Visual Art

How Artist Rick Lowe, Who's in Dallas Today, Helped Transform Houston's Third Ward

"It takes a village," goes the saying. But what if the village is under-developed, infested with violence and depleted of resources from years of neglect and misappropriation?

That's the question Rick Lowe has been addressing since he founded Project Row Houses in Third Ward, a neighborhood that's been pondering those questions for decades. With grant money and sweat equity, Lowe helped transform parts of the Third Ward.

Originally from Alabama, Lowe moved to Houston 28 years ago to pursue his art. It was during an in-studio visit with the very children his urban village had raised where the inner-city high-school students questioned the nature of his large-scale paintings and sculptures that focused on social issues. The students pushed him to make the ghetto his gallery, the streets his studio. After taking that charge to heart, nearly 20 years later through Project Row Houses, Lowe has made the Third Ward his masterpiece. It's a rare example of an artist leaving the comforts of the studio life for the dangers of a very real, and very fragile canvas.

Lowe will be in Dallas on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. talk at bcWORKSHOP. The lecture is part of a new enterprise, SHOPFRONT, which features exhibits, talks and activities based on creating dialogue about public architecture and city planning. Lowe has also been chosen as one of the artists for the Nasher Sculpture Center's massive, multi-million-dollar public-art project.

We spoke to Lowe about his life of advocacy as art.

You basically left the art scene for a life of advocacy. Do you ever look back and think, "What if I would stayed?" No. However, when I started my career in the 80s, monetary success wasn't a part of my consciousness. Now I have friends who are making a lot of money in the art market. So I do sometimes playfully wonder, "Why the heck didn't I stay in that game?" Then I remember, the work I was interested in producing was head on political and didactic, so there probably wasn't a place for me in the market anyway.

This I such an enormous project, with a lot of responsibility. Did that take a toll on you? I didn't think of the project as enormous. I was aware of its complexity. That's why I solicited others to be involved. But I never thought of it as "we have these 22 houses and we need to do this and that with them." My approach was that each day there was something to do toward unfolding the possibility of the project that we were engaged with. Sometimes it was as simple as just picking up trash.

I don't want to minimize the fear and anxiety that comes with doing something ambitious and new, but as I see it, the essential part of the artistic is simply making a mark as often as you can. Making a painting can be equally an enormous task. Standing before a blank canvas and thinking, "At some point this will be a good painting," is intimidating. But you start by just making a mark.

How many people are living in the Project Row Houses and what kind of exchange takes place once someone assimilates into the neighborhood? Many people live at PRH in many different ways. There are the 50-plus households who rent from our community development corporation, there are 12-15 people who work there, artists who have studios there, parents of the 40-plus children who attend our education program, neighbors, volunteers and so on and so on.

All these folks live at PRH in some way or another with each having their own way of receiving and giving to the efforts of the project. Exchanges range from one neighbor who has taken it upon herself to make sure we always have bathroom and kitchen supplies, another hosts parties for neighborhood children after trick or treating on Halloween. For some, it's just simply watching out for their neighbors, etc.

How do you measure the project's success? I don't think I ever really work toward success. Mainly because I don't know what it looks like until I see it. I wouldn't have known the success I was looking for when we started PRH would be single mothers getting graduate and post-graduate degrees and coming back to serve on our boards, and being appointed by the mayor to city commissions, or building a housing program that someone is interested in buying, etc. I'm more focused on whether the work is accessing the highest creative energy available to the project. That includes my energy and the others who come into the process. I think it's dangerous to limit the view of success of social and community based work to "impact."

For me, the work can be successful in many ways. Sometimes we are lucky enough to see art have success that is clearly measurable. However, most of the time you just don't know.

What's been the one of the most humbling moments in your career so far? I'm always humbled when I see anything transformed. The most humbling thing has been watching Assata Richards, a young woman who entered our transitional housing program as a very angry and negative woman, transform into a real community leader and mentor to me. Watching the struggle of her transformation over the years, like watching the little shotgun houses transform, reminds of how lucky many of us are.

Project Row Houses is taking found art to new levels. You're not only modifying the utility of the house but the lives of the inhabitants as well. Whose responsibility is it that the work gets seen? You ask a tricky question here. The essence of PRH transformative work is not necessarily about "being seen." However, it is important that it is available to folks to see it. We walk the line between being public art and a private neighborhood. We don't do a great deal of marketing at this point for visitors. I'm sure in the future we will market to get more visitors. As for the inhabitants, it's up to them as to how visible they want their transformation to be. For instance, we watched Eugene Howard, aka, Brother in Law, transform into a kind of neighborhood celebrity. He embraced the exposure. Others are more private.

Do you think working within a studio creates an "I" mentality, in contrast to the neighborhood being the studio forming a 'We" mentality? The "I" and "We" can be in the studio or in social/community-based work. There are studio-based artists who acknowledge the "We" in the production of their work. For marketing purposes the "We" gets dropped out. While on the other hand, there are artists who work in a community context who are very "I" driven. I think it all boils down to temperament. I will admit that it's probably easier to exist as an "I" type in the studio, and the pressures of working outside the studio fosters a more "We" attitude.

Do you ever get discouraged? I'm often discouraged. But not any more than any artist might be discouraged that a piece may not work. But in my mind, that's why art is sometimes called "art work." To bring something into being is work. So when I'm discouraged, I just keep working until I find encouragement.

What do you say to someone who looks at what you've accomplished and says, "I would love to do this where I live but I'm broke, unknown and alone in my quest?" Generally I advise folks with this kind of question to re-evaluate their position. Because in most cases, they are not as broke, unknown or alone as they think. They may not have money, but money is not the only resource it takes to get a project started. I'd ask them to look deeper to see if they have other resources beyond money. As for being known, most are known by someone. So I would encourage them to go to those they know and see if they can be a resource. If someone is completely alone in their quest, I would encourage them to either broaden their scope to find others who are interested, or re-evaluate their quest because if they can't find anyone interested in the idea, it may not be a good one.

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Lee Escobedo