Sunday, July 3, 2022

A Little Reminder that The Great God Pan Is Dead has Moved

 If you have a subscription to this blog, you may have noticed that it has been silent for almost a year. While it would be reasonable to conclude that I just got bored with it and quit, I have in fact been writing on at a new blog host. The name of this new blog is still The Great God Pan Is Dead

Recent post have been on a Ukrainian ballerina who joined the army to fight the Russian invaders, a Chinese fabulist who wrote over a million words of made-up histoty for Chinese Wikipedia, and this year's version of Lawndale's long-running Big Show. Come over and check them out!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Zine Fest is Coming!

 Robert Boyd

This Saturday, at the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, Zine Fest Houston returns for its latest iteration. It has been running every year, except for last year for obvious reasons, since 2004. You may have gone to the Orange Show in years past, but this is a brand new thing. There is a large parking lot and covered structure behind the Orange Show structure and Smither Park. That’s where the festival will be held. The space is covered but open to the elements, but the weather forecast is excellent.

This was Zine Fest in 2013, held at the printing museum. The Printing Museum seems a logical choice for hosting a zine festival, but its crowded warren of rooms is not idea for setting up tables.

This is me manning my booth in 2018, when they held the festival at Lawndale Art Center.

As I remind readers at the end of every post that I have a Patreon account. There are two levels of support—”nymphs and dryads” pay $1/month. “Great Gods” pay $5/month. Great Gods get a premium for their support—they get one zine, produced by me, mailed to them free of charge. I am working on the zine now—I will be printing it up to sell at Zine Fest Houston and to mail out to my patrons. I haven’t physically produced copies (working on that today), but it has been written, illustrated, and designed.

And I want to preview to cover here.

I hope I will see all of you there at Zine Fest Houston this Saturday, November 13th, noon-6pm!

(And if you can’t make it to Zine Fest, I will be putting this zine up on my Storenvy store. And if you’d like it for free, you can getting it by supporting my work by becoming a patron.)

Monday, November 8, 2021

Kevin Cunningham on Founding and Moving On from Commerce Street Artists Warehouse

 Robert Boyd

Kevin Cunningham is a playwright, director, and producer involved in New York theater through the organization he founded and runs, 3-Legged Dog Media and Theater. But in the 80s, he was an art student then a writing student at the University of Houston. He was at Lawndale when it housed the art department, and he and Wes Hicks decided they wanted to maintain that Lawndale vibe in a new location. That location was the Commerce Street Artist Warehouse (aka CSAW), which existed from 1985 and 2007. I’m interested in CSAW and the effect it had on the Houston art scene, so I’ve been trying to speak to many of its early denizens. The first two parts of this project (it may be too grandiose to refer to these disparate efforts as a “project”) are my interview with Wes Hicks. (You can read part 1 and part 2 here.) This interview was conducted in 2016 and transcribed earlier this year.

[Note on the photographs: unless indicated, I do not have permission to use any of the photos here, unless I’m the photographer. Please let me know if you own the copyrights to any of them and I will happily remove them.]

“For a young artist, taking over 27,000 square feet changes your notion of the possibilities for scale.” — Kevin Cunningham

ROBERT BOYD: You were one of the first 4 people at CSAW. How did you four get together and how did it start?

KEVIN CUNNINGHAM: It was actually me, Steve Wellman, and Deborah Moore and Wes Hicks. We all had studio space at the Lawndale Art Center. We were all graduate students or students there. And we were looking for large space where we could do big things. I can’t remember if it was me or Wes, but one of us ran across this old empty warehouse, 27,000 square feet. And it had about six inches of styrofoam dust coated all over everything. And we talked to the landlord, and there's no zoning or anything, so we got it for $1000/month. And we split that between ourselves. We each took a part of the space. Wes and Deborah decided they wanted to live there, so they took the front area. And we each took a chunk of the floor. We got these high-pressure cleaners and spent weeks spraying the place out. It was a mess, a massive mess. And a nightmare. We'd get fiberglass in our skin. It probably was not very wise in terms of toxicity. But we were taking care of our own toxicity at the time.

BOYD: Before that, you were a grad student at UH art? Getting an MFA?

CUNNINGHAM: I was getting a BFA in sculpture and installation art, and I got really bored with my sculpture, which is how I ended up where I am now. I was tired of objects just sitting there. So I was actually taking a sophomore creative writing class, and I realized I had to turn in a short story the next day, so I just started writing a list of all the junk that had accumulated in my studio, as if I were an archeologist from the 40th century. I turned it in in desperation to my instructor. The next day, Donald Barthelme came storming into my studio with the story in his hand. "Did you write this?" I was like, "Uh... Yeah..." He was my favorite author at the time. I don't know if you've ever seen a picture of him. He sort of looked like God. And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Come with me." He took me and walked across campus into his graduate creative writing workshop. So I ended up getting a masters degree in creative writing and literature there at the UH Creative Writing Department.

It was a little bit before we formed CSAW that I ended up in the creative writing program. I was going through the creative writing program while I was working at CSAW.

BOYD: So while you were at CSAW, were you creating visual art?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. I was mostly making these big, crazy artists books.

BOYD: I read about them.

CUNNINGHAM: I was also working to try to incorporate video and sound into my sculpture at that time, too. And I also had begun doing these built performance events... Another thing that happened was that Don was insistent that I take poetry classes. And the poetry instructor at the time was this woman who began her poetry classes by saying, "You know, I've had writer's block for the last eight years." I still don't believe in writer's block. Randy Watson and I got in trouble because we flooded the workshop with 12 poems each a day.  I tried to get out of it by sending a piece of fiction to Edward Albee, who was just then starting to teach at UH. To my shock and surprise, he called me up and said, "Is this Kevin Cunningham?" And I said, "Yes." "I would like you to join my playwriting workshop." I was one of his first playwriting students at UH. He became my friend and mentor for many years after that. So, I was also starting to move into theater at the time I was a student there at Commerce Street. I was doing lots of these collaborations, these performance installations with Michael Galbreth.

[Photo of Edward Albee by Suzanne Paul, Edward Albee, 1999, gelatin silver print, printed 2001, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Clinton T. Willour in memory of Kaye Marvins. © Estate of Suzanne Paul.]

BOYD: So, it does seem like the performance scene, such as it was, in Houston was very theater-oriented.

CUNNINGHAM: Like everything in Houston, at that time, one of the great things was that there weren't really any rules. And there were a lot of people who were getting together and trying different things. And Commerce Street in its best incarnations embodied that. There were a lot of painters at CSAW, but almost all of the artists who were working there got into performance or performative stuff. Michael Galbreth, did these endurance pieces there (where he'd lay face down in a big pile of sand for 24 hours). Wes was playing around with performance, and Deborah has always been a performer. She had her crazy, accordion-playing trickster character which she would embody. And Jim Pirtle also was involved. He wasn't a person with a studio, but he was there. Wes and I tried to keep that back bay open as a performance area. Where people could do performances. It was unequipped. The way we did things back then has now become one of my preoccupations which was that there was a lot of performance art that happens with clip lights. The reality was that performances are greatly enhanced by technology. We didn't do much technology. So yeah, we took that space over, cut out our little areas based on what we could afford, which wasn't much. I was working part-time at the Contemporary Arts Museum for six bucks an hour and I ran the Diverse Works bookstore at the same pay rate.

Michael Galbreth in 2013 at Notsuoh. Photo by Robert Boyd

BOYD: I remember that store. I bought zines there.

