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Arts / Real Estate

The Theater Director and The Mortician

This Creative Couple’s Houston Home Is Quirky and Wonderful

BY Steven Hempel // 10.05.15
photography Jack Thompson

A LOVINGLY CURATED HOME PACKED WITH ART AND EPHEMERA … A CHARMING AND CREATIVE COUPLE, ONE THE DIRECTOR OF AN ESTEEMED LOCAL THEATER PROGRAM, THE OTHER CHARGED WITH OVERSEEING THE LOOK OF RETAIL POWERHOUSE ANTHROPOLOGIE. ADD TO THE MIX A MORTICIAN’S LICENSE, A MASTER’S DEGREE IN HISTORY, A DOLL COLLECTION THAT DATES BACK TO CHILDHOOD AND SOME GENUINELY TOUCHING MOMENTS, AND IT’S ALMOST LIKE READING A SCRIPT FOR WES ANDERSON’S NEXT PROJECT RATHER THAN PEERING INSIDE THE LIVES OF BRIAN NEAL SENSABAUGH AND JAMES M. SCOTT. BONDED BY A COMMITMENT CEREMONY IN JAMES’ HOMETOWN OF MARFA AT THE MARFA HILL HOUSE IN SEPTEMBER 2011, THE TWO SEEM PERFECTLY IN SYNC. ONE PUSHES, THE OTHER PULLS, WITH A SORT OF EFFORTLESS IF OFFBEAT SYNCHRONICITY. WE SPOKE TO THIS THOUGHTFUL, CREATIVE, COUPLE ABOUT LIFE, LOVE AND THE PURSUIT OF THE PERFECT ASSEMBLAGE OF FOUND OBJECTS.

James M. Scott, 31, Lamar High School theater director
Is anyone really from Marfa?

My grandparents moved to Marfa from Pecos, Texas, in 1964. My mother was in the second grade at the time. My grandfather was the Episcopal minister and owned and operated the Big Bend Sentinel. My grandmother was a Spanish teacher and librarian at Marfa High School, and all of my aunts, uncles and brothers are graduates of Marfa High School. Most of my family still lives in west Texas.

How growing up in Marfa influenced you.
As a teenager, it was rough. It’s hard to be different, weird and artistic in a small town. Luckily, I didn’t have to change to fit in. The town experienced a renaissance during my last years of high school. As it became the art Mecca it is today, I suddenly found myself surrounded by transplants from all over the nation and globe who wanted to make films, write plays and create music. I never thought I would stay in Marfa after school, but I ended up staying for another 10 years. West Texas’ influence on me is undeniable. I can’t explain how blue the sky can be on a chilly winter day when there isn’t a single cloud. I still dream of the wind blowing across the golden desert grasses in the pastures around my family home. When you are connected to a place in a spiritual way, the desire to return never really leaves you. I am Marfa.

Your trajectory to Lamar High School as theater director.
I have an undergraduate degree in theater and a graduate degree in history from Sul Ross State University. Go, Lobos! I’m a third-generation alumni. My grandmother and my mother are both graduates. I spent the last decade working in the restaurant business, then I wanted to put my degree to use, so I started looking for a job teaching history. I guess I must give off a naturally theatrical vibe, because no one has ever wanted to talk to me about teaching history. Every school, principal, HR person I met would divert the conversation back to my theater background. I talked to Lamar High School about teaching history, and the next thing I know, they called me in for a theater interview. The rest is history. I am so thankful to teach at the best high school in Houston, public or private.

Sensabaugh and Scott sharing a moment in their backyard, which includes seasonal herb and vegetable gardens and a large fig tree.
Brian Neal Sensabaugh and James M. Scott share a moment in their backyard, which includes seasonal herb and vegetable gardens and a large fig tree.

The theater program and what your students mean to you.
Lamar Theatre is a full-fledged theater machine. We have two acting companies and a tech crew of about 60 students (loading dock production company). We also teach basic, intermediate and I.B. (international baccalaureate) theater courses. The highlight of our year was putting on a production of Hairspray: The Musical. Over three days, we entertained almost 1,000 audience members. The cast was filled with some of the most talented teenagers in Houston, and it was the biggest set I had ever built. We just wrapped up auditions for next year’s company, and now I am tasked with finding the best material to produce that will suit a diverse group of students.

My students are everything to me. I never thought I would be so emotionally invested in their success, but it makes my life. Sometimes their talent is absolutely terrifying. To be so talented and so young! It’s a blessing to have the opportunity to guide and mold that talent. On an average day, I not only teach them in class, but I deal with making sure they are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities, listen to their problems, help with homework, work with their parents … The list goes on. Listening to teenagers is the most important lesson I have learned. If they know that you are invested in their success and well-being, they will do anything for you. Their knowledge of the world is the thing that surprises me the most. Because teenagers are globally connected because of modern technology, they are far more advanced and knowledgeable than I ever was at their age.

Decorating style.
I have no particular style. I love anything old that looks like it came out of an abandoned natural history museum. It must tell a story. I believe that objects carry their life stories with them and if you listen carefully, they will tell you those stories.

