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The Carter spotlights the art of two continents
An innovative exhibit at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum features 85 works by more than 65 abstract artists from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, and the United States. Not only does Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920-50s effectively bridge the Isthmus of Panama when it comes to modernism during this dynamic period, it includes a range of paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, drawings, and even films.
Organized by the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey, the exhibit presents renowned artists such as Joaqúin Torres-Garcìa and Arshile Gorky, as well as lesser-known, but important artists such as Geraldo de Barros and Lidy Prati. Exhibit curator Mary Kate O’Hare of the Newark Museum says that by bringing together such a diverse group of works, the exhibit highlights parallels “that cut across time, national borders, and media.”
Rebecca Lawton, the Carter’s curator of paintings and sculpture, notes that Constructive Spirit includes works by Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, and other artists represented in the Carter’s permanent collection, giving visitors the opportunity to see these artists’ works in an international context.
The exhibit, which began June 26 and runs through September 5, includes a gallery talk on July 29, a family-oriented event on August 8, and a film screening on August 26. Call 817/738-1933; www.cartermuseum.org. —Nola McKey
Four lavishly decorated churches in Fayette County illustrate the brilliantly painted vision of 19th-Century settlers
By Andy Sharp
Driving back to Taylor from Port Aransas last November, my wife, Jody, and I decided to detour through Fayette County and check out its renowned painted churches, four elaborately decorated, historic Catholic churches that reflect the cultures of 19th-Century Czech and German immigrants. As often happens, this unplanned side trip evolved into a journey of discovery.
A sign on US 77 pointed us toward St. Mary’s Catholic Church in High Hill, a tiny community about four miles northwest of Schulenburg. With its Gothic Revival architecture and red-brick exterior, the church was attractive but not unlike many others I had seen. As we approached the entrance, we anticipated taking a quick look before moving on.
What we saw when we entered the building brought us both to a standstill. Few times in my 40 years as a photographer have I been so amazed by a scene I was about to shoot that I didn’t immediately start creating images. This was one of those moments. Jody and I took seats in the back of the church and tried to absorb our surroundings, as vibrant stained-glass windows dappled a pleasing red light onto the pews in front of us.
The spacious sanctuary features faux-marble, octagonal columns that support what appears to be a groin-vaulted ceiling, the multicolored planes seemingly connected with golden bands. Statues of saints grace ledges affixed to each column. The dome of the apse displays religious and cultural symbols on a soft-blue background. All of the elements coalesce to produce a sense of tranquility. You instinctively want to slow down here.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, more than 20 painted churches exist throughout the state (15 of them are listed in the National Register of Historic Places). Fayette County has four of these architectural gems, and thanks to their proximity—each is less than a dozen miles from Schulenburg —a visit to all four makes for a perfect day trip.
A few weeks after our stop at High Hill, we returned to Fayette County to complete our tour and see Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Dubina, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha. These three churches were established by Czech immigrants, while the church at High Hill was established by Germans.
“The Czech and German settlers who immigrated here in the mid-1800s never expected to see their homelands again, but they didn’t want to abandon their culture or faith,” says Cathy Chaloupka, a Fayette County native whose great-great-grandfather Frantisek Kossa was one of the founders of the Dubina community. “They established modest churches right away and built more permanent structures as soon as they could. It was a common practice where they came from in Central Europe to adorn church interiors with vibrant colors and religious symbols, and the art you see on the walls and ceilings of the churches today reflects that tradition.”
For a list of the many dance halls and honky-tonks in Central Texas, visit www.honkytonktx.com/dancehalls. Also check out “Big Bill’s Guide to Country Western Dancing and Dance Halls In and Around Austin” at www.centraltexascountry.com/dance.html. Following are sites mentioned in the story. Call ahead for more information, including admission, music schedules, dance lessons, and special events.
When I compose an image, I like to imagine that the viewer is looking right over my shoulder,” says Texas Highways Photography Editor Griff Smith. “The picture has to tell the story on its own merit, without a caption.” The images shown on these pages, from Griff Smith’s Texas, an exhibit that opens March 5 at Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, could well serve as a visual collection of short stories about the people and places of Texas.
