Artists Jesse Lott and Angelbert Metoyer attended the Texas Artist of the Year Gala for Art League Houston's 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented to Jesse Lott. Lott mentored Metoyer for many years. (Photo by Alex Barber, courtesy Art League Houston)
Artist Jesse Lott receives his birthday cake during his 80th birthday celebration at the newly renovated Eldorado Ballroom, part of Project Row Houses campus. The unveiling and grand reopening of the Eldorado Ballroom was held March 30, 2023, the day before Lott's birthday, March 31. (Photo by THE 3NGINE, Courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston)
Romeo Robinson's "Urban Frontier Artist — Jesse Lott" (Courtesy Bisong Gallery)
Jesse Lott, pictured with the late Ann Harithas at her 2014 show, "Memory," at D.M. Allison Gallery, Houston. Harithas, owner of Galerie Ann and director of Robinson Gallery, championed Lott and his art. Harithas, along with her husband, the late Jim Harithas, founded the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. (Courtesy Angelbert Metoyer)
Artist Jesse Lott enjoys the festivities during the unveiling of the recently renovated Eldorado Ballroom, which is part of Project Row Houses. The event coincided with Lott's 80th birthday. (Photo by THE 3NGINE. Courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston)
Project Row Houses executive director Eureka Gilkey interviews Project Row Houses co-founder and artist Jesse Lott in the All Real Radio studio at Project Row Houses. (Photo by Wando Okongwu, courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston)
Project Row Houses co-founders Jesse Lott and Rick Lowe in front of the row houses which eventually became Project Row Houses in 1993. Project Row Houses, now led by executive director Eureka Gilkey, is celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year. (Photo by David Robinson, courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston)
Artists and Project Row Houses co-founders Rick Lowe and Jesse Lott enjoy a moment outside Lott's Fifth Ward studio. (Courtesy Angelbert Metoyer)
Jesse Lott and his son Vida Lott appeared in the documentary "Jesse Lott: Art & Activism," directed by filmmaker and 14 Pews founder Cressandra Thibodeaux. The documentary was shot by Thibodeaux and students from her film workshop. (Courtesy Cressandra Thibodeaux)
Artists Angelbert Metoyer and the late Jesse Lott share a happy moment. (Courtesy Angelbert Metoyer)
Jesse Lott plays the keyboard. In addition to his work in visual arts, Lott also mastered numerous musical instruments including guitar, bass, and, pictured here, keyboard. (Photo by Ernesto Leon)
Jesse Lott strums the electric bass guitar. (Photo by Alex Barber, courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston)
Jesse Lott concentrates on his strategy during a dominoes game. Playing dominoes with Rick Lowe was a favorite pastime of Lott's. (Photo by Ernesto Leon)
Artist Phillip Pyle II designed this beautiful collage tribute to artist Jesse Lott. (Courtesy Phillip Pyle II and Project Row Houses, Houston)
Artists and Project Row Houses co-founders Rick Lowe and the late Jesse Lott share a laugh. Other PRH co-founders include James Bettison, Bert Long Jr., Bert Samples, Floyd Newsum, and George Smith. (Photo by Ernesto Leon)
Jesse Lott is escorted to the stage by longtime friend Mel Chin, who introduced Lott, during Art League Houston's 2016 Texas Artist of the Year Gala which honored Lott with a Lifetime Achievement Award. (Photo by Alex Barber, courtesy Art League Houston)
Artists Jesse Lott and Mel Chin at Art League Houston Texas Artist of the Year Gala 2016. The night bestowed Lifetime Achievement honors on Lott, with Chin introducing his long-time pal; the artists' friendship dates back to a shared Fifth Ward childhood. (Photo by Alex Barber, courtesy Art League Houston)
Jesse Lott and Art League Houston executive director Jennie Ash at ALH's 2018 Texas of the Year Gala (Photo by Alex Barber, courtesy Art League Houston)
From left: Late Station Museum of Contemporary Art director and curator Jim Harithas, artist and Project Row Houses founding director Rick Lowe, late artist Jesse Lott, a Project Row Houses co-founder. The three often played domino games. (Photo by Ernesto Leon)
From left: Cressandra Thibodeaux, Marti Corn, Jesse Lott, and Henry G. Sanchez discuss the Thibodeaux-directed documentary "Jesse Lott: Art & Activism" at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair, October 13, 2019. (Courtesy Cressandra Thibodeaux)
