Joel Thompson is named Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time Composer-in-Residence

Joel Thompson in New Haven workshopping “The Snowy Day” / Photo by Matthew Fried

A doctoral student at Yale School of Music with an American Prize for Choral Composition and an Emmy Award to his name, Joel Thompson wrote his first opera for Houston Grand Opera this past season.

That opera was The Snowy Day, with libretto by Andrea Davis Pinkney and based on the classic Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats.

Thompson’s The Snowy Day made its world premiere at the Wortham Theater Center on December 9, 2021 and had a successful nine-performance run with positive feedback from the community and coverage by The New York Times and Texas Monthly. In a historic first, HGO livestreamed the opera’s opening night for free, drawing viewers in 34 countries.

In another historic first for the company, HGO recently announced that it has recruited Thompson to live and work in Houston as its first-ever, full-time Composer-in-Residence, in a role that will aim to strength connections with Houstonians and their communities through opera. His five-year residency begins on August 1, 2022.

“This position was created for Joel because he is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, a transformative artist that is redefining the future of opera and expanding its reach,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in a statement.

“We are confident that Joel’s artistic contributions are making the world a better place, and we can’t wait to see and hear what he will do next,” Dastoor said.

During his tenure, Thompson will serve as a member of the company’s artistic leadership. According to a press release, his initiatives and plans will include: forming music-based educational partnerships with schools and nonprofits; identifying and mentoring homegrown composers, librettists, and other artists and creatives; composing a major mainstage commission; and composing a set of smaller-scale original works, informed thematically by his collaborations with the people who live here, which will premiere at HGO.

“This residency will provide me with an opportunity to do the things that matter to me most: creating music through community and creating community through music,” said Thompson in a statement.

“I’m especially excited to do this in partnership with HGO, the visionary company that has helped me launch my career in opera,” he said. “HGO is giving me the chance to dream and to create works that I hope will be deeply meaningful to the community we will build together over the next five years.”

Artistic team of HGO’s “The Snowy Day,” L-R: Omer Ben Seadia (director), Andrea Davis Pinkney (librettist), and Joel Thompson (composer) / Photo by Matthew Fried

Thompson’s works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Master Chorale, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and EXIGENCE.

In addition to The Snowy Day, Thompson is known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which commemorates the lives of seven Black men killed at the hands of police or authority figures. The work earned Thompson the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition and a 2017 Emmy Award for a documentary about the piece.

Opera is an art form that combines the transformational power of music, visual art, theater, and dance in service of a singular communal experience—it depends on our capacity to connect to one another through our stories. If we do the work to make opera a space where people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, and levels of education have access to this art form, I think that opera can revolutionize our society. If everyone in a community can see and hear themselves on stage, and in the creative team, and play a part in sharing and holding space for each other’s stories, opera can become the space where we connect in an age of increasing isolation. That’s the future I’d like to see.

Joel Thompson, in a conversation with HGO on Art & Activism

While Thompson is HGO’s first Composer-in-Residence dedicated solely to that role, the company has supported other resident composers over the years, including Damien Sneed, who served as Music Director and Composer-in-Residence of HGOco (now HGO Community and Learning) during the 2018 – 2019 season and whose chamber opera Marian’s Song, with libretto by Deborah DEEP Mouton, premiered in March 2020.

Among the five major Texas opera companies that make up the Texas Opera Alliance, HGO is the only company currently with a full-time composer residency – a position that the company considers renewing in the future.

“HGO is committed to identifying and supporting opera’s most extraordinary creatives – the composers, librettists, and other artists poised to push the art form forward,” said Houston Grand Opera in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“When we identify rare talents like Joel Thompson, we will always find a way to support them, and that could very well mean establishing future residencies. We tailor these positions individually.”

A new dance project honors Black Texas heroes, families, and the towns they created

Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in “The Fairytale Project” / Keda Sharber of Images by Papillon

Shankleville, Texas was founded by Jim and Winnie Shankle in Deep East Texas.