History comes to life at the Briscoe Center’s holdings in Austin, Bonham, Uvalde
By Charles Lohrmann
In a meeting at an ornate, highly patinated, conference table in the oldest building on the University of Texas at Austin campus, it’s natural that the topic is history. Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History, discusses the challenges of overseeing a collection with four very different facilities in multiple locations around the state. I’m particularly curious that Carleton emphasizes the word “evidence” as he characterizes the Center’s holdings. To me, it seems slightly dramatic to use the word in this context. After all, isn’t evidence what attorneys use to prove, or substantiate, a legal case?
As I consider it, though, it becomes apparent that the word “evidence” imparts a sharper, more immediate edge to the mission of evaluating the thousands of objects and documents in the still-growing collection of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s not a stretch to say that considering historical artifacts as evidence, even as evidence in a case, is essential to making history more relevant to students and bringing history to life for the everyday amateur.
On this particular autumn morning, Carleton and I, along with the Center’s associate director for communications, Erin Purdy, are literally surrounded by historic evidence.
We’re seated at the oak conference table at which John D. Rockefeller and his colleagues gathered to formulate the decisions that directed Standard Oil, later to become Exxon (the Exxon-Mobil historical collection resides in the Briscoe Center’s holdings). Across the spacious room sit the imposing roll-top desk used by Texas Governor James Stephen Hogg and the capacious chair that accommodated the portly man (Hogg’s papers reside in the Briscoe Center’s collection, too). And we’re inside the Nowotny Building (which houses the Center’s administrative offices), on the east side of the UT campus near Interstate 35 and Martin Luther King Boulevard, which once served as the headquarters for George Armstrong Custer when he was stationed in Texas after the Civil War. The evidence definitely demands center stage.
So, I wonder, when the researchers are surrounded by historic evidence such as this, is there a tendency to get lost in the past and lose perspective on the present? Before I can ask the question, Carleton gestures to a line of more than two dozen books (all published within recent memory) standing on a nearby table, and explains that the Briscoe Center played a role in development of each one. And a documentary titled When I Rise, which explores the career of African American mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad (produced by the Center with Carleton as executive producer), is earning acclaim at film festivals around the country.
The Briscoe Center’s holdings include the Sam Rayburn Library in the North Texas town of Bonham; the John Nance Garner home in Dolph Briscoe’s hometown of Uvalde; and the historic preservation project of Winedale, initiated by Houston-based philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg (daughter of Governor Hogg), who purchased the Central Texas property and donated it to the University in the 1960s (following significant expansion). The Center’s main archive resides in the Sid Richardson Building adjacent to the LBJ Library at the University of Texas at Austin.
The Center itself crystallized its current identity when former governor Dolph Briscoe, long a patron and informal advisor, endowed the Center with $15 million. Once the endowment was in place, the University of Texas Regents voted to name the Center for Briscoe. Even though the Center has gained recognition among scholars and historians for many years, the addition of the name “Briscoe” gave it a more “Texas” personality.
Of course, maintaining a national perspective is something powerful Texans have done well for decades.
The best treasures are often hidden, and sometimes the best place to hide them is in plain sight. Thirty years ago, when Dominique de Menil began implementing plans for a museum to house the art collection she and her husband, John, had assembled over four decades, she met with the Italian architect Renzo Piano (who had caused a sensation with the Centre Pompidou in Paris), and asked him to design a building that would blend in with the blocks of modest, gray-and-white, 1920s bungalows she owned in Montrose, one of Houston’s established inner-city neighborhoods. A generous and understated woman known in Houston for wearing a mink coat inside out, Mrs. de Menil explained that she wanted the museum to look small on the outside, but be as big as possible on the inside.
Scientists join forces to bring these endangered birds back
from the brink of extinction
By Margaret Shakespeare
An hour’s drive due west of downtown Houston, on Interstate 10, the suburbs finally begin to give way to open space. At the Sealy exit, I turn off onto Texas 36, then onto Farm Road 3013, where tractors slow traffic to a country pace. I take a deep breath of rural air and wonder what it must have been like more than a century ago when all this land was still wild coastal prairie. Before the cows, before the plows, before the fields of cotton and corn, this flat land of switchgrass, yellow Indian grass, little bluestem, and big bluestem laced with streams, marshes, and ponds was the domain of Attwater’s prairie-chickens. From the Louisiana coast to west of Corpus Christi, up to a million of these birds, a subspecies of the extinct heath hen, once thrived on a diet of insects and seeds, brooded in shallow ground nests—and filled the vast prairie with loud booming.
