Two weeks ago, the Garden Oaks Facebook page caught fire. The new Willie Nelson mini mural was completed on an old, gray electric stoplight box at the northeast corner of Ella Boulevard and 34th Street, and the new public art was received with enormous enthusiasm.
“It’s a lot more entertaining to look at Willie when your stuck in traffic than an awful, ugly utility box,” stated one Facebook poster. “The Willie mural is up-lifting and fun. Our kids love it!” added another.
The painting, dubbed a mini mural by the city of Houston, is one of 175, all executed on large, unattractive, roadside electrical boxes. Some works are pretty, others abstract, and a few depict people relevant to the mural’s location.
Willie Nelson performed for several years in the early 1960s at the Esquire Ballroom on Hempstead Highway 2 miles away, (now called Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon). He composed “Night Life” after tending bar one night, and debuted his tune “Crazy” on the Esquire Ballroom’s stage. “Crazy” was later made famous by Patsy Cline.
There’s more. For 40 years, the famous boot maker, Rocky Carroll, who died only two months ago, worked in the boot shop across the street from the new mural. Carroll often made boots for Nelson; they were long-time friends. Willie is an easy going, live-and-let-live sort with a great sense of humor, and a Texas-sized helping of talent. Basically, he is the human equivalent of the near northside.
The murals are a public-private effort launched by the city in the charge of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the department of public works, the Houston Arts Alliance and management districts. About 40 percent have been privately funded. Nelson is one of them.
“We decided to tie our mural to Texas Music,” stated Chris Hotze, the underwriter and developer of the the new “33&1/3 @ Thirthyfourth” retail center at Ella and 34th (Hotze’s daughter took the photo of Willie used as the model for the work). When Nelson started his career, many records were designed to be played at 33&1/3rd RPMs – a reference to both the native son’s early albums and the physical address of the new development.
“The project managers brought us the idea of Willie, and we loved it,” Hotze continued. “Still, I had no idea the feedback would be so positive.”
Mural project mangers and married couple Elia and Noah Quiles founded UP Art Studio in the Heights’ Winter Street Studios, and help execute the artworks. These two artists have experience managing urban public art projects both nationally and globally.
“We are dedicated to civic pride though civic art,” Noah Quiles explained. “We also care about the talented artists in Houston. The Nelson mural is the first in a series dedicated to Texas talent and music. Thanks to the mini mural project, we’ve been able to pay Houstonians $175,000 including artists, photographers, web developers and more – money that they might not otherwise have made.”
The artist who painted Nelson is a resident at UP Art Studios. Gelson D. Lemus, (street name: w3r3on3 – or ”we are one”), chose to depict Nelson against a Texas flag. The image is memorable.
“This new retail development is meant to enhance the lives of the people in the area by setting a standard of quality that will impact the entire neighborhood,” Hotze continued. “It made no sense that this intersection, the gateway to beautiful neighborhoods, was dilapidated. We own several parcels of land in the 34th and Ella area, and we would love to see all of them transform to better reflect the community.”
It sure sounds like there is a Patrick Swayze mini mural in our future.