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Rick Lowe: Heart of the City

Nicole Audrey Spector interviews the artist, community advocate, and MacArthur 'genius' grant winner about the power and limits of art in troubled communities.

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Image courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Rick Lowe, artist and the founder of the community revitalization effort Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward, was recently named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow. The “genius” grant and its $625,000 award is a crowning achievement in any creative professional’s career, but in Lowe’s case, it feels especially poignant. Since the ’90s, the artist and community advocate has poured his energy into addressing the social and economic needs of downtrodden neighborhoods in Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and more. The generosity that Lowe has demonstrated suggests that the entirety of the grant will fund his work, which means the communities he nurtures and the places they inhabit.

Lowe’s journey began in 1990 when a high school student visited his studio and critiqued the social commentary in his work: “If you’re an artist and you’re creative, why can’t you create a solution?” As much as Lowe’s pieces could spur discussions about political issues, they couldn’t enact large-scale change.

So Lowe abandoned his studio and reassessed his approach. He was inspired by the work of John Biggers, a fellow longtime Houston resident, whose public murals vividly portrayed African American life. Lowe also looked to Joseph Beuys, whose idea of social sculpture suggested that everyone is an artist and that we as artists could create structures to shape the world around us.

Because changing the entire world was too daunting a task, Lowe limited the scope of his work to the Third Ward, one of Houston’s oldest African American neighborhoods. There, he gathered like-minded artists, community activists, and volunteers to found Project Row Houses, a community-based arts and culture non-profit organization, in 1993. In the interview that follows, he says of the project’s beginnings, “We didn’t have a clear objective of what we were trying to do. We just started to secure…houses, clean them up, and clear the land.”

Lowe spearheaded the renovation of 22 abandoned “shotgun houses,” deteriorated relics in what had once been a vital community. In fact, Biggers commemorated these types of homes throughout his career, particularly in one of his most renowned paintings, “Shotgun, Third Ward # 1.”

Through his initiative, the historic houses not only became fit for tenancy again, they embodied a new kind of social sculpture ¬– one that lives and breathes through the people within its walls. Project Row Houses is at once practical and symbolic: it offers affordable housing and a community center but also a place of empowerment for and from the community.

Though Project Row Houses is Lowe’s first and most famous urban renewal project, the artist and activist created additional works including Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow. The latter project is comprised of open markets that celebrate the cultural diversity of Dallas’s Vickery Meadow, an oft-overlooked neighborhood whose residents include low-income Whites, Latinos, African-Americans, and refugees and immigrants from all over the world.
For his visionary public art projects, Lowe has received numerous other awards in addition to the MacArthur fellowship including the Rudy Bruner Award in Urban Excellence, the AIA Keystone Award, the Heinz Award in the arts and humanities, and others. Last November, around the time Project Row Houses celebrated its 20-year anniversary, President Obama appointed Lowe to the National Council on the Arts. Lowe treasures the honor as someone “with a community-oriented agenda who oftentimes is not really heard in the art world.”

On a Sunday, his one day off from working on a project in Philadelphia, Lowe took a train to New York City to meet with me. He was willing to travel to whatever place I chose, including my neighborhood in Brooklyn. We settled on a coffee shop in the West Village to conduct the following interview. But afterward, we walked around Manhattan, surrounded not just by glass and steel and commerce but also the people who bring the city to life.

Nicole Audrey Spector for Guernica

Guernica: You were formally trained as a visual artist, and before you embarked on Project Row Houses, you were making paintings in a traditional artist’s studio. Were there political aspects to your early work?

Rick Lowe: Yes, there were. But I didn’t grow up studying art, and art was not a part of my upbringing. My upbringing was in rural Alabama. I always tell people that I felt like my family were the last sharecroppers in the world. Most people stopped in the late ’60s, but we sharecropped until 1975, and so I had no exposure to art at all. I played basketball, which is how I ended up going to college at Columbus State University – to play basketball. But, I realized at a certain point that basketball wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I took an art class because somebody said that art was easy.