CUNNINGHAM: We were [at CSAW] and a couple of different guys rolled up in interesting cars. Nestor Topchy rolled up one day, in an old station wagon with some spherical forms in the back of it. Wes talked to him first. He invited him on in and gave him some space just to do some big objects; he wasn't going to stay or anything. And he ended up staying. And then Rick Lowe rolled up in a convertible one day. I think he was coming in from Alabama or Mississippi. I can't remember which. He introduced himself and just fell right in. I think Robert Campbell was the next person who came in, then Virgil Grotfeldt

BOYD: Grotfeldt was older, right?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, Virgil was older. He was really on a roll in his painting. He needed a place where he could focus, and do things looking forward. It was real ad hoc. It just formed partly out of an existing network and partly out of people just wandering in. Nestor and Rick, you know.

BOYD: I talked to Nestor and he said he'd gone over to Lawndale because he'd been accepted into the MFA program, and someone told him about Commerce Street. So he just drove over.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. From my perspective, he just rolled up. I think Wes, Steve and I were out of school by then.

BOYD: What about the performances at CSAW? Aside from the one you told me about with Michael Galbreth. The one's you were involved with--were they theatrical in nature?

CUNNINGHAM: I would classify them as experimental theater. Lyn Miller directed some of them. He's still in Houston somewhere. Malcom McDonald was involved in a few crazy things, and Wes staged some things back there, a few really dangerous things. We did a piece called Sisyphus Distracted, which was a piece about a 7/11 worker. That was done by Joel Orr. He wrote the script and I directed it. There were all kinds of little performance art or dance kind of things that would happen there, almost spontaneously. One of the things that would happen is that these big parties would happen. People would do things spontaneously. There was a lot of that sort of thing going on. But generally speaking, it was mostly quiet around there, except for, you know, like Wes's temper tantrums.

BOYD: I've heard a little bit about that. Nestor said that's why he moved out.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. Most people did. Left because Wes was so difficult.

BOYD: I have the letter from the rest of CSAW evicting Wes. It lists a series of grievances. They all seem to be very recent grievances from those people, but it seems like they must have come right from the start.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. Pretty much.

BOYD: What about exhibits that were shown at CSAW while you were there? Were there many or any of visual art?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, there were several. Almost always it was a mix, you know. Once the walls were up, which took some time, we would put together exhibits. Different people would curate. I think Robert Campbell curated a couple of them. Wes was really active with Deborah in curating stuff. I did a couple of exhibits myself, and they almost always included a performance component in the back bay, and it included a party, of course. There was a pretty active scene there for about four years, probably.

BOYD: How long were you there?

CUNNINGHAM: I don't know. [laughter] I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, now. I think I was probably there for two or three years. I was being advised by both Barthelme and Albee to leave Houston and move to New York. In 1990, two things happened. The Blue Man Group came on a P.S.122 field trip to Diverse Works. And I was actually able to help them get a big chunk of the show they were mounting at the time which turned out to be the Blue Man Group show that’s still running in New York. So they became convinced that I was a production stage manager, and offered me a job. And at the same time, Edward Albee gave me a residency at the Barn, his artist retreat in Montauk. I just moved to New York and started working with the Blue Man Group.

BOYD: This would be around 1990 or so.

CUNNINGHAM: 1990. Yeah, so I think this was probably when I left Commerce Street. I was probably still there at that time.

BOYD: What about writing? I know you wrote several things for the Public News.

CUNNINGHAM: I wrote for the Public News and for the Houston Press. Right before I left town, I made the mistake of pointing out a pattern of undue influence by Hiram Butler in the Texas collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, and was blackballed from writing in Houston.

BOYD: The Public News surely wouldn't give a shit about Hiram Butler.

CUNNINGHAM: No, it was the Houston Press.

BOYD: Really? Why do you think that would be the case?

CUNNINGHAM: That's just the way things were run back then. It was a tiny, tiny group of highly influential people out of River Oaks that were running everything. They didn't like to be embarrassed.

BOYD: Was this something you said in an article or what?

CUNNINGHAM: I outlined a pattern of what appeared to me to be undue influence by Hiram Butler and Alison De Lima Greene on the curatorial selections at the Museum of Fine Arts Texas art collection. Almost every Texas artist who was in that collection at the time was represented by Hiram Butler.

The article had no effect but to get me blackballed from writing about art in Houston. I  started writing at the Houston Press with an article about the NEA when Mel Chin was singled out by them. I had done a few reviews. Mostly I focused on institutional criticism and commentary of institutions. Criticism of institutions in Houston. As Houston artists, a lot of us were getting national and sometimes international recognition for our work, but in town we were always as sort of class-Z cheap labor force, and so we couldn’t get any cred in Houston for a long time. I think the Art Guys were the first to get anything in the Contemporary Arts Museum. Surls and Chuck Duggan and those guys--Earl Staley and Derek Boshier--came to Houston with existing reputations. They didn't have the same problem that local home-grown boys did. There was also some competition from the Core program between Lawndale and the Core program--we all got together socially a lot, but the folks in the Core program seemed to have more of a leg up than the locals. There was a lot of controversy about that always; a lot of grumbling.

It was published. That's why I got blackballed. The response to that article was unnecessarily defensive. I'm just a schlub everyday-Joe artist writing my pain and pointing out a pattern. It was a pattern that was embarrassing to some people.

I wrote one about how Bob Bullock bought paintings and shot them for target practice.

BOYD: Bought paintings from whom?

CUNNINGHAM: Houston artists. I can't remember who the artists were exactly. But he apparently bought this painting and used it for target practice.

BOYD: It wasn't finished until he shot it.

CUNNINGHAM: I'll admit that it was a good idea, I thought.

BOYD: Criticism by the gun. What a weird thing to do. If you don't like a painting, why buy it in the first place?

CUNNINGHAM: In talking to him, it wasn't that he disliked the painting. He just got a wild hair up his ass.


CUNNINGHAM: I'm not sure how CSAW is thought of in Houston. The way it developed in the end is kind of emblematic of what happens to really critical art movements all over the planet really. A little less in Europe. But here in the United States, artists often come into a really blighted area and take over a space. Basically, what happens is their lawyers come in and see the space then take it over and turn it into high end lofts.

BOYD: That didn't happen with CSAW. It's still an artists’ space. But the rents are higher.

CUNNINGHAM: So it's rich artists.

BOYD: It's Sunday painters, really.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. Those aren't artists. People who started CSAW, most of them anyway, have spent their lives making art as professionals, usually at pretty great personal cost. None of us are wealthy. Some of us are kind of well-known or famous. Have created work, that, you know--my work has been in the Venice Biennale and Sundance. Sort of the lawlessness of Houston was one of the ways that place could happen. Also, it was kind of inevitable given the way that Houston runs. It was a company town that sort of controlled by a pretty small cadre of wealthy people at that time. I don't know what it's like now. That CSAW would ultimately be taken over by people with money. It will succeed to death, which is how a lot of these things happen. Here in New York, it's become the business model for real estate people.

BOYD: Yeah. For sure.