Well, I had done a little research before setting out, asking Houston Zoo birdkeeper Mollie Coym to explain this peculiar trait. “During mating season, from late January to April, males hold their head and tail feathers up, inflate the air sacs on the sides of their necks, and stomp their feet really fast,” she says. “It’s a mating dance to attract a female. And the sound—kind of like blowing across the top of a Coke bottle—goes on for hours, all of them booming at the same time. The females can be very standoffish, but once they choose a mate the sound gets even louder.”
I try to imagine the chorus of a million “booming” chickens as I arrive at my destination, the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, near Eagle Lake. The refuge, which spreads across more than 10,000 acres of coastal prairie habitat, is home to more than 400 species of animals, including the largest extant wild Attwater’s population—today a mere 50 individuals. (Some 40 other birds live wild at the Texas City Prairie Preserve and on private property near Goliad.) The Attwater’s prairie-chicken (APC) is one of Texas’ most endangered birds.
I ask refuge manager Terry Rossignol what happened. “We’ve lost 99 percent of the original coastal prairie due to conversion to cropland, urbanization, and invasive plant species,” he says. “That’s the primary reason for the birds’ decline. Predation—mostly by owls, hawks, and skunks —also affects populations, but red imported fire ants are probably the biggest threat.”
Rossignol, APC Recovery Team Leader since 1996, sets protocol under U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service guidelines, coordinating captive breeding programs at the Houston Zoo, the Abilene Zoo, the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, the San Antonio Zoo, SeaWorld San An--tonio, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, and Texas A&M University. The refuge also works to heighten public awareness of the birds, hosting guided van tours and hikes as part of its annual Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Festival in April. And visitors can look for birds year round on two hiking trails and a five-mile driving loop. “It has been gratifying to see the Att-water’s population slowly increase,” he says.
I am itching to be outside; if it’s my lucky day, maybe I will spot one of these rare birds. But first I linger in the refuge visitor center to watch videos of the courtship ritual and of chicks hatching. In the wild, hens incubate eggs for 26 days and then keep the chicks close and warm for up to six weeks, until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Now, most chicks are hatched in captivity, nurtured into early adulthood, and then released.
The first successful captive breeding in Texas took place in the early 1990s at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Janet Johnson, Fossil Rim’s avian supervisor, tells me, “We released 104 chicks to the wild last year, and we have 23 breeding pairs in residence this year. Our education staff leads behind-the-scenes tours of the chick-rearing facility, where guests can see the avian staff working with the chicks. These birds are so endearing, and we really want them to make it.”
At the Houston Zoo, I accompany bird curator Hannah Bailey for a behind-the-scenes prairie-chicken tour. “As soon as the eggs are laid, we collect them for incubation,” says Bailey. “Incubation is part science, part art. We candle the eggs [examine them in front of a light] several times to be sure they are staying healthy. When they hatch, the chicks go into brooder boxes, which simulate being under the mother. As they grow, they are moved to larger cages, until they’re ready to be released to one of the three ‘wild’ locations in Texas. With a 20 percent survival rate year-to-year, we blow other [species] release programs out of the water.”
The Attwater’s prairie-chickens—and their fragile hold on existence—engender the affection of many, from schoolchildren who “adopt” birds with their ice-cream money to private landowners who clear out invasive plant species to create more native habitat. To astronauts.
Astronauts and prairie-chickens?
Space, which can be scarce on Earth, is crucial to the birds’ survival. Ideally, they need a large unobstructed area to flush (take flight suddenly) without hurting themselves. This explains why zoos can have a hard time keeping them on public exhibit, and why the Houston Zoo keeps its breeding colony on part of a 200-acre patch of prairie at NASA’s Johnson Space Center campus, where I join a public tour. NASA environmental specialist Sandra Parker leads the way to two rows of soft-meshed 20’x40’ pens, home to 23 birds, and explains: “A mission of JSC is protection of the home planet. The zoo needed appropriate space for their breeding colony, and we were able to help.” Parker tells me that astronaut Steve Frick visited during booming season and said how cool it was that they take care of the birds. “Of course,” she says, “he goes into space, and we think that’s pretty cool, too.”
