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Arts / Galleries

Houston’s Art Hermit

Dynamic Talent Insists on a Simple Life, Shuns Monetary Rewards to Promote Peace

BY // 03.24.17
photography Jenny Antill Clifton
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INSIDE THE MONK-LIKE PURITY OF ACTIVIST AND ARTIST FORREST PRINCE’S HOME

Forrest Prince lives a modest life — resembling a hermit who has taken a vow of poverty. Informed by a touch of mysticism and possessing the demeanor of Gandhi, the octogenarian artist is an anomaly in today’s dollars-fueled art market. Beyond his living expenses, proceeds from his in-demand art go to his self-funded Praise God Foundation, which quietly goes about working with those in his community in an organic, usually low-key way.

A famous 1992 Marvin Zindler episode relayed how Prince befriended a stroke victim in a local nursing home. After 23 years, the woman, Alana Wilson, was reunited with her family in La Crosse, Wisconsin, thanks to the efforts of Zindler, Prince, and a slew of philanthropic Houstonians.

Although his powerful and well-connected collectors range from Bill Hill, Carolyn Farb, Marilyn Oshman, and Gayle and Mike DeGeurin to River Oaks District founder Dene Oliver and his wife, Elizabeth, Prince has not pursued prosaic gallery representation and is not currently in the stable of any commercial art entity. How does this man of God, animal rights, and current events live?

Houston artist Forrest Prince in his backyard: denim overalls and work shirt underscore the simplicity of his needs.

Prince opened up his home and studio to give us a rare glimpse into his sanctuary. All his worldly possessions fit into a diminutive-sized dwelling (less than 1,000 square feet) in a gentrifying area of Garden Oaks known as Itchy Acres, which also borders the home and studios of fellow creatives Paul Kittelson and Carter Ernst, Tim Glover, Ed Wilson and Magda Boltz- Wilson, and Thedra Cullar-Ledford.

Both homes were made available to him through the generosity of long-time patrons Elizabeth Hamman Oliver and Dene Oliver and Elizabeth’s sister, Laura Hamman Fain — daughters of his late supreme benefactor, Lollie Jackson. In typical Prince style, the larger house on the lot is given over to his cats, an ever-expanding population of about a dozen for whom he meticulously and lovingly cares daily. (The timing of our dinnertime interview took the felines’ feeding  schedule into consideration.)

Prince’s devotion to his animals is in keeping with his strict tenet of vegetarianism; decades before it was hip or chic, he abandoned eating meat for ethical reasons. The spare domestic space awash in white light offers a study in simplicity, functional living, and humility.

Coupled with the artist’s unwavering stance for vegetarianism, the startling minimal interiors reflect the homeowner’s monk-like purity of vision while serving as a showcase for the causes and concerns that have kept him going in his monastic existence. There’s little adornment except for his art, which is employed both as a force for enlightenment and as an edict on how to live, an admonishment to  repent, and an encouragement to follow the light of consciousness.

But don’t let his saintly air fool you. Granted, his ethereal creations, mirrored crosses, and hearts with simplified text messages of “Love” or “Praise God”: There is a waiting list for this body of work that is instantly recognizable as the artist’s signature. While these works espouse peace, brotherhood, and love, another part of his practice marks Prince as one of the most politically outspoken talents you’ll find anywhere in Texas.

Perhaps that’s why his work — sculptures alternately spiritual and scathingly socially conscious — resonate with audiences, attracting curators and collectors alike including Houston iconic duo Ann and Jim Harithas. Prince was recently in the group show “Friendly Fire” at Jim Harithas’ prescient, highly charged art space, the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. He also has exhibited and is in the permanent collection of The Menil Collection, represented in the museum’s holdings by a mirrored heart, gifted by Bill Hill, in the 2012 exhibition “The Progress of Love.”

He’s the only male in a group exhibit about love that’s on view now at Zoya Tommy Gallery (through March 18), as well as in a group show about the art of assemblage at Williams Tower (through April 14).

Especially hard-hitting are Prince’s political assemblages. Don’t present one of these to a conservative friend. A staple of liberal-leaning exhibitions such as Lawndale’s “Big Show,” the messaging is conveyed via often complex, towering constructions rife with text sampled from headlines. The topics come straight from the front pages of today’s media, mainstream to tabloid, WikiLeaks to Vanity Fair and National Enquirer; the takeaway sends up America’s military machine, notably the policies of the Bush-era, post 9-11 presidency.

Beyond the political critique  though, Prince’s concern with food sources and non-killing of fellow creatures is among the most powerful message present in his sculpture — and a philosophy that he lives by. He also distributes tracts to those he is fond of about the benefits of dining upon fruits, vegetables, and seeds.

He biblically addresses each recipient as brother or sister, often citing teachings from the Dead Sea Scrolls as his gospel. Much has been made of his colorful early life as a substance abuser and peddler of illicit activities, including pimping on the once mean streets of Houston’s Eastside, as well as his conversion to God and art in 1969, after hitting rock bottom and a drug-induced blackout that almost left him for dead.

By 1976, Prince had been discovered by Jim Harithas, then renegade director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where he was given a solo that year. The decades accrued, along with exhibitions at Houston galleries and nonprofits from DiverseWorks and Art Car Museum to Hooks- Epstein Galleries and Zoya Tommy Gallery, capped by a retrospective and Lifetime Texas Artist of the Year honors at Art League Houston in 2015.

And 40 years later, Prince is at his most enlightened — and as feisty as ever — exhibiting yet again with Harithas and his fellow band of radicals, who somehow seem inserted and aligned into the center of the recent election-year dialogue.

When asked to summarize his art, Prince told us: “The greatest of all is love. The higher you eat, the higher your consciousness. The higher your consciousness, the more LOVE you can manifest.

“The more LOVE you manifest the more Peace you will have. The more Peace you have the more LOVE you can share. Peace be with you. That is what my art is about.”

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