Handmade Personal Spaces in Houston
Susanne Theis

One person—using common discarded objects, simple tools, and a lifetime of wisdom and technical knowledge—dedicates years of solitary labor giving material form to a private vision, transforming a home, garden, or place of business into a monumental work of art. This is essentially the story of the hundreds of handmade personal spaces found all over the world. Houston is home to an unusually large number of these sites, and the ways that our buttoned-down, no-nonsense city and the creators of these improbable art environments interact with and affect each other is one of the most interesting things about Houston. It’s what helps keep me here from one August to the next.

For nearly twenty years, I have been a part of The Orange Show Foundation, which has worked to identify more than a dozen of these handmade personal spaces within Houston’s expansive city limits. Located within a two-mile radius of downtown are three of the most highly regarded examples of the art form in the country. The Beer Can House is covered with flattened beer cans, the surrounding trees draped in hanging garlands of pop-tops that clink like wind chimes. The Flower Man’s Garden, embellished with childhood relics and found objects from his bicycle travels around Houston, has turned his shotgun house into a neighborhood landmark. And The Orange Show, a huge mazelike monument of concrete, brick, steel, and anything from gears and tractor seats to statuettes, extols the virtue of the orange.

A few years ago, there were even more. Wonderful places like the Fan Man’s Third World, a major construction of toys, mannequins, television sets, and endless other items, have been lost on the death of their creator. Still others, like Pigdom (a bright purple homage to the pig and once home of the pig Jerome), Sylvester Williams’ Eagles Nest (a yard filled with thousands of history-laden objects from 100-year-old farm tools to pre-electric irons and books of news clippings documenting the achievements of contemporary black Americans), and the OK Corral (dominated by brightly colored tables, chairs, umbrellas, and yard art, including a fence of found objects in a western motif), remain a part of the landscape in a less vivid form because their creators are no longer able, for one reason or another, to spend quite as much time on their environments as they used to.

These sites are sometimes called “folk art environments,” although it is not a strictly accurate label. Many of these spaces celebrate self rather than community, and depict personal experiences, struggles, and values rather than shared traditions. By transforming the junk of our culture into vessels (or vehicles, but that’s another story) for personal expression, the people who create these handmade personal spaces are communicating private realities in a most public way.

Why Houston? Lack of zoning and yearlong temperate weather help explain some of this creative activity, but more important is a shared attitude that permits and perhaps encourages eccentric and visionary feats. This attitude is evident in the very founding of the city on the mosquito-infested banks of Buffalo Bayou and finds expression in figures that we use to identify ourselves: the cowboy, oil wildcatter, and astronaut. It evolved through the clash of cultures wrought by geography and history, drawing on the intellectual and aesthetic traditions of the South, the West, and Mexico.

Once known as the “Magnolia City” before air pollution reduced the trees’ numbers, Houston is, in part, a southern city. The Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction are parts of our past, and we share the South’s cultural stereotypes. Jeff McKissack—postman, traveler, nutritionist, and builder of The Orange Show—could have been an eccentric character in a southern novel. The Flower Man, Cleveland Turner, has told me tales of gardening with his mother and aunt in Mississippi that sound like the stories of strong and loving women in Alice Walker’s novels. And the life of Ida Kingsbury sounds like a Faulkner story, revealing the South as a place of tangible memories. In the years following the death of her husband, lonely and estranged from her family, Ida Kingsbury found solace in the accumulation of objects, crowding her Pasadena home with so much—outgrown dresses, dolls no one would play with, and shirts that her late husband would never wear—that she was forced to sleep in her car. She populated her garden with figures constructed from fence posts, tin cutouts, and found objects—a sheriff, postman, dogs, cats, happy ladies, loving couples—her own community to replace the one she had lost.

A distinctly vital part of our southern legacy is the presence of African aesthetics that have survived centuries of forced enslavement, many of them rooted in the strong visual and cultural traditions of the ancient African kingdom of Kongo. You have only to visit the sites created by African-American artists in Houston to find elements traditionally expressive of motion (wheels, tires, and other round objects), containment (jars, jugs, and other vessels), figuration (icons, dolls, roots, and sculptures), and the presence of medicine (healing herbs). A walk through Bob Harper’s Third World on a windy day once brilliantly illustrated all these elements at work. Hundreds of fans, freed from their steel encasements, spun throughout the garden. The walkway was lined with bottles carried home from his job at the convenience store a block away. In the center of the yard, a tower was constructed of televisions and oven tops, on top of which perched a blonde mannequin.

Houston is part of the West as well, where the language, religion, food, and cultural traditions brought by newly arrived settlers, attracted to the promise of freedom from the past, have survived to various degrees. Certainly some of Texas’ best cultural contributions come from this mixture, such as conjunto music, born when Norteno Mexican Musica met the German-Czech polkas. Emblems of the old West—a lost boot, castoff cowboy hat, broken toy rifles—decorate the fence around Howard Porter’s OK Corral, which sits surrounded by the new townhouses of Fourth Ward, one of nine remaining shotgun houses within a ten-block radius. Porter, a house painter by trade, had himself painted more than 400 of these buildings over the last forty-five years and now is watching them disappear. The OK Corral has become a gathering place where forty or so of his close friends can sit on furniture resurrected by a fresh and inventive coat of paint and eat Porter’s famous barbecue while taking in one of the most sublime views of downtown Houston around.

Finally, we were also once part of Mexico. Remnants of Mexican aesthetics and spirituality are present in our mongrel experience, including the idea that art is a healing experience open to all and not solely a commodity created by the educated for the elite. In the retablos and ex votos made in gratitude for miracles performed and prayers answered, no object is too ordinary to be decorative, no material too humble, no color too bright, and no mixture of textures, lines, and shapes too varied. In old Second Ward, a house constructed by the late Timiteo Martinez was one of my favorites in Houston. It couldn’t have been more than 400 square feet, made of the most inexpensive building materials, but it showed a wealth of wit and flair. It boasted a trompe l’oeil door, beautiful religious grotto, and a rustica fence (the Mexican-American craft of concrete scored to look as though it were logs of wood).

For all the influences that help to explain why there are so many handmade personal spaces in Houston, the most important clue may be Houston’s lack of a coherent center, both literally and metaphorically. Many of us are immigrant Houstonians, which means that the city is constantly being reinvented. In traditional communities, shared memories, values, perceptions, and beliefs make up a cohesive whole and provide boundaries for acceptable behavior and group expression. The blithe abandonment of cohesion and boundaries that is characteristic of Houston allows its more free-spirited artists to communicate personal experiences in ways that open up possibilities for others: it is the clearest demonstration of the power of the human drive to create. In a place where your neighbor can cover his house with beer cans or make a monument to the fruit he loves most, are your dreams too improbable?

Copyright©2000 Susanne Theis



Livable Houston Magazine