The Secret World of the Menil’s Montrose Bungalows: These Aren’t Just Cute Cottages
Artist Bob Russell contemplates his next step after a banner year.
The Russell's airy living room with mid-century furniture culled from auctions, yard sales and antiquing.
Judy Russell relaxes in the breakfast room at a sturdy antique oak pedestal table, from her family’s home in Bellaire.
From Amber Eagle's bedroom, bulldozers work on preparing ground for the Menil’s new Drawing Center.
Amber Eagle in her living room with Lula. She wears a huipil garment — sewn by women from the Tehuantepec region — indicative of her passion for Mexican artisanship.
In a bedroom nook, a vintage chair dialogues with the artist’s tile-and-metal dressing table — another example of husband Memo’s talent.
For the second in our series of lives inside the illusive Menil-gray bungalows that surround The Menil Collection, we venture into two of the cottages — the homes of artist Amber Eagle and her artisan husband, Guillermo Rosas, and artist Bob Russell and his wife, mid-century design maven Judy Russell. Discover the bliss of living small and purposefully, shaded by history and across the street from one of the world’s most storied private museums.
CHEZ JUDY AND BOB RUSSELL
The Russells have rented the charming circa-1930s Branard Street bungalow in the de Menil enclave since 2012. (They were recently joined by her mom, nonagenarian baker and ace bridge player Kathleen Sturm.) The couple met during their undergraduate days — Judy remembers Bob walking her to her car at the University of Houston, “and that was it.” They have been married 44 years, with a grown son and daughter and their first grandchild on the way. The Russells have feathered their diminutive nest with his artworks; a shared collection of paintings, works on paper and sculpture; enticing rocks and mineral specimens; and well-edited furniture and design finds that tilt to the Mad Men era — evidence of Judy’s seven-year tenure at Sunset Settings. (She now works for UT School of Nursing at the Texas Medical Center.)
But what occurs outside the bungalow is even more important. “I can walk out my front door and almost touch four different world-class art pavilions,” says Bob. “I love the energy of the neighborhood.” We first made Bob’s acquaintance during visits to Gremillion & Co., where this one-time rock ’n’ roll musician who studied architecture in college has long worked as a gallerist. I had known Bob for years when one day he invited me to visit the home where he and Judy were living at the time, in another Menil-owned property. The startlingly beautiful work on view presaged his current well-received career as an artist. (Recent exhibitions include a one-person show at the Jung Center, his solo this spring at Colquitt dealer D.M. Allison Gallery and inclusion in the edgy “Wet” group show curated by Donna Tennant and Henry Hunt at the Williams Tower Gallery.)
What’s compelling about Russell’s work is its feeling of being created in a bygone era — one surmises living in the bungalow reinforces this sensitivity. His collages are remarkable, but in a nuanced way: Combining paper, torn bits of canvas and pencil markings, these understated works possess a nocturnal air informed by cubism and precise geometry. There’s always an open-porch policy at bungalow Russell: The couple entertains in the best way possibly, informally and organically. Bloody Mary Sundays, dropins by neighbors (including our next profile, Amber Eagle), relatives and a small stream of other fascinating visitors as well as a friendly neighborhood-fed non-feral cat make for a sense of community, all within this leafy allée footsteps from the Twombly Gallery, across from the Menil. “After living near Rice University, in Austin and a Houston downtown loft and having wonderful memories of them all, this home has been the best,” Judy says.
THE CASA OF AMBER EAGLE AND GUILLERMO ROSAS
A regular visitor to the Russells is neighbor/artist Amber Eagle. Eagle is one part of bi-country couple — her husband, artisan Guillermo Rosas (aka Memo), hails from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. For seven years, this duo has been in residence at a Menil-owned casa — this one, a 750-square-foot garage apartment that Eagle has charmingly decorated with Mexican folk art, her husband’s extraordinary metal creations and her own works, which veer from delicate watercolors informed by Surrealism to sculptures reviving the traditional south-of-the-border art of three–dimensional sucre figurines.
Make no mistake: Despite her abilities in both media, Eagle is more than a craftswoman. A Rhode Island School of Design alum and former Core Fellow from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s vaunted artist-in-residency program, she arrived in town to study at the Glassell School of Art, then became fascinated with the exotic lore and lure of Mexico, where she met her husband, who comes from a celebrated line of metalworkers in the state of Guanajuato. The pair wed in 2010 and became collaborators. Her most recent creations have a DIY edge — especially Eagle’s epic art cars. Our Lady of Transportation combines VW hoods into a configuration resembling an antebellum ball gown as blossom, from which Miz Eagle emerges. (Yes, the award-garnering mobile sculpture is street legal.) Her latest car-influenced sculpture, Autoflora, resides at the Lockwood/Eastwood Metro light rail stop. Her sugar sculptures, first unveiled at ArtHouston in 2002 in an exhibition at Moody Gallery, were made after receiving a grant to revive vanishing folkways of Mexican culture. (For gringos, the sugar skulls that proliferate during the Day of the Dead celebrations every November are the most familiar manifestations of this art form.)
Eagle’s range and fascination with vernacular byways can currently be seen in a three-person show at Art Car Museum, which features ethereal drawings as delicate as desserts and a surprising cast of characters in the vein of Leonora Carrington or perhaps even Frida Kahlo without the pathos, and above all, the crowd-stopping, otherworldly Rosebud art car evoking the concept of ancient aliens, from which Eagle steers as astronaut/driver.
For this artist, living amidst the Menil bungalows provides community and a perfect micro space to touch down in the city after sojourns to Mexico. Her interiors display the diverse multiculturalism of her mindset, which has earned her patrons from art collector Marilyn Oshman to architect Karen Lantz. (The later commissioned her for a portrait of her late father, whom Eagle rendered in a poignant sugar sculpture.) Not only is the space just right, but so are the environs.
“Having the Menil programs a five-minute walk away is terrific,” Eagle says. “I don’t give a second thought to going to lectures, concerts, films on the lawn or to the Rothko for meditation or t’ai chi by the reflecting pond.” Then there is The Menil Collection as muse: “When I’m having a challenging time for my artwork, I walk to the museum for a new perspective — it’s a great resource,” she says. “Every neighborhood should have its museum!”
Serving up vegan mac and cheese and margaritas (concocted from tequila aged in a barrel, cucumber and cilantro), all set to the beat of De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising,” this is a place you want to be when the couple entertains. For the party pros, they defer to the Russells, though, as Eagle fondly recalls her favorite bash as “the one Bob and Judy Russell and [now retired Menil registrar] Anne Adams threw in honor of Memo’s green card arriving. It flowed between two porches on the park. I designed green cards and a seal, so you had to have a green card signed and with Memo’s official stamp to get in. We all wore mustaches like him.”
For the future, Eagle, like Bob Russell, plots and plans more shows and fresh ideas — her next inspirations are gold, plants and animals, and she’s just installed a brass tree ring at the art space/salon Cherryhurst House — while home base will always be in plain sight of the world’s most spiritually aware museum. We’re sure benefactors/founders Dominique and John de Menil, if they still walked the earth today, would gather around the porch, clink glasses and collect both creatives.
[Editors’ note: This story originally appeared in the August 2015 Houston edition of PaperCity Magazine.]
ART DIRECTION MICHELLE AVIÑA. HAIR AND MAKEUP TONYA RINER.