Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Grace Bashara Greene

Pete Gershon

[When Pete Gershon wrote Painting the Town Orange: The Stories Behind Houston's Visionary Art Environments (which we reviewed last week), one chapter dealing with four Houston artists had to be excised for space reasons. Gershon has graciously given us permission to publish the chapter as four separate blog posts on The Great God Pan Is Dead. This is the first.]

Collections of things: not of baseball cards or coins or Faberge eggs, but of the cast-off, used-up detritus of society. It’s a recurring theme in the environments in this book, whether they be the architectural leftovers used to build the Orange Show, John Milkovisch’s beer cans, the junk given new life by Cleveland Turner and Bob Harper, or the ladies’ shoes that fill Notsuoh. The obsessive gathering and presentation of stuff can be a valid artistic statement in and of itself.

I’d spent a couple of hours with architect Cameron Armstrong discussing Houston’s site-specific works over burgers and beers. The morning after, he sent me an e-mail. “Since last night, the idea of discarded objects, ‘thrown-away’ but then recovered and repurposed as (part of) art work has kept coming to mind,” he wrote. “Until our conversation, I had not yet thought how thoroughly our attitude towards culturally obsolescent objects reflects disdain and even revulsion at the past, the out-of-date, the non-presentday. As a form of pollution perhaps, or beyond that even a moral defilement of the present moment (merely by their persistence). It's as if Houston's forward-lookingness experiences the past (especially its objects) as an ideological kind of dirt and an existential threat.”

“In that light,” he continues, “selectively collecting castoffs as material of/for art -- which is what all of the artists in question have been doing -- would seem quite literally a recuperation of (potentially deep) meaning. Here's a thought: working as a junk artist in Minneapolis perhaps means only just using junk; in Houston it might instead have monumental implications.”

Grace Bashara Greene's house

Perhaps nobody accumulated more objects than Grace Bashara Greene. For more than forty years she lived in a handsome, historic brick home in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. On the outside, it looked like any other of the well-tended, early-century houses constructed up and down Avondale Street when oil money began to flow into the city. Behind the drawn drapes, however, it was another matter entirely. Clogging the dark, smoky interior was a dizzying conglomeration of stuff: narrow paths led through mountains of handkerchiefs, model cars, hats, feathers, Buddhist figurines, vintage advertising signs, books, records, toys, bits of barbed wire and stained glass and broken mirrors gathered in boxes, a subway clock, the horn from a Victrola, a barber’s pole, and the piece de resistance: The Button Lady, a dressmaker’s mannequin Grace covered with thousands of spools, brooches, sparkling appliqués, and buttons of every shape, color and size. Where the head would be was a blinking light bulb.

When the Orange Show’s Eye Opener Tour came to call in the mid-‘90s, Grace’s home was described in the brochure as “a memory box, filled to the brink with her creations. Carefully cut and pasted fabrics, trays and spiraling shelves -- this is the fabric of her life. Grace's work is a tribute to the enduring memories and experiences of her life as a woman who is both a mother and an artist."

“Honey, I had a fifteen room house filled with antiques,” she told writer Randall Patterson, who interviewed her for the Houston Press in 1997. “It’s not a matter of clinging to the past, it’s a matter of not throwing anything away.” Indeed, she seemed to be congenitally unable to let go: not of the objects that came into her life, and most of all, not of anything that reminded her of her only daughter, Elizabeth. She kept not only Lizzy’s baby shoes and the invitation and bouquet from her wedding, but also all of her baby clothes, her schoolwork, pins and certificates from the clubs she joined as a girl, the pompons from her cheerleading days and her corsages from dances otherwise long forgotten.

At the time that Patterson took up Grace’s story, Lizzy was living in the posh River Oaks subdivision with her husband, an investment banker named Tom Hargrove. They had just liquidated her mother’s vast and cluttered estate and moved her into their sunny backyard guesthouse, where she whiled away her days smoking cigarettes in an antique bed with her decrepit poodle beside her. “Kind of reminds me of me,” she told Patterson as she gazed at her dog, “old and broken down.” Soon after, Grace was keeping the poodle alive on a respirator. Grace died in August 2004, and now, in 2012, Lizzy lives just around the corner from my house, in a converted corner grocery store decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, wind chimes, deer antlers, garden statuary and a profusion of flowering plants. The sidewalk is strewn with birdseed; geese honk at passersby from inside the fence.