Texas drive-ins still serving up movie magic
By Mary O. Parker
Anticipation fills the air as movie-goers at Midland’s Big Sky Drive-In Theatre wait for the sun to go down and the screen to light up. Two teenagers sit on a couch in the bed of a red pickup truck, texting and talking. Nearby, a group of four plays cards on the tailgate of another truck and munches on crunchy jalapeño poppers. In the back of a minivan next to them, a little boy in Spiderman pajamas snuggles in between his parents, asking his mother, for the hundredth time, “When’s it going to start?” That little boy’s question lingers on everyone’s mind. She looks west toward the fading silhouette of a pump jack and answers, “Soon.”
'Families make up our biggest clientele, because not only is going to the drive-in economical entertainment, but parents get to enjoy something just as much as the kids.'
In less than a decade, Texas has gained five family-friendly drive-ins, and now offers 16, testament to a trend toward a retro-nostalgic, community-inspired, movie-going experience that the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association says began in the 1990s. It’s a far cry from the all-time high of 388 in 1954, but there’s no denying that the drive-in is making a comeback in Texas. The question is: Why, in this era of Blu-Ray and home-theater systems, would anyone want to watch a movie outdoors, on a lawn chair or through a windshield?
At the Showboat Drive In Theater in Hockley, just west of Tomball, Chris Rumfolo (co-owner along with her husband, Johnny) can answer that. “For the older generations, it’s a flashback. But families make up our biggest clientele, because not only is going to the drive-in economical entertainment, but parents get to enjoy something just as much as the kids.” She chuckles and adds, “Then, there are the teenagers who think this is something brand new.”
Big Sky’s general manager Lamont Furlow sums it up, saying simply, “It’s about being together.”
And, speaking of togetherness, Gene Palmer, owner of Gatesville’s Last Drive In Picture Show, says that drive-ins are still great places for romance. “One of our regulars asked if it would be okay to propose to his girlfriend on the screen, so we made him a film clip that said, ‘Jennifer, will you marry me?’ Everybody in the theater got into it and people kept coming up to the snack bar all night asking, ‘Well, did she say yes?’ It really made the night special, especially since she did say yes.”
Now it’s your turn to say, “Yes”—to a drive-in movie, that is! Grab some pop-corn, unfold a lawn chair, put on your PJ’s, and get ready to enjoy the show.
To fully appreciate the diverse offerings of The Wittliff Collections, visitors first need to know that the handsome, 4,080-square-foot archive has two major components—the Southwestern Writers Collection and the Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection. The repository has grown substantially since it was established in 1986, and today preserves works of many of the region’s important writers, filmmakers, and musicians, as well as artifacts such as storyboards from the King of the Hill TV series.
On the seventh floor of the Alkek Library in the middle of Texas State University, I take in windowed views of the spring-fed San Marcos River and the hilly, wooded alma mater of Lyndon Johnson, and then I walk through a place that always feels like a piece of home. The newly expanded Wittliff Collections has reopened following a year of remodeling, with more space now for displaying the wealth of photography in the archive’s holdings, which ranges from a centennial of the great Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee to the Texas prison-farm artistry of Danny Lyon.
A few blocks north of the Fort Worth Convention Center and its supporting cast of restaurants, wine bars, and plush hotels, the railroad still rolls into town much as it did in 1876, when the city became a major shipping point for livestock headed to northern markets. There are no cattle today, but freight cars carrying everything from auto parts and coal to orange juice rumble through every few hours, the full-throated whistles lending a note of nostalgia to the downtown streetscape. Periodically, blue-and-silver passenger trains, operated by Amtrak these days, arrive at the new Intermodal Transportation Center from points north and south.
The mood in the Boerne Public Library last summer was festive and the atmosphere electric, like that in a roomful of eager fans awaiting the appearance of a rock star. But the star the standing-room-only crowd awaited with such anticipation was San Angelo author Elmer Kelton, who was on a book-signing tour to promote his 2007 memoir, Sandhills Boy: The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer.