One January day, I wandered into the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, that odd space Claude Albritton has maintained for 15 years. I had gone to see the startling masterpiece A Love Supreme, by Fort Worth artist Sedrick Huckaby. I was floored. The four enormous paintings—they represent quilts, seasons, the artist’s family, religious themes—surround the viewer the way Mark Rothko’s dark, late paintings do in Houston’s Rothko Chapel. I had never heard of Huckaby before. How could I have missed him? The catalog said that Huckaby is represented by Valley House Gallery. So I headed north to talk to Cheryl and Kevin Vogel, the gallery’s proprietors. How did they find Huckaby, or he them?
Cheryl said, “An artist/teacher/framer in Fort Worth whom I respect told me about a young painter who showed great promise. I spoke to Sedrick several times before we met at an opening. Kevin and I visited his solo exhibition at the African American Museum that same night and were overwhelmed.”
So was everyone else, including the Guggenheim Foundation, which awarded Huckaby a fellowship seven years ago to complete A Love Supreme, a work so large that it requires more wall space than most galleries have. That’s why it was shown at the MAC. Huckaby has spent his whole life in Fort Worth, with time for education in Boston and New Haven. He told me that he used to draw with his father, a jack of all trades who encouraged his son. He’s something of a hometown genius.
It’s not news that Valley House Gallery (6616 Spring Valley Rd.) occupies a unique niche in the Dallas arts scene. It’s the oldest gallery in town. But my quest to learn more about Huckaby reminded me that the gallery’s striking setting makes it an unexpected wonder in North Dallas. When the painter Donald Vogel bought 6 acres of wooded land on a dead-end gravel road in 1953, Spring Valley was prairie. He built a small frame shop. He painted. Then he began selling art. He built a home for his family. The house, the original building (now expanded as the gallery), and a third structure (1961) are in the modern style. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie architecture; think of all the wonderful low-lying 1950s ranch houses that once covered the landscape and are now being torn down.
Today, the reduced 4.5-acre lot is surrounded by mega-mansions (one enormous Spanish-roofed palazzo hangs over the eastern side of the garden wall) amid the bustling traffic on Spring Valley’s six lanes, which keeps up a constant hum. But once you walk onto the grounds, you are in a different world. You have not come into an urban oasis, as you would at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Instead, you have found an oasis in the suburbs, which is entirely different from its surroundings. And unlike the Nasher, Valley House does not charge admission. This is one of the great advantages that galleries have always had over museums.
The Vogels are more than salespeople. They are keepers of his father’s flame and vision. “Our life’s passion is to find artists of substance and promote them in an environment where nature and art coexist in harmony,” Cheryl says. By allowing people to walk through the garden during business hours, they are encouraging peace and quiet. Kevin told me that workers come over from Texas Instruments in good weather to have picnic lunches. One local real estate agent brings potential clients to the grounds to gauge their reactions and get a handle on their tastes.
At the same time, the Vogels are probably encouraging potential buyers. Being surrounded by beauty often has the effect of making you want to replicate that beauty at home.
I wanted to enjoy the outdoors on what some people would call an unbeautiful day. I have never understood why upbeat TV meteorologists complain about clouds, gray skies, and rain. We need rain. In a landscape that bakes under blazing sun for much of the year, cloud cover offers welcome protection. At the end of January, the soggy garden paths in the Valley House garden were covered with leaves. Bamboo and the brilliant red berries of the nandina bushes, as well as a half-moon bridge over a tiny lake, added a Japanese flavor to the pecan trees and other staples of the North Texas landscape. The small sculptures that dot the grounds here are not of the same uniform quality that you would find outdoors at the Nasher. Not all of them will appeal to all tastes (some tend to kitsch), but everyone will find something—abstract or figurative, in metal, bronze, or wood—satisfying.
Valley House and the MAC have one important thing in common. Both are situated away from the clustering of art shops and galleries in our local “districts,” like the Design District off Stemmons, or the Oak Lawn and Uptown galleries along Cedar Springs, or whatever remains in Deep Ellum. Each is a destination spot. You must decide to go there, and, really, only there.
If, on a cold, blustery, and depressing day you find yourself experiencing calm and beauty outdoors, you know you have made a major discovery. I spent 40 minutes under the dripping trees. My shoes got wet. My spirits soared. That’s what beauty does for you. Like Huckaby’s paintings, the Gallery garden filled me with thoughts of spring.
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