As a Houston-based design firm, we’re lucky to be part of a thriving creative community. From world-class performing arts, to some of the nation’s most respected museums, and every artistic medium in between, our city is a wealth of inspiration. It’s no secret that our go-to source of artistic insight is seasoned journalist and Gal About Town Catherine D. Anspon. As PaperCity‘s Executive Editor of Visual Arts and Features, Catherine has a true pulse on our region and I’m thrilled to have her as my latest guest on The Finer Points! Read on for a list of her favorite stories of all time and what work of art made her cry!
Marie Flanigan: Tell me your story. Growing up, how did you find your passion for art?
Catherine Anspon: My parents, Nannette and Harry Anspon, prompted and inspired my journey into the art world. This began growing up in Kansas City, where childhood art classes at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art were some of my fondest first memories. My mother used to take me to the galleries after class was over, where she deciphered the museum’s treasures, many of which had a global outlook — a graceful Chinese Guanyin that seemed to hold court in a temple-like room in the Asian Galleries; and in display cases nearby, delicate Chinese Qing Dynasty woven-basketry cricket cages, tiny brushes, and even porcelain food dishes to ritualistically take care of the pet crickets (which no doubt sang). I also vividly remember the Nelson’s Native American Indian sculpture, especially its Northwest Coast totem poles, and “reading” their symbolism with lively carvings bearing frogs, bears, ravens and other animal images. My dad was also an inveterate museum-goer, and Saturdays at the Nelson were a family tradition.
When we moved to Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Institute provided another grand overview of the art world, with a dose of contemporary art thrown in, via the Carnegie International and later the Warhol Museum.
As a middle schooler and then high school student, I’d spend every Saturday at the Carnegie while my sister took art classes at the museum — offered free to gifted students from Pittsburgh schools (her teacher, the legendary Mr. Fitzpatrick, must have been in his 80s, as he also taught Andy Warhol, who was in the same program some four decades earlier). The Carnegie, like the Nelson, served up an expansive view of art history — alongside natural history including its very celebrated collection of dinosaurs, as well as grand galleries where elaborate vitrines displayed taxidermy specimens.
As a teenager, I also volunteered as a docent at Old Economy, a 19th-century site run by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission that was the final home of the Harmony Society, a German utopian community. The museum featured an array of fascinating buildings that yielded a window to the past — a great hall, tailor shop, huge cellar for wine making, a grotto, a general store, and formal boxwood gardens — all set into the town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania on the banks of the Ohio.
Giving tours and learning lace-making were unique experiences for a teen and fostered a love of history and historic place, particularly the time period of 19th-century America. Our family always lived in historic homes too; in Kansas City a handsome house from circa 1910, and in the 1860s hamlet of Sewickley, Pennsylvania (12 miles from the City of Pittsburgh), a farmhouse from the 1830s, that was updated and expanded into a classic Victorian, complete with understated gingerbread.
All these experiences led me to study history at Rice; I added art history and made it a double major after taking a class on American art with the brilliant Dr. William Camfield, who was brought to Houston by the de Menils to teach at St. Thomas, then later at Rice. After Rice, I went to grad school at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where a thesis on movie palace architecture of the 1920s awakened a love of fantasy architecture and fabulous interior design schemes. Both of these subjects we’ve been able to cover at PaperCity Magazine — most particularly, and I’m moving ahead, with one of my favorite stories of all time— the Celestial Suite at the Astroworld Hotel brought forth by Judge Roy Hofheinz; the Suite also served as his private living quarters.
MF: You’re a seasoned journalist with an incredible body of work. What stories and/or interviews stand out as your favorites and why?
CA: To narrow it down, these stand out:
The Celestial Suite at the Astroworld Hotel. The magazine waited four years to receive permission to photograph there, and Hofheinz’ sense of adventure — commissioning Disney imagineer Harper Goff for the over-the-top room decor — illuminated a time and place in Houston that is being forgotten. The story also revealed a lot about the life and time of Hofheinz, who desegregated the city with the Astrodome. (Synchronistically, the article appeared in the November 2017 issue; and the Astros won the World Series on November 1, 2017. Did the Judge have anything to do with the timing?!
