Fellows Update II: Libby Bland

Photo credit: Alex Barber.

Photo credit: Alex Barber.

The beginning of August marked the end of the 2019 Summer Studio program with local college students from the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, and St. Thomas University. Working with the 8 young artists every week over the course of about two months was an absolute highlight of the summer for me. As someone who came to the arts world from an architecture and city planning background, I was pretty intimidated by the concept of leading so many students who were receiving formal training in visual arts. Instead of trying to conduct weekly art critiques, we instead focused on developing their personal narratives. After reading through their applications we decided that what everyone had in common was an urgency to tell a story about themselves and beyond themselves, the communities to which they belong. So we wanted to make sure that that urgency in their story was clearly expressed in all of their work by making sure that it was explicitly articulated for themselves first.

Accordingly, the summer began with everyone writing their own artist manifesto to present to each other to explain how and why they do the work they do. We read a series of essays from professional artists and writers about they conceive of their work and the world around them for inspiration and encouraged the students to seek out similar writings from the artists that inspire them. We wanted to tease out the intentionality of the thought process and understanding how one positions oneself in the world. In bell hooks’ essay, “Art on My Mind” she describes a conversation with her sister where they both agreed that art has no place in the life of a working-class Black family. This is a sentiment that many of the students were grappling with in their own lives.

How can art impact the lives of people who cannot afford or do not feel welcome in places where art is traditionally displayed? How does one feel comfortable with or explain being an artist to family members who struggle to understand the value of or reason for making art? How much of a responsibility does one have to make one’s work accessible? Certainly, the answers to those questions vary based on who is answering them, but the important part is for each artist to have a clear, intentional answer for themselves.

During one of the sessions where Sarah was able to be in town, she led them in another writing exercise where the goal was to workshop each other’s writing exercises by passing them in circles around the table. We wanted to make sure that they felt like a cohort of artists instead of solitary artists working in separate houses, so we tried to make sure that they had as many chances as possible to learn how each respective artist conveyed their own narratives. The more chances they had to share with one another, the more chances they had to learn from one another.

Now that the summer studio process has ended, I am so proud of each and every one of the eight students for sharing themselves and their work through this program. I think that everyone was a little intimidated by the vastness of white space when they entered their homes for the first time, but everyone rose to the occasion beautifully. The Summer Studios houses are open for viewing Wednesday - Sunday, 12-5PM through September 15th, and if you haven’t already then you should come by to see the students’ work.

Fellows Update II: Sarah Rafael García

Map of Third Ward (2018)

Map of Third Ward (2018)

Sarah Rafael García is a 2019 Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts – Project Row Houses (KGMCA-PRH) Fellows. The KGMCA-PRH Fellowship invites artists and cultural practitioners to the Third Ward to work alongside urban planners, educators and policy makers to engage in creative collaborations that involve the Third Ward community. The Fellowship is a research-based program that allows people to spend time addressing complex challenges that impact communities of color.

Fellows Update is an opportunity to share the research reflections from the Fellows’ point of view. Read Sarah’s second update.

Fellows Update: Libby Bland

“Maps aren't static - boundaries change every year. Historic Third Ward 1944/2019" – Libby

“Maps aren't static - boundaries change every year. Historic Third Ward 1944/2019" – Libby

Houston’s Third Ward is suffering from both rapid gentrification and planning fatigue. Despite being under the jurisdiction of at least seven different neighborhood and city plans, there are three and four story townhouses being built on every other block that are all wildly unaffordable to the majority of Third Ward residents. The existence of a plan, without any ability to enforce or fund the initiatives that it details, is largely just a broken promise and people notice. Every time someone comes to a struggling community and claims that they can fix all of the problems, it gets people’s hopes up just to let them down when they inevitably fail to live up to the expectations that they have set. During a community meeting last weekend, residents talked about how worried they are about the construction around them and their concerns about the groups that are coming in proposing to help.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to do ethical engagement in a community that has been under a microscope for years. It’s very easy to have good intentions and still be exploitative. It’s very easy to be an “askhole” where you demand input and engagement from people without offering anything in return.

Ethical engagement requires honesty. Honesty about what you can and cannot do. Honesty about what your goals are compared to what your community partners’ goals are. It takes an honest and active understanding of what power dynamics are at play. It takes being honest about what power you hold and exert over others, whether that power is perceived or real.

Ethical engagement requires persistence. Marginalized people who are treated more like a campaign stop than a community are exhausted. They have been poked and prodded and used as a resource to extract from rather than as intelligent human collaborators. Too often community engagement is a box to check off a list in service of a much larger project that offers no direct benefit to any of the community members. It is treated as a means to an end instead of an intentional and deliberate process.

