jerry Bywaters (1906-1989), who painted some of the other works on display, are renowned artists whose collections have been displayed in galleries throughout the country. Hogue's work was recently featured in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The curator, Houston-based Susie Kalil, wrote a book about Hogue, and explained in a 2011 museum press release that "It is impossible to think of the art of the Southwest during the past century without including Alexandre Hogue in the picture."
A hardcore conservationist, Hogue was raised in north Texas, and gained notoriety for painting Dust Bowl and nature scenes while living in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. He taught summer classes at the Texas State College for Women and was the head of Hockaday Junior College's art department, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
Judge Lynn N. Hughes responded to his colleagues with brief bios of the artists, as well as Chron articles about the restoration. In his cover letter, he wrote that the label for "The Diana Docking" indicates that the scene is meant to depict the Ship Channel in 1876, "11 years after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution."
Hughes also wrote that the white guy with the gun is wearing "the proverbial tin star of a lawman, suggesting his occupation."
Hair Balls sought comment from Gilmore, Ellison and Hughes. While we're waiting to hear from the latter two, the woman who answered the phone in Gilmore's office chuckled when we said we had a question about the paintings, and asked us who told us about it. We facetiously replied -- or started to, anyway -- that a little bird told us. (That means "confidential source"; i.e., someone who thinks they might get disciplined or fired for sharing with the public that -- gasp! -- some judges notice, and talk about, the artwork hanging in their building.)
The woman promptly hung up on us. We called back, got a recording and left another message seeking Gilmore's comment.
A source (who may or may not be of avian extraction) told us that Gilmore subsequently issued an e-mail chastising her colleagues, apparently suggesting they, or someone in their charge, leaked this Watergate-proportioned story. She advised that she intended to voice her concerns in The Houston Defender. (Our source said her e-mail referred to the Press as a "wag" paper. We wondered if she may have actually used "rag," because we're much more used to be called a "rag" than a "wag." The jury's still out on that one -- HEY-OH!).
Personally, we don't see anything offensive in these paintings. But then again, we also don't see why it would be a huge deal to move, or take down, the paintings if they really offended Gilmore and others so much. What we don't understand is why any judge would feel the need to hide his or feelings about a freaking painting. Would anyone really lose respect for a judge who said that a painting was tacky/offensive/idiotic? As a matter of fact, we kind of dig Ellison criticizing the work of a dude whose paintings are in the Smithsonian and the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, because many snooty types (and outright poseurs) will jump on any such bandwagon.
In fact, we think it's a sign of character to stand up and voice your opinion about a perceived injustice, even though you may be in the minority, and there may be bigger forces against you. For example, some people might wonder what the hell a sitting federal judge was doing giving a private tour to a membership organization that doesn't let homosexuals and atheists into leadership positions. Some people might recoil at the notion of a bunch of adults telling children it's okay to discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation, decrying it as patently un-American and downright hateful.
We wonder what would happen if Gilmore would've received an e-mail like that. We're guessing she'd probably just hit "delete."
UPDATE: Judge Ellison got back to us Thursday morning and reiterated the comments in his e-mail, including the fact that he's received complaints from both courthouse employees and the public. He told us: "There's a good bit of art that is in the Smithsonian and even more important museums that I think would be inappropriate for a jury assembly room. Obviously, we have a history that is replete with many very unfortunate images, and whether that's the right image to put up in a jury assembly room -- where people are actually forced to come -- unlike a museum, where they may choose to come, I think we need to be especially sensitive about the message we send with artwork. And for that reason, I think it was an unfortunate choice."
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.