Grace Bashara Greene

Howard, Grace and Lizzy

Grace was born on January 28, 1928 to Sam and Rose Bashara, Lebanese immigrants who never learned to speak English. Sam was a successful, self-made oilman and Grace had everything she needed but the approval of her parents, who favored her sister. Throughout her childhood, she was teased for her darker complexion by her schoolmates, but did well as she went on to Lamar High School and the University of Houston. She married Howard Greene, the son of poor Arkansas farmers, and Lizzy arrived soon after in 1945. Grace’s parents thought she chose poorly, and the hard-drinking Howard proved them right when he walked out on his wife and daughter. When Lizzy was three, she relates obliquely in an e-mail, “my mother had a nervous breakdown. They gave her the truth serum. That was the going drug then. She faced and admitted her fears … I came in the room and didn’t know her.” For several years, Grace and Lizzy lived with Grace’s parents in a bigger house her father had built in River Oaks at the corner of Inwood and Kirby. But when Grace’s mother threw away her prized Mickey Mouse watch, she snapped, and moved with Lizzy to her childhood home at 414 Avondale, which her father still owned. “It was like Mrs. Greene had been sprung from prison,” says Molly Oldfield, Lizzy’s best friend growing up (and the surrogate Lizzy designated when I first approached her for an interview). “It was also the time when she became financially on her own. I don’t know how she made it.”

Grace worked for herself, setting up a business selling insurance to truckers during school hours, and establishing her role as an outsized presence in her daughter’s life. She was the den mother for Lizzy’s Brownie troop and the room mother for her class from kindergarten through twelfth grade. She signed Lizzie up for swimming lessons, dance lessons, piano lessons, modeling lessons, did her homework and her art projects for her, and opened their home to Lizzy’s friends. “Mrs. Greene gave us the opportunity to express our creative badness because she was the same way,” remembers Oldfield. “We weren't really bad, just ‘bad,’ and it's a wonder we didn't get arrested for our pranks. All we knew was that none of us had mothers like Mrs. Greene and we couldn't get out of our houses fast enough to be set free.”

Grace might wake up Lizzy and her friends during a slumber party to take them out to see some go-go dancers, or smuggle them into a drive-in movie in the trunk of her car. “Mrs. Greene got a new car every year because within 12 months her car would be beat up, dented and tired,” says Oldfield. “One time we were in the parking lot of the old River Oaks drug store across from Lamar High School. She had a light blue Oldsmobile convertible, brand new, top of the line. She backed into a big steel post, hard, and it was just an ‘oh, well.’ She never gave it another thought!”

At the same time, Grace started experimenting with her own creative tendencies, using a card table in her bedroom as a workspace. “She made montages of people and things she cut out of magazines and glued on top of each other with paper doilies, glitter and other stuff,” says Oldfield. “At the time, I couldn't see the art of it. I'd never seen anything like it. She didn't get it from her family. She didn't get it from our parents who loaned us to her. She didn't get it from us. She didn't get it from anyone or see it anywhere. I don't know where it came from. She was extraordinary.”

Having invested everything she had in her daughter, Grace fell into depression after Lizzy left home in 1967 to attend college at North Texas State University in Denton. Lizzy married, graduated, and continued to model, but having tasted freedom, she kept a distance from her mother even after she returned to Houston. Alone in the house on Avondale, Grace filled the gap carting trinkets home from antique stores and yard sales until they reached the ceiling, and she busied herself making elaborate collages out of the items her daughter had left behind. She showered her daughter with gifts that carried both emotional and physical weight. She crafted a shawl for Lizzie that an art critic would later describe as “pristine and ethereal in its delicacy, belying the weight of hundreds of pieces of antique lace and tiny trinkets hand-sewn together.” It was so heavy Lizzy couldn’t wear it. She made a scrapbook that chronicled her daughter’s modeling career in minute detail, but it was so thick Lizzy couldn’t lift it.

the shawl by Grace Bashara Greene

In turn, Lizzy gave her mother a parakeet in an attempt to bring some life to her dark, congested space. Grace stuffed the bird’s cage with toys and food until there was no room for it to fly. It thrashed around in a panic and died; she cremated the remains in the yard and kept the ashes by her bed in a metal tin. Lizzy routinely had meals delivered to her mother’s house. Grace stockpiled them in the freezer.

detail of the shawl

But what Lizzy found suffocating, others found fascinating. In 1993, Houston’s Art League presented the cumbersome shawl and the button-encrusted dress form alongside sculptures local artist Carter Ernst wrought from old tires. When Ernst’s friend Susanne Theis arrived at the opening, she was surprised to find Lizzy there. They’d known each other for years, yet Lizzy had never mentioned her mother’s work to Susanne. For the next few years, Grace’s house would be a regular stop on the Orange Show’s Eyeopener tours.

inside Grace Bashara Greene's house

Filmmaker Laurie MacDonald visited in 1996 while compiling her documentary film about key Eyeopener tour participants. Amidst the chaotic home décor, Grace futzed with handfuls of largely indistinguishable bric-a-brac in shadow boxes and showed off the Button Lady. “I think all my pieces are masterpieces,” she remarked with a twinkle in her eye, laboring to breathe as she inspected the mannequin, a cigarette dangling from her lips. “When you’re good, you’re good, kiddo.”