CUNNINGHAM: That's sort of sad because, in its early days, anyway, it was really a nexus for creativity in Houston. And a lot of people came through that building that contributed significantly to Houston's art world and its credibility there. Walter Hopps was hanging around. It was a very fecund place, an environment where creativity was really the only thing that was going on, almost. It's hard to find those places. Now I have a place here in New York, 3LD that's grown out of my experience at Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, a 12,500 square foot art/technology center down below ground zero that's built out of the ground floor of a parking garage. My rent here is $24,000 a month and my electric bill is $16,000 a month. A lot of creativity happens here, but there's a huge preoccupation with survival and money. It interferes with that a lot. It didn't exist in the early days of Commerce Street. We could always come up with 1000 bucks for the landlord. There was no zoning or code requirements so we could actually outfit the place as we needed without undue expense or permitting or any of that crap. That was nice. And probably now non-existent.

BOYD: There are places a little bit like that now, where people manage to take over skuzzy old warehouses on the East Side. But you're right--it's harder to do, and I think it's more expensive. One thing about Commerce Street is that people left who went on to buy things. Jim Pirtle owns a building; Project Rowhouses is owned by itself. They don't have to worry about someone evicting them.

CUNNINGHAM: A lot of us did go on and maintain our bad habit of turning unused industrial spaces or blighted spaces into something good. Rick's probably the best example of that. I also have a pretty well-run art/technology center here in New York. Jim is Jim: he's going to do what he does in his own inimitable way. The thing is, here in New York, that pattern has driven the city to a point where we're reaching a point of cultural stagnation. Where we're more of a tourist center, and it's very, very difficult for a young artist to get started. In 1996, the New York Times asked Richard Foreman, the experimental director, the grandfather of experimental theater in New York, what was the biggest thing standing in the way of a young artist in New York, and he said, real estate. It's truer and truer every day now. Now we're overrun by large, multinational retail entities and banks competing with artists. We don't have a snowball's chance in hell. I'm here, and I just finished my second big eviction fight with my landlord, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and sometimes I long for those days when you could just take over a warehouse, clean it up, and make art.

BOYD: Have you thought about moving further from Manhattan?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. If I didn't have a 30-year-lease, I would have been in Berlin 10 years ago. The environment for the arts in the United States is not just difficult, it's absolutely hostile. There are many. many forces arrayed against people who want to create new things. It's not just financial/real estate. There're also ideological issues. The culture wars have just gotten worse. I started my art career in 1980. Curated my first group show right when the culture wars were really starting, and we haven't seen it stop. The philanthropic support for the arts has cratered. After this recession, we lost the Rockefeller Foundation, American Express left cultural funding. Altria is gone a long time ago. All the big foundations that used to fund culture either don't fund culture at all, or they require the cultural activity to serve some other purpose that doesn't have anything to do with art-making: education, or social good. The idea of art as a primary human activity that's important to human culture--has almost disappeared in the United States. I go to Europe and tell people I'm an artist, they treat me like I was saying I was a doctor or lawyer or something. It's an honorable profession that requires perseverance and a long apprenticeship. And here, I'm still sort of a cross between your crazy uncle and the town drunk. I have to prove myself as a business person before they'll talk to me or help me with any resources. It's almost untenable in a lot of ways.

But we keep doing art. You can see behind me that there's a plaque from one of my plays that goes around somebody's neck that says Don Quixote. There's another plaque next to it that's going to be Sisyphus. It's different now. It's not the same as it was back then. It's much more difficult in all spheres. It is what it is. That opportunity in that moment was really special in Houston. I think it was a really great mix of things happening at the same time that produced a few really good artists. And what produced them was an environment of absolute intellectual and maybe even moral freedom. A feeling that you could do whatever you wanted to with impunity. And there was a huge community behind you. I don't know what it's like there now, but I get the sense that the support structure is much less vibrant, and that there isn't as much new blood flowing through the city as their used to be in terms of art.

BOYD: There's nothing quite like CSAW. One thing that I think CSAW sort of embodied was a change in direction for art in Houston. A lot more performance. It was a painters’ town before Commerce Street came along. Right when Commerce Street came along, it had just celebrated painterliness by having the Fresh Paint show.

CUNNINGHAM: We had Mel Chin running around. He was interesting. He did a lot of different things. At James Harithas’ house, there were still big parties there where Staley would be there and Surls and Burt Long and... The other thing is that Commerce Street Artists Warehouses wouldn't have existed without Lawndale. Surls took over that big warehouse on behalf of the University of Houston, that environment gave a big, open concrete space that you can get messy in. It became a necessary modus operandi for all of us, I think.

BOYD: I think that kind of thing encourages performance. It happened in New York back in the 60s when they started doing Happenings. These people had lots of loft space, and they do something in the loft space besides paint. Let's have a bunch of people do some kind of performance of some kind. The big space idea was helped the direction of Houston's art change somewhat from individual painters in their studios to people getting together and doing crazy things at Commerce Street or Catal Huyuk or Zocalo or where ever.

CUNNINGHAM: For a young artist, taking over 27,000 square feet changes your notion of the possibilities for scale. I wouldn't have done the films I've done, I wouldn't have done 30,000 square foot major media installations, probably. I never would have even thought about that if I hadn't had my experience at Commerce Street and Lawndale.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Looking At Art Around Town

 Robert Boyd

I started out this weekend driving out to Sharpstown to Alta Arts. I have a lot to say about this relatively new art organization. Their new structure, pictured below, is amazing. And Sharpstown, just outside the Loop, needs some art. The question is, is Alta Arts the organization to facilitate this? It can’t be denied that they have put their money where their mouth is. Their galley is the whitest white-cube in town.

The current exhibit, abstract painters by David Hacker is only the second in this new space.

Alta Arts Director of Programming, Alexander Squier, told me that Hacker’s work is purely abstract, but I kept seeing landscape elements. That space between landscape and abstraction made me think of Richard Deibenkorn or, closer to home, Bas Poulos.

Over at Front Gallery, which recently celebrated its 10th annivesary (I was there for its first show, Kim Dingle). Their current show feature work by Erika Whitney. The painting above is called Intentions. This painting reminded me of word paintings by Dana Frankfort and Christopher Wool. Closer to Frankfort than Wool. Legibility is not the function of these painted words.

But only a couple of them feature painted words. This one is called Wacky Garden.

This is You’re Getting Warmer.

Over at Bill Arning Exhibitions, I looked at a big group show. Led Zep by Austin artist Alyssa Kazew made me laugh.

As you can see from this detail, she lays down the black paint wet on a red underpainting, then scrapes away the darker paint. The effect has an uncanny feeling of memory for me. Like Proust and his madeleine, this gives me strong high school nostalgia. Of desks that have had rock and roll bands and logos carved into them—Led Zep, Skynnard, Blue Oyster Cult, etc. I am transported back to Memorial High School in the late 70s looking at this painting.

I’ve seen Gerardo Rosales’s work before at the Blaffer Art Museum. It is colorful and intense. It almost sparkles. This painting is called Danta, which is Spanish for “elk.”

Another sparkly painting is Tigra Mariposa (“Tigra” doesn’t translate into English, but is similar to “Tigre” meaning tiger. A Mariposa is a butterfly.) When I saw it, I instantly recalled Gabriel García Márquez’s descriptions of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I thought of Macondo because every square centimeter of Tigra Mariposa is teeming with life.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

"With their beards and everything" -- part 2 of the interview with Wes Hicks

 Robert Boyd

This is part 2 of my interview with Wes Hicks about the origins and early years of the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse. In part 1, Hicks discussed the very beginnings of the art space. In this part, I wanted to look at some of the artists who had spaces there or who were just hanging out a lot.

