Arts / Galleries

Remembering Wayne Gilbert, a Beloved Maverick Houston Artist Who Pushed Limits and Always Had Time For Others

A Special Celebration Of Life Will Take Over The Heights Theater to Honor The Captain

BY // 10.12.23

It was the end of an era when G Gallery closed its final show last weekend, a solo for Dan Workman (of Sugar Hill Records fame). While the gallery’s founder artist Wayne Gilbert was not there, the show went on. For Gilbert died on August 17 after a brave multi-year stand against cancer, which few knew he had.

During this time, Gilbert continued to show his own work in Houston and beyond and curate gallery exhibitions, undeterred by his life-threatening illness.

Wayne Gilbert at the G Spot Contemporary Art Space, a previous iteration of his longtime Heights gallery.
Wayne Gilbert at the G Spot Contemporary Art Space, a previous iteration of his longtime Heights gallery.

Penning this story on Gilbert — not an obituary but a tribute — is personal. Like many in the close-knit Houston art world, Gilbert and I were friends. This kinship began in the 1990s and lasted through Gilbert’s own final exhibition for his artwork. There will be a Celebration of Life held for Gilbert this Sunday afternoon (October 15) at The Heights Theater.

The last time he appeared in public, on Saturday, July 8, Gilbert held court with a crowd of friends and well wishers at a retrospective mounted at Redbud Arts Center curated by Gus Kopriva and Tanja Peterson.

Wayne Gilbert surrounded by family, friends, and fans at his last art show, Saturday, July 8, 2023
Wayne Gilbert (center) surrounded by family, friends, and fans at his last art show, Saturday, July 8, 2023. Seated, from left, artist Susan Plum, Bard professor Dr. Susan Aberth. Standing, from left: Redbud Arts Center’s Gus Kopriva and Tanja Peterson, G Spot Contemporary Art Space director Doria Goldman, Court of Appeals Justice Meg Poissant, Beverley Gilbert.

It was a bittersweet evening, made more uplifting but the turnout of more than 100 including the presence of Bard College art history professor, scholar and author Dr. Susan Aberth, who flew in from New York to say goodbye to her friend, an artist whom she admired and followed.

“Wayne came to Bard College four times over the past 10 years to speak to my class on outsider art,” Aberth tells PaperCity. “The last time he showed his documentary Ash. The students loved him! There was no age barrier, he was so real, sincere and respectful towards them and they returned the favor.

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“Wayne Gilbert was a true original, an artist that other artists loved. His lack of pretense, his ardent search for meaning, and his deep but unsentimental empathy for his fellow man contributed to an artistic vision that was both folksy and sophisticated.”

Aberth found herself moved by Gilbert’s painting.

“His unique art materials (including unclaimed human remains, more on that in a moment) were not a gimmick but instead a loving act of reclamation that took a lot of courage in an art world full of cynicism and spiritual skepticism,” she says.

Also showing up for Gilbert’s last show were Artnews Top 200 collector Lester Marks and artist Loli Fernández-Andrade Kolber.

Wayne Gilbert, Erika Alonso, Lester Marks at the Houston Arts Alliance Gala Preview Party, Fall 2021. (Photo by Anthony Rathbon)
Wayne Gilbert, Erika Alonso, Lester Marks at the Houston Arts Alliance Gala Preview Party, Fall 2021. (Photo by Anthony Rathbon)

“Having spent the last 30 years immersed in the art world, I have never met a finer person than Wayne,” Marks says. “He was one of my true idols. Not just an art world idol, but a real life hero to me. He gave me me so much of himself, always happy to spread his wisdom, his kindness and his brilliance.

“Wayne was one of the people who had a major positive influence on my life and the life lessons he taught me will live with me until I too leave this earth.”

Kolber knew Gilbert as a champion of fellow artists.

“Wayne was always positive, with that special smile,” she tells PaperCity. “Anytime we met he would ask about what I was doing and with genuine interest he would say ‘I’d like to see it.’ He was always ready to give any artist backing and help.”

