Weekender: Lufkin's Cultural Canvas
Creativity abounds in the middle of the Piney Woods
By Jennifer Babisak
When I was growing up in Lufkin, it seemed that the thick pine forests that played such a pivotal role in the area’s economic development also served to shield it from cultural progress. With the naiveté of youth, I overlooked my hometown’s virtues, thinking that big cities held exclusive keys to enlightenment. Of course I was wrong—Lufkin’s art scene was established more than 30 years ago with the founding of the Museum of East Texas. And over the past decade, with the MET’s expansion, the construction of Angelina College’s 900-seat Temple Theater, and the establishment of the Angelina Arts Alliance, the arts have blossomed in this town of 36,000 people. On a trip to Lufkin last fall, I spent a weekend exploring the thriving art scene and enjoying the influx of artistic talent—from emerging musicians to internationally recognized artists and dancers.
Driving through downtown, I can’t help but notice a series of murals splashed across the sides of buildings. These five murals, painted by native East Texas artist Lance Hunter from 1991 to 2000, depict local people and places of historical significance. For example, the 17.5-foot by 60-foot Laying Tracks, on the exterior of the Lufkin ISD administration building, shows a Native American woman known as Angelina, who befriended early Spanish explorers in the region, boldly leaning from the front of a steam engine as it speeds down the tracks. With her extended right hand, she holds a lantern illuminating scenes from the Lufkin area’s future—men tilling clumps of earth and straddling stacks of cut timber. An-gelina is the only woman for whom a Texas county was named (Lufkin is the county seat).
A few blocks south of this mural, a former general store that dates to the early 1900s houses the new Standpipe Coffee House, a gathering place for local artists. Named after the 84,600-gallon, 100-foot-tall water storage tank that stood in the center of town from 1891 until the late 1920s, the building boasts not one mural, but two. The exterior features Hunter’s 1996 mural Looking Back, which depicts a Coca-Cola-themed parade float from the early 1900s. Inside, an original, 100-year-old Coca-Cola mural dominates a wall that was rediscovered during the building’s recent renovation. “It was originally an exterior wall,” says manager Ben Harbuck. “Evidently, it had been covered up for years.”
In addition to brewed coffee and drinks like Pumpkin Pie Latte (warm and creamy, with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg), the Standpipe offers pastries from local bakery Grandough. Standpipe also serves as a gallery, with works for sale by local artists. On Friday nights, local musicians play in a back corner next to the old Coca-Cola mural for a packed house.
I find more art in unusual places. Along with the Water Department and Municipal Court, City Hall houses the Medford Collection of American Western Art. More than 50 paintings line the walls of City Hall’s main floor and atrium, including works by contemporary artists from across the nation, such as Raymond Ryan, Jodie Boren, and Tony Eubanks.
Even when I retire for the night to the Storybook Inn, I don’t have to leave the art behind. Owner Cindy Capps based the inn’s name on the structure’s turrets and balconies, which evoke the image of a storybook castle. I stay in the Rachel Room—a nautical-themed, third-story suite outfitted with model sailboats, antique maritime books, and weathered sailor’s gear. Capps modeled the decor of this room on a vibrantly hued seascape painted by Capps’ aunt Nellie O’Connor.
Originally housed in a 1906 Gothic-style chapel that now serves as a special-events venue, the Museum of East Texas now includes a new, 7,500-square-foot Modern wing; the addition’s series of peaked roofs and round windows echoes the original architecture. The museum’s holdings range from a contemporary sculpture by Spanish-born artist Manolo Valdés to paintings by the late abstract expressionist Dick Wray. In addition to works by European masters and Latin American and American artists, the museum offers a collection of some 100,000 photographs and negatives from the 1890s through the 1970s, as well as historic East Texas furnishings and textiles.
In the main gallery, where sunlight shimmers through a 28-foot-long window, I take in a display of 165 pieces of ornithological art by nine 18th- and 19th-Century artists. Original octavos by famed naturalist John James Audubon show birds in varied activities—eating berries, perching on limbs, diving for prey.
Executive Director J.P. McDonald notes the MET’s longtime educational mission. “We’ve been involved with Lufkin ISD’s arts programs for 35 years,” she says proudly. The MET sends “traveling trunks” of curriculum materials on various cultural topics into area schools, offers workshops throughout the year, and welcomes more than 500 children to its summer art camp. In addition, the museum hosts frequent lectures by visiting artists and scholars for the whole community.
The community-outreach approach continues at Angelina College’s Temple Theater. The 891-seat theater attracts internationally renowned acts—this season’s lineup includes Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and the Tony-award-winning Fiddler on the Roof. I catch the matinee performance by RIOULT, a 10-member, New York City-based modern dance company headed by choreographer Pascal Rioult. Rows of parents wear smiles of nervous anticipation because the dance company has included 13 local children in this performance. After an intense week of rehearsal with RIOULT, the children, wearing whimsical, pink-and-mint-green leotards, fill out the ensemble cast of Small Steps, Tiny Revolutions, a piece that explores the strained relationship between an imaginative young boy and his straight-laced father. Rick Schiller, executive director of the Angelina Arts Alliance, says, “The experience was life-changing for a lot of these kids. It showed them that art takes discipline.”
It’s one of many messages about art that children receive while growing up in Lufkin, where creativity thrives in the middle of the Piney Woods.
From the February 2012 issue.