ROBERT BOYD: Now I want to ask about specific people. You've already mentioned a bunch of them. I just want to get from your point of view capsule biographies of them. I'm going to start with Robert Campbell. I know he was a neurologist and did a lot of community work.

This photo is from Texas Magazine published by the Houston Chronicle on September, 17 1989 and was taken by Paul S. Howell. It is obviously not used with permission.

WES HICKS: Robert Campbell was definitely the patron saint of Commerce Street. He saved Commerce Street. Danny, I can't remember his name--he'd owned an art gallery that had shown my work and he was a collector of mine. And he connected Robert Campbell with us. A lot of my friends like Paul Kittelson, David Kidd, Jackie Harris--they were kind of all bailing on the project and never actually got involved. All the people we were counting on to populate this space from Lawndale had other plans. The whole thing was going to go bust, then Robert Campbell walked in and just had the faith in us. He changed everything. He saved the place.

BOYD: OK. What kind of art did he do?

HICKS: He was very eclectic. He was very religious. He was at the time wanting to become a priest in the Catholic Church. They told him that they thought that wasn't a good idea because he'd have to spend years studying, and with his medical skills, he could just become a devout Catholic and help the church work in Central America. And would be better than him becoming a priest. All that sounds crazy.

Robert was very... I don't know how to say it. It was like hanging out with a Buddhist monk or something. He was a really calming spirit at a time when me and Kevin and Deborah and all those other people--we were pretty wild and prone to real emotional situations. Robert could calmly come in and calm things down. I'm not sure how it all would have gone forward in the early days without Robert Campbell. Pretty soon after he got there, he found out he had the AIDS virus. Then it was sort of downhill for him from there.

BOYD: What about Deborah Moore. I know she was your girlfriend, right?

Another photo by Paul S. Howell from the Houston Chronicle. Deborah Moore and her accordion.

HICKS: Yes, she was my girlfriend. I met her through Kevin and Jane at an Urban Animal party. She was this little Urban Animal skatepunk who when I first met her. Full of safety pins and stuff. Hair cut like one of those English models from the 1960s. With a purple streak or something in her hair. I just fell in love with her immediately. I was at her apartment in the Heights one day and there was this incredibly technically-proficient sailboat painting on the wall--quite a large one. I thought it was a photograph, but then when I looked at it, I could see it was a painting. She said she painted it. You can paint like that? You know that much about painting that you can paint that realistically. You could learn from us some other things about painting. You should be an artist! Oh, OK. I always wanted to be an artist. It just went from there. Her role at Commerce Street was she was an incredibly sound business minded person. She took care of the business.

BOYD: I know she was the treasurer, which meant collecting the rent and paying the bills while she was there.

HICKS: She was highly responsible. Deborah was an incredibly responsible human being. And very strategic. And her father was a lawyer--she was working for her father at the time as a legal secretary. She brought all of that expertise with her. That solved all our problems because I had no idea about any of that stuff.

She understood contracts, leases, lawyers. And she wasn't shy about dealing with any of that stuff. Not that there was that much to do compared to what there would be today. Looking back at it, it was all really simple stuff. You get the power bill, you paid it. One of that was really difficult stuff. Even though I could do it, but I was never really the type of person--a steady person like that.

BOYD: How about Kevin Cunningham. He was someone you knew from Lawndale, right?

Kevin Cunningham from the 3-Legged Dog web page. Photographer unknown.

HICKS: Kevin was like my best pal. He's a great guy. He's a real theoretician. He's a great reader and was actually better read that anyone else at Lawndale. The truth about Lawndale was that everybody was a practicing artist there. Surls and Dougan and Moira Kelly--the people who ran Lawndale--most of our teachers like Derek Boshier... it was all hands on. We talked about philosophy and art theory and all that, but there was a distinct anti-intellectual streak at Lawndale which Kevin and I were on the other end because we did like to read and we did read like James Joyce Ulysses and we did want to talk about that. At parties, other friends would laugh at us. So that's what Kevin and I... were really into the world of ideas. That's probably why he stuck around with me. Commerce Street was a big conceptual project from our point of view.

Kevin wasn't there very long. He was only there for about a year. He couldn't make his rent. We probably did have disagreements about the performance bay and the quality of artists we were letting in. I had a very bad take from the Lawndale experience. Basically, if you wanted to be an artist, and you were really committed to it, it wasn't for me to say, oh, do you have a degree? What do you know about art? It was really more about your degree of commitment. Kevin was more about set standards, maybe only let grad students in. And things like that. We probably disagreed about that. We also disagreed about the use of the space. I'm not sure if Kevin left because of disagreements or because of the direction he was moving in, which was towards literature and theater.

BOYD: He told me he moved to New York because Edward Albee and Donald Barthelme said, you're not going to make it as a writer in Houston.

HICKS: There was a lot of that to it.

BOYD: Next on my list is Rick Lowe. You say he was there pretty early on. He must have just showed up in Houston, right?

Nestor Topchy (left) and Rick Lowe (right) transporting some art to a gallery in 1990. Photographer unknown.

HICKS: Rick must have heard about it and he showed up. That was one of the things Kevin and disagreed with is because Rick didn't really have an arts theoretical background, there was some disagreement about whether Rick should be allowed in. I think that's what Kevin and I disagreed on because I thought Rick was committed enough. And wanted to have go at it, and it was all about getting people to go.

BOYD: Steve Wellman. Who is he?

HICKS: Steve Wellman is like my best friend in the world and always has been. We met at Lawndale. He was just painting. Everything about painting we agreed with. We started this thing where he would paint a picture and I would be jealous of how good it was so I would paint the same picture, only better. [laughter] And he would go, you know, I can paint it better than you, so we drove each other all the way through university. By the time we were in our last year, we were collaborating not directly on canvases but in a whole way of thinking about painting and art. Basically we felt like we were developing a universal language that crossed all the arts--music, theater, painting, sculpture. We were looking forward to kind to a kind of multi-media future. We didn't know anything about computers. We saw a future where there was a multimedia super-art form, kind of like the glass bead game--Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game. We were real soulmates. I really was broken up when he didn't get involved with Commerce Street. It makes perfect sense because he's a kind of private person. He was not going to paint in a big public space with a bunch of hooligans all around us.

He shared a studio with Kevin Cunningham. But he never was able to really get into working there. It was too far away from the Heights where he lived. He had to ride a bicycle back and forth. It just didn't work out for him. The way Steve worked was very private. Very quiet. Commerce Street was developing in a direction that was very loud because you had this big open building and a lot of people coming and going. If you weren't able to deal with distractions, Commerce Street was going to be a hard place to make work.

BOYD: How about Carolyn Florek?

HICKS: She built one of the first spaces in the front of the building. She was a very important very important figure painter. She never lived there. I don't know how long she was there for--maybe two years? Three years? She was an important pioneer. A lot of people--Marci Hardin: do you know that name?

BOYD: Yes.

HICKS: Marci Hardin, yeah. Marci Hardin and Carolyn Florek were two people who built out two of the first spaces in the front of the building and kind of defined how the walls were going to go, the standards for the doors. The standards for the electricity run through the spaces. They were real important in that sense regardless of what they were doing artistically in those spaces.

Hand-drawn floor map from October 21, 1986

BOYD: She was there right the beginning--from close to the beginning in 1985.

