Studio visits with Eric Schnell of Partner Organization Galveston Artist Residency, Nick Barbee, Ann Wood, and cocktail party with the local creative community hosted by Linda Darke.
Tropical Storm Cindy was scheduled to make landfall in Galveston and Houston in the early hours of the morning. I was scheduled to be in Galveston by 2 p.m. with the hopes that the storm would cause minimal flooding on the road. I woke up that morning expecting to hear the sounds of heavy rain and thunder, but instead things sounded calm and peaceful. I could hear a slight breeze blowing through the trees outside, and for a second I wondered if I had slept soundly through the storm, but as I looked out the window I realized the rain hadn't actually come, and Cindy was more melodrama than anything. It had been years since I had been present for the threat of a hurricane or tropical storm in Texas, and the drama of it all made a road trip during a Texas summer that much more romantic.
I threw my bags in the car and had one more visit before hitting the road to Galveston. Artist Bert Bertonashi had offered coffee and breakfast pastries as I was headed out of town and I was excited to talk a little about her work while we munched. Bert told me a little about her history as we talked, and shared with me her ongoing commitment to Project Row Houses, an organization that she is on the board of. Our conversation turned to her work which addresses the ongoing political climate in the United States, and uses a variety of media to explore the contradictions of politics. Much of Bert's work plays with the signs and images that we are accustomed to reading everyday in media outlets, and her visual language is both familiar yet complex.
I said my goodbyes to Bert and started making my way to Galveston. The humidity sat thick in the air, but we still did not get the rain so many feared. I had never been to Galveston and I was excited about what I was about to learn there. The Houston skyline drifted further and further away in my rear view mirror, and a mere 40 minutes later I was crossing the bridge into the island of Galveston, and only 10 minutes more I walked into the hug of Linda Darke.
Galveston was part of the Texas Biennial road trip on the invitation of Eric Schnell of the Galveston Artist Residency, and Dennis Nance, curator of the Galveston Arts Center. I had not yet met either of them, but I felt like I was following Dennis's professional reputation around the state. I had promised no less than 10 people that I would relay a hug to him, and I fully intended on keeping that promise. Not only did Dennis extend an invitation, but he organized a place to stay with Linda and her husband, and together they organized a cocktail meet and greet with artists on the island the following evening. I instantly felt the warmth of Galveston welcome me, and after my first home-made meal in over one week with Linda I made my way to the Galveston Artist Residency to meet the residents and talk with director Eric Schnell.
The Galveston Artist Residency is a gem of a program. It affords three artists a full living wage, a studio space, and a separate living space for an entire year, with a group exhibition at the end of that year. Eric met me, introduced me to everyone, walked me through the shows and had organized for all the artists to be there.
I met with Fidencio Martinez first, an artist from Oaxaca, Mexico, via Chicago, whose work challenges the definition of borders and even how borders are defined. Recently, Fidencio has been working with antique maps and cutting them in such a way that allows them to drape loosely onto the floor, and reminiscent of temporary plastic fencing used on construction sites. Fidencio has been thinking more and more literally about fencing and walls, as many of us have been but like so many affected by rhetoric of a border wall, his life will be effected by administration changes, which has manifested itself more literally in his work.
I moved next door to the studio of Leonardo Benzant, whose mixed media work reflects upon ritual, myth surrounding ritual, and the characters within the myths. Leonardo's finished works are large in scale, but he was generous enough to show me his daily sketchbooks in which he practices his hand, constructs his myths, and pulls together the cosmology of diasporic cultures in the America's as fodder for his syncretic artistic vocabulary.
Leonardo walked me next door to Pat Palermo's studio. Pat is a draftsman, and the first thing I saw when I walked into the studio was the outline of his next comic book, and I saw page after page hanging along the entire wall and wrapping partly onto the next one. The detail in each page was stunning, and the amount of information that Pat included in the story was dizzying. I couldn't believe the amount of work he had produced during his time in Galveston, not only was he producing a new comic, but he also committed to making a drawing a day while he was in residence. The drawings and comics were documents of his time in Galveston, and once again, each drawing was loaded with information, both visual and literal that it was almost dizzying.