Both born into slavery in the early 1800s, the Shankles were known as the first Blacks in Newton County to buy land and become local leaders upon emancipation – establishing Shankleville as one of the many Freedom Colonies in Texas settled by former slaves during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Between 1865 – 1930, African Americans founded 557 historic Black settlements, according to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project.

The Shankle family’s story of love, resistance, and triumph became the basis for The Fairytale Project, a new work by Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective. The work debuts this Sunday, June 26 at 5pm at Discovery Green in a free performance.

Through choreography that blends modern/contemporary, jazz, musical theater, and dance styles inspired by the African Diaspora, the plot follows the journey of a modern day African American family as they reconnect with their East Texas roots through “peculiar encounters with the past,” as described in a press release – and along the way, telling story of Jim and Winnie Shankle and their descendants.

Stacey Allen – dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director of Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective – was inspired by her husband’s family history, whose ancestors can be traced back to the Shankles, as she told Jaundréa Clay of the Houston Chronicle.

Allen is also the Director of Artistic Programming at Harris County Cultural Arts Council, a nonprofit arts and culture center that has been serving communities in East Harris County for over two decades. The Fairytale Project is presented in partnership with HCCAC.

“I wanted to create opportunities for Black children to be able to see themselves on stage, especially in live dance theater, outside of Black History Month,” said Allen in a statement.

“It’s a part of my artistic style to celebrate the contributions of Black role models in our families and close-knit communities,” she said.

The adults in the photo are Jimmie Odom (Jim and Winnie Shankle’s grandson) and Roxie Brooks Odom. The kids, L to R back row, are Alvah Troga (A.T.), Leon, Lola and Almada; L to R front row are Jimmie, Louella and Jettie. Jimmie and Jettie are twins. The photo was taken circa 1906. / Caption and photo courtesy of Shankleville Historical Society

Allen founded Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in 2018 as a multigenerational group of Black women dancers and multidisciplinary artists.

“Nia is Swahili for Purpose, and Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective creates with purpose,” said the organization in a statement. “Upon its founding, Nia’s Daughters was organized to perform culturally competent dance works while telling the stories of Black women and girls.”

The Fairytale Project also features an original score by Andre Cunningham, set design by Ariel Bounds, and film/photography by Keda Sharber. The work is funded in part by the BIPOC Arts Network and Fund, Dance Source Houston, and a Houston Arts Alliance “Let Creativity Happen Grant” with support from Discovery Green Conservancy.

MFAH’s Glassell School of Art has a new director – Paul Coffey, Chicago arts educator and leader

The Glassell School of Art / Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has appointed Paul Coffey, a longtime educator and administrator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as the new director of its Glassell School of Art.

Coffey begins his role on July 18, 2022. He succeeds Joseph Havel, who retires on June 30 to return full-time to his studio practice, after serving as director for 30 years. During that time, Havel is credited with expanding Glassell’s curriculum, increasing student enrollment, and raising the profile and reach of its Core Residency Program.

“I know that [Paul Coffey] will bring thoughtful leadership to the Glassell School, which is so essential to the Museum’s educational and artistic mission and which, under Joe Havel’s direction, became a center of creativity,” said Gary Tinterow, MFAH Director, in a press release.

“Paul Coffey brings to the Glassell School of Art and to Houston an extraordinary commitment to art, education and community, one that he has demonstrated over two decades in leadership roles at the renowned School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” Tinterow said.

Since 2011, Coffey has served as Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the historic and highly ranked training ground for artists, designers, and scholars at the graduate, post-baccalaureate, and undergraduate levels.

He has created and led community engagement programs in Chicago, such as: SAIC at Homan Square, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s campus in the underserved local neighborhood of North Lawndale; summer intensives for military veterans with PTSD, now in its seventh year as a collaboration with CreatiVets; and the College Arts Access Program in Continuing Studies, a free 3-year college-bridge program for Chicago Public Schools students with artistic talent and financial need.

Paul Coffey, incoming director, Glassell School of Art / Photo by Cosmo Coffey

Coffey’s relationship with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago goes back to earning his own BFA there in 1989.  He also holds an MFA in art and design from the University of Chicago (1992), and he completed the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in 2018.

As he begins his new chapter in Houston, Coffey says he brings with him a connection that he has long felt to the Bayou City through its acclaimed art institutions, like the Rothko Chapel, the Menil Collection, and the MFAH – and through the connection that other artists, like Cy Twombly, also felt to the city – according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle.

As head of the Glassell School of Art, Coffey will oversee the nation’s only museum-affiliated art school serving pre-K through post-graduate students.

Founded in 1979, the Glassell School opened a new 93,000 square-foot building in 2018. Its programs include a Studio School for adults, a Junior School for children and teens, and the Core residency program for artists and writers. According to the MFAH, it serves more than 5,000 adults and children each year.

Flamenco scholar Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada joins University of Houston’s dance faculty

M. Gabriela Estrada / Courtesy of UH Dance Program

The University of Houston Dance Program recently named to its full-time faculty Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada, a bilingual multidisciplinary educator, choreographer, journalist, and filmmaker.

Estrada begins her position as Assistant Professor of Dance in fall 2022. She was one of 60 national candidates who applied for the opening vacated by longtime faculty member, Rebecca Valls, who retired this past spring.

“My creative work embraces contemporary theatrical western dance forms and flamenco,” states Estrada on her website. “In academic settings, my creative work is often inspired by dance history, movement analysis, and social justice.”

Karen Stokes, Head of the UH Dance Program and Professor of Dance, said she is “thrilled” to welcome Estrada to the Houston dance community.

“In addition to her congenial personality, Dr. Estrada brings a deep bench of practice and scholarly activity to our program,” said Stokes. “While she wears many dance hats, including strong organizational skills, I am personally very excited about her flamenco background, and her fusion approach to using flamenco within both teaching and research.”

As an educator, my mission is to promote the appreciation of dance as art, tradition, and culture while advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada

Estrada holds a BA and an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in Flamenco Interdisciplinary Studies from the Department of Sociocultural Anthropology and Philology at the University of Seville, Spain.

Examples of her work and research include the solo Ni Una Carmen Más! (Not a Single Carmen More!), The Choreographic Development of The Three-Cornered Hat through the 20th Century (MFA thesis), and Flamenco’s Contributions to Ballet (Ph.D. dissertation).

Estrada also directed and produced ENI9MA: The Legend of Félix, a documentary about Félix Fernández García, the flamenco dancer who collaborated with Léonide Massine, Pablo Picasso, Manuel de Falla, and the Ballets Russes de Diaghilev in creating The Three-Cornered Hat.

Estrada was founding director of Dance Collage School of Dance in Mexico and founding faculty at the Universidad de Sonora. She has served as Community Arts Partnership Education Manager for New York’s Ballet Hispánico and is currently a Teaching Assistant Professor of Dance at East Carolina University.

Jones Hall’s $50 million renovation plan could help Houston arts recover from the pandemic

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

This summer, Jones Hall continues major renovations that will aim to improve acoustics, backstage technology, ADA accessibility, restrooms, and more – and potentially help Houston arts groups recover from the pandemic.

The projected $50 million renovation plan – which builds upon renovations made in 2020 and 2021 – will take place primarily in summer months over coming years, as recently announced by the Foundation for Jones Hall. Organizers are hopeful the work will be completed by 2024, according to the Houston Chronicle.

This multiyear approach works around resident arts organizations’ seasons, allowing them to carry on full performance schedules in order to recoup some of the significant financial losses sustained from COVID-19.

The Houston Symphony – which is based in Jones Hall, along with Performing Arts Houston (the former, recently renamed Society for the Performing Arts) – estimates that it lost about $9 million in ticket revenue between March 2020 to September 2021 due to cancelation of shows and performances to very reduced audiences for social distancing.

“Rather than close Jones Hall for a full year or more, this project will be done over a series of summers to allow the Symphony to have its full regular season in Jones Hall, its performance home, without disruption,” said the Houston Symphony in an email.

While Performing Arts Houston says it’s grateful for the support of federal pandemic-related programs, donors, and foundations during COVID, its ticket revenue also took “an extreme hit.”