When Grace fell and broke her hip later that year, she spent time in the hospital, where doctors felt they detected the early signs of Alzheimer’s. By then her family money and savings had long since run out; she was living on social security checks and food stamps. Realizing her mother would no longer be able to care for herself, Lizzy reluctantly moved her into her backyard apartment. She made it clear to Grace that an invitation was required to enter the main house, and despite his dutiful efforts to support and care for his difficult mother-in-law, Lizzy’s husband Tom bore the brunt of the tension between the two women. “Oh, you son of a bitch,” she snarled when he reduced her poodle’s food supply to two cans a day from twelve, as the Press reporter Randall Patterson looked on in discomfort. Grace brought a few things with her to River Oaks, but Tom and Lizzy had the rest of the contents of 414 Avondale sold off (the auctioneer resorted to a shovel to make his way though it all in what was surely the largest estate sale ever held in the Montrose neighborhood). The house itself was sold, too. It’s still there, subdivided now as a rental property, the Bashara name still set into the sidewalk in blue and white tile.

“I know my work’s good,” Grace said, staring down the lens of Laurie McDonald’s camera with a smirk, as if to challenge all skeptics in perpetuity. “I’m not apologizing if that sounds conceited. If no one wants to recognize me, that’s fine, I don’t care.”

Grace Bashara Greene, The Button Lady and interior views of her house

That recognition finally came, however. In 2002, Lizzy’s unwieldy shawl and even the Button Lady found their way to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, where they are now displayed alongside the work of outsider artists Ted and Zona Gordon and Judith Ann Scott in an exhibit entitled “OCD: Obsessive-Compulsive Delight.” Introductory wall text by the museum’s director, Rebecca Hoffberger reads: “In its more benign manifestations, OCD can serve as a key ingredient in the process of generating prolific, intensely focused, and often meticulously detailed creative production of all sort. Hyper-conscious teachers, researchers, theorists, chefs, medical staff, writers, performers, sports stars, and visionary artists frequently display elements of OCD behavior that actually aid in bringing about extraordinary, beneficial results and performances.”

It’s a salient point. “I want my surgeon to be washing his hands, checking the chart all the time,” Hoffberger tells me. “You know the ballplayers who have to scratch their balls, rub their nose every time they step up to the plate? It’s those rituals that we more often forgive in sports figures, but there’s ritualized behavior to some degree in most of us, whether it’s a certain pair of shoes, or a certain perfume. Most people who aren’t visionary artists have a bit of that.” Grace traveled to Baltimore with Lizzy and Tom for the pieces’ installation. “I was glad she was able to be celebrated,” Lizzy told me when we eventually spoke, fondly recalling the scramble of photographers and even makeup artists from the Body Shop. “I was just glad her work would be protected. If a pin dropped, they all ran to pick it up. Surreal, really. Only a museum can protect the fragility of broken-hearted art.”

“There’s a term, horror vacui,” says Hoffberger. “The fear of the void. I think that applies here.” She cites the famous hoarders Homer and Langley Collyer—who stuffed their New York City apartment with 14 pianos, the chassis of an old Model T, and even human organs pickled in jars—as examples of such obsession taken to the unhealthiest extreme, but then points to the Australian Bowerbird, whose colorfully decorated mating dens, she says, “would make Andy Goldsworthy jealous. That kind of behavior, to be surrounded by things, and all the better if it’s one’s own creation, there’s something in that. I think Grace was not just compulsive in her collecting. She had a very rich visual vocabulary of beauty. She was very driven to express herself, and how lucky we are for that.”

Lizzy brought breakfast out to the guesthouse one morning in August of 2004. “I laid the breakfast tray down and knew she was dead,” she writes in a late-night e-mail. She called the Bradshaw Carter funeral home, which arrived with chocolates and expensive candles. “In two days they created an art slide show with photographs, champagne and a piano player. They dressed her in geisha silks for the wake; I rubbed oil on her hands and feet. Tommy was horrified, but it felt right, like the pieces of your life you try and assemble. I never realized until now all she sacrificed for me, a horror, really. She was tough. She was who she was. I miss her daily.”

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