Reevaluate Everything: Heather Wright

Reevaluate Everything

Interview by McKenzie Watson
Photos by Alex Barber

6I6B9900.jpg

Heather Wright is scheduled to graduate from Rice University with a double major in Studio Arts and Environmental Engineering. This tendency to combine otherwise disparate topics, ideas, or objects runs through not only Wright’s education but her artistic work.

“Sometimes I’ll put two very common things together,” Wright pointed out, “and when they come together, they become more significant to me in a personal way.”  

Wright’s installation, titled Jungle/Gym, is based on the idea of a playground. “I’m playing around with board games and treasure hunts, playful ideas of searching and finding,” she said.  “I feel like as a kid you’re basically trying to find yourself, but you’re not really aware that that’s what you’re doing; you’re just living life.  So I want to capture that innocence and naivety, and also that journey aspect of it.”

004 _MG_7553.jpg

“The playground is like the essence of learning to socialize,” Wright described. “The beginning of relationships that you build with other kids, whether they’re significant or not. It’s that place of interaction… The playground can be a representation of relationship or your social life or a community where you’re interacting with others. It’s a dynamic environment.”  

Wright’s process of art-making is both a social exploration and a personal one. The work is deeply informed by her own experiences, and the incorporation of themes of childhood provides a means of return. “My childhood was a really influential part of who I am today,” she acknowledged, “something I always think about. I always want to go back to it, but I can’t go back in the same way.”

Her tactile ‘playground’ tends toward the abstract, yet is grounded in the very tangible objects she creates. “I guess I’m trying to connect myself through objects,” Wright acknowledged. The pieces exist somewhere between the practical and the absurd, evocative entities that gesture towards universal concepts of childhood, nostalgia, and self-discovery. “I think my art’s more suggestion,” Wright stated, adding, “If I’m explaining it, I’ll make it more open-ended. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about the personal connection I have to it.”  

The objects chosen by Wright for contemplation and artistic manipulation have all emerged organically from her observations in the neighborhood. “Sometimes I make things from a feeling and people ask, ‘why are you doing this?’” Wright explained. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I can’t explain it yet.’ Sometimes the image precedes the conceptual idea.”  

046 6I6B3065.jpg

The day of the interview, Wright had been working with plaster and wax. The plaster serves as material for half-domes and awning-like structures. Wright recounted, “I saw this building and it had these blue and pink awnings. It just inspired me somehow, and I started thinking about superficiality with regards to the face of the building, how that can be kind of reflective of the image a person wants to give off.”   

With wax, Wright is casting milk cartons. “Some of them have facial features in them,” she noted. “The wax is kind of opaque, so I’ve been melting it, and it kind of looks corroded. Some of them have noses, I’m working on ears, and I might do mouths. It’s like an excavation of facial features within milk cartons.” Providing facial features to otherwise inanimate, domestic objects continues the theme of superficiality and presentation in her work.  

Another facet of Wright’s exploration of social settings is a personal and public consideration of internalization. “That’s why I’m playing with loneliness in such a public place,” she said, “and these objects having such significant meanings internalized in them is reflective of how I tended to internalize how I was feeling in social settings as a kid.”  

“I feel like overcoming insecurities is kind of a lonely journey,” Wright asserted.  “So I want to capture cheerfulness and joy, but there’s something underneath you can’t put your finger on.”  Her installation promised to be an emotionally rich landscape, and a visit to the space evokes a sense of self-reflection, urging viewers to dig deeper. “I want it all to have an underlying feeling of uncanny-ness,” she stated.  

014 _MG_7573.jpg

When asked what her hopes are for visitors to her installation, Wright responded, “I want people to be forced to decode my work, or recode, and then eventually reevaluate the significance of things in their lives. Come open-minded.  Either see things for what they are or see them for what you want them to be - mainly physical objects, but eventually the intangible, because you attach intangible feelings to objects, so I guess everything. Reevaluate everything.”

Born in California and raised in Austin, TX, Heather Wright is a senior at Rice University double majoring in studio art and environmental engineering. Her work focuses on taking everyday objects and resituating them into new contexts and combinations in order to reconsider their significance and place in everyday life. Interested in the tension between moods created by various images and representations, she internalizes various layers of meaning within her pieces in order to reflect her own current and past uncertainties as a minority in changing environments. She often draws from her childhood as a source of aesthetic inspiration as well as a point of reference and grounding with respect to values in her work. 