When I was in high school I did a lot of drawing for my social science projects. I’d draw the states. I remember doing a drawing of all the presidents. So, those experiences gave me the framework to think that I had some artistic talent. But I didn’t really involve myself in art until I went to college and took that drawing class. I wasn’t at the same level as my classmates, but I worked hard at it. One of the professors took an interest and encouraged me to take more classes. I thought, “Oh, well I’ll become an art major!”

My professors introduced art to me as something that could transform people’s lives.

Guernica: What made you so interested in creating art?

Rick Lowe: My professors introduced art to me as something that could transform people’s lives. I was interested in that because I always felt like there was a need for people to speak about the kinds of conditions in which I grew up. There were things that nobody really talked about. In fact, most people hid from them with shame. I was interested in the question, How do you give a voice to the people who are not represented?

He called me out and ended up giving me the best critique I’ve ever had. He said, “Your stuff shows what’s happening in our neighborhoods, but we don’t need people showing us what’s happening. We know what’s happening. We need solutions.”

My work then was mostly installations dealing with police brutality, environmental issues, and homelessness. I organized press conferences around the work so that it would truly be a platform for the issues I was dealing with.

In the Houston Chronicle, one writer was questioning if my work was art or not: “Making art or making points?” I’ve always had to deal with that. Now the question is, “Is this art or is this social service?”

In 1990, a group of high school students visited my studio. One of them was complimenting me on the work, but then he called me out and ended up giving me the best critique I’ve ever had. He said, “Your stuff shows what’s happening in our neighborhoods, but we don’t need people showing us what’s happening. We know what’s happening. We need solutions. If you’re an artist and you’re creative, why can’t you create a solution?”

That was the turning point. My work was all about being symbolic and representative, but I then began to ask, “How do you create something that goes beyond that in order to make an impact?

Guernica: Your work has been described as placemaking. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rick Lowe: Placemaking is not my preferred term. I think the biggest problem with that term is the way it’s being utilized in the framework of community building. Placemaking focuses on the place—its physical attributes. My work focuses on the people who comprise that place and how they fit within the context of the making of the place.

With Project Row Houses, we didn’t begin with the physical real estate. The work started before that, by convening a group of artists and community members who were trying to apply themselves to add value and meaning within the context of a place.

Guernica: So, in a sense, you left academia and took your work to the streets. How did you take that step?

If you want to address shaping the entire world, that’s crazy. But…what about shaping a little part of a neighborhood?

Rick Lowe: It was a challenge. Before creating solutions, I felt that I had to find a place in which I could approach the issues from an artistic perspective. That’s when I closed my studio and started reading. I discovered Joseph Beuys’s concept of social sculpture, which he defines as the way in which we shape and mold the world around us.

The idea is that everybody is shaping the world all the time so, in that way, everyone is an artist. I had the idea to take that down a bit. If you want to address shaping the entire world, that’s crazy. But if you think, What about shaping a little part of a neighborhood? How do you take the few people with whom you’re connected and do something that adds aesthetic qualities, gives it some kind of representative value, but also deals with a practical issue? Then it becomes more manageable. That’s when I stumbled upon the houses that became Project Row Houses.

Guernica: How confident were you that you could pull this off?

Rick Lowe: I wasn’t aware of whether I had the capacity to do it; I just knew that I had the desire to do it. I think it’s like that for all artists. When you start a work, you don’t necessarily know what materials you will need. You’re exploring. On some levels, artists practice like scientists. We explore things. We try things out. That’s where my work with Project Row Houses started. I said, “OK, there are these old houses here. What can we do with them? How can we gain access to them?”

I was looking at the real estate components: How do we get this property and what do we with it? At the same time, I was thinking about it from a conceptual standpoint. What does this mean as an artistic thing? What does it mean that we’re renovating these houses in this neighborhood in Houston?