“But, of all the things he did, my best memory is what a great and kind person he was.”

Kolber summed up the power of Gilbert’s art and its unorthodox medium.

“Through the anonymity of those whose ashes he used, through the distinct different colors, he recognized that they were people that lived and died and gave them another possibility for existence,” she notes.

High jinx on the road: Wayne Gilbert (gold kiss with cap) and Gus Kopriva (silver kiss cab with hat) and art pals in Lubbock, Texas, with the Hershey's Kissmobile Cruiser, circa 2003.
High jinx on the road: Wayne Gilbert (gold kiss with cap) and Gus Kopriva (silver kiss cab with hat) and art pals in Lubbock, Texas, with the Hershey’s Kissmobile Cruiser, circa 2003.

This Writer Remembers

The Captain — my nickname for Wayne — and I met in the mid 1990s when I managed Scott Black’s Blackwood Furniture gallery on 19th Street. Wayne Gilbert and his wife Beverley were outfitting their avant-garde house crafted from a former glass factory in The Heights by architect Scott Strasser (a house where I later attended many happenings and post-exhibition gatherings). We became acquaintances, then friends.

What cemented Gilbert and my connection was covering a group exhibition that decade at a Class A skyscraper in downtown Houston where complaints from the commercial occupants of the building led to two works being removed. One of them was an etching of Leda and the Swan — Leda was nude. The other was Wayne’s canvas depicting a cartoon of a woman lounging on the beach (the figure’s bathing suit was deemed too revealing by the office tower’s management).

I covered this puritanical censorship story for Public News, and later after PN had shuttered, one of my earliest assignments for PaperCity was profiling Wayne and Beverley Gilbert for the just-mentioned home-design feature.

Years later, Gilbert would figure as one of 62 talents profiled in our book Texas Artists Today (Marquand Books, 2010), a collaboration between Tatiana and Craig Massey, Poppi Massey, PC Mag colleague/photographer Jenny Antill (now Antill Clifton) and myself.

Wayne Gilbert's "End of the Day" holds court in Houston collector Poppi Masey's house. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)
Wayne Gilbert’s “End of the Day” holds court in Houston collector Poppi Masey’s house. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

Here’s an excerpt from the Gilbert chapter:

“In Wayne Gilbert’s canvases, gel media mingles with human bone and ash — materials that present a question more than an answer. The paintings, often triangular-shaped and evocative of a pyramid, probe the eternal mystery like an art-world Sphinx. If these are us now, what were we once? What is life, and what remains when we pass on? But Gilbert’s art is an enigma that circles upon itself, like the answers to a perplexing that, despite the technological revolution of recent centuries, remain as unknowable today as during the days of Egypt’s pharaohs.

“Gilbert attended the University of Houston (BFA, 1984), [graduating with his art degree when he was in his late 30s]. His 1990s figurative work, painted in a cartoon-flavored style, offered humorous commentary on the human condition and reflected the influence of Peter Saul, who at that time was teaching at the University of Texas in Austin. The pair developed a friendship that corresponded to Gilbert’s founding of the collective, Rubber, along with painter Bill Hailey and filmmaker/video artist Ramzy Telley.

“Billed as an “Art Mob,” Rubber presented paintings alongside opening-night performances by guest artists. An apex was reaching in May 20o2 with “Rubber Soul,” a happening at Gallery 101 in Houston that paired works by Gilbert and Hailey with an actual bullfight, produced and filmed by Telley, starring a 2,000 pound championship bull named Howdy Dowdy and a Portuguese matador.” [and a man masquerading as a duck, enwrapped in bubble wrap who became a human pinata.] See Ramzy Telley’s archival film footage here that proves this really happened.