“In a normal season, almost 70% of our revenue comes from ticket sales, and that revenue came to a full stop in March 2020. It was almost 19 months before we returned to live performances,” said Performing Arts Houston in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“We look forward to Jones Hall improvements to enhance the audience experience to help us grow our ticket revenue back to normal levels and beyond,” said Performing Arts Houston.

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

Both arts groups point out that the renovations will benefit patrons as well as performers, thus attracting both back to the venue – and potentially strengthening ticket sales, plus diversity and quality of programming.

“Returning audiences will see exciting changes to this iconic Houston structure, updates that many have looked forward to for years,” stated Performing Arts Houston. “And with an improved audience experience, we expect new attendees will be more likely to return again and again.”

For summer 2022, work in Jones Hall will include:

  • Refinishing of the stage floor and rebuilding of orchestra pit floors
  • Replacement of hydraulic lifts for the orchestra pit with a new lifting system, allowing for gentle, quiet movement and stable support of the stage and orchestra pit
  • Work to replumb and redirect cable and conduit, while removing electrical equipment to further modernize infrastructure
  • Replacement of the audio network, which consists of the equipment and data network that support amplified performances, to further revamp acoustics in the hall for musicians and patrons

By the end of 2023 and beyond, expected improvements will include:

  • Renovations to the Green Room, lobby, and other public spaces, easing lobby congestion and traffic flow throughout the facility; lobby layout to be expanded, along with aesthetic transformation
  • New seats installed in the concert hall
  • ADA improvements made for greater wheelchair accessibility
  • Restrooms added, expanded, and relocated, including those on the courtyard level; restrooms accessible by only a short flight of stairs, rather than a long walk up and down, with widened stairways between levels
  • State of the art lighting and rigging systems to improve the efficiency of backstage work
  • New stage automation control to modernize how large pieces of scenery, electrics, and audio-visual components are used in the venue
  • Introduction of fiber networks to enable the hall to unitize the full potential of entertainment industry technology

These renovations come at a time when Houstonians are eager to return to live performances, as evidenced by public response to the 2021-2022 season – the first full, in person season for both the Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston, following the pandemic’s nearly two-year disruption to the arts.

“Ticket demand has already rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and the Symphony hopes to continue expanding audiences,” said the Houston Symphony, adding:

“Improvements to Jones Hall support those efforts as they will not only improve audience experience, but also improve the acoustics and artist experience which will enable us to continue to attract the best musicians and guest artists to Houston.”

Jones Hall: During summer 2021 renovations, the focus was on acoustic work, including custom construction with sidewall and alcove “infills,” using metal framing with four layers of sheetrock for acoustic density. This was covered by a wood veneer finish. The infills corrected echoes and sound delays that impacted musical performances and allowed sound to be evenly distributed throughout the hall. / Photo by Paul Hester

An updated Jones Hall may also attract the public’s overall return to Houston’s Theater District, whose parking revenue fell about 45% during the pandemic. Revenue from the Theater District Parking Garage dropped from $9.8 million in 2019 to $5.3 million in 2021, according to figures provided by Houston First.

“Houston has a dynamic and robust love for the arts, which are an integral part of our city’s identity and essential to the quality of life,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. “Every Houstonian will benefit from this magnificent project.”

The Foundation for Jones Hall, the nonprofit overseeing the renovations, has currently raised $25.5 million toward the $50 million project through its ongoing capital campaign “Overture to the Future.”  Donors to date include an anonymous donor, Houston Endowment, the Robert and Jane Cizik family, Janet Clark, Nancy and Chuck Davidson, the Shirley and David Toomin family, and the City of Houston.

“Jones Hall has stood the test of time and gave rise to the Downtown Theater District over 50 years ago,” said Barbara McCelvey, the foundation’s board president, in a press release. “We are thrilled to be making this new investment in the Hall so that it can serve millions of artists and the public for the next 50 and beyond.”

The venue’s post-pandemic future includes virtual offerings, which are here to stay– and the technological renovations will benefit those digital options as well.

