Author Archive

Photo: Houston Metropolitan Research Center

Flashpoints on the Road to Black and Brown Power: Sites of Struggle in Houston in the 1960s and 70s

This article originally appeared in Cite 82 (pdf) and is now accompanied by a digital map.

Houston has a long history of segregation and racial violence. From the lynchings of George White in 1859 and Robert Powell in 1928, to the hanging of black soldiers who rebelled at Camp Logan in 1919, to the rise of the local Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, racist actions have periodically threatened to tear the city apart.

The political struggles of the 1960s and ’70s changed the city. In the 1998 movie The Strange Demise of Jim Crow, historians explain how the end of segregation in Houston came relatively quickly and, due to a media blackout, without fanfare.

Highlighted in this piece are important milestones that dispel an oft-repeated myth that Houston’s quiet desegregation prevented riots, rebellions, or open conflict; moments of community indignation (anything but polite and restrained) that lead to concrete action on the road to political power for people of color in the city. Many events have been left off this list — the University of Houston riot in 1969, for example — but the sites selected can serve as initial entries into an often ignored history.

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A Ciudad Victoria street filled with families taking a stroll. Photographs by John Pluecker.

These Streets Are Made for Walking (And That's Just What We'll Do)

John Pluecker, a writer and interpreter who contributes regularly to Cite and OffCite, sends this postcard from Ciudad Victoria, the capital city of the northernmost Mexican border state on the Gulf Coast, just south of the Rio Grande Valley.

I say: Tamaulipas, Mexico. And you’re probably thinking violence, drug war, danger, State Department travel warnings.

You’re probably not thinking thousands of families, children, roller-bladers and dog-walkers strolling down a large avenue on a Sunday evening. A sea of people filling the four-lane street and the wide tree-shaded median. Flashing Christmas lights and cheesy illuminated angels. Karaoke singing in the street, indie rock bands on a tiny stage in front of the main cultural institute, an ampitheatre with b-boys and b-girls in Santa costumes, a stage full of flashing lights and artificial smoke dedicated to local grupero bands and hundreds of people dancing cheek to cheek in a traffic esplanade.

Yet both images are real.

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Can We Be Critical of the Menils Now? A Review of Art and Activism

The Menil has planned some great events to celebrate their 25th anniversary. At OffCite, we are marking the occasion by posting articles from our archives about the Menils and the Menil collection. The following book review by John Pluecker appeared last year in the Fall 2011 issue Cite (87).

A small wave of books is coming, all attempting to document the historical contributions of John and Dominique de Menil. Art and Activism: The Projects of John and Dominique de Menil was first and subsequently followed by Sacred Modern: Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics in the Menil Collection by anthropologist and art historian Pamela Smart. In the coming year, Knopf/Random House is planning to publish a biography of the Menils by journalist William Middleton and funded with almost $400,000 from the Houston Artists Fund.

Without a doubt, these publications are a sign of a deepening interest in the histories of artistic communities of Houston. These books posit a history for Houston’s strange mix of progressive arts activism and oil-fueled capitalism. Art and Activism also ends up being a veritable canonization of the Menils through a series of essays by various scholars, artists and arts workers, most of them previously associated with the Menils on some level as students, employees, or fellow travelers.

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Fernando Brave, Pablo Ferro, and Craig Minor

Why the Red Scarf, Pablo Ferro?

Apparently, a whole army of people in Houston know who Pablo Ferro is and love his work. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston event (co-sponsored by the Rice Design Alliance and AIGA) was packed for the sold-out presentation of the title designer, movie director, animator and all around Renaissance Man. The crowd was a heady mix befitting of the presenter himself: a slew of hipsterfied young graphic designer nerds mixed with older film buffs, advertising professionals, architects, and typography geeks. The eclectic audience was an indication that Pablo Ferro has been fully rediscovered (if he was ever really forgotten).

Love of Pablo Ferro, the cult figure, has been growing for some time now. The rebirth of interest in him has been driven by a large, impressive and always surprising body of work (and its recent appearance in easily searchable YouTube videos): the skinny, sexy film titles of Dr. Strangelove, the boxy split screens of The Thomas Crown Affair, the flipped Я of The Russians are Coming, and the quick-cut, psychedelic weirdness of the Clockwork Orange trailer. Ferro created an aesthetic for an era and laid out an array of visual techniques that would be copied and reworked for decades. In recent years, he’s received a series of well-deserved awards from prestigious organizations, including the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. There’s also a documentary film in the works that combines animated sequences with celebrity interviews (e.g. Anjelica Houston and Jeff Bridges) to tell the story of Pablo’s unconventional life: his road from Cuba to working with Stan Lee and Disney in New York to Hollywood studio work and finally to a humble garage in L.A. where he lives and works to this day.

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Chapbooks by Beverly Dahlen and Jamie Townsend

Handmade, Homegrown Books

Everywhere, a surfeit of essays and articles bemoan the declining fortunes of the book and the publishing industry’s deepening crisis. Even though there have been some recent hopeful reports of better times ahead, overall, the news is: the book is dead, there’s no hope. Get. Out. Now.

Despite this bleak outlook, there’s been a huge resurgence in the last few years of small, often experimental, publishers committed to the art of book-making and also excited by the technological innovations driving the written word forward into new venues, platforms, and futures. Each time one person or a few decide to launch a new small publishing venture, it feels like a mini-revolution, a stand against the pessimistic future envisioned for the book itself.

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Detail of Schindler House, Wikimedia Commons

Both Sides and the Center

When you first walk in, there’s a man, blindfolded and gagged with his hands and feet cuffed to parallel leather rods holding him in place in his chair. Two women in another room are knelt over blankets, sewing strings onto an accordion-folded long sheet of paper, with printed repeated images of rectangles at odd angles. Soft twenties jazz is playing on a record player. In the bathroom, an oracle intones softly through a tube coming through the ceiling; the female voice describes your own identity (past, present & future) by reading the characteristics of your particular bird-spirit. In the vitrine at the back of the house, something similar to a woman’s body contorts within the confines of a red, fabric bag.

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Rendering of "Doughty Do" by Sharon Engelstein. The installation to open in March 29 at the Animal Service Facility includes 38 cast aluminum horses and two dogs.

After the Firestorm: The Future of Civic Art

In November 2008, the Houston Arts Alliance was the target of an ABC13 Wayne Dolcefino report on the civic art program. The segment—titled “Where’s the Art?”—questions the purpose of Margo Sawyer’s “Synchronicity of Color” installations at Discovery Green. The structures, which cover stairwells, are repeatedly referred to as a “waste” by an interviewee. The report goes on to question the rate at which projects have been completed.

The civic art team at the Houston Arts Alliance has responded with an exhibit and series of discussions at the Space125gallery about upcoming plans for Houston municipal artwork. It includes sketches, design elements, information about the process, and examples of civic artwork. The next event is tomorrow, Thursday, February 19 from 6:00 to 7:30pm. It features artist Sharon Engelstein and Cite editorial committee member José Solis.

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