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Arts / Museums

Inside a Private Model and Environmental Artist’s Unique Houston Home

She Once Posed for Fashion Giants, Now She Fights for Truth

BY // 03.21.16
photography Jenny Antill Clifton

Among her many avocations, artist Christy Karll has been a model, fashion seeker and savant, animal activist, beautiful bohemian and environmentally sensitive artist — the latter her most passionate role. She shares the sanctuary of her charming Spanish-revival home, a study in vaporous shades of white, with her husband, Hal McWhorter, and a noble canine, English setter Hudson. Since they were newlyweds, 24 years ago, the couple has lived in this 1927 home, encircled by a garden and tucked away down a sequestered street in the Museum District.

 

Karll is famously reticent and understated; only her closest friends know of the extraordinary life that molded her first decades. She was reared in the Highland Park enclave in Dallas and Mexico City, and her glamorous, adventuresome parents met, courted and married after her mother piloted a plane South of the Border to attend a dinner party.

Karll’s father, Major Robert Paul Karll, was stationed as air attaché to the American Embassy in Mexico City after serving as a pilot during WWII. Her mother, Mozelle, was a famous beauty whose modeling career took off when Stanley Marcus discovered her at the age of 17; thereafter known as one of Mr. Stanley’s favorite models, she later became style coordinator for all the models at Neiman Marcus. Throughout Karll’s childhood and adolescence, she and her parents rubbed shoulders with icons of the era, including Clark Gable and his final wife, Kay Spreckels (at a neighbors’ casual dinner in Beverly Hills), and Ernest Hemingway (Mozelle gave him a lift to Mexico City in her plane). And then there was the summer of Ava Gardner.

“During semester break while studying in Mexico, I was invited to participate [as a model] in an international fashion show,” she says. “It was to be held in Acapulco, so I thought it would be fun. My mom came along as my chaperone. One day she asked me to join her and an old friend who happened to be in town. I arrived, and my mother introduced me to Ava Gardner.

“Ava invited me to go water skiing every morning for the month I was there. She was staying at ex-husband Frank Sinatra’s house. Every day we’d hangout, go shopping at the flea markets, swim and have dinner at her house. Ava told me she thought of me as the daughter she never had. I told her I planned to pursue a career as an artist. She suggested I wait and continue modeling for a while, which I did.

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  • Oscar De La Renta - Earrings
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“A few commercials later, I went to New York and signed with the Wilhelmina modeling agency. I was chosen by the legendary photographer Victor Skrebneski to replace Karen Graham for the highly sought-after Estée Lauder campaign ads. Wilhelmina was thrilled, but I grew impatient, cut my hair after a Clairol advertisement, signed with a French agency and left for Paris.”

Another big break followed — and a revelation. “I was approached by John Frieda while walking down Baker Street in London, and he asked me to be his model for hair advertisements.” John Frieda ads followed. While in Europe, Karll says, “I discovered I preferred being on the other side of the lens. Photography!” Today her artistic practice frequently includes photos as subtle underpinning for works on paper.

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Soft, nacreous light fills the couple’s front sitting room. Many of the furnishings came from the shop of Houston antiquarian Kay O’Toole. On the wall, one of Karll’s striking canvases from 2015. The antique Baccarat chandelier once hung in her family’s dining room in Mexico City.

Eventually, Karll touched down in Houston and returned to college for a degree in art. Her sister, Susie, who died young in a car accident, had been an artist; making art was a way to stay close to her memory. In 1999, Karll graduated from the University of Houston, where she studied with British painter Derek Boshier, Houston legend Gael Stack and Brit art historian David Brauer; she credits them all with setting her firmly on the art track. Her career began when a charcoal drawing was included in a prestigious Blaffer Art Museum exhibition. Collectors took notice, including staunch supporter Jane Blaffer Owen and her daughter, Annie Owen Pontez, who both acquired large scale works.

Flash forward. The house has played a transformative role in Karll’s ongoing journey as a visual artist. When she and McWhorter moved here as newlyweds 24 years ago, the enchanting property, built in 1927, manifested itself and fast became a muse for the budding painter and sculptor. It was serendipity, Karll says. “When searching for a house, I decided I wanted to be near the museums. I found myself often driving down this quiet little street with a lovely canopy of oak trees …

“Then one day I received a call from friend Bill Hill, telling me about a house for sale there. As we drove up, a friend, Cathy Echols, came running out. She and then-husband Andrew Echols owned the property.”

It was love at first sight. “As soon as I walked in, I knew it was the perfect house for Hal and me, filled with this wonderful energy,” she says. “It’s a happy house, open and airy. Sunlight spilling into all the rooms. On special days, you can hear a dove cooing atop the chimney. The living room fills with this sweet sound and lovely vibe. Very soulful. I especially love seeing my dog laying cozily by the fireplace … It’s magic. And, if that weren’t enough, every hour the bells toll from a nearby church. And another church plays chimes.”

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The master bedroom, dressed in coverlet, sheets and pillows from Indulge. The antique hand-loomed tapestry is a family heirloom.

The airy interiors are layered with Karll’s artworks, as well as a well-edited collection by other artists she admires, and the couple’s antiques. It also informs its owner’s art-making. Karll believes living here brings a lightness to her work. “If I am struggling or having a problem with a piece at my studio, I’ll bring it home,” she says. “It gives me a new perspective. I instantly get a feel for it, and it becomes me … I love working in my home.”

Karll is looking forward to fresh directions in her career. Recently, she created a new series of sculptures that reference our fraying ecology. In a little nook off the living room stands a sculpture, On Ice. “ It’s a statement about how fragile nature is,” she says. “It’s both personal and environmental, addressing our own vulnerability and the effects of climate change.”

Karll still basks in the thrill of realizing a lifelong dream — showing her work in India, via a group exhibition of Texas artists at the National Art Academy in New Delhi that opened in January 2015 — on the heels of an introspective career-spanning solo at the Jung Center the year before. Now she’s making her most profound work yet. Quiet, sculptural, diminutive and intimate, it’s drawn interest from a few prominent Houston gallerists, but the intensely private Karll won’t say more than that.

Visiting Dallas Art-World Maven Betty Blake

“I recall a time when I joined my mom for lunch at the home of art collector Betty Blake in Dallas. As we drove up to the house, her husband was waving to us from a train in the front of the house, dressed in a blue-and-white-striped conductor’s suit and a big engineer’s cap, tooting the horn and waving as he drove past us. The train tracks circled the estate. Betty met us at the door, ushering us in. I was fascinated by the art collection, and during lunch, she asked what my plans were after graduation. She suggested I work at a museum. When I moved to Houston, the first job I had was in the bookstore at the MFAH. While there, a co-worker and I began curating an interesting product mix of artist byproducts for retail. We went to studios like Susie Rosemarin’s, who offered a tray of unusually shaped rocks and pebbles with faces. Eventually we opened the first MFAH gift shop, separate from the bookstore.

On Meeting the Great Jane Goodall

“My connection with Jane began when I read that the Jane Goodall Institute was requesting individuals to write about how they found JGI meaningful to them. I sent a letter. A week later, a woman called telling me they loved what I had written and they were going to use some of it for their website. She told me Jane was coming to Houston and wished to meet me! Dr. Jane Goodall came to Houston [in 1990] for a tribute and lecture series at Jones Hall, ‘Unique Lives & Experiences.’ There was a line wrapping literally around the block. I thought to myself, ‘I’ll never see her.’ I had a book with me that she wrote. I finally inched my way up and asked her to sign her book. Her assistant, Mary Lewis, rushed over and asked me to stay behind, lifting up the ropes to let me in. We had dinner; we hung out. I learned so much from them, from Jane and from Mary. We’ve stayed connected. She is doing so much to save this planet and to protect and save animals. Our animals are in such peril, it’s beyond comprehension.”

Encountering the Iconic Pat Steir

“I think she’s an amazing energy. I went to a CAMH symposium that she participated in, and I swear, I could see her aura. No one else’s, but hers was so strong, I could literally see it. I told her so afterwards, too. I think it resonated — she looked deep into my eyes for the longest time. A year later, I had the opportunity to visit her studio in New York with a CAMH group of collectors. She had two assistants carry individual paintings out. They were the latex, oil and water paintings, but these were huge. Her work is sublime, truly sublime. She joined our group for dinner.

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