Favorite find for your place.
It’s actually not a find. I have a watch that my great grandfather won for selling the most cars in the early 1900s. He gave it to my grandfather, and my grandfather gave it to me. The face is in the shape of the front grill of a vintage car. The leather band has long since rotted away, but It still winds. Sometimes I will wind it up so that I can hear the same ticking that generations of my family have listened to. It’s a great physical connection to my past.

What’s growing in your gardens?
Gardening in Houston is tough! Bugs, mold, squirrels … I’ve been gardening all my life, but gardening in the city poses all kinds of different challenges. This year’s garden has been the most successful yet. I have a beautiful herb garden that we use for cooking and as ingredients for homemade soap and gifts. Brian and his mother have created a beautiful flower cutting garden that includes zinnias grown from seed that came from his home town in Arkansas. I have some serious tomatoes coming in as well. This was the first year the garden has ever had strawberries and I think that will be a permanent addition. Home-grown strawberries are like sunshine and rainbows in one unforgettable bite.

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A few words about Brian and how he has impacted you personally.
Brian changed my entire life. I would be in a completely different place if the universe hadn’t thrust us together. He has taught me to be more patient, more giving, and he has taught me the importance/joy of keeping a neat and tidy house. He has inspired me to return to my creative roots and encourages me to try new things and take on new challenges. He has been by my side through graduate school, teaching school, career changes and more. His meticulous eye for design has made me a more discerning collector. I see things through different eyes because of him. He is my rock, my partner, my soul mate and my husband. He makes me a more complete and dynamic person. He is the lyrics to my music.

Brian Neal Sensabaugh, 39, Anthropologie’s senior display coordinator
In the beginning.
I was born and raised in rural Arkansas, in a very small town called Morrilton. It was a very conservative environment, in which being gay and different was a constant struggle. Art and creating provided a personal escape. These early artistic connections enabled me to survive. Luckily, my mother moved us to Texas when I was in the eighth grade. I studied art throughout high school and went on to major in art in college.

Your move to Dallas and its impact on you.
The city opened my eyes to people, places and things I had never been exposed to. It was an extreme period of personal growth in discovering my identity.

How your art degree helped your career.
I have a bachelor of arts from Austin College in Sherman, Texas. During my college art career, I started to transform my love of collecting things into visual installations in my artwork. This built the foundation for what I do professionally today. My professor and mentor, Mark Monroe, used found objects in his art installations and was a big influence.

Why a mortician?
During my senior year of college, I decided I did not want to go to graduate school. I was taking a class in thanatology, which led to my decision to attend the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service after I graduated. No one else in my family had a connection with this field. I chose to do it solely out of curiosity. I’ve always been fascinated with death and dying — the macabre. Going to old cemeteries was one of my favorite pastimes as a child. I consider cemeteries to be very meditative spaces. Once I graduated from mortuary school, I completed my apprenticeship and worked for four years as a funeral director at Sparkman-Hillcrest of Dallas. I maintain an active funeral director’s license through continuing education classes every two years.

How the move to Anthropologie came about.
In 2003, I was working for a special events company that did propping and styling for Neiman Marcus. I was looking for ways to parallel my art degree and my career. Anthropologie came to Dallas that same year. With its innovative visual displays and collections of found objects and furniture, it’s one of the only retailers to employ in-house artists to create visual environments. Many people suggested that I should apply for the display artist position and I did. The rest is history.

Living room walls painted Silvered Glass by Ralph Lauren. Old church sign above fireplace from Chippendale Eastlake Antiques in the Heights.
The couple’s living room walls painted Silvered Glass by Ralph Lauren. Old church sign above fireplace from Chippendale Eastlake Antiques in the Heights.

Day-to-day at Anthro.
I’m responsible for the conceptualization and creation of the artistic moments that are created in the stores, which include the windows and interior displays.

Your home seems a definite reflection of you. Where does all the stuff come from?
I’ve been a collector all my life. I love things in multiples — things that have a history and things that tell a story. I surround myself with objects that speak to me; I still have some of my earliest collections from my childhood. I use these found objects in my artwork and I always keep an eye out for interesting things.

Is your home a never-ending project?
My husband would say it’s complete because we are out of room! Somehow I manage to always find the perfect place for a new acquisition.

Favorite find.
We have a tombstone that I acquired from a random source that is installed in our dining room. It is that of a child that died in 1892 at the age of two years. We have researched a possible history but were unable to fi nd any connections. It’s something that we respect very much. Its history and energy are still very present. Not wanting it to roam the Earth without a home, we are happy to show it some love.

The secret to creating a space.
It’s truly individual. People should surround themselves with things that speak to them.

Common thread that ties together great interiors.
Good designers use objects and art to tell stories. Anthropologie’s aesthetic and design is very similar to my own personal style of decorating and design.

Now, a few words about James. How does he inspire you?
I knew we were a perfect match when I discovered that we both knew how to use a sewing machine and power tools. We have proven to be a partnership that challenges each other creatively. James is my best friend who amazes me with his patience and unconditional love. He balances my quirky nature and allows me the freedom to be me.

[This article originally appeared in the October 2014 Houston edition of PaperCity Magazine.]

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