Cressandra Thibodeaux, filmmaker and executive director of independent cinema 14 Pews, directed an award-winning 2019 documentary focused on artist Jesse Lott entitled "Jesse Lott: Art & Activism." (Courtesy Cressandra Thibodeaux)
Jesse Lott's 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award exhibition at Art League Houston underscores the inventiveness of his practice. (Courtesy Art League Houston)
The Station Museum of Contemporary Art, founded by Ann and Jim Harithas, presented "The Road So Far" in 2021, a two-person exhibition showcasing the work of artists Jesse Lott and Travis Whitfield. The exhibition was curated by the late Ann Harithas. (Courtesy Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston)
Jesse Lott's "Running Man," 2008, formed from steel, copper, brass, and found objects embodies the artist's way with a wide range of often discarded materials. (Courtesy Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston)
Jesse Lott's "Big Girl (A Tribute To Eula Love)," 1980, a dramatic sculpture fashioned from copper, aluminum, steel, and wire with found objects. (Courtesy Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston)
From left: Project Row Houses co-founder artist George Smith and wife longtime former Menil Collection visitor/membership associate Thelma Smith, and late PRH co-founder artist Jesse Lott, shown at the Project Row Houses 30th Anniversary community celebration July 5, 2023. (Photo by Wando Okongwu, courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston)
Jesse Lott, Channel 13 anchor Melanie Lawson at Lott’s 2021 solo exhibit at Deborah Colton Gallery, “Jesse Lott: Sense of Spirit” (Courtesy Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston)
From left: Project Row Houses co-founders George Smith, Bert Long, Jr., Rick Lowe, Bert Samples (holding a framed photo of the late James Bettison), Jesse Lott, and Floyd Newsum. (Courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston)
A scene from Cressandra Thibodeaux's earlier documentary "Jesse Lott: Art and Community" (2017), which features archival footage shot by late Houston video artist Andy Mann. (Courtesy Cressandra Thibodeaux and the Andy Mann Archive)
Jesse Lott's "Untitled," 1984, papier-mâché on wire armature sculpture, collection the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Courtesy MFAH)
Jesse Lott's expressive papier-mâché sculpture from the "Men in Overalls" series. Papier-mâché was just one of the materials Lott often employed. (Courtesy Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston)
From left: Artists Rick Lowe, Jesse Lott and Angelbert Metoyer all worked together for many years. Lowe and Lott co-founded Project Row Houses along with five other artists in 1993. Lott also mentored Metoyer, who became his most famous student. (Courtesy Angelbert Metoyer)
Jesse Lott basks in the sun outside his Fifth Ward, Houston studio, 2022. The artist was always connected to spirit, says his gallerist, Deborah Colton. (Courtesy Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston)
Writer Ericka Schiche reflects upon the death of Texas Artist of the Year Jesse Lott via conversations with seven art figures who knew him best, including two fellow co-founders of Houston’s Project Row Houses.
When a Houstonian thinks of Fifth Ward, certain things come to mind: The DeLUXE Theater, Burt’s Meat Market on Lyons Avenue, Mystic Lyon, Illinois Jacquet, The Jazz Crusaders and Don Robey’s Bronze Peacock club on Erastus Street. But the true embodiment of Fifth Ward was none other than Jesse Lott.
The legendary artist — who passed away this summer at the age of 80 — has left an indelible impact on the Houston arts community. Known primarily as an Urban Frontier Artist whose complex oeuvre includes papier-mâché works and sculptures, Lott changed myriad lives through sharing knowledge and creating art.
Born in Simmesport, Louisiana, in 1943, Lott settled with his family in Houston’s Fifth Ward neighborhood as a kid. In 1993, Lott helped establish Project Row Houses in the Third Ward with six other artist co-founders. Later, introduced by dear friend and artist Mel Chin, Lott received Art League Houston’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award. Just last year, Lott was named the 2022 Texas State Three-Dimensional Artist by the Texas Commission on the Arts.
