Drawing Things Together
A story about becoming an artist—from looking at the overlooked, to the spectacle of urban rodeos.
The 1981 Houston Livestock Show was spreading rodeo fever throughout the city, but I was more interested in going next door to play with my best friend and her large collection of Legos. I also loved to browse her parents' classical record collection and admire their living room full of modern Percival Lafer furniture. On rainy days, we would sit together in Lafer's chrome and leather "Earth Chair" for a story-time reading of the Little Red Hen, which my friend's mom would liven up with hilarious expletives. So it came as a surprise when the very different aesthetic world of Texan rodeo culture inspired my first serious project as an artist.
My third grade art teacher at Lamkin Elementary gave our class an assignment to draw something “western” in celebration of Rodeo week. I thought far too long about it, frustrating myself to near paralysis, but eventually drew a glorious crayon image of a Native American clay pot on a large sheet of manilla paper. The pot featured a zig-zag pattern with a phoenix, which I pulled from my memory of an image I had seen in a copy of Sunset Magazine about the American southwest.
I was nine years old when I made that drawing, and I can still feel the frustration of getting the proportions of the pot just so. I remember the time it took to meticulously draw the repeating pattern of the phoenix, which somehow seemed to float on another plane of the paper. I remember how flat the pot looked, not like the real thing, and I remember both hating and liking that flatness.
Most of all, there was the satisfaction of having drawn the only picture in the class of, well, a pot. The rest of the boys challenged each other to draw cowboys taming kicking mustangs, while the girls grouped together to draw Pre-Raphaelite-like lambs in fields of bluebonnets, reminiscent of scenes from our copies of By the Shores of Silver Lake.
No, this pot stood apart from the boys' idea of nature tamed into submission, as well as the girls' idea of it admired at a dreamy distance. Something utilitarian seemed more appropriately “western” to me; a still life of an everyday object drawn before I knew anything about genres of domesticity in the history of art. It was an object of earthen clay, fire hardened and painted with aesthetic austerity, but teeming with life and emotion.
My teacher, Ms. Hopkins, liked the drawing enough to engage the class in a brief conversation about the story it told, and she gave me a silent glance to acknowledge the one it implied. I had unconsciously expressed a resistance to the roles that others performed around me.
My clay pot rested beside the pack of wild mustangs and fields of wildflowers, and like it, I sat on the periphery of my classmates as they talked about it. I found the critique exciting and empowering in the classroom, but regretted it later, when the bullies teased me on the tetherball courts.
Nevertheless, my drawing became an agent, and it performed something of my fashion, something like the austerity of my neighbor’s all-white modern living room.
Ms. Hopkins selected the drawing as our class entry for the school-wide rodeo art contest, and it advanced through successive layers of competition within the school system. Eventually, it made its way to the city-wide exhibition at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
I only went to the Rodeo once, years later. I wore a black Stetson hat with a silver mustang stick-pin attached to the brim, and I saw Charlie Pride on a revolving stage (my first live music concert). But in 1981, I didn’t get to see my art on display at the Astrodome. As was often the case, my parents had many other concerns to attend to. My father was often away, tending to the business of black gold. My mother worked all day as a bookkeeper, folding the laundry, cooking dinner and caring for my sister who was born with Down syndrome and autism.
Several weeks or months after the contest, my picture returned. It had been put in a beveled mat, with various notes attached to the back, and a large blue ribbon from the City of Houston. Its new attachments hinted at a trail of wonderful stories from its long journey.
The framed and festooned drawing enchanted me, for it was the first, and still one of the few times in my life, where something that I made seemed to find its proper place in the world. I felt a Rousselian star on my nine year-old forehead. More significantly, I took up the habits of an artist.
Surprising are the ways that a booming economy (fueled by new scientific advances in offshore drilling) can transform a livestock auction (of animals bred in laboratories at Texas A&M University) into a cultural performance of a city’s unbridled expansion (and inevitable bust) by bestowing blue ribbons not only to the best heiffers, but to an introverted child’s drawing of a decimated nation’s petty wares.