I am so excited to have the opportunity to start working with Third Ward residents through the KGMCA-PRH Fellowship. I’m deeply passionate about connecting the stories and experiences of people to places and thinking about how spatial conditions and policies often compressed experiences to the same few blocks for a wide variety of people. The physical environment impacts us all in different ways and to an extent that we don’t often unpack. The roads we drive down, the corners where we wait for the bus, the streets that we avoid (intentionally or not), all tell a story about our experience with space and place. For me mapping is an active exercise in layering our personal realities over the frameworks of the past. It’s an active confrontation of how the city is built versus how it is actually used and experienced. Community mappings are an exercise in uplifting the stories that are omitted from the larger narrative of a city. They are also an exercise in working with folks to reevaluate the influence that the built environment has on them and how they might have more of an influence on the built environment in return. Community mappings are an act of reclaiming ones agency over a neighborhood that is changing around them. I’m excited to start working with residents on mapping the Third Ward.

Fellows Update: Sarah Rafael García

On my first day, I purposely asked the Lyft driver to drop me off in front of Project Row Houses. I felt compelled to start my first visit at the iconic shot gun houses. Maybe I was echoing other tourists too by romanticizing the history. But as I stared down the sidewalk towards the white peaks, the rain made me hesitate. Being familiar with Texas storms, my enthusiasm evolved to worries that a downpour would soak my laptop in the next five minutes. With disappointment, I forced myself to take an alternate route and walked down Division Street, which introduced me to the second-story buildings with porches. What did it divide?

It was then that I reflected on my previous visits to Houston and the Third Ward. While attending my MFA program and living in Austin from 2012 through 2015, I visited Houston once a semester. Initially, I came for the Vietnamese and Lebanese dishes. Eventually, I also visited for the free museums that displayed art by brown, black and queer folks. I sought affirmation for my decision to enter an MFA program that catered to white narratives. And Project Row Houses was one of two stops I made over such weekend trips. Never actually envisioned me here.

There, on two of the porches, I saw people conversing. One a young brown mother and her child, another a black woman under a porch talking to a black man standing in the rain. They nodded and smiled and two of the folks said hello and ignored my awkward jog and rolling baggage. The child continued without a glance, the rain continued to gain momentum, but no one seemed to care, the water was part of their life. What did they see that I didn’t?

I saw a community. Immediately, I felt like I didn’t belong. Who am I to be strolling in their yard with a purple suitcase and artist pride? I was a visitor, not a member of their community. I was the artist coming in to collect their stories and experiences. I was the visiting artist I snickered at in my city of Santa Ana, California, which fights gentrification against those within the city limits. I knew I had to be more observant, I knew I had a lot of research and reading to do. If I am going to ask questions, they would have to be new, they would have to be well-thought out. They would have to give the community a reason.

A hundred steps later, after passing a group of all black and brown folks bantering at the Gulf Gas Station, I was at the first home that would host my year-long fellowship. A shot gun house replica, similar to the images by John Biggers who I only knew in a book. That evening I got food delivered because I wasn’t quite sure where to eat in the area. I also started reading the text that would set the foundation for my project, How Racism Takes Place by George Lipsitz. Huh, a Jewish guy writing about African-American history, didn’t expect it, or maybe there’s more there? I started with the Project Row Houses chapter then read excerpts from other chapters that were referenced.

Although often people say these are called shotgun houses because a shotgun can be fired through the front door and it would go right out the backdoor without hitting a wall, it has also been traced that the phrase has been derived from the word “shogon.” In West Africa, “shogon” means “God's House.”

I was in bed under a reading light. At the precise moment I read the proposed definition, a breeze in the room forced me to pop my head out of the book and scan from left to right. And that’s when I thought how life and death can travel in the few seconds it takes a bullet to go through a home. Imagine reading this at the same speed as the flying bullet. And what if we were to measure the fractals of each sense of time between here and there, between there and here, between slavery and freedom, between 1941 and 1945, between Black Panthers and urban developers, between tomorrow’s past and the 2030 future; each minute fraction between blinks and the spirits who called me to look beyond here and there.

Pause.

Did I lose you? Or do you see what I see?

Back to bullet speed.

Those small pieces of matter that make each second of time, those moments where white becomes brown and how an image of a shotgun evolves to God’s House; all has turned into a future where shades of skin and multiple languages are what make this space we have shaped into our image. Where color is freedom, where words like shogun, shaanti, barrio, kapitbahayan, cộng đồng and تi آل هة الب — all mean us, not them.

And there is where all of here begins…

Introduction to Fellows Update

Libby Bland and Sarah Rafael García are the 2019 Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts – Project Row Houses (KGMCA-PRH) Fellows. The KGMCA-PRH Fellowship invites artists and cultural practitioners to the Third Ward to work alongside urban planners, educators and policy makers to engage in creative collaborations that involve the Third Ward community. The Fellowship is a research-based program that allows people to spend time addressing complex challenges that impact communities of color.

Our new feature on the blog, titled Fellows Update, is an opportunity to share the research reflections from the Fellows’ point of view. Before our first Fellows Update, please watch Libby and Sarah’s introductory lectures to understand what inspires them to create their art.

-  Ryan Dennis, PRH's Curator and Programs Director