Lost Art

Dallas' most compelling art museum is hidden away in an old East Dallas firehouse

Artists Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin aren't the most obvious pair: While he speaks with the rapid cadences of his Boston boyhood, hers are the measured rhythms of a native Dallasite. He projects an active, external hustle--a sense of always leaning toward you--while she suggests hidden currents, processes that continue unseen until they surface in her sculpture. His office contains an academic's clutter--piles of papers, pictures, and artifacts; her workshop is raw, almost blue-collar, full of hammers and tin snips, and is dominated by a big steel hoist draped with chains.

Encountered separately, Govenar and Doolin seem very different, but together they have made a singular contribution to Dallas' cultural life through their two nonprofit organizations: Doolin's Contemporary Culture and Govenar's Documentary Arts. Joined beneath the roof of an old firehouse--now called the 5501 Columbia Arts Center--they have staged groundbreaking exhibits, alternately haunting and surprising, studying and presenting cultural signposts as diverse as tattoos and the Rio Grande river.

Along the way, the Arts Center has come to stand for many things: art as a continuing process, equal parts preservation of the past, presentation of the now, and preparation for the future; art as local, its definition reclaimed from the ruling classes and returned to the people; and, ultimately, art as expression, unfettered by boundaries.

But whereas almost everyone in Dallas is familiar with the Barney-colored McKinney Avenue Contemporary (the MAC), relatively few know about 5501 Columbia. Entire installations come and go without a word of recognition from the media--while even light bulbs changings at the MAC seem to rate ink. The Center doesn't employ a publicist, so some of its low profile is understandable. Even so, it's puzzling that the MAC--a laudable effort that has never really shed the perception that it presents monied Dallas' idea of what's hip--enjoys such a buzz while 5501 Columbia is still to many what it was to Govenar and Doolin when they first noticed it: that neat, mysterious building over on the wild side of East Dallas.

They found the firehouse in 1990--a year after they'd married--following a search that led them to the usual industrial spaces and Deep Ellum storefronts, which they'd all found wanting: too big, too dark, too trashed. They wanted a place where they could realize their dream: a common workspace to share, a place that would be big enough for Govenar's explorations of art and culture, Doolin's sculpture, and an exhibition space that would enable them to share their enthusiasms with the public. The site that kept sticking in their minds was one they often passed on their way into Deep Ellum, a weather-beaten but still stately brick building at the corner of Columbia and Augusta, where the tree-lined gentility of Lakewood turned into the bars, taquerias, and convenience stores of inner-city East Dallas.

Although its sagging roof indicated that the two-story structure might soon be joining the dilapidated houses and cheap apartments clustered around it, the building still had presence; the two massive roll-up doors that faced Columbia bespoke its past life as a fire station. A half-fallen sign proclaimed the name of a mission that held services on the ground floor, while a Mexican Mennonite congregation worshiped upstairs.

"We kept seeing it as we drove by," Govenar says, "and we always thought it was such a great space. We wondered what it would take to buy it."

The fact that the structure at 5501 Columbia--Firehouse No. 16 from its construction in 1918 until the '50s, when the Dallas Fire Department abandoned it--was already a part of the life of the local community made it even more attractive to the pair. When the "for sale" sign went up, Doolin was the first person to make an offer.

While the firehouse is an easy symbol for the intertwined careers of Doolin and Govenar, the elements of their collaboration had been in place long before they met.

Doolin, 46, pursued a degree in art at Southern Methodist University; by the time she graduated with her M.F.A. in 1987, she was an award-winning sculptor with a love of the immiscible, marrying feminine themes to the inherently masculine medium of metalwork. In the late '80s, her focus shifted somewhat to larger installations, a maximalism not only of size but of layers of meaning and implication.

Govenar, 43, followed an interest in folklore to Ohio State University in 1970, where he met a hunchbacked dwarf and tattoo artist, Leonard "Stoney" St. Clair. St. Clair's joie de vivre and tales of more than 50 years in carnivals and circuses inspired Govenar to make St. Clair the subject of a class paper, then a book, and finally a film with noted documentary filmmaker Les Blank. "It was hard to get Stoney to agree to the movie," Govenar recalls. "His profession had been so sensationalized by the media that he was reluctant, and it took many weekends of hanging around with him to earn his trust."

After working with St. Clair, Govenar had found his calling. He moved to Texas and graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1980 with a doctoral degree in arts and humanities, and helped put together the Dallas Folk Festivals of 1981 and 1983. In 1984, the Dallas Museum of Art commissioned him to make Living Texas Blues, three short films on the musical contributions of Texas bluesmen that he followed with a brief book and an audio tape.