HICKS: She would have been one of the first tenants, after the five of us formed the corporation. And Marci on the other side. If I had my diaries still, I would have all this stuff. But I don't have it with me. James Bettison was fairly early on, too. Virgil Grotfeldt was really early on. He built a space next to Carolyn's.

BOYD: He was older, right?

HICKS: Yeah, he was an older guy. Rick and I knew him... his wife Deborah was involved with Diverse Works in some capacity. I can't remember what exactly. She wasn't quite the director, but she was working pretty high up at Diverse Works. Virgil had a house painting company and Rick and I worked for Virgil.

BOYD: Let me ask about Nestor Topchy.

This is Nestor Topchy in 2014. Photo by Robert Boyd

HICKS: Yeah, Nestor rolled up. He was sent to us by Moira Kelly. He moved from Baltimore to be a graduate student at UH/Lawndale. When he came down, his parents gave him a station wagon. He put all his stuff in it. He came down to Lawndale and didn't really have anywhere to live, so Moira Kelly pointed him over to us. We gave him some space in the front of the building and it took off. Nestor is one of those guys who gets up in the morning, has art for breakfast, art for lunch, art for dinner. Just a maniacal worker. He had a great time at Commerce Street.

BOYD: There's a guy named Mike Scranton--is that correct?

HICKS: Yeah. Mike Scranton was a sculptor who took over Nestor's studio when Nestor moved out to start Zocalo in the Heights. And Mike Scranton moved into that space and occupied it for well into the 90s. Lee Benner has made some videos about Mike Scranton. I don't know if you've seen them.

BOYD: I haven't.

BOYD: It seems like there were a whole bunch of painters in there.

HICKS: There were a lot of sculptors, too. And a lot of performance artists. A lot of the performance artists and musicians never had spaces there. They just came there. A lot of times, some of them like Kevin Jackson for instance--have you ever heard of him?

BOYD: Yeah.

Cabaret Voltaire flyer, featuring Culturcide, Perry Webb’s (aka Mark Flood’s) band

HICKS: He was in a band with Deborah. He also about the same time. I think he was running Cabaret Voltaire, which was a little kind of punk offshoot alternative music scene place kind of around the corner from Commerce Street on the other side of the railroad tracks. Kevin was really instrumental in a lot of the things at Commerce Street. Things like lighting, electrical problems, sound issues. Getting us totally in-tune with what the latest stuff going on in the alt-music scene. There were a lot of people like that didn't have spaces in Commerce Street but who were really important.

BOYD: John Calloway?

HICKS: John Calloway moved in fairly early. He's a friend of Lee Benner's originally. Now we're pretty good friends. He's an art collector. He owns his own oil company (or did).

BOYD: Was he the one who was trying to teach himself how to be a marble sculptor?

HICKS: Yeah. He was a really interesting character because he imported tons of marble from Carrara, Italy. Giant blocks the size that Michelangelo would have loved to have had. And the same quality, too. He had a helper called Dan, who we called Dan the Man. He was an ex-Marine, but you would have never guessed it, because he was such a lovely, light-hearted roly-poly little fellow. You would have never guessed he was trained to be a marine sniper or whatever. He lived in John's studio with all these giant marble blocks from Carrara, Italy. I'm smiling. It was a real unusual situation. It was really interesting. It was fun.

BOYD: What about James Bettison. When did he show up?

HICKS: He showed up only like about six of seven or eight months after we were going.

BOYD: So that would be 85 or 86, right?

HICKS: There was this kind of wave of artists, especially female artists with Marci Hardin, Carolyn Florek, and I think there were one or two others. And these people were fairly gentle, quiet people. They wanted a place to paint and the way Commerce Street was going with sculptors moving in and the performance bay being a big music, loud, performance scene. I don't think it fit them.

BOYD: One of them would be Liz Ward, right?

HICKS: Oh, yeah. Liz Ward would definitely not have fit in well with Commerce Street because of her quiet, introspective nature.

BOYD: According to my notes, she was there for at most a year.

HICKS: Yeah, she was, but it didn't work out for her. I don't know why, but I bet, just knowing Liz personally, it was too loud.

BOYD: What about Mark Flood.

HICKS: Mark Flood was Perry Webb.

BOYD: Perry Webb, right.

HICKS: Perry Webb was not a shrinking violet so he was quite capable of handling the punk scene.

BOYD: Yeah, he made plenty of noise himself. He had a studio...

HICKS: Yeah, he did a lot of work there, and across the hall from his studio when Virgil moved out, he took over Virgil's space and turned it into a little gallery that he called The Screen Door, I think.  Because it had a screen door on it. And he curated shows there of his interests. He did a lot of his own shows there. A lot of early shows of "Eat Human Flesh"--his first show of that and things like that. And that was a really great addition to Commerce Street. We could hang art up and down the hallway and hang art in the performance bay, but we didn't have a white wall gallery with lights and everything. He did all that. Actually, we adopted that space ourselves. He wasn't paying rent on it. We turned it into the gallery space at Commerce Street.

BOYD: Michael Batty? I know he wasn't at Commerce Street, but he wrote about Commerce Street.

HICKS: Michael Battey was at Commerce Street a whole lot.

BOYD: One of the hangers-on.

HICKS: I don't think of him as a hanger-on, because I think there were the people who added a lot of vigor to the place. They did stuff. Michael Battey was one of the people that...

BOYD: Did he have a studio?

HICKS: No, I don't think he did have a studio. I don't think he was into studio art at the time. He was a writer.

BOYD: He wrote a lot.

HICKS: A lot of these guys like Michael Battey were pivotal in bouncing ideas off and thinking about the way a show should go. The intellectual atmosphere that surrounded the place was completely enhanced by characters like Michael Battey. I have pictures of him in the hallway sitting around with me and Jim Pirtle and Nestor and Rick Lowe. Pirtle standing with his little polyester shirt paintings and everyone drinking heavily and talking. Who knows about what, but we were talking.

BOYD: What about Malcolm McDonald?

HICKS: Malcolm McDonald was so pivotal to Commerce Street that you can't tell the story of Commerce Street without mentioning Malcolm. He created Chez Imbecile with Robert Rosenberg.

BOYD: Also known as Chef Bob.

HICKS: Chef Bob. Robert Rosenberg and Deborah Moore. That was a really important step because they gave me a reason to say that the Performance Bay was working. Chez Imbecile was kind of the first regular thing that went on there, and it brought in tons of people to see the space. Basically, it made a name for CSAW.  ZZ Top showed up.

BOYD: Really?

HICKS: Yeah, with their beards and everything. They just swanned in one night--or several nights. Billy Gibbons came back a couple of times, I think. They put the Performance Bay and Commerce Street on the tourist map for people from the right side of town.

BOYD: Chez Imbecile--what was their deal? Were they doing performance, or what?

HICKS: It was kind of like taking off of modern theater in a sense. It was a restaurant that served spam. Then there would be various performances and dancers and music. The audience was in the middle of it. There wasn't really a defined break between the audience and the show. You were in it. If you came there, you were part of the show. People tended to come there to show off. Some of the performances were planned, and others, people would show up and just do their thing. It was very uncontrolled. And there was also this whole thing with Malcolm. He was a very volatile figure, as you've probably heard. He would lose it occasionally. That became part of the performance, too. It was a pretty amazing dada-istic, fluxus, all that stuff. It was way out there. It was always something to talk about until next week.

BOYD: Was he a visual artist at all?

HICKS: No, I would say he's an MC. He was like an MC.

BOYD: How about Jack Massing. He was there, right?

