Houston Arts Alliance Innovators — 7 Creative Forces Who’ve Used Grants to Make Magic

BY Promoted Series Correspondent // 03.22.18

These seven creatives, whose practices were impacted by grants from Houston Arts Alliance, mirror the demographics of our city in diversity, arts innovation, and range of cultural currency. They’re the latest masters of fashion and recycling, public art in parks, filmmaking, global choreography and dance, and jazz and bluegrass.

Runway Renew

Sarah-Jayne Smith and Ahshia Berry are the masterminds behind Houston-headquartered Magpies & Peacocks, a nonprofit fashion house that works directly with students, educators, designers, and artists in the Houston area. A resource for art education, M&P offers valuable sustainability lessons by creating uniquely designed up-cycled clothing and accessories — collections made from “formerly fabulous” donated pieces.

The nonprofit supports hometown fashion designers and visual artists and also brings them in, via the residency program Artist in Nesting, and opens up its cool warehouse space on the eastern edge of downtown to talents across diverse media, including (most memorably) painter and music producer Robert Hodge.

Magpies & Peacocks’ founders note, “As a unique arts nonprofit, finding funding has been challenging — we often found ourselves to be a square peg in a round hole! HAA has been instrumental in our growth and given us the confidence to carve out our own direction as an organization.”

The latest M&P Artist in Nesting is René Garza, creator and lead designer of Re:ne(w), a collection of up-cycled post-consumer textiles. In February 2018, Garza took Re:ne(w) to the prestigious London Fashion Week runway as part of the Fashion for Conservation show, earning a buzz-worthy mention from British Vogue in the process.

Read PaperCity’s exclusive report on the London magic here.

Magpies & Peacocks’ artist in residence Réne Garza debuted his collection Re:ne(w) at London Fashion Week in February 2018. The collection caught the attention of British Vogue.

Cinematic Hero

Documentary filmmaker Neiman Catley was awarded a grant by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance to help fund “Intwined,” a series of short documentaries focusing on what inspires Houston artists and what makes them tick.

Catley says the series “follows the lives of several Houston-based artists and gives an insight to what it’s like to create art. A lot of times, we only see the finished product without knowing what the process is to create artwork.”

Subjects vary from the under-known to the internationally recognized. Catley has directed segments featuring Houston hip-hop icon (and one-time Rice University professor) Bun B, as well as painters Stephanie Gonzalez and Lee Carrier.

The full-length “Intertwined” will also include fellow Houston creatives such as street artist Daniel Anguilu, Pop painter Dandee Warhol, the barbers at hipster hangout Cutthroat, and the unclassifiable psychedelic music of Space Villains.* Prior to zeroing in on his hometown, Catley co-directed At Home Abroad, where he turned the lens on expat culture around the world.

Disciple of Dance

Rathna Kumar is a world-renowned danseuse, teacher, and choreographer. She’s also the founder/director of the Anjali Center for Performing Arts in Sugar Land — the first Indian dance school in Texas, and one of the first schools promoting India’s traditional dance forms in the country. Kumar established Anjali in 1975 and has trained more than 2,000 students of all ethnic backgrounds from across the United States.

A cultural force for more than 40 years, she has received a slew of prestigious awards, including recognition by the National Endowment for the Arts, Young Audiences of Houston, Miller Theater Advisory Board, Texas Commission on the Arts, and UNESCO’s International Dance Council. Speaking as part of a recent Indo American Women Mean Business evening, she said, “Mine is not a job. Mine is a vocation.”

A genuine ambassador of Indian performing arts in the U.S., Kumar is indicative of the rich cultural vitality of Houston. She is also a precursor of local interest in India this spring, manifested by the FotoFest Biennial being devoted to India (through April 22) and a rich decorative arts blockbuster at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India” (through August 19).

Jazz Meets Bluegrass

For more than two decades, Jacqui Sutton has been an acclaimed — and pioneering — jazz and bluegrass musician. She got her start as a singer in the vocal jazz ensemble Jazzmouth, which was founded by Bay Area singer and composer Molly Holm in the early 1980s. Sutton then migrated to Portland, Oregon in 1984, where she discovered bluegrass music.

After 20-plus years of intensive practice, study, and appreciation for all things banjo, mandolin, and fiddle — she even heard these traditional bluegrass instruments intermingle with jazz in her dreams — Sutton fused together the disparate styles. The resulting synthesis became her musical calling card: the Frontier Jazz sound.

In 2008, Sutton moved to Houston with her family. Her recent signature project, funded by HAA with guidance from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA), was “Un-Cross Talk: Jazz and Bluegrass Slip ‘n Slide Houston Style.” The multimedia concert mixed music genres to forge a new sound that’s unabashedly fresh and original.

“Color Bursting Hermann Park” has a number of components. Its skirt-wrapped trees in a rainbow palette represent “unity and acceptance,” says co-creator Nicola Parente.

Reimagining Public Art

“Without the financial support of the Houston Arts Alliance, projects that would have only been a dream now have become a reality,” says artist Nicola Parente. “Their funding has had a significant impact on the growth of my art career. For this, I am truly grateful.”

He is speaking of Art Uniti, his three-years-in-the-making endeavor with collaborator Tami Merrick. While the two artists are individually hailed for their proficiency with paint on canvas and have well-developed collector bases, their practice dramatically changed after an HAA individual grant for Scaped Senses, which was realized last November on the Near Northside of Houston. The project enlisted community volunteers to create colorful painted bands that formed a gigantic bowl structure surrounded by stick-like forms rising from the ground in a labyrinth pattern.

Community activation is key to their next project as well — one that unveils Sunday, March 25, at Hermann Park as part of a City of Houston grant through HAA focusing on area parks, the Bayou Trails initiative. Entitled Color Bursting Hermann Park, the engaging public art piece sited near McGovern Centennial Gardens attires the trees with skirts woven from painted bands of plastic crafted by Parente and Merrick in an ode to the skirts of Degas’ dancers. The work also references the target paintings of American master Kenneth Noland.

A second component features handwoven vests formed from ribbons braided together by volunteers, including YES Prep students. With their bright rainbow hues, these vests subliminally address the issues of “unity and acceptance,” Parente says. The collaborators add a dance and music component, enlisting choreographer Lori Yuill and band leader Texas Johnny Boy to dialogue with the vibrant Color Bursting.

Find a schedule of the opening weekend here (the installation is on display through Saturday, May 20).

Support Future Innovators

Save the date: Thursday, April 5, at Hotel ZaZa. Support Houston Arts Alliance’s mission to empower — and to see firsthand the creative works of cultural innovators like those above —  purchase a gala ticket or table to HAA’s An Intimate Evening on Broadway Dinner Concert here. These artists will be featured at the event in a unique party-exhibition environment.

All photos courtesy the artists and Houston Arts Alliance.


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