Since July 2020, the Houston Symphony has livestreamed performances from Jones Hall, and it says it will continue doing so in 2023 and beyond, having developed a loyal virtual audience outside Texas and the U.S.

“The new renovations of Jones Hall include a substantial investment to improve audio/visual capabilities throughout the facility, bringing those systems up to the latest standards … [and] will provide very noticeable improvements in the experiences that our audiences will enjoy both in person and via livestream,” said the Houston Symphony.

Cautiously optimistic, Performing Arts Houston notes that theaters are filling up, but not at pre-pandemic attendance levels – yet:

“Enthusiasm for returning to the theater is continuing to grow … We will have to wait a few more years to enjoy the full benefits of the renovations, but the momentum of support for a thriving and enduring performing arts culture in Houston is continuing to build.”

Ernie Barnes’ iconic painting ‘The Sugar Shack’ goes on view at MFAH ahead of Juneteenth

Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Collection of William O. Perkins III and Lara
Perkins. © Ernie Barnes Family Trust

A 1976 painting by American artist Ernie Barnes – widely recognized for its use on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You and in the credits of the groundbreaking 1970s sitcom Good Times – will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, thanks to a loan by Houston collector Bill Perkins.

Last month, Perkins purchased Barnes’ painting The Sugar Shack – a work that Perkins called formative in his own artistic consciousness, in an interview with the New York Times – for a record-setting $15.275 million from Christie’s auction house.

The MFAH will display the painting in the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building in time for Juneteenth celebrations, from June 15 through December 31, 2022.

“Lara and I are thrilled to be able to share this phenomenal painting with all of Houston,” said Perkins in a statement.

“As I’ve said many times, acquiring The Sugar Shack was for me the realization of a childhood dream. I know that Ernie Barnes’ masterwork will be as inspirational for all those who will see it as it has been for us,” he said.

Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr. (1938-2009) was born in Durham, North Carolina, at the height of Jim Crow. His family lived in what was then called “The Bottom,” a community near the Hayti District of the city. His father worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company in Durham. His mother oversaw the household staff for a prominent Durham attorney and Board of Education member, who encouraged Barnes to read art books and listen to classical music. By the time Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. Although initially not athletic, by his senior year in high school, Barnes became the captain of the football team.

Barnes enrolled at the all-Black North Carolina College at Durham (formerly North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University) majoring in art on a full athletic scholarship. After college, he played professional football into the mid-1960s, before devoting himself fulltime to his painting, in Los Angeles.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A cultural landmark of a painting, Barnes’ The Sugar Shack depicts joyful dancers in a crowded Black music hall in segregated mid-century North Carolina.

The MFAH says that Barnes recalled being inspired by a childhood memory of sneaking into a local dance hall called the Armory.

“The vivid image, with its dynamic, elongated figures dominating the packed space of a dance floor and illuminated by a cone of light from a single bulb, reflects what became known as the Black Romantic tradition,” described the MFAH in a press release.

The artist painted two versions of The Sugar Shack – the first in 1971, and this second version in 1976.

Three teens win Houston’s only high school playwrighting festival

“These kids are the future of the American theatre,” said Trevor Cone, Executive Director of Dirt Dogs Theatre.

Cone is referring to the teens who participate in his company’s annual Student Playwright Festival, now in its fourth year and open to high school seniors in Greater Houston who submit previously unproduced, original one-act plays.

When he and his company started the festival in 2018 – inspired by the talent and hard work in his daughter’s own high school playwrighting class – he says they were not aware of any other local or regional playwriting festivals specifically targeted at high school students.

“This is one of the reasons we decided to start the [festival],” Cone said. “With encouragement and guidance, we hope that kids who are interested in theatre, and specifically the creation of new plays, will follow through on that urge.”

The winners receive a $500 scholarship, mentorship by a local professional playwright, and production of their plays at the festival.

So far, Dirt Dogs has produced 9 student plays over the years – with past winners continuing to write and design for theater after graduation at colleges such as Brandeis, Emerson, and the California Institute of the Arts, according to Cone.

“The festival has been extremely fulfilling to the playwrights, the mentors, and Dirt Dogs Theatre Company,” said Cone. “For the playwrights, the [festival] is a validation of their talent and a celebration of their creativity and dedication to their craft.”