Part of it was playing around with these shotgun houses and renovating them. But the other side of it was, what does it mean artistically? I’ve wrestled with this idea of practical applications and symbolic representations throughout my career.

Guernica:People need housing as well as community and artistic expression. How did you come to realize these needs as equally human?

Rick Lowe: When it comes to community and socially engaged work, one of the top things on my list is listening. From the moment we started Project Row Houses, it became clear to me that this would be essential.

It was messy in the beginning. We didn’t have a clear objective of what we were trying to do. We just started to secure the houses, clean them up, and clear the land. As we did that, people from the neighborhood were stopping by.

I realized, “Wait a minute. We don’t have to sit back and design the programs or figure out how things are going to move. We just need to listen to what people in the neighborhood are saying.” So it was the people who inspired the programming.

We listened to people who were saying, “You know, you guys are engaging the children, and that’s great, but people need houses.”

As we did that, these young kids were showing up daily. We heard from them that they needed something positive to engage with, so we started an education program. We didn’t dream that up, we learned it by listening to the kids in the community. We listened to them in different ways—not just what they were saying but also how they responded to elements of the program.

As we continued the arts program and the education program, we had seven houses which we hadn’t quite figured out what to do with. We listened to people who were saying, “You know, you guys are engaging the children, and that’s great, but people need houses.”

It was like, “Ah! Okay, so how do we create housing in a way that also satisfies our need to be symbolic and poetic?” We could have just had artist-in-residency housing that dealt with youth, but there was nothing artistic about that for us. We had to think, “Where’s the poetry here?”

The poetry was that there were young mothers all over this Houston neighborhood without the means and without the access to deal with their circumstances. So we thought, “Let’s take these houses and explore what it means to be a single mother and what it means to provide care, assistance, and support. Let’s explore how we can empower young mothers.” That’s how the Young Mothers Residential Program came about.

It became pretty obvious that housing was a major issue. We needed to look at housing as a context and a frame that offers people has meaning and value.

The people who live in Project Row Houses—whether they’re in a program or they’re just renting—they’re in a neighborhood that has meaning and value. It shifts and directs their sense of place differently than housing a few blocks away. There’s a distinct relationship to this housing; we understood the need not just for shelter but also the need to frame housing as something for the individual and also for the community.

Guernica: What were some of your biggest challenges?

Rick Lowe: One of the bigger challenges right now for artists working within communities is that they’re often expected to have solutions to neighborhood problems. As artists, I don’t think that we have the capacity to create the scale of change that’s necessary. We can do things that have a practical impact and can show what’s possible, but we can’t do it all.

I started thinking about this due to a critique of Project Row Houses. Someone said, “Project Row Houses is supposed to be one of the best social practice projects around, but they’ve only done 60 or 70 units of housing. The city of Houston needs tens of thousands of units. What are you really doing? Are you addressing the problem?”

My response to that goes back to what the work represents. We can’t tackle all of Houston’s housing needs, but we can demonstrate how it might be done. Hopefully that will influence a group dedicated to solving the housing problem and give them a framework to move forward.

Guernica: I can’t help but wonder where Rick Lowe the painter is in all this. Do you still seek creative fulfillment in that discipline?

Working in a community context liberates me from needing make something in a traditional artistic medium.

Rick Lowe: In art in the last 40 years or so, we’ve been seeing the emergence of multidisciplinary approaches. Artists aren’t necessarily married to the idea that you have to be a painter or a sculptor or a photographer. Things intermingle. There’s room to move around. I appreciate that because, though I was trained as a painter, I never had a love for painting. I was never a painter’s painter. For me, painting was a vehicle through which I could explore social issues. So working in a community context liberates me from needing make something in a traditional artistic medium.

Guernica: You work in other cities to create positive changes. How do you begin that process?

Rick Lowe: For me, the first step with any art is just to start. Once you begin playing with the space, then resources and assets start to reveal themselves to you.