Golden Era: LeAirre Morris

Golden Era

Interview by McKenzie Watson
Photos by Alex Barber

6I6B9932.jpg

LeAirre Morris’s installation Golden Era consists of several large-scale sculptural paintings made of joint compound – a construction material similar to wet cement -- and gold spray paint. Each of these grand images are individually striking, and viewed collectively, they tell an evocative narrative about history, power, and justice.  

“What made me come up with the process was trying to see how I could do something different, to not be stuck in the same category as everybody else,” he stated. “Something was in my mind about how to do a sculpture on a canvas.”  

His quest for individuality in both medium and content led Morris to create the installation visitors will find at Project Row Houses. Joint compound mixed with spray paint has been Morris’s most recent preferred media. His familiarity with the substance came from his experience with construction.

“I’d been using joint compound for other stuff-- fixing holes, putting up drywall – and something told me to use it on the canvas,” he recounted. For a while, he played with joint compound as an additive for abstract paintings, until a pivotal trip to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.  

That trip to the Museum was Morris’s first exposure to the work of Kara Walker, who remains his most significant inspiration. It was after seeing Walker’s famous silhouettes that Morris first considered using them in his own work. The inspiration is prevalent in his installation, with Morris putting his own stylistic twist into the silhouettes that fill the walls of the row house. 

Prior to the Summer Studios residency, Morris practiced silhouettes in joint compound by rendering faces of celebrities and crafting portraits of friends and family, all on small canvases. The work he produced during his this residency marks a radical expansion on his previous work both in scale and gravity.

Morris recounted that Carrie Schneider and Carol Zou, the Summer Studios mentor artists – as well as PRH-CotA inaugural Fellows – challenged him to experiment with content beyond these portraits. Rather than singular portraits whose only context comes from their iconic familiarity, Morris used his time at PRH to move towards a chronologically-oriented succession of imagery.

“I’ve been working on the narrative side of my artistry,” Morris stated.  

Driven by the story of slavery into the present day, Morris created a timeline of sculptural canvases that begin just left of the door and wrap clockwise around the inside of the row house. His narrative starts in Africa, depicted in his installation by an image of an elephant.

“I tried to capture the moment when the slaves were captured and put on the ship,” Morris said, identifying where his narrative begins. The next piece in the chronology is a direct tribute to Kara Walker, Morris’ own rendering of one of her more famous silhouettes.

“That was the first piece that I went to when she had an exhibition at the MFAH,” Morris recalled. “I was like, ‘Whoa, she’s kind of out there.’…When I got over to PRH, I wanted to pay homage to her and to pick the image that was most ‘mine’ in a way.  If you were to actually get her silhouette of that piece and put them side-by-side, you can see how my style and her style are totally different.”

Among other stylistic material differences, Morris’s innovative use of joint compound allows Morris’ pieces a texture and depth not present in Walker’s two-dimensional inked silhouettes.

“You can see the markings,” Morris pointed out, regarding his own pieces. “You can even tell if I was frustrated or happy when I started putting in the joint compound.  You can tell when I’m at peace with one. When I’m really happy, it’s very smooth.”  

After his homage to Kara Walker, the following three pieces, existing in chorus, adorn the eastern wall of the row house. The far left and far right silhouettes are a separated diptych, titled Praying Together: Police Officer and Victim.  

002 _MG_7794.jpg

In between those haunting silhouettes is a piece titled Dove and Gun, an inversion of the universal symbol of peace: a dove with an olive branch. The dove hovers, suspended in this space, its body partially composed of a silhouetted handgun. Morris shared that during his research for the piece, every image he found of a handgun online showed the gun pointing to the left.

“If you point it the other way,” Morris explained – having painted the handgun pointing to the right – “you don’t see the magazine or the safety.”

While the pieces on the eastern wall serve as archetypes of police violence, the southern wall grounds Morris’ message in the story of Trayvon Martin. “Since I first walked in, I wanted to have a portrait of Trayvon in the house,” Morris stated. “Once I was more focused in the narrative and the storyline of each piece… I asked, how can I do a story, how can I be more symbolic, how can I get the viewer’s attention?”

Humbling the usually-unassailable Lady Justice, Morris depicts her distraught and regretful. “I wanted to make it look like she’s trying to apologize…but he’s not accepting it,” Morris said. This piece, Lady Justice Apology, stands out as one of Morris’ most direct. While Morris is clearly using archetypal representations of abstract systems, his intended message is easily readable in the piece. Morris stated, “Everybody who walked in the house, once they saw the image, they already knew what I was talking about.”