The 2022 winners are:

Alexandra Askew (Westside High School). Her play, Absquatulate: To leave without saying goodbye, centers on a family struggling with unexpected loss. She describes the play as “a story about the complex relationship between mother and daughter following the death of their father/husband.” Askew will be mentored by Ted Swindley, creator of the hit musical Always…Patsy Cline and Founding Artistic Director of Stages Repertory Theatre.

Kaleigh Medlow (Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). Her play, Hand Me Downs, takes on the journey of three generations of Black women who hand down a blouse from daughter to daughter, while simultaneously handing down generational trauma and tendencies. Medlow will be mentored by playwright Gwen Flager, whose plays have been produced in Houston, as well as festivals in California, Kansas, and Louisiana.

Pearl Reagler (Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). Her written work focuses on the grotesque, gothic, and futuristic. In her play, Stay Sunny, four teenagers join a group phone call to try and make sense of a mysterious impending disaster. Reagler will be mentored by Doug Williams, a playwright, novelist, and award-winning screenwriter.

The 2022 Student Playwright Festival takes place in person on June 8, 7:30pm at MATCH and virtually via video-on-demand available for view June 9 – 24.

Based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of multiple arts organizations, Dirt Dog Theatre Company’s Student Playwright Festival is currently the only festival of its kind open to high school students citywide.

Houston has an active and nationally-recognized youth theater scene overall, with youth training programs offered by institutions such as the Alley TheatreEnsemble TheatreMain Street TheaterStages, and Theater Under The Stars. Local teachers have garnered prestigious accolades, including Roshunda Jones-Koumba, theater director at G.W. Carver Magnet High School, who will receive the 2022 Excellence in Theatre Education Award on June 12 at the Tony Awards in New York City.

New ‘Longevity’ mural is a sign of growing interest in public art in Asiatown

Artist Thomas Tran stands in front of his mural, “Longevity” / VCSA Facebook

Artist Thomas Tran’s new mural has an auspicious name – Longevity.

It references the blessing of long life that holds significance in many Asian cultures. The title is also a nod to the themes of community health and wellness contained in its images, which Tran conceived and developed with input from a public survey conducted earlier this spring.

Completed on May 22, Longevity is the latest mural in Houston’s Asiatown – a massively colorful 2-story painting located in Sterling Plaza at 9798 Bellaire Boulevard. 

Full view of Thomas Tran’s mural “Longevity” with artist standing in front / VCSA Facebook

It was commissioned by the nonprofit VCSA (Vietnamese Culture and Science Association) and funded with part of a grant from Houston in Action’s “Safer Together” Vaccine Equity Campaign.

“This mural … reflects the tradition of intergenerational care that is prevalent in Asian families,” said Teresa Trinh, President of VCSA.

“You will see an interaction between an elderly grandmother and a grandchild, in addition to the interaction between a parent and child. The mural also contains other traditional elements of the Asian culture including a tiger, dragon, and phoenix,” she said.

Even when the mural was still in its planning stages, there was one image that Tran knew he wanted to include – that of a loving Asian father hugging his son. 

“The theme is about community health, so I’d definitely want to include mental health,” said Tran.

That father-son hug is now a major focal point in the mural – the artist’s way to destigmatize the topic of mental health, which has faced barriers in the AAPI community. Recent studies indicate that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health treatment than other racial groups.

The mural’s official public unveiling will be on Saturday, June 4 from 10 – 11am with refreshments, speakers, and a lion dance.

It marks the culmination of hard work behind a project that took 2 days to outline with a projector, 5 days of painting, 1 day of touch-up work by the artist, and roughly 205 volunteers working together in the days leading up to its completion.

“Personally, it was grueling but rewarding work,” said Tran. “People seem to like it.”

One of those people is Matt Manalo, founder of Filipinx Artists of Houston and Alief Art House, who calls Tran’s mural “delightful,” “engaging,” and “thoughtful.”