I’ve been working on a project in Philadelphia. I’ve been having a tough time convincing a group that I’m working with there about this need just to start. They’re trying to deal with this alley where a lot of homeless people have been lingering. What the group wants to do is not so much push the homeless people out but change the activity that happens there. We said, “Then we just have to start changing our approach.”

We don’t have to design it. We don’t have to raise money for it. We just have to start.

Guernica: How do you start a project like that?

Rick Lowe: I get people together—it doesn’t matter how many. We begin to clean. We make some time to celebrate. We play some games and depart from the usual kind of activity there. We just did this yesterday, actually, and it was so beautiful. We started out with five or six people from the staff, and then all of a sudden some of the homeless people came out and wanted to start working with us. We ended up with about 20 people, which was really great.

The point is, just start. If you do nothing, you fail to give people an avenue to put a stake in and support it.

Guernica: What is the project you’re working on in Philadelphia?

Rick Lowe: It’s with a group called the Asian Arts Initiative. I haven’t really defined what the project is.

I’m a slow worker: I like to be deliberate about what the needs are within the context of a place in relation to what opportunities exist there. Sometimes there are needs but there aren’t relevant opportunities that can address those needs. Sometimes there are opportunities that don’t intersect with the needs. But if you can start addressing those opportunities, then you might find a way to address some of these needs. It takes a while for that to happen.

Guernica: Do you ever get inspired to bring change to a place and then feel like the elements aren’t coming together?

Rick Lowe: Sometimes there really is nothing there. One thing that I struggle to accept is that it’s okay if there’s nothing there. I just have to believe in the process and continue to let the process play out. For instance, for the Philadelphia project, I don’t know if there’s anything there beyond helping the organization think about maintaining this place. But who knows? If I stay the process, we’ll find out.

For Trans.lation, I first met with the Nasher Sculpture Center in June of 2012; the exhibition was to open in October of 2013. Basically a year’s time. I thought, ‘This is a good amount of time to get something going.” In August, I started going there every month. In December or January, I was beginning to think, “There’s nothing here.” You know?

That’s a lonely place and a tough place to be. Then all of a sudden in January, a light went off. With that particular project, I was at a meeting called “Moms Lunch,” in which these two organizations hosted lunches for immigrants from different countries. There were about 25 to 30 women from different countries that got together to have lunch and talk about their lives and their challenges.

It was amazing. It was like a theater piece. You had these women all speaking different languages with translators and everything. It was just the most beautiful experience to hear the depth of issues that they were dealing with. I realized that there needed to be a platform for people from different cultures to get together in that same kind of way.

Then I started noticing people on the street selling their wares, women sitting around from all different countries. Most were from Nepal, Bhutan, and Iraq, and some from other countries, too. It was like a poetic, theatrical performance. I saw them on the ground trying to sell their stuff and saw the opportunity for them to have a market.

I gathered a team, and we ended up creating these markets where folks from all parts of the world could come and share their work. There was a diverse richness in the neighborhood which most of the people there never experienced —they only passed these people on their way to other places. They never converged at a destination with the sole purpose of being with each other and understanding each other.

There were a lot of people making crafts, but there were some people who made things that had a whole other quality to them. There were a few real artists who were refugees and had been dislocated. They deserved a better platform than just a table at a market. We wanted to give them the kind of opportunity to see their work as they wanted the world to see it.

Guernica: What do you think about the commercial art world?

Rick Lowe: I’m not a part of the commercial art world, so I don’t keep up with what’s going on. But I was talking to this friend of mine, the artist Mark Bradford, who was doing a show at White Cube Gallery in London. We were talking about his work and showing at White Cube, and the prices were just insane. Pieces were going for over a million dollars.

I thought a lot about the idea of White Cube. It’s really symbolic, right? This gallery basically says, “We’re going to do what the art world typically does—show art in a white cube—and use that as the name of the gallery.” They use that platform to increase the value of the work.

