Senator John Heinz


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The Heinz Awards


January 23, 2005

The Houston Chronicle

Rick Lowe's world: A work in progress
Dynamic artist's goal is to change society with his creativity

By Patricia C. Johnson

One hand is that of a social activist, the other a humanist philosopher's. Both belong to artist Rick Lowe. . His distinctive dreadlocks are shorn, but everything else about him has grown: the warm smile, eloquence and intelligent approach to problem-solving, the dedication to making art part of everyone's life. . "It's about creating a heightened sense of caring about the place where you are," Lowe says. "You can dance any way you want to, but when you dance as art, it's not random; you dance with a certain structure. It's the same thing in a physical environment: You give it order; you arrange it in a way that is aesthetic."

His art takes several forms. One is sculpture, as in the "Victims" series of the 1980s. The full-scale human figures addressed conflicts within the black community and with powers such as the police. Exhibited during rallies and in exhibits at the Contemporary Arts Museum and SHAPE Community Center, the flatrelief "Victims" consisted of small tableaux about real events, including the 1989 trial of a Houston policeman accused (and later convicted) of killing Ida Lee Delaney, a black woman.

Soon Lowe adopted Joseph Beuys' concept of "social sculpture" - a definition of art as an interdisciplinary process in which thought and discussion are core "materials." He melded the German artist's cerebral approach with the humanism of artist and teacher John Biggers, whose art celebrated the rich traditions of his African-American ancestry and culture.

"Those two, coming together, gave me my place," Lowe says.

"Rick Lowe - Toward Social Sculpture", which opened Thursday at the Glassell School of Art, spotlights recent photographs by the artist and documents several of his civic projects. It's his first exhibition in almost a decade.

"What motivates me is a sense of justice," he says. For the exhibit, "I wanted to connect back somehow to the "Victims". I made some small images that deal with the quote by Martin Luther King, 'Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.' "

The new works

Lowe's house on Truxillo, in Houston's Third Ward, is a tight brick cottage with a front door painted purple and a sunny yellow kitchen. He bought and renovated it seven years ago, claiming the dining room as his studio. Small works, ink, paint and brushes crowd the table and line the walls. Here, too, are photographs he shot in the neighborhood and altered for the current show.

Lowe overlaid each image with one of three shapes, symbolizing what he defines as the key elements of his social sculpture.

A solid oval, he says, stands for pondering: "I'm trying to show how you have to be able to identify and ponder an issue or subject or area, until you figure out some of the elements and connect to something."

An oval ring represents linkage: "How do you link things that are there and make sense?"

The third is a square with an oval opening, manifestation of the hope that "comes out of linkage."

The eighth of 12 children in a family of sharecroppers, Lowe was born in impoverished Russell County, Ala., in 1961. He attended Columbus College in Georgia and was artist-in-residence at the Springer Art Center in Biloxi, Miss., before moving to Houston at age 23. In 1990 he enrolled at Texas Southern University, where he came under Biggers' spell.

"No one had ever talked to me about community, about the African-American experience, in such a positive light," Lowe says. "I started thinking about that, looking at this neighborhood, the Third Ward, and thinking of the possibilities."

Hanging with fellow artists Bert Long, Jesse Lott, Bert Samples, George Smith, James Bettison and Floyd Newsum - the Magnificent Seven, they dubbed themselves - he began brainstorming.

"We didn't know what we wanted to do insofar as working together," Lowe says. "We started thinking, 'What is it that we can do that could significantly impact the African-American community?'

"There was a kind of eureka moment when I drove down Holman Street one day and saw those old houses. There was a spark that really connected everything - Biggers' notion of the African-American family and Beuys' language of social sculpture. It just felt right, it made sense, and it was very clear."

Those "old houses" were a cluster of tiny, dilapidated shotgun homes that eventually became Project Row Houses, founded by Lowe in 1992. The idea was to rescue the historically significant structures. Introduced to the United States by freed Haitians in the 19th century, shotgun houses became symbols of freedom for African-Americans, who built them in clusters that shaped Freedmen's Town. The goal was to transform them into a vital community resource for their primarily African-American neighborhood.