Wayne Gilbert’s epic painting comprised of three canvases, all bearing human remains: Reason; God’s Balls; A Guy Named Murphy, as shown at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art.in 2016. (Courtesy the Station Museum of Contemporary Art)

“In 1998, Gilbert’s art turned from raucous to profound when he began incorporating human remains into his paintings. These were ‘enhanced in mystery and interest when I found that each person is their own earth-toned color, he notes. This ongoing, internationally exhibited series bears little resemblance to the expressionistic cartooning of his previous work. Instead, it’s stripped down to emblematic, potent images — the American flag, a McDonald’s logo, a trio of clock faces, the dates ‘9/10’ and ‘9/11.’ Such 2000-era canvases as The Last House on the Block, Delicate Fragrance, and The Road Home present nuanced, lyrical depictions of nature, the landscape, and domestic architecture.”

“By distilling life and death to their literal essence, Gilbert’s canvases viscerally confront the viewer and demand a response. Like a venerated medieval reliquary that preserved a saint’s bones, this art contains the remains of a human life and thus sets itself apart from mere paint on canvas. ‘I am trying to convey a kinship. . . with all humans through our shared mortality,’ Gilbert says.”

Wayne and Beverley Gilbert shared a big life in art and biz
Wayne and Beverley Gilbert shared a big life in art and biz.

Three Points of A Star

Like the triangular canvases that Gilbert often favored, his life revolved around three fulcrums: businessman, gallerist, artist. Underpinning it all was the strength of a five-decade marriage to Beverley Gilbert (the couple co-owned Digital Imaging Group, a state-of-the-art retouching studio whose clients included Compaq and Igloo).

The couple met during treatment for addiction. Gilbert was a leader in Houston’s AA circles, and often hosted meetings at his gallery. He was also outspoken about being a recovering alcoholic, and his example no doubt served as a beacon for many, ahead of today’s renewed interest in sobriety and the cult of mocktails.

Wayne Gilbert was a true Texas original. Like Art League Houston’s 2015 Texas Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts honoree Forrest Prince, he conquered alcohol and addiction and also grew up on Houston’s East Side.

Throughout this life, despite success in business and academic degrees, Gilbert maintained his status as a maverick. He never forgot his modest middle class upbringing.

Generous always with time and money, he supported causes and navigated the high brow and underground of the Texas art world, cultivating friendships with the famous and unknown. Everyone from museum directors and curators to emerging artists, including outsider talents.

Patrick Medrano, John Walker bask in a Gilbert canvas at Redbud Arts Center, July 8, 2023
Patrick Medrano, John Walker bask in Gilbert canvases at Redbud Arts Center, July 8, 2023.

It was not uncommon for Gilbert to be on the ground, the first one there to look at student shows like that of El Franco Lee II. Gilbert gave Lee II his first gallery exhibition, He also sought out the early work of Katy Anderson and Patrick Medrano in 2002 (when the collaborating couple debuted in a small space next to Rudyard’s, and Gilbert met me over there to make intros). His G Gallery showcased Anne Reese Hernandez, a Heights pointillist painter of charming neighborhood vignettes and characters, and he sought out an obscure talent like visionary artist Leandra Di Buelna (whom he discovered before the Orange Show did), as well as my own father Harry D. Anspon, a scientist who took up drawing in his nineties.

Wayne’s world will always occupy a broad terrain in our hearts and memories. The Captain traveled far — from the East Side and The Heights to participating in group shows for Houston artists on the road, including in Shanghai (where this writer was part of the art posse), Cuba, France, Greece, Italy and Peru, and taking Manhattan as a headliner in the 2022 Outsider Art Fair, among a few ports of call. Gilbert truly enjoyed a big, generous, and connected life.

Along the way, he was a catalyst for the city’s art scene in a radical and inclusive way, as Brandon Zech’s moving tribute in Glasstire points out.

May Gilbert live on as inspiration and role model for us all to carry on, as longtime Heights comrades and friends Gus and Sharon Kopriva, and Tanja Peterson do at Gilbert’s neighboring space Redbud Arts Center.

Gus and Sharon Kopriva and Tanja Peterson have joined Beverley Gilbert to organize a Celebration of Life for Wayne Gilbert set for this Sunday, October 15 at 2 pm. Note, the updated venue: The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th Street.

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