Arts / Home + Design

Dreamscapes — Salle Werner-Vaughn Turns Cottages Into Art Installations

The Texas Painter's Interiors Are Portals to Other Worlds

BY // 10.22.20
photography Lisa Petrole, Art Direction by Michelle Aviña

One of Salle Werner-Vaughn’s most cherished memories as a child growing up in rural East Texas is lying on her back in a field of yellow buttercups and pink evening primroses, looking up at the blue sky. The artist, now 80, recreated that memory on canvas several decades ago: an atmospheric abstraction of sky and flowers awash in pastel hues. Her paintings feel otherworldly, often done in the 18th-century confectionary colors of Boucher and Fragonard. “My work is about a world we know exists but can’t really see,” she says.

That painting inspired an ongoing art-and-interiors installation created by Werner-Vaughn inside this Victorian-era cottage in Houston, which she completed three years ago. It’s one of four cottages in a compound that the artist has saved and restored, each used like a stage set for her paintings, sculpture, and antique furnishings. She has dubbed the cottages Harmonium. “I’m trying to create a place of harmony and beauty in a world that is stricken,” she says. This cottage, which she named Here & There, is surrounded by lovely unkempt gardens, wild with climbing passion vines and morning glories. “They are old-fashioned flowers, the kind that were here when these houses were built,” Werner-Vaughn says.

Salle Werner-Vaughn 185 SV14 5X7.jpg (Photo by Lisa Petrole, Art Direction by Michelle Aviña)
Werner-Vaughn painted the doorway surround as faux marbre, then added an antique architectural carving. Walls are painted a dusky pink from Farrow & Ball. Chair is 18th century. (Photo Lisa Petrole, Art Direction Michelle Aviña)

Like all of the cottages that belong to the artist, Here & There was once part of a long-neglected enclave of rail workers’ houses that were destined for the wrecking ball until she began salvaging them 31 years ago. The neighborhood was established in the 1880s, mostly by German immigrants working on the construction of a new railroad running through Texas to the port of Galveston. To compensate for seasonal hurricanes, many of the houses were built with ingenious wood balloon frames, which could be easily re-erected using a block-and-tackle pulley system.

Werner-Vaughn bought her first cottage in 1989. Saving old houses quickly became a passion, and she bought many others over the decades. “I’ve had quite a few houses but haven’t kept all of them,” she says. “I’ve either sold the land or couldn’t keep them up. I sold my favorite house Cloud because I needed the money to buy more houses to save. I did some beautiful paintings in there.”

She didn’t just fall in love with the old houses; she also fell in love with the old-fashioned neighborhood, with its overgrown gardens and streets without sidewalks. “We have so many glamorous areas in Houston, but this is how most people originally lives,” she says.

183 SV12 5X7.jpg (Photo by Lisa Petrole, Art Direction by Michelle Aviña)
A doorway is curtained by tattered antique saris. (Photo Lisa Petrole, Art Direction Michelle Aviña)

But not everyone wanted her there. Vandals set fire to Now & Then on Thanksgiving Day, right before her first show was scheduled to open. Art and furnishings were destroyed, and it took another year before she gathered the energy to repair the damage and mount a new installation. “I was devastated after the fire, but the show gave me a new vision,” she says. “If I have vision, I can gain strength.” And, she needed it: The fire kicked off a decades-long spate of burglaries throughout the compound of cottages — 64 instances in all. Furniture, artworks, and other precious items were stolen.

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The thefts finally stopped 10 years ago. Over time, Werner-Vaughn has used these tribulations to fuel her artwork and installations. “I found a way to make something beautiful out of destruction,” she says. Her career flourished; she took a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and her myth-based drawings were used in a film produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

174- SV 1 5X7 (Photo by Lisa Petrole, Art Direction by Michelle Aviña)
Artist Salle Werner-Vaughn at Here & There, one of her cottages. (Photo Lisa Petrole, Art Direction Michelle Aviña)

The cottages, with their dreamy installations of furniture and art, continue to endure, evolve, and inspire. “Although it’s not stated in my work, I’m showing that we can transform the world if we use our imagination,” she says. “A bungalow could be a palace, if you imagined it.”

This cottage, Here & There, is just such a palace. Much of the furniture is 18th-century French — romantic pieces, shapely daybeds and bergères, sometimes left in their original tattered conditions. Doorways aren’t just passages but portals into ancient worlds, draped with shredded silk saris and tied with silk cords. Other doorways are painted to resemble marble, with faux transom windows looking into celestial landscapes, painted with fluffy white clouds on baby-blue skies. Pink and blue are Werner-Vaughn’s favorite colors, and she has immersed the cottage in those delicate hues.

These cottages, with their rooms of carefully selected and placed furnishings, are meant to lend meaning to her artwork and, in a larger sense, the world. “Rooms are like a palette,” she says. “By giving a room a color, it gives it a dimension. I create space and volume through the placement of objects — I put objects in rooms to articulate the world.”

In her advancing years, Werner- Vaughn knows her time and energy are limited, but she’s not finished. “I want to save more old houses,” she says. “They are the beginnings for my art — houses inspire what I have to say. And I have more to say.”

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