Vacancies: The Tire Dump

19 04 2011

Aka the one that lasted less than 24 hours. . .  When I returned the next day, they were already removed, making this the third piece that has had a short life-span. They were gone before I could get any quality photos as well.

Seeing numerous piles of tires dumped in vacant lots or roadsides, I decided to play around with language, putting creative language where commercial language typically resides. (Unfortunately, it was still trash to someone.) I wrote this short poem specifically for the tires.

This is more commentary than I normally make alongside a poem, but I feel like giving some background to what brought the piece about. The 1st Ward was once the site of a Civil War mass grave — over which Jefferson Davis Hospital (now Elder Street Artist Lofts) was built — and I saw a connection between these acts of mass disposing of “expendables.” Two improper burials, with wider social implications. The subnarrative–the underlying connection–is the mass pushing out of people of color–having first dumped them into the ghetto then pushing them out again now that this land is desirable.

Dump us
in mass
graves, like
dead, like
runaway slaves
breath and noose.

Sacrament of the Ordinary: Aging.

15 04 2011

“None of us knows what the next change is going to be, what unexpected opportunity is just around the corner, waiting a few months or a few years to change all the tenor of our lives.” — Kathleen Norris

Portrait: Mamita Rivas, 100 years old
Location: First Ward, Houston, TX
Photographer: Kate Ambrose
Date: March 2011 

Wait…that’s not a for sale sign… (New Vacancies Installation)

8 04 2011

This week my last sign piece finally saw installation. Digging into Houston’s rocky soil was a huge barrier, but I finally settled on an abandoned lot on Spring Street, a block and a half from our house. The spot is next to Mallalieu Methodist Church and in view of two luxury loft clusters.

(click for larger image)

The Vacancies project started with observation (seeing the landscape, listening to stories) and with play (writing and painting, putting poetry where it “doesn’t belong,” ie, a for sale sign). This poem underwent an interesting transformation from three stanzas about undeveloped land in my hometown (Rancho Cucamonga, California) to a six-stanza meditation on the vacant, abandoned lots in the First Ward, and the wave of new construction, where new lofts are being built for and purchased by young, wealthy urban professionals. After this piece, the next few move away from the real estate sign mimicry — although I may return to it. New directions are coming. Stay tuned.

Rothko Chapel: silence, contemplation, and art in a busy city

8 03 2011

Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church.
Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel whose face I couldn’t see embraced me
and his whisper went all through my body:
“Don’t be ashamed to be a human being, be proud!
Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.”
Tears blinded me
as we were herded out into the fiercely sun-lit piazza,
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini;
within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.
Tomas Tranströmer
Trans. Robert Bly

Late Thursday night, as Carter Abel and I [Matt] walked down Shearn St. on our way back from a lovely man-date,  we noticed the strange quietness around us. It was just after 10 pm, the traffic on Houston Avenue and the adjacent freeways had subsided from the stream of white noise, sirens, and rumbles, to a sputter of cars. We could hear our own feet on the sidewalk, and the chirp of crickets replaced the roar of engines.

The city is a noisy place, and I have no doubt that it has an effect on the minds of its denizens. Detaching from the privilege of a private vehicle has removed the seal of noise and choice of what to hear–radio, cd, silence–and subjected me to the barrage of noise that the urban poor face: the bus, for example–hissing of hydraulics, recorded voices and beeps signaling stops, the occasional person with headphone-music that the whole bus can hear.

In January I made a small Sabbath retreat to the Rothko Chapel, which I had intended on visiting for the sake of seeing the work of an artist I admire, and wound up finding a place of silence and solace. I had many thoughts about the art and the chapel as a work–but what stuck with me was the sudden and total silence in comparison to the busyness and noisiness of Houston. The paintings within the chapel embody this place of silence, their composition based merely on color and texture, removes a layer of narrative noise that we normally seek in art–a direction of what to think and feel. In contrast to classical chapel-art–Michelangelo for example–where there is a narrative arc, Rothko’s pieces dwell in emptiness, much like contemplative prayer.

Thinking about silence challenged me to work on my Vacancies paintings without the accompaniment of headphones–as was my habit–subjecting myself to noise around, the people milling around Taft, and to my own thoughts. This, I will admit had it’s good and bad sides: opening up more conversation with people, while having to listen to some . . . interesting music choices by the baristas. It also has spurred my thinking about how large the role of silence in art is–how rhythm is built just as much on silence as sound, what note is hit as when nothing is played, just as negative space plays a role in a painter’s composition. For Lent, which begins this week, I am going to make a commitment not to use headphones at all–for a few reasons, one of which is this exploration of silence.

Garden Windows.

24 02 2011

Earlier in the year, our teammate Becky had the brilliant idea to make a series of window pieces with photo transparencies affixed inside the frames as a dual tribute to and enhancement of the life flourishing within our neighborhood community garden. Despite several false starts over the past several months as Janis Bernard (the garden overseer) and I (Kate) tried to figure out the most aesthetically pleasing spatial orientation and installation method for the garden windows, we finally hit the jackpot this Tuesday afternoon. Just as we (Matt, the Bernards and I) finished digging the holes for the feet of the frame, leveling them out in the uneven ground and mixing the dry concrete with water around the base of our temporary support pieces, the sun tipped over the top of the Houston skyline behind the garden. It shone through the transparencies in a golden spill of light that made each of us stop in awe… and it was good.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
— Mary Oliver

Benches: Installed.

11 02 2011

After several false attempts, we (Matt, Zach, Carter and I — Kate) finally but most successfully installed our pew-to-bench pieces in the neighborhood yesterday — and it may or may not have been one of the happiest moments of my month so far.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and…
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
— T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Vacancies [Part II]

3 02 2011

For this new piece I used my own poem (which was a lot more satisfying) that I had written a little over a year ago, and adapted and expanded it to six three line stanzas, then arranged it as a “for sale” sign (with help from Becky on the first half). This on the lot on the corner of Summer & Holly. [read my description of the Vacancies project]




FOR SALE: Houses

like halved pears, stripped skinless,

golden in heavy syrup,


on a small plot—memorial lawn

where scattered stones; where

Joseph’s bones buried in weeds


and sunflowers, sparking wires,

twist toward heaven

from abandoned soil.


FOR SALE: steps to no porch,

door to no room, the First Ward—

the sunken ground, the muddy yard


between bayous, the basin

beneath Houston’s heights,

collecting bones since the Civil War.


Dead soldiers, dead dogs—skeleton strays—

guard these vacant lots, these unmarked

graves waiting to be built over.