HICKS: Yeah, Jack came in. He was one of the original people I wanted to come in but he didn't come in with us until later. He built a little, tiny cube space in the performance bay. It was probably only 40 x 40 feet. It may have been smaller, 30 x 30. The ceiling was 20 feet high. He built a little loft in there and Jack filled it with all of his gadgets and little sculptures he was doing at the time. It was really beautiful. One of the most visually, esthetically pleasing studios in the whole space. And Jack used the Performance Bay and did some really amazing performances there. The one I remember the most, they got maybe 100 or 50 truck springs, suspension springs from 18-wheelers and they dropped them out of the ceiling, which was really high. Like I said, it could have been 22, 23 feet. And the springs would hit the concrete floor and then they would bounce madly in all directions. And he did this with an audience of about 50 people standing around in a circle. And some of these truck springs weighed 50 lbs. [It was an Art Guys performance call 50 at Once] If anyone had been hit, they would have been wiped out. I don't know how he rationalized it that he could actually do that to an audience. But he did and it worked out great, and it was one of the most amazing things you've ever seen. The sound and the visuals--it was pretty incredible.

BOYD: You wrote several articles for the Public News. How did that come about?

HICKS: I wrote a lot of articles for them actually because I had always been interested in writing. I was writing the whole time I was at Commerce Street. I have a daily diary. It's real spotty and kind of intimate and probably real whiny. It represents the voice of an immature whatever age I was then. {laughs] Anyway, it would be fun to look at it again. I just kind of gravitated towards the editors of the Public News and said, yeah sure--I'll write for you. They aren't paying anything,  I don’t think. I started writing criticism of art shows.

BOYD: I read your review of Fresh Paint, which to me is sort of the end of a certain era in Houston, when painters were the most important artists there were.

HICKS: I kind of figured I was out of my league writing about art, plus you can't write bad reviews of people you are going to the next art show and hanging out with because they'll hate your guts. I started writing music reviews and stuff like that.

BOYD: How involved were you with music, with rock bands and so on.

HICKS: I just kind of hung out. Like I started hanging out at the Island when the Dead Kennedys were playing there in 1981. When we were running Commerce Street, I got to know J.R. Delgado of the Axiom pretty well.

BOYD: I went to the Axiom back in those days.

HICKS: Commerce Street was really close to the Axiom; we moved our crowds back and forth between them sometimes, like there'd be a late-night show at the Axiom after an art opening at Commerce Street.  We collaborated on things. I think that the poetry slam that J.R. did with Rebecca Johnson while Commerce Street was still going, I think that may have had something to do with people at Commerce Street because we all participated heavily. I don't know if J.R. would have thought of a poetry slam by himself because he was more of the music scene than the art scene. And that was a really big success for the Axiom. Wednesday night poetry slams would pack in 300 people--heavy drinkers--all night, they'd actually throw people out at 2 o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday night. It was great. So anyway, I got into that and J.R. said, look, I'm getting out of the business; this is a big opportunity for you. You should jump in here and take over. You could do it. I said no. Actually, I thought about it but I just didn't have it together so some other guys took it over. They turned it into a real headbanger/heavy metal place.

BOYD: Was it still called the Axiom then?

HICKS: I think they kept the name the Axiom. They only lasted for like six months. Then they lost their lease because they were so inept. They just drove it into the ground. And it was just like an empty building with a shingle hanging out front and J.R. was just, "Somebody's got to do this." So I pulled together some investors for not very much money, so we went in there and gave it a go.

BOYD: What year was that? That was when Catal Huyuk  began? [A little research shows that it opened November 3, 1992 and closed a year later]

HICKS: Yeah. I'm not sure what year it was either. We were really communicating with Public News. It could have been 91 or 90.

It just rolled on. We were open like 7 nights a week. We hardly ever closed for holidays or anything. It's just all one big huge blur to me. It seemed like it lasted six months but before we turned around, it lasted three years or something.

BOYD: Why did you pick such an obscure, intellectual name as Catal Huyuk?

HICKS: That was probably a huge mistake.

BOYD: [laughs] It's interesting that you picked the oldest--that along with Jericho are the two oldest human habitations or human towns, I guess. And that's interesting, I guess.

HICKS: We saw that what was going on at the Axiom really came from the Island--have you heard about the Island? It was in Montrose right next to highway 59 and Westheimer. I believe (I'm not an expert) that the Island was the first punk club in Houston. It started in the 70s. And that's where the scene started. Then it kind of moved finally. I don't know what happened to it, but you know it's gone. That whole scene moved out to the Axiom which was there for who knows how long. So Catal--we felt like we were building on its ruins. You know how those ancient Turkish towns how there are layers and layers of building that built up. All this history. We were just the latest layer on top of that.

BOYD: OK, that's a good reason to name it after the oldest town in the world.

HICKS: And we thought that punk music and this art thing that we were doing was connecting into this primal, Mother Earth thing. Phil Bergeron, the guy who started the club, was my main business partner--were deeply influenced by James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis at the time. And Joseph Campbell. Hero of the Thousand Faces. We were just really living that stuff.

BOYD: I want to talk about leaving Commerce Street. I have a letter--I have no idea if it was ever sent to you--from 1994. It's an eviction letter. I don't even know who it was from, except that it is apparently from people at Commerce Street.

Wes Hicks painting. Photo by Paul S. Howell.

HICKS: What happened is that Deborah left Commerce Street.

BOYD: In 92, I think.

HICKS: She ran off to New York with David Kidd and basically dumped me. I was heartbroken. That's when I met Phil Bergeron. He started Catal Huyuk, and then I got involved in Catal Huyuk and running Commerce Street. Catal Huyuk was a seven-day affair that was actually a business and Commerce Street all fell onto me to run the business side of it, too. To create the bills and stuff. Basically, all the people who at the beginning at Commerce Street had already moved along in their lives and all these new people came in. I was a mess, basically. I was doing so much stuff with the music scene over at Catal. I wasn't doing much painting--zero painting. At one point, I was so confused I tried to go back to art school to study art history. That didn't work out either. Then I had a collapse. It just all collapsed. They evicted me. That's what everybody wanted. It was time. It was time to go. I should have actually gone when Deborah left. I wasn't mature enough or I wasn't focused enough. They made a go--it lasted how many years after that?

BOYD: Until 2007.

HICKS: That's right. They didn't need me anymore. I should have had the smarts to get out of the way, but I didn't. And part of it was that I'd been there so long that I had the 4 or 5 thousand square foot space full of stuff. I was suffering from pleurisy on and off. I was sick a lot. I just couldn't handle it.

BOYD: What did you do after Commerce Street.

HICKS: I moved to the Heights for a little while. Then I got a job as chief preparator with Laguna Gloria Museum in Austin, Texas. I moved there, and then I got involved Tim Adams making animated computer stuff. Thought that that was the greatest end-all be-all deal And Ken and I worked on some projects for...I can't remember his name...This guru... Terrence McKenna. We became Terrence McKenna followers. Then I got involved with the Apple corporation in tech support. There were all these internet startups, we were playing around with that. Then I eventually found Donna in Australia and moved out here.

BOYD: How did you end up in Australia?