003 _MG_7799.jpg

Lady Justice appears again in the final image in the house. Accordingly titled F*cked Over By the System, the image depicts the judge, the police officer, and Lady Justice having sexual intercourse.

“I was trying to make a message about how the justice system is corrupted,” Morris explained. “No matter how much power is in the system, and no matter how much truth is right there in its face, you’re still going to get [screwed] over.”  

“I wanted to symbolize how the police overall, they’re not focusing enough on the right part of justice,” Morris stated. “Every morning, waking up and seeing a new kind of video, hearing different stories [of police brutality], I couldn’t help myself… And I actually got lots of different groups discussing and talking about it.”

That kind of audience response has been hugely gratifying to Morris since the exhibition’s opening. “I like seeing people talking about it, whether it’s negative or positive,” Morris reflected. “This is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It actually makes me want to keep pushing.”  

His installation will be on view in 2505 Holman until September 17th.  

015 6I6B3087.jpg

Le Airre Morris was born and raised in a small town called LaMarque, TX. As a child, he didn’t focus on art, attempting to fit in and follow in others’ footsteps. During his second semester at College of the Mainland, he enrolled in his first art class, led by Mark Greenwalt, after which he changed his major to Art. He attained his Associates Degree in 2015 and was accepted into Texas Southern University, where he is pursuing a Bachelors Degree in Fine Art. He is also pursuing a teaching license as he works to discover what sets him apart from other artists. 

Layers of Womanhood: Barbara Gamiz

Layers of Womanhood

Interview by McKenzie Watson
Photos by Alex Barber

6I6B9871.jpg

As soon as she was selected for the Summer Studios residency at Project Row Houses, Barbara Gamiz knew she would focus her installation around women, particularly the women of the Young Mothers Residential and Young Mothers Employment Placement Programs. 

“I’ve been working for a long time with the ‘women’ theme,” Gamiz stated, “so it was a great opportunity to continue…especially with these wonderful women from the community.”

Throughout the residency, Gamiz spent time with the mothers from these programs, photographing them and utilizing them as subjects for her wooden sculptures.

“I asked them to think of something happy or something sad, and it was amazing,” Gamiz recounted. “One of them especially, when I asked her to think of something sad, she started to cry. I felt like I wanted to cry, too…This is getting into a very intimate part of their lives.”

Gamiz described her relationship with the mothers as a partnership. “I’m very grateful because they supported me a lot,” Gamiz said. “I really identified with them because all of us are mothers and all of us are working to be successful, to show the best parts of ourselves to our children… We want to be someone that they can feel proud of.”  

012 _MG_7611.jpg

Gamiz, who has a degree in graphic design, uses photography and sculpture in her installation. Speaking to the range of media she employed, Gamiz explained, “I love to work with material and to make 3-D elements. All the media that I work on is based on layers: My basic concept is layers. Between each layer, you can see there’s a story – like fingerprints; they stay everywhere, and you can see through the layers.”

In her installation, Gamiz created a large-print group photo of the mothers and a wall of highly emotive snapshots. “All of that shows their emotions, their state of mind, and that altogether we can go through all this,” Gamiz stated. “That’s why it’s called Women Empowering Women, because we can’t do it alone. We need a fellow, a sister, a friend, to support one another. I think that if these women raise their children with love and support, we will have safer communities, better cities, and a more peaceful world.”  

Gamiz created an immersive installation by combining her photography with large- and small-scale sculptural works representing women and themes of motherhood, home, and community. Elaborate, jigsaw-like sculptures stand in a gesture of mutual giving and receiving. However, the focal point of the house is a life-size sculpture of a tree, swallowing up the central smokestack of the row house.

“I put the tree inside the house because I wanted to show the relation between the material and the space that I was trying to create,” Gamiz explained. “The tree is a shelter for the birds and the squirrels; it’s a reflection on home. How do we want to make home for our children?  A shelter, a safe place to live, with nothing to be afraid of?”  

007 _MG_7596.jpg

Gamiz described her time at PRH as a layer in her own artistic process. “I really think that each step you make is like a layer you are living in your life… The house was transformed layer by layer, the installation – it’s all been a process, planning, making choices.”

When asked about her hopes for visitors to the installation, Gamiz said, “My hope is that they understand the meaning of this particular theme, to support and encourage women not to give up. Support this community and women from the community.  Don’t turn around and act like nothing is happening, like nobody needs help, you know?”  