“The new mural brings in the conversation of inclusivity in Asiatown, which breaks all the stereotypes of what or how Asians should be or look like, which I am truly excited about,” said Manalo.

The faces, clothing, and personalities captured in the mural aim to reflect the multiethnic nature of Greater Houston’s AAPI community – which include Vietnamese, South Asians, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Cambodians, and Asians from Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand, and numerous other ethnic groups.

Thomas Tran’s Alief Community Mural 2019 / Courtesy of Thomas Tran

Tran’s Longevity mural comes at a time when public art has been brewing in Asiatown and in neighboring Alief in recent years.

In 2019, Tran painted an Alief Community Mural located behind Thien Phu Wedding Restaurant at 11360 Bellaire Blvd, Suite 100.

Also in 2019, Manalo founded the Alief Art House – a shipping container set up in Alief SPARK Park and Nature Center to house free art exhibits and events for the neighborhood, and to support Alief artists.

In 2019, the International Management District, which is just west of Asiatown, gave a public art makeover to 22 concrete globes along Bellaire Boulevard. Local artist Armando Castelan was hired to paint the large spheres in the esplanades into mini murals depicting the district’s diversity.

Mini mural by artist Armando Castelan, located on Bellaire Boulevard / Courtesy of International Management District

In 2020, Tran painted the temporary mural “Crocodile Garden” for Alief Art House, which recently added a second shipping container to set up offices and workshops.

Other existing public art in Asiatown include the Vietnam War Memorial at Universal Shopping Plaza at 11360 Bellaire Boulevard, and various sculptures in public spaces, such as a small fish sculpture at the northwest corner of Bellaire and Ranchester.

Still – Tran, Manalo, and Trinh all agree that there is not enough public art in Asiatown.

“Hopefully, with the completion of this [Longevity] mural, it will spur other organizations to host murals throughout the area,” Trinh said.

Manalo believes that the impact of public art is not only economic but also educational, barrier-breaking, and personal.

“The mural … will not only draw more people to support Asian-owned businesses, but it will also draw attention to the stories and culture of folks who live and work in the area,” said Manalo.

“The mural and public art in Asiatown are so important because it also shows that Asians can also be creative,” he said. “It brings me back to the conversation I had with my parents about switching to pursuing art as my career. I believe that it is a discussion that needs to happen more.”

Father hugging son in Thomas Tran’s “Longevity” mural / Photo by Thomas Tran

The Southwest Management District, which worked with VCSA to find a location for the Longevity mural, considers public art a “key part of the beautification of the business corridors within its boundaries,” according to its Executive Director Alice Lee.

Lee says that for years her district, which encompasses Asiatown, has funded the removal of graffiti and litter, and has maintained landscaping of medians.

Now, she says, they are considering funding public art projects – and art is ever-present, if you look for it:

“From the lion sculptures in front of the Hope Clinic on Bellaire Boulevard to the bright pink edifice of the Reiwatakiya cosmetics store just down the street, businesses and institutions continue to provide visually attractive features that almost make the District a constantly changing piece of art itself,” said Lee.

Jennifer Bowman named Houston Grand Opera’s Director of Community and Learning, formerly HGOco

Jennifer Bowman / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera has appointed Jennifer Bowman as its new Director of Community and Learning, effective June 6, 2022.

This follows the name change of HGOco to HGO Community and Learning in February 2022. 

Under Khori Dastoor, HGO’s new General Director and CEO, the company “felt it important to showcase this extraordinary initiative with a name that reflects the deep commitment of the entire organization, and the ownership of this important work across the company,” according to a press release.

The department remains the company’s education and community collaboration initiative, which was started in 2007 and which has produced numerous new works that center the diversity of Houston. Its previous director was Carleen Graham and its founding director was Sandra Bernhard.

A native Houstonian, Jennifer Bowman joins HGO after five years as the Director of Music Education at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Throughout her impactful career, Jennifer has shown a remarkable commitment to producing work that speaks to her entire community while building new audiences,” said Dastoor in a statement, also calling Bowman a “thought leader” and a “true inspiration.”