HICKS: I'd lived overseas when I was a kid in Indonesia. I was raised in Indonesia. I went to high school at the Joint Embassy School in Jakarta Indonesia. Actually, I went to the same school in Indonesia as Barack Obama. But he was so much younger than me that I never knew him. Then I had an Australian girlfriend named Donna Bryant, then I reconnected with her online and we had a good internet romance and I came out here and never went back.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Interview with Wes Hicks about Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, part 1

 Robert Boyd

In 1985, some grad students in the U.H. art program were about to be kicked out. Their crime? They had completed their degree requirements and were graduating. They had studios at Lawndale, an off-campus site where the UH art department moved to after its on-campus building was damaged in a fire. It had been acting as the U.H.’s art department’s home since 1979. It was an enormous former factory and provided studio space for many of Houston’s best young artists as well performance space. (The story of Lawndale’s rise and triumph is told in Collision by Pete Gershon.) A couple of these art students, Kevin Cunningham and Wes Hicks decided to take their impending eviction and to try to recreate the Lawndale experience. They found a new ex-factory and established an art center containing studios and a large performance space. For legal reasons, it ended up with the name Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, or CSAW for short. In 2016, I interviewed several of the early residents of CSAW. I have finally gotten around to transcribing some of them and editing them.

Hicks is a painter. He grew up in Indonesia, studied art at the University of Houston, co-founded Commerce Street, and lived there until he was evicted in early 1994. While he was there, he ran the punk rock club, Catal Huyuk. This is kind of a long interview, so I am going to split it into several parts. Below is part 1 of my interview with Wes Hicks. In part 2, we’ll discuss some of the people who had studios or hung out at CSAW. The photos included come from various sources and I have tried to identify the source if I know it.If anyone knows where a given photo is from, please let me know!

ROBERT BOYD: You were a student at UH. Is that correct?

WES HICKS: Yeah, I was a student at the University of Houston, and which at the time was mainly Lawndale if you were a painting or sculpture student. We thought of ourselves as students of Lawndale University more than anything.

BOYD: My understanding is that you guys wanted to find someplace that had a similar feel to Lawndale, but that you ran yourself.

HICKS: Well, that was kind of it. Basically, what happened was we were all kind of getting booted out of Lawndale because we'd finished as many of the courses you could take there. They needed us to move along. Because we were seniors or graduate students who finished the program. Of course, we just wanted to stay on, but Gael Stack who was in charge said, "OK, this is your last semester here." I thought the idea was to organize a lot of the Lawndale friends that I had to start a communal art space in the warehouse district, emulating what all Lawndale was but with just us going it alone.

BOYD: How did you find the Commerce Street location?

HICKS: Kevin Cunningham did that. What happened was that all our friends kind of peeled off because basically they thought we were crazy. Except for me and Kevin Cunningham. Kevin knew Lee Benner through the skate scene, the Urban Animals. He took me to a party there in the building at Commerce Street, which at the time was just one big huge empty room with a lot of water on the floor, no lights or electricity, all the Urban Animals were skating around. That's how we kind of found it. We talked to Lee Benner; he knew the landlord because the landlord was Lee Benner's landlord. We just kind of went from there, one step at a time.

BOYD: When you found it, it was you, Kevin Cunningham, Deborah Moore. Rick Lowe was there at the very beginning, right?

HICKS: No, he wasn't. It was basically me, Deborah, Kevin and Jane--Jane Ludham--she was like a support team for Kevin. Then Jackie Harris and Steve Wellman and all those people were just kind of hanging around but no one would commit, so the whole thing looked like it was going to fall apart, then people just started showing up out of the woodwork, like Dr. Robert Campbell, then Rick Lowe. He was in very early on. We had to form a corporation because the landlord couldn't imagine signing a building without a corporate lease back in those days. We had to form a corporation, which as you know is really easy in Texas. Just 250 bucks and you drive to Austin. I think it was me, Robert Campbell, Kevin, Deborah, and Rick Lowe were the original corporate shareholders. We owned the thing, but none of that mattered. It was just for the landlord.

BOYD: So that's where those five names came from--they were on the paperwork, basically.

HICKS: Yeah, and we did have a structure where we would have votes and decide what we were gonna do. There were five of us, so if three voted one way and two voted the other. But we all agreed on everything pretty much. The big thing was about a third of the building in the back.

That was the big thing for me was the performance bay; it's almost a third of the building. It's a big huge empty room with really high ceilings and giant skylights, a massive entrance so that a huge crane could go in and out through giant steel doors. It's just this incredibly beautiful, almost perfectly square space. A little rectilinear with these giant pillars. I really wanted to keep that a communal performance bay that was open to anyone--not just us--that came to us with a good idea. We were going to do shows there regardless of quality or ideological baggage in the sense of "This is our art style--we don't like your art style." It's just going to be open to the public pretty much. I had to constantly fight for that. I think Deborah was pretty much on my side. This was always a bone of contention. Because she could have rented the space out and made all the rents much cheaper.

BOYD: Put up some walls and made some studios.

HICKS: Exactly. From the very beginning I was challenged. Jackie Harris wanted to use the space for her art cars. Make it into a giant art car development thing. From the very beginning, this was the big battle. I think that if I had lost and it had been developed into studios, then Commerce Street wouldn't have been Commerce Street.

BOYD: Kevin Cunningham made a really good point--you give a bunch of artists who are used to working in studios 27,000 square feet, suddenly doing a painting isn't enough. You have to fill that space somehow, and filling that space meant having a party or having an exhibition or having a performance of some kind.

HICKS: Yeah. In essence, that is what Lawndale was. Lawndale had a huge performance bay that was run by crazy, out-there people. First James Surls and then Chuck Dougan then Moira Kelly. And they always brought in really cutting-edge stuff that blew away the whole Houston art scene from Philip Glass doing operas early on; Moira Kelly having the Replacements come and really crazy bands that became famous later played Lawndale. The students were the stagehands, the volunteers who did all the work. That's where we go kind of like an apprenticeship. By the time we were starting Commerce Street, Kevin and I pretty felt like, hey, we can do this ourselves. Because we had learned from Moira Kelly and Dougan and James Surls and everyone how to it, and had worked with people who were masters of their craft on Philip Glass and stuff like that. And even if we didn't actually work with these people --have you ever heard of the band Sun Ra?

BOYD: Yeah.

HICKS: They played at Lawndale a lot, and I just kind of hung around with them and we just absorbed this stuff, as a really young person talking to the Sun Ra guys and telling us how it all goes down and what to do and the lives and touring. It was just a mind-blowing experience. When we had to leave Lawndale, we wanted that. Also, the economic situation in Houston at the time was almost impossible to imagine nowadays. The warehouse district was an abandoned wilderness. Literally a wilderness.

We were surrounded by abandoned warehouses. At that time, they hadn't all started to burn down. In the late 80s, people started to burn warehouses down for insurance money. Also, it was the deindustrializtion of the United States going on. The warehouse we were in was used by Westinghouse to build giant electric motors for ships. That had been gone for like 20-30 years by the time we got there.

[Commerce Street] was a totally black building. No lights. Rubbish in the front. All the toilets were rubbished. Homeless people had been crashing there. It was full of water because the ceilings were leaking. In the very back where Dr. Robert Campbell decided to build his space the roof was collapsed in an area of about 8 by 10 feet. And underneath that, plants were growing. So it was like a cave. In the daytime the sun would shine in. Actually, it was really beautiful. Pigeons and bats were living in there. It was just completely wild.

A photo from the late, lamented Public News in 1985. Photo by T. Ventura.

BOYD: What did you have to do to make it habitable?