013 _MG_7614.jpg

Barbara Gamiz is a graphic designer and artist who combines her training from Universidad Anahuac, where she majored in Editorial Design, in Mexico City with fine arts to create her paintings. Born in 1973 in Mexico City, her interest in learning crafts techniques began at a very young age. Barbara’s experience in graphic design led her to work in advertising agencies and also as a freelance designer. Gamiz believes that her background in graphic design is a very important part of her role as an artist. She combines her knowledge in graphic design with her techniques in art to create her artwork. Barbara’s history and training show her cultural influence in her artwork by using a high contrast pallet, graphic texture, and various layers.

Gamiz also participated in different painting workshops at Universidad Iberoamericana and in an informal studio class. She studied at Glassell School of Fine Arts in Houston where she received her certificate in painting and photography, and currently she is studying at University of St. Thomas of Houston. Some of her paintings were published in Swirl magazine in 2012. She participated in a group exhibition in Mexico City in 2010, with Contemporary Mexican artists like Ivonne Kennedy, Fernando Andriacci, Vicente Mesinas and others. Barbara has participated in juried exhibitions at Lonestar College campus Montgomery in 2011 and 2012. And other exhibitions in different locations.

The artist likes to experiment with different theories, techniques, and ideas to achieve her goals. Gamiz passion is expressed through her art making. 

Finding Connection, Fighting Erasure: Maureen Lax

Finding Connection, Fighting Erasure

Interview by McKenzie Watson
Photos by Alex Barber

6I6B9906.jpg

“I’m mostly working at my actual house right now, but I’m in the process of transferring things over,” Lax began. ‘Transferring things over’ meant she was figuring out how to recreate her drawings on the walls of her shotgun house, immersing the viewer in the ghostly evidence of erasure in the Northern Third Ward.

The foundation of her installation is a series of large sheets of paper that she’s been marking with charcoal, and then erasing the marks. Later in her residency, Lax redeveloped this process, applying marks directly to the walls of the house and washing them out to achieve the otherworldly effect she was seeking. 

Speaking of charcoal as a resilient yet ephemeral medium, Lax said, “I like it for the way that it shows marks when you try to erase it. I wanted to do something with marks on an area that are disappearing but still leaving traces; I’ve seen some of that in the community, and I wanted to work with that.”

One of the unique aspects of PRH’s Summer Studios residency is the opportunity to make art in a distinctive urban community setting, where the existence of the organization is inextricable from its neighborhood context. The immersion into Third Ward factors significantly into the artistic process for most Summer Studios participants.

008 _MG_7505.jpg

Lax’s immersion into Third Ward was an intensification of her own experience of urban relocation. Having moved to Houston from Minnesota about two years ago, Lax said that she’s still processing the differences between her small-town upbringing and life in the fourth-largest American city.  

“Moving to Houston, a lot of things stood out to me about urban life,” Lax admitted.  “Things that have to do with the imagery or dynamics of urban spaces kept coming up in my work for the past year because these are part of my experience of a new place.  I’m trying to sort through, ‘why does this feel really different?’”

Narrowing the scope of the conversation, Lax spoke about some of the remarkable aspects of Third Ward.

“Most of the things I’ve heard coming out of this area is that it’s a really historic area – it holds traces of an ‘old Houston’ that you don’t really see in the rest of the city – but it’s simultaneously disappearing.  Even in my time at Project Row Houses, from watching videos and walking around the community and talking to people about it, it’s like this weird interchange between being able to see a lot of permanence in some ways and also impermanence.”

020 _MG_7529.jpg

It’s the personal aspect that has captured Lax’s attention the most – and that personal aspect renders issues of erasure all the more poignant for her.  

“There’s a lot of buildings and things that are changing, things disappearing that nobody really expected to,” Lax pointed out.  “This is a residential area, primarily, and it’s weird when it comes down to places where people used to live – like the parts of the community that were cut out when the highway went through [in reference to the displacement that happened when Highway 288 was built], or plots of land being bought up that people used to live on.”

“This is a neighborhood first and foremost,” Lax emphasized.  “It’s weirder for that to change than something like a business district, because in some ways there are more human memories steeped in this.”

The structures and the schedule of the neighborhood have been portals for Lax to glimpse the human side of the Third Ward.  

In addition to her paper installations, she worked with projections and video work, ultimately deciding to move away from them. The clips she recorded while biking around the neighborhood capture her own orientation to the neighborhood and still served as reference materials for the final installation.  

“I’ll film on the way [home], typically…in the evening,” she said. “It’s an interesting time to be riding around in the area because there’s really so much visual beauty with the contrast of the light, and it’s also when people are getting home from work, so you have people sitting on their porches and stuff like that. It’s easy to find these little images of people really living.”