Mentored by the late John Biggers, and later studying with Charles White at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, Lott fully embraced Blackness in art. He learned how to disconnect from Eurocentric paradigms in his thinking and work. A wise sage who was also erudite and professorial, he impressed many people with his intellect over the years.
A lesser-known fact about Lott is that he also loved music. Artist Angelbert Metoyer fondly recalls how Lott once brought out an upright bass into his studio, à la Charles Mingus, and began playing it. The bass was one of the instruments Lott excelled at, including guitar, the keyboard, piano and voice. In an interview with filmmaker Cressandra Thibodeaux, Lott sang a heartwarming rendition of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Broke and Hungry” with his son Vida Lott, who survives him.
To illustrate the profound legacy Lott leaves behind, I spoke with fellow artists and friends of the Houston icon.
The warm familial connection between the late Jesse Lott and artist Mel Chin runs deep — two generations on each side. Chin’s late father, Chinese-American businessman Benny Chin, owned a corner store in Fifth Ward called the Wholesome Food Market. Chin noted how the word wholesome, in Chinese, translates to “good heart.” Chin told PaperCity, “I used to deliver the groceries to Mr. Lott, his father, on my bicycle when I was a baby. You know, a kid.”
Chin describes Jesse Lott as “a mystical kind of person who could see the needs of people.”
“He always loved how kids could learn from him,” Chin says. “And that’s why he saw value in the wire or the broken glass, or people’s memories. I think that’s what I’ll truly miss about him.”
Lott helped Chin install his See/Saw installation at Hermann Park during the 1970s. Both artists also worked together in the frame room at the now shuttered Robinson Gallery. Inspired to create another installation, Chin decided to “flood the gallery with water and put this sand in it. Make it like a beach inside.”
Chin laughs at the memory, but says Jesse Lott was “a man of great strength” who often loaded a wheelbarrow with sand to help him create the installation.
Artist Susan Plum was also part of the group known as The Rats (Robinson Art Team) at the gallery directed by the late Ann O’Connor Williams Harithas. Plum knew Lott and Harithas, his main champion, since 1975, and notes “their bond of friendship was forged by their shared love of art and community.”
“Jesse Lott — a dear friend to so many, a man with a natural love of community, an artist who shared his knowledge, mentored many whom have gone on to be very successful artists and offered a hand when anyone needed it,” Plum notes on Lott’s passing.
Plum expresses that Lott “left a tremendous legacy, not only of a brilliant career as a real maestro and artist, but also of a Bodhisattva. Jesse made a practice of unconditional love, which is felt by our entire community and experienced in his art.”
Lott’s recent public-art sculpture The Dreamcatcher, made for the Sunnyside community, embodies what Plum believes is Lott’s view of compassion and beauty.
“I feel he left us not in sorrow, but in joy,” Plum writes. “I am certain he is feeling the great expansiveness of his quantum leap he has taken. Bring it on home, Jesse!”
With Lott’s death, only four original artist founders of Project Row Houses remain: Floyd Newsum, Rick Lowe, Bert Samples and George Smith. Transitioning before Lott were James Bettison (1957 to 1997) and Bert Long Jr. (1940 to 2013). The renovation of 22 shotgun houses, also known as row houses, blossomed into an ongoing community-oriented cultural project. Now in its 30th anniversary year, Project Row Houses continues to be a beacon in the Houston community.
Jesse Lott, a Genius of Texas
Artist Floyd Newsum, who met Lott during the 1970s, tells PaperCity he will miss Lott’s “free spirit. That wealth of knowledge.”
“I’ve always considered him the genius of Texas in the arts, since he was a Renaissance man,” Newsum, a professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, says. “He could do so many things. And everything he did turned into gold.
“Jesse was such a human being. He really was an example for humanity. He was a gentle giant. The kind of person that, if you met him, he would teach you something. And it doesn’t have to be art related. He’ll teach you something about life. A lot of us will miss him.”
Rick Lowe, a MacArthur Genius grant recipient and artist represented by Gagosian Gallery, says Lott deeply inspired him, describing him as “a leader in the ’80s.”
“There weren’t a lot of known Black artists in town at that time, and he was one,” Lowe notes. “He played such a strong role in the broader arts community. He became somebody that I looked up to and I wanted to be next to.