HICKS: Well, first we had to get permission from the landlord. And then we just started cleaning up. We made a deal with the landlord that she'd get an electric box for the front of the building. She'd bring the electricity to the building, and she would fix the roof. And once that was done, we'd start paying rent to the tune of I believe $1800 or $2000 a month. Which works out to about 14 cents per square foot, I think if I've got my numbers right. So that's what she did and that's how it started. We had this kind of very tenuous situation with the city, where the fire marshals were coming over and letting us do things that were plumbing and electrical ourselves, as long as we got electricians to come check it and make sure it was all done right. It was kind of an interesting relationship we had with the city.

Because of Houston's laissez faire no-zoning thing, they were willing to let us do really crazy stuff. They were shaking their heads--the fire marshal people. And they did weird things, too. Like one time, we were gonna do a huge benefit for the South Texas Nuclear protest project, because they were gonna build a nuclear plant in South Texas on Padre Island or some place. All these bands were going to play there and do a fundraiser for the protesters. The fire marshal came around and wrote me something like 13 citations for violations, and I knew this guy. He said, you know, if you're open tonight, I'm going to come here and arrest you; then he goes, if you're not open tonight, I'm just going to tear up these citations and we can just forget this ever happened.

BOYD: So what did y'all do?

HICKS: Oh, we weren't open that night. We told the 13 bands or however many there were that the show was shut down, which sucked ass. I can't go to jail and shut down this space. That was the end of that. But they actually moved it to another warehouse space. Some artist who apparently weren't aware of the situation. The fire marshal came there and arrested them and shut down their space. We were always at the mercy of the cops and the fire marshals who made it very clear to me that we existed only because they wanted this.

I don't think the cops really cared too much or the fire marshals cared too much about whether those buildings burned down or not. That was one of the things about Commerce Street, in relationship to the fire marshals and the Axiom, too. Because the way they were set up, you couldn't actually have a fire like those nightclub fires where 200 people died in Brazil and stuff. That couldn't happen in these places because there were all these giant exit doors that were open. Because it was so hot in Houston. People could just stampede out in a fire scenario.

BOYD: Once you started building it out as a studio space, at first it was just one big open space, right? How quickly did you guys build up walls and stuff.

HICKS: Well, actually it was two big open spaces. The back part of the building (the performance bay) was the original Westinghouse warehouse that was built in the 1920s or maybe even earlier. It was all wood with giant cypress posts that were like 18 inches by 18 inches, holding up a giant wooden ceiling. And that's now been demolished and taken away. It's a car park. And then the front of the building was added for war effort for World War II to build electric motors for the Victory Ships.

BOYD: The ones that were turned out pretty quickly for Great Britain.

HICKS: Yeah, exactly. They were making these giant motors there--these huge electric motors that weighed many tons. That's why the foundation of Commerce Street was this big, huge six-foot concrete block. It was because they had many tons of electric motors. It was two giant buildings and there was a wall between them with two big doors. We started almost immediately building walls. People that wanted them. That was totally individual. Some of the earliest complete studios were Dr. Robert Campbell--built his out pretty quick. He picked one of the worst corners of the building to build in. His walls in the back had to be 20 feet high. I don't know how high the ceiling was. More than two layers of sheet rock. So yeah, like 18 to 20 feet tall. And John Calloway built a big studio back there. Jack Massing built a little studio in the back space. And up front we decided where the corridor was going to be, and because of the way the steel beam structure was and the ceiling and the beams. You could kind of see how each space was going to be this rectangle, 1200 square foot. Like 30 ft by 40 ft. We designated all the studio spaces and when you moved in (all the early people), you either hired somebody or you built walls.

BOYD: People lived somewhat in their studios, right? Some did.

HICKS: A lot of people did. Most of the really hard-core artists did because they were young and that's what they had to do. But then about half the people didn't.

BOYD: Did you live in the studio?

HICKS: Yeah, I lived upstairs. There was a front office part of the building--that's where the toilets were and kind of an entrance foyer, and then there was an upstairs. It must have been the executive offices. And that was a big brick building with hardwood floors that were painted over. We put two studios up there and one of them was mine and the other--it may have been Nestor Topchy and Rick Lowe were the first people to occupy that space upstairs. Nestor and Rick were living upstairs with me, opposite in offices. They were in the western wing and I was in the eastern wing.

Another shot from the Public News by T. Ventura. Wes Hicks (left) and Sid the dog (right)

BOYD: What happened in the Performance Bay?

HICKS: The Performance Bay was mostly performances. But then, I gave myself a show there. Mike Scranton had a huge show there. Nestor had a huge big show there. It lent itself really well to big sculptures, like Nestor's spheres, Mike Scranton's dinosaurs. We did hang art on the walls, too. There was a long hallway. There's a long hallway that goes down to the front. We would hang art all the way down that hallway. Perry Webb's gallery could also be filled with art. It was more intimate and small. Also, more delicate because you could actually lock that room up. If something like prints that were more valuable, framed with glass or something, you could lock those up. At this time the building was open to the street 24/7. Nothing really ever happened, but in the middle of the night, drunk people could run up and down the hallway and knock art off the walls. People could ride motorcycles through the building. That’s what Perry Webb provided us with—an art space that looked like a traditional art gallery. It didn't operate like a traditional art gallery. A lot of times we hung art salon style. But I think all the best shows there were not art shows of paintings. Some of them were maybe sculpture shows. But they were soundscape, industrial music, performance; those were the shows that really captured the spirit of the age and the space and the part of the city we were in better than anything, in my view. Things like Crash Worship-- I think they played two shows there. Have you ever heard of them?


HICKS: They were a San Francisco drumming group that would just work up the crowd into a trance, and everybody just starts jumping up and down, lighting fires, and then they just move around the building and break out into the street, this whole crowd becomes incredibly tribal. And they had a huge following in Houston. So 300, 400, 500 people would show up for their shows, and form this big, huge hopping mob. People would pass out and go into speaking in tongues. Things like that were real shamanistic in a way. Real connected with the wilderness aspect. We were in an urban wilderness.


This is Crash Worship playing at The Abyss in Houston in 1997.

BOYD: Back then, streets like Commerce St. didn't have tons of traffic.

HICKS: In the middle of the night there was no traffic. Really after 6 o'clock at night the traffic died down to zero. Also, Commerce St. at that time was six or seven lanes wide. Two or three hundred dancing down the street, half naked, lighting fires and drumming didn't bother anybody. No one would call the police on them. And the police, if they showed up, they'd just watch. It was a wilderness area, an urban wilderness. The warehouses were abandoned around us. People from HSPVA--there was a group of them that would come out to our shows. This is like 86 or 87. And they would do stuff like drop acid and climb around these abandoned warehouses. I was always a bit concerned for them because they went into places that were pretty scary in the dark. In the full moon. We did crazy thing. It was a true wilderness--you could do anything you wanted.

It was an urban wilderness--not like a national park wilderness. We had these industrial music bands like Voice of Eye--have you ever heard of them?

BOYD: No, I haven't.

HICKS: Jim Wilson was one of the founders of Voice of Eye with his girlfriend Bonny. They pioneered a lot of that industrial music in Houston and played at Commerce Street maybe a hundred times. Often to crowds of 10. [laughter] But it didn't matter--it really didn't. Also with the acoustics of the Performance Bay--four people doing industrial, abstract sound--was also incredibly romantic. I felt really connected to the romantic artists of the 17th century. All that crazy stuff.