I thought that maybe in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood in Dallas, we should have white cubes, too. So I found some architects to help design these little cubes, and we put them up on the street for people to walk through. They could go in and check out exhibitions that deal with issues relevant to the neighborhood. We held workshops where people could learn to make the types of crafts on display.

You have to transcend politics. Politics is what stalled many of these people in the community, and politics are too slow to get them out of it.

One of the great things that happened with this project is that, by framing it within an artistic context, we were able to attract art world people who wouldn’t normally have any reason to be in this neighborhood.

Guernica: With projects like Trans.lation, they’re political, yet they transcend politics by bringing people of diverse backgrounds together.

Rick Lowe: Yes. I think that, for the most part, you have to transcend politics. Politics is what stalled many of these people in the community, and politics are too slow to get them out of it. So how do you get them out? We just have to apply ourselves. We have enough creative capital in the world to bring life and opportunities to people so that they can transcend some of the difficult situations that they’re in.

Guernica: Do you ever meet resistance from the communities you’re working to help?

Rick Lowe: In the beginning, we had basically no pushback outside of the drug dealers. For the most part, there had been so little investment in the neighborhood that people were just really happy to see someone investing—particularly someone investing that advocated for the community.

We’re expected to be the warriors in the battle against huge private sector interests. There’s a limit to what we can do.

Now, 20 years later, the challenges are very different. There’s a huge interest in the real estate and the development of the neighborhood. People are upset that their neighborhood is disappearing.

It’s posed an interesting challenge for Project Row Houses because people identified us early on as caring about the neighborhood, paying homage to it, and preserving it for the people who were connected to it. We’re expected to be the warriors in the battle against huge private sector interests.

There’s a limit to what we can do. We don’t have the capital to wage that sort of war. But there are other ways that we can fight for the identity and the value of the neighborhood.

One way is to work with artists to highlight the history and the context of the neighborhood. Really, the best-case scenario is that, when people come to our neighborhood, even if they’re from elsewhere, we retain our neighborhood.

There are stories that need to be told, and people need to embrace those stories. One example is about the main park in our neighborhood. It’s undergoing a huge renovation. Why? Because real estate developers want a nice local park as they develop their townhouses. Now, interestingly, this park is called Emancipation Park. It would be the desire, I’m sure, of many of the new people who are coming to the neighborhood, to call it something else. Our goal is to make sure that the names stay the same, and to fortify and reinforce all the things in the community that give it historical context and value. It’s going to be tough.

Guernica: How does your recent role as a member of the National Council on the Arts come into play in all this?

Rick Lowe: I think it’s meaningful to have someone like me on the National Council on the Arts, someone with a community-oriented agenda who oftentimes is not really heard in the art world.

The challenge is to try to prioritize the people of lower-income communities rather than to use placemaking to pave the way for gentrification.

With the idea of placemaking, I wonder whether it’s an investment in the physical place as opposed to the people who live there. But I do understand that we as artists are part of an ecology that impacts the lives of people in lower-income communities. We can voice the concerns of people in that segment of the population, which is really important.

As for my role in that conversation, I think the challenge is to try to prioritize the people of lower-income communities rather than to use placemaking to pave the way for gentrification. A lot of investment in creativity and in the creative class is about creating a place that seems hip and cool, where people will go out in the evenings and have their lattes on the weekends. That’s about generating economic investment.

That’s needed and that’s fine, but there has to be a way in which we can do that while bringing people up in the neighborhood who are already there, rather than pushing them out.

Nicole Audrey Spector is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is scheduled to appear in Salon, the London Times, and the Atlantic, among other publications. She is a weekly contributor to the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section. Her first novel, Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray, was co-authored with Oscar Wilde, after he died, and was published in 2013 by Skyhorse (US); Little, Brown (UK); Exmo (Russia); MA Editions (France). She co-curates the Guerrilla Lit Reading Series.

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