He founded Documentary Arts in 1985 as little more than a post-office box and continued to develop projects designed to broaden public appreciation of different cultures' art.

Govenar and Doolin met in 1988; the inspiration for the Arts Center was a result of that most dreaded of dating rituals, Meeting the Parents--in this case Govenar's, who lived in Florida. While there, he and Doolin visited the Lannan Museum in Lake Worth. "It's a contemporary art museum inside an art deco theater," Doolin remembers. "When we went through it, I just had this thunderbolt of inspiration--I could do this."

The two returned to Texas, married, and began searching for a place where they could merge their visions; in 1991, Doolin started Contemporary Culture in order to advance "culturally diverse visual, performance, media, and book art.

"Our [Documentary Arts and Contemporary Culture] missions are very close," she says. "If anything, I'm more contemporary, while Alan is more historical, but that's pretty broad."

The space, completely renovated, opened in May 1992 with two inaugural exhibitions: Forever Yes: The Art of the Tattoo, a series of tattoo images by modern artists that harkened back to Govenar's undergrad days in Stoney's tattoo parlor; and Caren Heft's Artist's Books. Since then, the Arts Center has hosted live performances; exhibits of paintings, sculpture, and photography; and less-easily categorized efforts, almost always incorporating or accompanied by some exploration of book art--a style Doolin describes as "a new art, part literary content and part physical form"--and in which the two are both deeply interested.

Typical of that interest were the exhibits installed at the beginning of this year: Hungarian artist Beata Szechy's Borderless Garden and a retrospective display of the work of John Held Jr., a Dallas native who moved to San Francisco last year.

Like most of the installations and larger exhibits, Szechy's work was located in the spacious ground-level gallery--once the bay that housed the fire engines, then the urban mission. Several circular holes in the high ceiling--one still sporting its vertical brass pole--remind the visitor of the building's original function. An open arrangement of candles, glass, and books with pages folded into elaborate mass origami--Szechy's Borderless Garden--occupied the whole of the downstairs galley and invited quiet, Zenlike contemplation.

Held's exhibit was in the upstairs gallery, whose closer confines and museum cases are more appropriate for displaying the smaller-scale exhibits of book art. In Held's display are many artifacts from his 14-year stay in Dallas. "When I began planning to leave town," Held says, "I realized I wanted to do a Dallas retrospective of my work, and they [Doolin and Govenar] have one of the few noncommercial, nonprofit art spaces in town. They have a real flair for putting exhibits together."

Held's exhibition--which reminded one of the work of postal miniaturist Donald Evans, blown wide open by Held's avant-garde/Fluxus/SubGenius sensibilities--was decidedly offbeat. Elaborately decorated envelopes, a wall-mounted wetsuit covered with gold autographs, and fictitious postage stamps all vied for attention.

"Most galleries are just interested in what's the hottest thing, what'll sell," Held says. "But Alan in particular has this commitment to the historical aspect. He's especially good at documenting the history of fringe cultures. He doesn't look for the marketable, he looks for the marginal--for things that might have been overlooked or scorned. Then he puts them in their proper context before the public."

In addition to Szechy and Held's work, other notable exhibits have included Willie Birch's Spirit House, a beautifully multilayered evocation of African-American tradition and experience, and Beverly Semme's Yellow Pool, a strikingly surreal dissertation on femininity--a massive dress whose exaggerated sleeves disappear into a floor-covering swirl of gauzelike yellow fabric. Both installations have gone on to visit respected galleries here and abroad.

"You can't allow someone else to define 'what is' for you," Birch says about the Arts Center. "They're introducing a lot of things that haven't yet been socially accepted as art. I think they understand that they're sustaining some of these art forms until they can be recognized.

"They're on the edge of stuff that hasn't been validated yet--and that's an important role," he adds. "You don't get recognition doing that immediately, but eventually everybody will know who you are. They'll have to come to the table with you, because you're doing something that ties all of it--subculture and mainstream--together."

Doolin's devotion to contemporary art--art in the now, created and seen--is matched by Govenar's sense of history. Perhaps the most impressive work being done by his Documentary Arts is the creation and maintenance of the Texas African-American Photography Archive.

Govenar's awareness of such work was born while working on the Living Texas Blues project in the mid-'80s, as he assembled pictures of minstrels in blackface, blues legends, and long-gone neighborhoods, many captured through the lenses of black photographers.