I said goodbyes to Pat and wished him luck on his next adventure post-residency and made my way back to Eric, who hadn't planned on making his one of the stops on the studio visit tour. The walls of each studio at the residency are at least 20 feet high, and I walked into Eric's studio to turn the corner and completely stop in my tracks. He had been working on a large-scale, mixed-media wall piece that filled the tallest and longest wall of the studio space. The work was only about a quarter finished, but the detail within it could also warrant individual works just as strong. The entire wall was filled with visual vignettes that built on each other, worked with each other, and sent both the eye and the body moving from one section to another. I found myself moving into it, stepping back from it, and allowing it to physically move me through the space because of the intense amount of depth Eric imbued in the work.
I left the residency nearly speechless, and as Eric walked me out I realized I was on visual overload and needed to take a minute to process. I decided to leave the car and wander around a bit to find a quiet spot to take a moment and soak in the heat of the city.
I wandered around through the historic downtown area of Galveston, not far from the residency program, and the stories of Galveston started to make themselves manifest. As I wandered I started spotting small aluminum markers on some historic buildings indicating water levels from two hurricanes that changed the course of history in the city: The great storm of 1900, and Hurricane Ike in 2008. While planning for this visit I had been in near constant communication with Eric Schnell who had kept me informed of the situation as Cindy became more and more of a threat, then a total dud.
When I met Linda and her husband our conversation turned from Cindy to reflecting on Ike and the residual effects it has had on Galveston residents. Indeed, the island itself was built as one big hurricane barrier, a topic I would learn more about when chatting with artist Nick Barbee much later. For the moment I wandered around between studio visits, sat on the sidewalk and enjoyed the ocean breeze and waited for Jordan Gentry and Shea Little, programming director and executive director of Big Medium, respectively.
The road trip has been designed so I would travel to all the site consecutively in two phases, the first four weeks, and the second three weeks, for a total of seven weeks or 42 days, with two days off in Austin in the middle. As the reality started to set it we realized that I would need support at most places, but no one was available to spend the entire summer in a car traveling the state of Texas, so the solution became that people would jump in and out at different destinations, much like running a marathon. In Galveston, Jordan and Shea were jumping in. They collected me downtown and we headed off on foot to Nick Barbee's studio only a few blocks away.
We walked up to Nick's studio space impressed with the proximity of his studio to a church right next door but thought nothing more of it when we walked into Nick's world.
Nick walked us into a back room and started telling us about a model that he had been building in the hopes to turn it into a finished piece. It was a mashup of different galleries and museum spaces that had a major impact on his memory. A room from the Menil from a visit in 2009 shared a wall with the National Gallery of Art in 1997, and a swooping, curved room taken from the Hirshhorn in 2012 connected the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2007 with the Frick Collection in 2003. It was a perfect introduction to Nick's work which plays with layers of history and art history through which he then collapses those layers into each other, and the personal memory and official histories vacillate between each other, vying for validity and meaning. Through the work we started talking about history and meaning, specifically how the two are constructed and we followed Nick into another room of the studio where he was playing with just these issues with work referencing shapes and forms of minimalism, way finding, and sources of information.
We bounced around the studio talking references, histories, stories and analyzing the work from every angle for an hour. As we were gearing up to leave Nick offered to show us the church next door which revealed his obsession with history and story-telling even further. Come to find out, Nick also worked at the Galveston Historical Foundation and had a particular knowledge of Galveston itself. Connected to his studio was St. Joseph's Church which was built in 1859, making it the oldest German Catholic church in the state of Texas and the oldest wooden church building on the island. The structure is a simple white Gothic Revival building that was built to serve the growing German immigrant population that arrived in the state when Texas was a major point of entry and Galveston a thriving port city. Nick was giving us an entry into Galveston that I didn't expect, and we agreed to talk again the following day for a city tour.
We said our goodbyes and made our way to the Sea Wall and Pleasure Pier because learning about a place means sometimes playing outside of art.
I woke up the following morning to a text message from Alison Starr in Dallas. It was an encouraging note to wish me luck, to remind me to build in rest, and to generally just remind me that she is on my side. It was a small gesture from her but went so far for me and also served as another reminder that people are paying attention, they care about the Biennial, and they are genuinely concerned for my well being as I am followed through the state. It was a note of encouragement that gave me a much needed boost.
I met Jordan and Shea near downtown Galveston at the studio of Anne Wood.