by Judith Fairly
Ah, Texas; is there any place that elicits such polarized opinion as the Lone Star state, regardless of whether one has actually set foot within its borders? Even my dad, whose Scottish forebears were in Texas for three generations before his parents left to start a school next door in New Mexico, liked to tell my brothers and me that the slogan for Lucky Strike cigarettes—“L.S.M.F.T.”—actually meant “Lord Save Me From Texas.”
Its very size invites derision. There is no shortage of hubris within its borders. But one thing Texas is not is homogenous. In political terms, the larger cities tend to be islands of blue in a sea of red; if not for the profusion of western- and cowboy-themed everything, the metropolitan areas would be indistinguishable from many other American cities. And, like numerous small towns across the nation, residents of the rural areas are often provincial and clannish: this is a Bible Belt state where high school football, hunting, NASCAR, barbecue, and horsey activities still figure prominently. One doesn’t make jokes about gun ownership for the same reasons that one doesn’t tell strangers that their baby is ugly.
If everything is bigger in Texas, that’s because things have to be in order not to be subsumed into the vastness of the landscape. The horizon seems to stretch from one edge of infinity to the other, and it can take an entire day of highway travel to reach the border to neighboring states (e.g., Interstate 10 to El Paso from anywhere). The money is big, too—Dallas ranks number six of the top 10 billionaire cities of the world, according to Forbes—and the influence of petrodollars has left its mark on architecture, cultural institutions, education, and all-around fancy livin’. In times past, prominent arts patrons awash in oil money (Sid Richardson, Amon Carter, Algur Meadows, John and Dominique de Menil, Sarah Campbell Blaffler) amassed large collections that eventually made their way to museums across the state or formed the basis of thriving eponymous institutions.
That peculiar form of alchemy endemic to Texas—the transformation of ordinary folks in possession of the mineral rights on land situated above repositories of fossil fuels into petro-millionaires—continues to be a familiar phenomenon. Freshly-minted millionaires looking for art to fill the cavernous spaces of their newly-constructed manses join the growing ranks of art aficionados venturing to Texas in search of work to add to their collections. It’s a great time to be an artist in the land of bluebonnets; even the last U.S. president from Texas has reinvented himself as a painter of portraits.
For visitors seeking a glimpse into what’s going on in art communities across Texas, the Austin-Fredericksburg-Marfa axis in the southwest part of the state offers an alternative to the art-and-culture junket on most big-city travel itineraries. The airport in Austin provides a good starting point for this trek, if the city itself is a sprawling nightmare of endless road construction and terrible traffic. Austin is caught up in an all-too-familiar struggle to hang onto the qualities that made it unique—a mellow, artsy 1970s Topanga Canyon vibe—at the same time it has become the fastest-growing large city in the U.S. Exhortations by long-time residents to “Keep Austin Weird” is, I fear, a lost cause as the city falls prey to land development on a Brobdingnagian scale and the soaring cost of living contributes to growing discord between Austin’s counterculture ambience and its new establishment.
To get a sense of what Austin’s about, come for the festivals and myriad music events that are an essential part of its DNA. Buy a souvenir t-shirt with the slogan, “Welcome to Austin. Please Don’t Move Here.” Have a cucumber-jalapeño or prickly pear margarita at one of the dozens of trendy downtown establishments. Get you some barbecue, as my neighbors might say. Take a dip in the cooling waters at Hippie Hollow, the city’s clothing-optional swimming hole. Contemplate the words of wisdom on the outdoor sign at El Arroyo (known to locals as “The Ditch”): “Be Yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then be Batman.” Have another margarita—a Blue Hawaiian this time—and a tubular taco at Hula Hut, a Mexican/Polynesian hybrid on Lake Travis. Visit the Cathedral of Junk, a landmark that was almost dismantled when it became the locus of a battle characterized as “art versus real estate” by the townsfolk who rallied to its defense.
If you’re interested in Texas’s bona fides, stop by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to learn about the state’s pioneering environmental preservationist and her ongoing legacy to environmental research and ecosystem design. Set aside some time for the LBJ Presidential Library and the Gallery of Great Texas Women on the campus of the University of Texas. Before you leave campus, stroll over to the University’s Blanton Museum of Art to view work by Texas artists. Take a tour of the Contemporary Austin at Laguna Gloria (formerly the Austin Museum of Art), a lovely Italianate villa on the shores of Lake Austin. (artaustin.org) The city is rife with green architecture and gallery shows and cultural events and avant-garde cuisine but there’s a undercurrent of desperation to maintain—or to monetize—what makes it authentic. It’s unclear what hospitable—or proprietary—impulses drive local experts to publish guides on the internet to the establishments and events and attitudes that constitute the “real” Austin (365thingsaustin.com; austin.culturemap.com; hipstercrite.com), but history suggests that they will almost certainly hasten the decline of those things that Austinites love best.
The next stop on the itinerary is Fredericksburg, a small town in the Texas Hill Country—widely considered the most scenic part of the state—that is attempting to position itself as an art destination on a par with towns like Santa Fe. Situated on a high plateau in a valley between two creeks and encircled by seven hills, Fredericksburg is a picturesque town that blends Hill Country German farm culture with Texas’s western heritage. With few exceptions, the dozen or so galleries offer mostly representational work; recently, there has been some effort to expand gallery offerings into realms of the abstract and to represent artists who work in more expressionistic styles but Fredericksburg’s bailiwick has traditionally been art that depict regional history.
Gallery owners say that collectors of western and cowboy art belong to an older generation that is dying off and tastes are changing. (I’ve observed a romanticized attachment to history among younger Texans but I have no idea how that might translate into their future as collectors.) You wouldn’t know that the genre’s future is in peril based on offerings at Fredericksburg’s thriving galleries, however.
I’m generally not a fan of contemporary cowboy-and-western art because it can be sentimental and because it often reflects a more conservative narrative. One makes me queasy and the other makes me queasier. But back to that notion of authenticity: most of the artists whose work I encountered in Fredericksburg have ranching backgrounds and/or they paint the world they know. They’re not pandering to the tourist trade. Some are, amazingly, self-taught, and others have MFAs. And there’s no arguing with the fine quality of the work. (Indeed, I wished that I had access to Uncle Scrooge McDuck’s bank account on more than one occasion.) A sampling of the artists:
- At Cowboy Bronze, Bub Vickers’s sculptures veer between caricature and pathos in gravity-defying designs that employ space and point of view to great effect, exaggerating gesture and drawing the viewer into a narrative where the outcome is uncertain. In his paintings, Vickers employs a limited palette to great expressionistic effect.
- At Agave Gallery, self-taught sculptor John Bennett’s figures evoke a romantic image of the American cowgirl. His large-scale sculptures of extraordinary women like Annie Oakley and Lady Bird Johnson commemorate their place in western history.
- At Fredericksburg Art Gallery, Phil Bob Borman deconstructs objects in his monumental cloudscapes into planes of color and light that, when viewed from a distance, coalesce into an anthemic visual experience. Also: Jack Terry’s narrative cowboy portraits, Fran Rowe’s resplendent western panoramas, Michael Baum’s protean portrayals of mountains and canyons, and Steve Talley’s vibrantly-hued earthscapes.
- At Whistle Pik Galleries, sculptor Glenna Goodacre, whose commissions include the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington DC. Also, Fredericksburg icon G. Harvey, whose work has evolved beyond “cactus, cowboys and cattle” during his long career.
- At InSight Gallery: Walt Gonske’s plein air landscapes, Denise Mahlke’s elaborately layered pastels, Nancy’s Bush’s luminous tonalist paintings, fine western art by Robert Pummill and Roy Andersen, and former veterinarian John Fawcett’s photorealistic watercolors.
- At RS Hanna Gallery, Marc R. Hanson’s plein air landscapes, architectural artist/architect Thomas Schaller’s crystalline watercolors, Aaron Schuerr’s oil and pastel landscapes, Robert Spooner’s complex color variations, Rusty Jones’s loosely-rendered geological portraits.
Next Time: Road Trip to Marfa
If you decide to visit Texas, by all means avoid the summer months, when the heat is unbearable. (The Hill Country peaches will be ripe, however, and that’s no small consolation.)
In Fredericksburg: Come in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom. Stay in one of the charming “Sunday houses” at Fredericksburg Herb Farm or at one of the many B&Bs. Visit the many local wineries and breweries. No matter what the locals tell you, avoid August E’s and try the Cabernet Grill instead.