Around the time of the state sesquicentennial, Texas Monthly Press published a two-volume history of Texas photography. Govenar, who had spent the previous 18 months poring over the work of black photographers from Texas, was shocked to see that there wasn't a single one mentioned in the book. "When I asked the people who compiled it why this was, they explained that they were limited to pictures that were in existing collections. This meant that no museums--nobody--was collecting this material."

Govenar went to work, hitting flea markets and garage sales and tracking down photographers. He and Houston photographer Benny Joseph went through 10,000 negatives in order to capture the flavor of black city life in Houston in the '50s and '60s, when people like Don Robey and Bobby Blue Bland made the city a hotbed of R&B creativity. The result was a book called The Early Years of Rhythm & Blues: Focus on Houston, published in 1990.

As the archive grew, so did its importance. Black communities, denied the attention that newspapers and the like afforded whites, relied on photography to document their way of life, and more of these records were being lost each day.

The pictures in the collection are startling for the vividness with which they present their time, not only in their subjects--you could hardly get a prouder, more potent picture of self-determination than a black-clad Lightnin' Hopkins, disdainful in his shades, his cigar and hat cocked at identical angles--but also in the implications that swirl around them. A tintype of a stern paterfamilias: Was he born a free man or a slave? Did he seethe beneath that regal bearing, or did he put his trust in Jesus? A beaming class of kindergarten graduates: How many would go on to find joy in family, refuge in a bottle, or death in a faraway rice paddy?

As the photos piled up, so did the need to preserve them properly. Govenar looked for another nonprofit that would agree to keep the archive. "But none of them were really willing to foster it with the necessary commitment," he says. "I didn't want it to become another unprocessed collection." So Govenar and Doolin decided they'd maintain it themselves, working in partnership with Dallas' African-American Museum on a grant from the Meadows Foundation. Last summer, they built a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility across Augusta Avenue that Doolin bought with money from an inheritance, and they were recently awarded the funding to hire a full-time archivist.

Even though his passions make it almost unavoidable, Govenar is sometimes bothered by the historian's label; he finds that it overshadows his own artistic efforts in photography--often reflecting his continuing fascination with tattoos--and book arts, some of which contain his own poetry. "It's also a big part of what I do," he says. "But it's the part that never gets written about."

Like Govenar's roles as documentarian and artist, Documentary Arts and Contemporary Culture often overlap. When Govenar became interested in the area between Ojinaga, Mexico, and Presidio, Texas, known as La Junta de los Rios--a place where the Rio Grande is more an inconvenience to be crossed than a dividing line--he, Doolin, and several other collaborators including Chris Strachwitz, owner of Arhoolie Records, and local artist John Hernandez, journeyed down.

The La Junta area is rich in contrasts: The local conjuntos play music whose roots extend further back than Texas norteno, but their corridos --story songs--are about drug smugglers and other modernities. "It's one of the few places left where you can simply walk around and find surface relics that are thousands of years old or adobes that have been standing for centuries," Govenar says.

Even though strip centers and trailers are slowly encroaching, the area's Matachin Indian societies still practice a Santerialike hybrid of Roman Catholicism and folk belief, including the Fiesta de la Santa Cruz, a pilgrimage up a nearby mountain that recreates a legendary journey residents made on their knees to pray for the end of a smallpox epidemic, long dropped from the official Catholic Church calendar. The fiesta's pathway up the mountain is lit by burning tires at night; in the morning, Indian dancers perform in the street while the Catholic Church conducts mass. There is even some old footage of an attack on the village by Pancho Villa, supposedly delayed for three days so that the general could extort $25,000 for allowing the filming.

While Govenar and Strachwitz have long-term plans for some sort of video or film project based on their experiences in La Junta, Doolin and Hernandez turned their impressions into the Arts Center's current exhibition. Doolin in particular was struck by the small boats that ferry people and goods across the Rio Grande, keeping feet dry and spinning lines of influence that show up in surprising places. "There are all these American quilt patterns--old, traditional ones--that appear on these handmade Mexican blankets," Doolin says. "The [American patterns] came across the river with trade; now, they appear on blankets made out of recycled clothing brought in from the U.S., and many of them go back across the border again."