“But his biggest influence to me, though, was his incredible support of my interest in developing Project Row Houses. His wisdom, his outlook on life, and his commitment to community reinforced my desire to push that project forward.
“Jesse’s motto was that everybody could produce art. His intention was to teach anybody who was willing to learn and wanted to learn.”
Lowe explained how Lott encouraged him to return to the studio and resume his painting career.
In addition to Lowe, Lott also mentored and inspired artist Angelbert Metoyer for many years. They developed a close bond. Metoyer describes Lott as both a sensei and maestro.
“He is now a part of the air we breathe,” Metoyer says. “It’s one thing that makes him a living soul — it’s the thing that makes his soul the living.”
Metoyer tells an intriguing story about a visit to Lott’s studio.
“I went over to Jesse’s studio to help clean up the yard in front of the building,” he describes. “While we were moving things around, Jesse said, ‘Hey, there’s a nice patch of sun over here’. Then he said, ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson.’ And he brought out these really nice paintbrushes from sizes zero to nine, and he said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to paint a figure using a different brush for every part of the body’. . .
“I just heard Jesse, in my mind, say ‘Go head, Jo Jo!’ ”
What began as an art lesson later morphed into a lesson in serendipity.
“He brought this really nice paper and laid it all down,” Metoyer says. “Then he brought out some watercolor paint and black ink. And we went through the process of painting the figure. He did the first one so he could demonstrate it to me. Then he had me do the second one as a demonstration to him that I saw what he taught me. We did the third one with the color.”
Metoyer, who flew into Houston from the Netherlands the day Lott passed away, describes it as a fortuitous moment.
“A train came by and started blowing the horn,” Metoyer says. “And he (Lott) started laughing, but I couldn’t hear anything because of the train. Right when the train horn was blowing, it started raining in this one spot where we were painting. And Jesse looked at me. He started laughing, saying ‘Well, go head! Now God is painting with us.”
Metoyer laughs while recalling his mentor’s words.
“My first instinct was to move the paintings before they got messed up, because we were painting with ink and watercolor,” Metoyer says. “But Jesse said, ‘Leave it there’. He turned around and got something to drink out of the studio. We came back, and the rain stopped.
“And we left the work out there to dry. He said, ‘Those are finished. Let’s start another series.’ For me, that is the beginning of what I do. It’s that word: phenomenon.”
His voice trailing away in tears at the end, Metoyer says, “If you could use a word in relation to me and Jesse, it’s this word: phenomenon. Phenomenon is what Jesse’s work is about and what he brings into people’s lives. He teaches through phenomena.”
Dr. Alvia Wardlaw remembers Jesse Lott as a “selfless, kind and funny individual who led from behind.”
“As a curator, I appreciated the wonderful integrity of his work — the honesty that combined humor with this monumentality,” Wardlaw tells PaperCity. “That always struck me. When you saw a piece by Jesse Lott, instantaneously, you knew that it was him. He carried his genius so lightly, and he put all of that effort into his work.
“He was so accomplished in so many ways that he didn’t even talk about.”
Lott also inspired filmmaker and 14 Pews Founder Cressandra Thibodeaux to rethink art history. She created a documentary entitled “Jesse Lott: Art & Activism” along with students from her 14 Pews Film Academy.
“He inspired me because he made me think of the Renaissance being inspired by the Motherland of Africa,” Thibodeaux says. “He helped me think of the importance of African art, and how it should be part of the dialogue.”
In the documentary, Lott explains the power of art. Referencing the influence of John Biggers, he stated, presciently:
“When you do a work of art, you have a greater possibility of reaching more people than when you write a book. Because the history books will be burned, and the history will be mistold.
“But the art is there to be interpreted by each person, every time they look at it. You can tell many, many, many different stories with one picture.”
A tribute event honoring Jesse Lott will be held on Thursday, October 5 from 5:30 to 7 pm at The Silos at Sawyer Yards. A Sculpture Month exhibition “The Sleep of Reason: The Fragmented Figure,” which features Lott’s work and that of his sons Vida Lott and Wayne Myles, will be on display at The Silos at Sawyer Yards, from Saturday, October 7 through Saturday, December 2, with a public opening set for Saturday, October 7 from 6 to 9 pm. Learn more here.
Jesse Lott’s art is represented by Deborah Colton Gallery, Houston.