Speaking directly to the prevalence of porches, Lax said, “I love the porch motif in a lot of the old houses around here. That’s something you don’t get in a lot of new developments, but it’s a great feature. I had a friend who used to live close to TSU, and that was part of his daily ritual: just coming out on the porch, sitting there, smoking, talking to friends who’d pass by. I really like that about the structure of the area here.”

Lax said the architecture is something for which she’s developed a particular fondness.  In ways reminiscent of John Biggers’ affection for shotgun houses, Lax recognizes that architecture is the framework for the strong sense of residential community.  

022 _MG_7535.jpg

“It reminds me a lot of the places where my parents grew up that I’ve spent time in: these older neighborhoods where everybody knows each other.  There are all these human ties in the area.” These human ties help Lax connect to the neighborhood and establish a sense of universality.

“This is not an area I’m from,” she acknowledged, “but this is something that connects to the area I’m from.  Nothing exists in a vacuum.”

-
Maureen Lax is a sculptor and University of Houston senior who combines video, sound, and sculptural elements to create immersive installations. Through her work she approaches topics like familiarity and alienation, passage, and the psychological effects of spaces.

Goddesses in Third Ward: Faith Schwartz

Goddesses in Third Ward

Interview by McKenzie Watson
Photos by Alex Barber

6I6B9852.jpg

After a 20-year career in hospitality, Schwartz recently started taking classes at Texas Southern University to study painting. “I call this the second half of my life,” she explained with a smile.

“I never really considered myself ‘the artist,’” Schwartz stated, although she has nurtured a lifelong interest in drawing and painting. “I wanted to do something different, something better, something that I’m happy with doing,” she said. “I decided to come back to school because I felt like life could be something more.”  

For her Summer Studios residency, Schwartz created a series of paintings depicting an array of goddesses reimagined as superheroes.

004 _MG_7738.jpg

A divorced mother of three finally pursuing her passion, Schwartz embodies the superheroes she paints. “I’ve always painted women,” she stated, “and I think it’s because I’m a woman who has been through some struggles. You know, the insecurity factor, the feeling that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have any direction of your own – you’re defined by so many other things besides who you are sometimes.”  

The subjects of her paintings are goddesses from a variety of mythos. When asked why she chose to depict them as superheroes, Schwartz explained, “I have a comic book style because that’s how I view women, as these really strong, complex, colorful beings – constantly fighting for a direction, for a word, and once we get it, the goddess in us is released.” 

The goddess is you is the theme of Schwartz’s installation. She painted goddesses culled from mythologies around the world, painted in settings and with details appropriate to their historic associations.

016 _MG_7775.jpg

“At first it was just African mythology, but I decided to open it up,” Schwartz stated. “It’s not just women of color; I view women universally in this way. I’ve opened it up to all races, all nationalities, so that everyone can be honored.”  

Because her subjects have distinct socio-cultural and historical settings, Schwartz extensively researches each goddess prior to starting a painting. “Each goddess that I’m representing, a lot of thought and research is going into it,” she acknowledged. “Even though it’s in a fun way, I still want to connect them to who they are and what they represent.”    

While Schwartz hopes that visitors to her installation will be able to relate to each of the goddesses, one painting in particular stands out in terms of its relevance to the Third Ward. “I want people when they walk through the door to be able to say ‘That’s my community,’” Schwartz explained, “and that’s when I came up with the idea of Ododua in Third Ward.”

Ododua is the goddess associated with Kwanzaa, family, community and good fortune.  Schwartz painted Ododua surrounded by Third Ward landmarks, including Jack Yates High School and Project Row Houses.  “It’ll be really intense; she’ll be praying blessings on Third Ward,” Schwartz explained.

017 _MG_7778.jpg

“The way that they fight for the history and to keep it maintained the way that it is, I think that’s very commendable and to be admired about the residents of Third Ward,” she said. “I really wanted to connect this to them.”  

Faith Schwartz was born and raised on the New Jersey Shore and has been a resident of Houston for the past four years. She is currently enrolled in the Art Program at Texas Southern University. Schwartz is a representational artist who utilizes drawing, painting and collage work as well as vibrant color, texture, and pattern, typically portraying women. 

Schwartz understands that the task of being a woman is a great one and embraces every moment. In her work, she addresses the struggle of self-acceptance in womanhood as a means of female empowerment, believing that women bear the strength to press on and accept themselves in the midst of insecurities. She portrays women as symbols of strength, highlighting style, grace and sexuality.