Art in the Heights is a hot topic in many conversations over the years about gentrification in Houston’s first planned community.
What is the art history of the Heights? That’s a great question as The Leader celebrates 65 years bringing news to the Heights and surrounding communities.
When I started searching for the impact art had on the neighborhoods here, I found artists and not much else prior to the 1990s.
I moved to the Heights in 1994, and my impression then was that it was where artists lived, so I needed to be with my people.
A common sentiment still tossed around: “More professional artists live and work in the Heights than in any other area of Texas.”
Anne Sloan, a popular local author and historian, told me she heard that same statement while doing research around 1990.
Gus Kopriva, longtime Heights resident and co-founder of Redbud Fine Arts Gallery, recalled putting together a photography event in the early ’90s at Lambert Hall, now home to Opera in the Heights.
The exhibit, Kopriva said, featured contemporary photography by Houston photographers alongside historic Heights photos from Parsley Studios.
Kopriva opened his gallery in 1999, which may have been the first traditional fine art gallery to open in the area.
My search got the attention of Pete Gershon, author of “Painting the Town Orange: The Stories Behind Houston’s Visionary Art Environments” and “Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston 1972-1985.”
Gershon orchestrated and interviewed 35 Houston artists this year, with a focus on artists who have been active in the Houston art scene since the 1950s. Beyond that common statement again, even Gershon’s extensive list of contacts didn’t lead to more than artists living and working in the Heights.
Gershon suggested I touch base with artist Richard Stout. I was nervous about this call. Stout is a well-known and celebrated artist. I’d mentioned him in an interview here once as an interviewee’s mentor of very high esteem and now I was about to cold call him.
Stout was cordial and, after some convincing, opened up about what he knew … he knew the Montrose area, where he’s lived and worked since buying his home in the late ’50s shortly after his arrival to Houston.
The Montrose area was the art hub of Houston, Stout told me. All the artists lived and/or had studios there. Geography and affordability put Montrose close to the galleries and downtown. Stout said that as prices increased in the early ’70s, artists started to flock to the Heights, where prices were considerably less.
Was this how the Heights got the reputation for having the highest concentration of professional artists living here? My bet is on yes.
The Heights was founded and planned as a mixed-use, working-class neighborhood, Houston’s first suburb where families could be raised, attend school and work close to home. Just like today’s neighborhoods that continue to expand mile upon mile, art was not at the top of the list the past 65 years.
Unless, of course, you happened to be an artist.
My conclusion? Artists are a migratory group, and the Heights has had a notably long run of well-known, influential artists living here — first as a neighborhood and more recently (the past 40 years) because of price and location.
Following are a few of the notable artists mentioned in my search that I want to share with you. These amazing, world-renowned artists are but a handful of the artists that lived and/or worked in the Heights for a time: Robert Omerod Preusser (1919-92), Dorothy Hood (1919-2000), Edward Kienholz (1927-94), Luis Jiménez (1940–2006), Dick Wray (1933-2011) and Lucas Johnson (1940-2002). All are easily searchable on the Internet.
Visit Pete Gershon’s website, HoustonArtHistory.com, and have a look at his Interview Project. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the lives of artists. I clipped the following from the website:
“The Houston Art History Interview Project collects and makes accessible oral histories from significant members of the city’s art community, with an emphasis on those who’ve rarely had the opportunity to share their stories.”
Finally, Sloan brought up another amazing fact about the under-documented history of music recording studios in the Heights. She had me at the formation of George Strait’s Ace in the Hole Band on 11th Street.
Wow, but that’s another story.
Cohen is an artist and founder of First Saturday Arts Market and the Market at Sawyer Yards. Find him at ArtValet.com.