This welter of influences--ancient and modern, American and Mexican, steel and adobe, all moving back and forth over the border--resulted in the La Junta de los Rios installation, currently open in the downstairs gallery. (Upstairs, book art gets its customary attention with Pulp Fusion: Recent Art from Dieu Donne Papermill.) On a sandy island, toys arranged by Hernandez play out the history of Mexico: from the armor of Cabeza de Vaca, buried like some Pharoah's statue in the sand, a stream of characters march from the past into the future; Legos are multicolored representations of the cinder blocks that are rapidly replacing the traditional adobe, and elsewhere other arrangements give voice to other impressions.

Over this tableau, like a great cloud, floats a boat similar to the ones used to cross the Rio Grande. Colored light bulbs hang about it like stars, and the entire outside of its hull is lined with the strips of cloth used by La Junta's blanket-makers; the inside is smeared with the mud that locals still gather to make their pottery.

Off to one side is Govenar's contribution to the exhibit, a round room whose interior walls are made up of TVs and mirrors. Half the TVs are showing some of the footage Govenar shot on his visits; the others, the footage of Pancho Villa's attack. As the Mexican revolutionary's caissons cross the same river that boats now ply, recognizable in the background is the same mountain the pilgrims climb; later, the mournful sounds of ritual prayer fill the soundtrack of the modern footage while the archival screens fill with gun smoke and bodies.

Although American cultures have a special place in Govenar's heart, he doesn't define his efforts so narrowly. Since starting Documentary Arts, he's released a steady stream of esoteric recordings of what he considers "important regional styles," presenting the public with Vietnamese funeral music and the religious poetry of Dallasite Osceola Mays, as well as the music of French-speaking Louisiana and East Texas fiddlers. His most recent release was an album of music from the Hmong tribesmen of Laos.

"The Hmong and Vietnamese music are the newest forms of traditional music," Govenar says. "It's the music of immigrant countries, especially at that fragile time when old styles are being preserved, but the music is changing and starting to be about contemporary problems, about what it's like to be far away and miss your home, what it's like to be Vietnamese in Dallas."

Missing your home, posing for a picture, the blues--universal experiences behind which lurk a greater truth. "The whole point of the 20th century has been the fact that people really began to interact--intellectually and artistically--with non-Western cultures and appreciate their importance," Govenar says. "A big part of what we're doing here is showing that artists are artists. They may be divided by cultural differences, differences in training or in demographics, but the impulse to create is universal. The future of the world depends on our ability to understand others, and one of the most important ways of understanding others is through creative expression."

Universality makes for fine talk, but to walk the walk you have to cross some barriers and abandon much of the distance ordinary folks feel between them and "art." John Held Jr. sees the Arts Center, "especially Kaleta [Doolin], as being part of the trend in art these days...to take it out of the ivory tower and bring it down to a more participatory level."

Barriers were dismantled early on; one of the first shows at 5501 Columbia was photographer Judy Bankhead's The Neighborhood as Art, a pictorial reflection of Tyler, the Texas town where she grew up. "Judy and other artists came, and they had them work with neighborhood people and kids," says Ron Gleason, who worked with Govenar on the Living Texas Blues project. "The point was to demonstrate to them that any place can be the subject of art or of an artistic investigation, and that the Arts Center was going to be a place where art and community intersected."

As part of this intersection, Documentary Arts offers a "Folk Artist in Schools" program, and Contemporary Culture offers free workshops for kids in which they can not only work with established artists but have their efforts displayed afterward.

It's an approach that the Arts Center itself embodies, an alternative space on an open, unfenced corner located not in comfy Plano or Highland Park, but in an East Dallas neighborhood politely described as "heads up." It might get dicey--like the time folks attending a meeting had their car windows broken or a skateboarding youth blithely showed Govenar his bullet scars--but he and Doolin persevere.

"I believe in the power of art," Doolin says, "and in its ability to cross cultures and bring people together. I think people are becoming more educated, and that we've had something to do with that. I've always thought about being an urban pioneer."

Pioneering is not often cheap. The Arts Center struggles for funding and does not employ a publicist. And that's the reason why most Dallas residents are familiar with the MAC, but usually find 5501 Columbia Arts Center almost by accident. "We try to stay low-budget and put all our money into exhibits," Doolin says. "We're content to have slow growth."

Many evenings, as the sky closes purple on the departing day, there are still lights burning in Firehouse No. 16. As the evening deepens over the yells of children and the blare of mariachi music from passing cars, those lights still shine from the windows--not expecting or requiring that anybody see them, but there just in case.

When exhibits are installed, the Arts Center is open to the public Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. Most exhibits run about three months, and admission is free.

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