A private grant allowed the nonprofit Project Row Houses to acquire the properties in the middle of 1993; with additional private, corporate and foundation money, eight little houses were restored the following year. That October, the project opened its doors to art installations by African- American artists, among them Lott, Tierney Malone and Newsum, along with Colette Veasey, Steven Bernard Jones, Annette Lawrence, Vicki Meek and David McGee.

An eclectic experience

More than 10 years later, Lowe makes clear that he is the founder, not the director, of Project Row Houses.

"What I like to think of my role as being is kind of artist-in-residence, where I experience the place," he says. "I don't work there; I don't live there. I ponder it. I think, what are the next possibilities? What can happen?

"I go to the staff (executive director Michael Peranteau and Deborah Grotfeldt, director of the project's community development corporation), to the board and others, and talk about these things that are possible, see if there are any links or connections to make it happen."

Lowe's proven leadership is tapped by many organizations, including the Andy Warhol Foundation, where he is a board member. His work with Project Row Houses has been recognized with several awards. In 2002, the Heinz Family Foundation gave him its $ 250,000 prize, which he shared with Dudley Cocke, director of the Roadside Theater in Whitesburg, Ky. Two years earlier, the American Architectural Foundation gave him its prestigious Keystone Award, "for exemplary leadership that advances the Foundation vision of a society in which everyone uses architecture to enrich their lives and transform their communities."

In April, the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Sculpture and Painting, which recognizes leaders in the arts, will present him with the Governor's Award for Outstanding Service to Artists. Past recipients include Houston arts patron Dominique de Menil and artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

Glassell curator Valerie Loupe Olsen says Lowe's experience at Project Row Houses has "enabled him to develop skills that benefit other projects." Some have succeeded; others have not.

"Just as there is something to learn from things that work out right, you learn from things that might not work out," Lowe says. "You just keep going."

The exhibit documents two successes: "Latitude 32- Navigating Home", for the 2002 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and an ongoing project in Delray Beach, Fla.

Lowe worked with artists Mary Jane Jacobs and Suzanne Lacy in Charleston on a project about Ansonborough Homes, a public housing project razed a decade earlier. It incorporated stories by two former residents and a model of the homes created with students at Clemson Architecture School. Lowe reconstructed "the little porches we built for Spoleto" in his current show.

Photographs document the Delray project, where Lowe worked with four local artists. Two were from the upscale east side of a major thoroughfare, where museums and other cultural institutions are situated; the others were from the lowincome west side, where culture and community revolve around churches. The exchange, or "loop," as the project calls it, continues today.

One plan that did not succeed was Lowe's proposal, through the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, to integrate the city's famous folk-art monument - a popular tourist destination known as the Watts Towers - with its essentially derelict neighborhood. Others had tried and failed as well. Says Lowe, "Each (plan) would have cost between $ 250,000 and $ 500,000, and nothing actually hit the ground." Basically, he says, laughing, the end result has been "paper, the documents - worth about $ 1.8 million!"

What truly is valuable

That old adage about art following money has it wrong. In today's world, money follows art. Think SoHo or Chelsea in New York.

More to the point, think Houston's Third Ward. The primarily African-American neighborhood languished in poverty and disrepair for decades. Project Row Houses has changed that, and gentrification has begun. As real-estate developers move in, the project's campus has expanded, as have programs to preserve the culture and quality of the area.

"What we're trying to say is, 'Look, we know you have designs for this land, and you're going to do what you're going to do,' " Lowe says. " 'But look, there's something of value already here, so why not do what you do as it relates to this already-existing value?'

"The idea is to elevate the importance of the history and contribution of the low-income neighborhoods," he says, "and allow people to see there are some things there that makes the neighborhood valuable."
Rick Lowe, and his new exhibit, profiled in The Houston Chronicle