Among her notable achievements, [Bowman] served as the [John F. Kennedy] Center’s lead representative for the Washington Musical Pathways Initiative for young BIPOC artists wishing to pursue advanced study in music; spearheaded WNO’s 18-month community engagement project in support of Blue, an opera about a Harlem family’s experience with police brutality; revamped the Center’s training programs for young musicians; commissioned new works that reflect the population of the region served by the Center; and introduced youth and family audiences to diverse artists making their Center debuts.

Houston Grand Opera

“My first foray into the operatic world took place at Houston Grand Opera. It was an experience I will never forget. I am honored to bring my career full circle and return to my hometown in this exciting role,” said Bowman in a statement.

“The organization’s Community and Learning initiative has set the standard in the industry, and it is truly thrilling to have the opportunity to build upon its many successes. I cannot wait to get to work!” she said.

Artists at a libretto workshop for “The Big Swim,” a new opera by composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien, currently being developed by HGO Community and Learning in partnership with Asia Society Texas, to premiere in February 2024 in celebration of the Lunar New Year / Houston Grand Opera Facebook

According to a press release, upcoming programs for Community and Learning include:

  • Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers: Starting in fall 2022, Kamala Sankaram and David Johnston’s HGO-commissioned original opera will begin touring schools, libraries, and community spaces across Houston as part of the company’s popular Opera to Go! program. Drawing on Bollywood, opera, and Ethiopian jazz and inspired by monkey stories from India, China, and West Africa, the work shares the tale of a pair of siblings who must outwit a crocodile. Other initiatives for students include the Storybook Opera program and student performances of La traviata in fall 2022.
  • Another City: In March 2023, HGO will present Another City, the newest opera in the company’s award-winning Song of Houston series, which supports the development of new works based on stories that define the unique character of Houston. Composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann explore an often-unseen side of the city with an opera centered around our homeless community that reflects upon what it means to be home, to have a home, and to share the home that we call Houston.
  • Seeking the Human Spirit: HGO’s six-year artistic and collaborative community initiative culminates in 2023 with a set of six chamber-scale commissions, each of which responds to one of the program’s six annual themes, all grounded in opera’s universality. Together six composer/librettist teams will premiere new works centering around sacrifice, transformation, identity, faith, character, and spirit.
  • The Big Swim: This new family-friendly chamber opera from composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien, currently in development by HGO in partnership with the Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC), shares the story of the Jade Emperor and the Great Race. The work will premiere at ASTC in February 2024 as part of its Lunar New Year festivities.
Librettist Melisa Tien and composer Meilina Tsui at a libretto workshop for their new opera, “The Big Swim” / Houston Grand Opera Facebook

Houston poets respond to the Uvalde school shooting

A woman and girl embrace at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas / Photo by Billy Calzada, San Antonio Express-News

In the wake of yesterday’s horrific shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and 2 teachers, poet and activist Amanda Gorman responded with a short verse that trails off, capturing a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety:

Gorman, a former National Youth Poet Laureate known for writing and performing President Biden’s Inauguration Poem, also condemned gun violence in a series of tweets and urged the public on Instagram to take action toward greater gun safety.

Amidst national mourning as the names of victims were released into the night, Houston poets began writing and sharing poems on social media to process their anger and grief, to reach out to the community, and to create conversation or prompt action.

Bruno Ríos, an educator, Latin American literature scholar, and founder of Books & Bikes, wrote the poem “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT”:

Ebony Stewart, an international performance artist, activist, and author of BloodFresh and Home.Girl.Hood, shared her poem-in-progress, “Untitled in 4 Parts”:

Aris Kian, 2022 winner of the Inprint Marion Barthelme Prize in Creative Writing, tweeted her poem “In Texas We Pop Prayers Like Pills”:

2022 Texas State Poet Laureate Lupe Mendez shared a poem that he wrote in the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shooting, “When I Hear That They Want To Let Teachers Carry Guns”:

Information on fundraisers and blood drives to help the Uvalde community is available here and here.

Just last month, playwrights and theater companies across the country, including Houston-based Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, also rallied together in an effort to raise awareness about gun violence through #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence, a national reading of plays by high school students.