Houston

Houston’s freewheeling ways have cultivated a vibrant folk art scene.

Seated high in a tractor seat around an empty concrete amphitheater, you could take it all in-rows of the metal seats, railed with plumbing pipes, fenced with rows of metal-spoked wheels welded together, painted orange, yellow, and red. Once, the Monitor-like steamboat circled the concrete wading pool to demonstrate an important part of commercial orange-growing. Striped awnings shade more bright handmade displays extolling citrus. Welcome to the Orange Show, folks.
Texans traditionally speak in superlatives-biggest, most, best-so of course Jefferson Davis McKissack called his Orange Show “the most beautiful show on earth, the most colorful show on earth, the most unique show on earth.” The 6,000-square-loot display on M linger Street look McKissack 20 years to perfect. He believed it would be an attraction greater than the Grand Canyon, that millions of people would travel hundreds of miles to see it. He built the Orange Show as a testament to the orange, which he believed to be nature’s perfect food, but it stands as a testament to the spirit of the folk artist, who creates to satisfy his own imagination in the face of a misunderstanding, unappreciative-and possibly totally unaware-public.
Il could seem oxymoronic to call a trip from one Texas metropolis to another a “getaway’” (it could seem, more simply, moronic). But a trip to Houston does change a Dallasite’s pace because in many ways, Houston has cultivated the Texas traits that Dallas has tried to tame. Houston’s disorderly, unorganized, and maverick sensibility is the opposite of Dallas’ controlled, goal-oriented culture.
We picked up a map from the little house across the street that serves as the Orange Show Foundation’s offices and embarked on a slow-driving tour of Houston’s no- zoning art monuments. On a breezy day with the car windows down, we could hear the Beer Can House before we could see it. Strings of beer can tops festooned from the eaves sound like change jingling in a pocket. Built by John Milkovisch, it’s an aluminum fantasy completely covered with flattened beer cans.
Across town, in the Third Ward, we found Cleveland Turner sitting with a friend outside his embellished Flower House, a testament, he says, to his sobriety. And we were invited inside the OK Corral, |where on some Friday nights people drift in to eat barbecue behind the painted, boot-studded walls. There’s lots of mainstream art in Houston, too-the Menil Collection was fea turing an exhibit of Joseph Cornell assemblages when we were there, the Rothko Chapel draws visitors from around the world, and the modern art circuit is also livelier than Dallas’ anemic scene.
When Willard “Texas Kid” Watson died, his decorated yard in Dallas was broken up, sold to collectors, and destroyed. When Jefferson McKissack died, its admirers rallied, pledged to preserve it, and formed a foundation for that purpose. The foundation holds fund-raisers-including the famous art-car parade, a cavalcade of automobiles decorated in idiosyncratic style-throughout the year to raise money for the site’s preservation, and it promotes awareness of other folk art sites.
WHEN YOU GO
Houston has hundreds of hotels, but the Allen Park Inn seems to fit the folk art theme of this trip: Rooms are decidedly simple, but clean, a relic from the days when America vacationed by car. For two adults, rooms range from !B96 to $275 for a suite. To start your folk art tour, call the Orange Show at 713-521-9321. You can begin your tour there and get information about other artists in Houston.

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