Art Brut in the Neighborhood

Going through this experience, I try to follow the Hippocratic oath – “First, do no harm.” On Friday, that meant removing myself to protect others from my foul mood. I found my tennis shoes, put on a “Toad the Wet Sprocket” baseball cap and walked out the door.

As I walked, I started to cry. Not about anything in particular. I guess every now and then I feel a little more deeply that cancer is happening. At the intersection of W. Gray and Woodhead I asked God for a sign of hope. For several years, this sign manifested as ladybugs. I have received a lady bug while sitting in church on a Sunday morning, through my sun roof driving down the 610 access road, waiting to order lunch at Salata and multiple times outside my office window – on the seventh floor. I’ve come to believe they are divine messengers sent to say, “You are seen and heard.”


On the roof of the rent car – mother and son!

The sitings stopped after a particularly sweet one this summer. Hampton and I experienced a mother/son trip to Denver for a lacrosse tournament and, despite an 0-5 record, we had a perfect time: I loved the Women of Abstract Expressionism show at the Denver Museum of Art and Hampton and I witnessed “The Biggest Shot in NBA History” at my cousin’s downtown Denver sports bar. The day before we would fly back to Houston, I said, “God, the only thing that would make this trip more perfect is a ladybug.” The next morning when we approached our car in the pitch dark of 4 am, Hampton said, “Whoa! Mom, the car is covered in ladybugs.” And it was.

En route to the walking paths along Buffalo Bayou, I detoured into the College Park Cemeteryone of three remaining African-American cemeteries established for freed slaves in the era of racial segregation. Some of Houston’s most well-known Black leaders rest in peace here among stumps of trees on which people paint images and scripture verses. And, apparently, ladybugs. Hope floats.

I left the cemetery and wandered into a campus of dated buildings belonging to the Houston Juvenile Detention Center, the Lighthouse for the Blind and The Centera United Way agency for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. fleet of cars in the parking lot were emblazoned with The Center’s logo and the words “Choice. Growth. Personal Independence.” 

Weaving farther into The Center’s large expanse of property at the corner of Shepherd and Allen Parkway, my path led to a painted train car. Designs on two sides of the car included the word “grow” and the back side offered the message “Unity Gives Hope.” I especially loved the dictate painted on the opposite end: “let ur love grow tall.”

In both College Park Cemetery and The Center, unique canvases co-opted by untrained artists enabled me to return home with hope, a lighter spirit and less likelihood of biting someone’s head off.

The Menil Collection recently exhibited a collection of self-taught artists similar to those whose work I enjoyed on my walk. As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither showcased pieces ranging from oil on canvas or cardboard to balsa wood constructions and the top of an oil drum. Here were my favorites, including Johnnie Swearingen’s God Loves You that serves as my screen saver.

According to the Menil Collection, this exhibition featured artists “often working without the intent of being shown in a gallery or museum and tending to lack formal academic training.” Materials used by these artists also veered outside the box; Swearingen’s step daughter said he painted with whatever was available, including shoe polish, mud, kerosene or house paint.

This genre of artist falls in the Art Brut category. French artist Jean Dubuffet first coined the term Art Brut (or “raw art”) to describe works “created by people outside the professional art world… from their own depths and not from the stereotypes of Classical or fashionable art.” For Dubuffet, Art Brut included work by children, the intellectually disabled and mental hospital patients. Because Adolf Hitler considered these people inferior, he despised Art Brut and labeled it and abstract expressionism “degenerate.”

In 1937 the Nazis seized more than 6,000 pieces of modern art from museums and homes to curate the Degenerate Art Show in Munich, intended to teach Germans what art was NOT. The show included work by Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann and Wassily Kandinsky. In describing the work of modern artists, Hitler said:

“But what do you manufacture? Deformed cripples and cretins, women who inspire only disgust, men who are more like wild beasts, children who, if they were alive, would be regarded as God’s curse! [ . . . ] Let no one say that that is how these artists see things. From the pictures submitted for exhibition, I must assume that the eye of some men shows them things different from the way they really are. There really are men who can see in the shapes of our people only decayed cretins; who feel that meadows are blue, the heavens green, clouds sulfur-yellow.”

The German Chancellor delivered this diatribe at the opening of his Great German Art Exhibition, which ran simultaneous to the Degenerate Art Show. His “approved” art celebrated racial puritymilitarism, and obedience in the form of nudes, still lifes, idealized landscapes, images of workers and heroes, and portraits of “pure” and “Aryan” people. Two million people attended the degenerate show; one million the approved one.


A cluttered curation and hand-painted signage intended to underscore a debased level of art at the Degenerate Art Show.

The de Menils fled German-occupied Europe in 1941 to settle in Houston, bringing with them the headquarters of Schlumberger (the oil company started by her father and uncle) and a passion for art. Thankfully, their tastes comprised the work of modern masters whom Hitler banished. Menil Collection curator Michelle White explained how the Smither collection fit with the de Menil’s appreciation of art:

“The de Menils were modernists and humanists, and the growth of their collection was guided by Dominique de Menil’s sensibility. They appreciated Surrealism but had wide-ranging interests. For example, they were early acquirers of works made by inmates in Texas prisons.”

In the words of Dominique de Menil, “Art requires action. Passivity is fatal.” The same holds true with a cancer diagnosis. Therefore, this morning I’m off to my seventh Taxol treatment at MD Anderson. Valerie Tompson is my Plus One today. Her husband, Matt, understood her to say she and I were going to Kemah – a boardwalk in Galveston with the slogan “The Fun Never Stops!” #comewithCarrietoKemah 

I highly recommend Raiders of the Lost Art: Hitler’s Art Dealer for more information on the Degenerate Art Show. You can support The Center by shopping at its Thrift Shop, purchasing items from Gingersnaps, etc. or volunteering. Houstonians can also benefit from the Smither’s generosity by visiting Smither Park, featured in a previous blog post.

4 thoughts on “Art Brut in the Neighborhood

  1. lisahobelmann says:

    I am going on a comedy binge. The best parts of Downton Abbey – the best Dowager episodes: ” Don’t be defeatist dear. That’s very middle class.” And “Why must everyday involve a fight with an American?” The best clips on YouTube And also episodes of the Dick van Dyke show, which I love. I have about a week before a very intense and condensed January session at Harvard begins so comedy first! What are your favorites? Any suggestions?


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