In 2016, traveling to interview two artists, both in their 70s, about their journeys — each as an activist, one for Chinese-Americans, the other for women — was transformative. The first, in L.A. was Michael Chow, aka Mr. Chow, the glamorous restaurateur who has returned to his first career as an artist; he was fresh from shows at the Warhol in Pittsburgh and the Power Station of Art in Shanghai. (Chow’s dramatic assemblages addressing environmental issues were shown in the fall of 2016 at Barbara Davis Gallery.) The second adventure occurred weeks later, outside Sheridan, Wyoming, with Doubleday publishing heiress Neltje, who not only makes epic abstract canvases that begin and end as odes to nature, but also is a preservationist and naturalist.
Three more travel features made impacts — all tracking Texas artists. Most recently, last fall in East Hampton at the Elaine de Kooning House where painter Sedrick Huckaby was in residence; host Chris Byrne took us on some great art treks including starting the day at the Springs General Store where Jackson Pollock famously traded a canvas for groceries. Internationally, in 2006, patrons Margarida and Penn Williams hosted a group of Houston artists on a big voyage to Shanghai capped by an exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum. Then in 2011, FotoFest and the Garage Museum in Moscow welcomed photo reviewers and journalists at the first ever Meeting Place Portfolio Review in Russia, an incredible experience on many levels.
Profiles of Mr. Meredith Long, where I began my first real job in the art world — an impeccable titan of the Houston scene, and also a champion of American 19th- and 20th-artists — and Caroline Wiess Law, interviewing those that knew her from Peter Marzio to Jackson Hicks to her personal secretary, created a portrait of the woman who was the MFAH’s most game-changing patroness.
Science stories spun around great minds in our midst connected me with my father, who was a pioneer in plastics, when we interviewed Dr. Wade Adams, at that time head of nanoscience as the Smalley Institute at Rice; for the series, we also conversed with Dr. James Willerson, then head of the Texas Heart Institute, about the promise of regenerating human hearts with stem cells.
Finally, there have been green stories that resonated: especially an interview with landscape architect Thomas Woltz about his firm’s master plan for reimagining Memorial Park. My grandfather, B.W. Anspon, was founding professor of the department of landscape architecture at University of Maryland in the 1910s, so I’ve always had a connection with nature, landscape, and ornamental garden spaces.
And now we are focusing on tales of preservation and visionary architecture, collaborating with our architecture editor, Robert Morris; I was Robert’s accomplice on his great Bruce Goff piece). And, I penned the sad story of the destruction of the Mecom house that made us at the magazine redouble our efforts to promote the preservation of Houston’s built environment.
Also intersecting with small-town history and community, twice a year we cover Round Top and environs, its characters and champions. And finally, we have dipping into activism by interviewing two change agents seeking office in 2018, Beto and Laura Moser, about their life on the campaign trail. We’ve also been privileged to cover Randall Morton’s Progressive Forum, with its array of deep thinkers, from Alice Waters, Gloria Steinem, and Al Gore to Ken Burns and most recently, John Kerry.
MF: I read that the second volume of your book Texas Artists Today is in the works. Congratulations! I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Will this book include updates on previously featured artists, or will it be a completely new list?
CA: Thank you for asking. This is a great collaborative project, with three photographers, Art League Houston (our beneficiary), and, fundraising and creative teams. Volume two will be all new artists, with a fresh commitment to our times, a dialogue of diversity, and activism. The goal of this book is also to catapult it out of Texas, with signings in New York, Chicago, and the West Coast.
MF: Pretend you can only look at one work of art for the rest of your life. What is it?
CA: A painting by Edward Hopper — not Nighthawks, even though that is one of the greatest mirrors of a time and place while still being timeless, but probably a later-period Hopper displaying his beautiful and signature light raking through an empty room.
An alternative would be an Andy Warhol soup can — maybe the one at the Menil. What’s more American, and it speaks to the promise of the 1960s, and a fundamental sense of the egalitarian and democratic.
MF: Has a work of art ever made you cry? What was it?
CA: Yes, visiting Bert Long Jr.’s installation, “The Passage,” at Project Row Houses in 1998. His immersive, multi-room piece was dedicated to his late wife, Connie, recreating her bedroom and life, down to including bottles of meds and medical apparatus from her cancer treatment, as well as her intimate outsider-type artwork. Her presence was palpable in that simple shotgun house. My uncle had also passed away from cancer, and it made me cry. Moments later a long sedan pulled up, and I’d caught a glimpse of Bert getting in, complete with bolo and regalia, a regal presence. His arrival was like a benediction. We later became close friends, and the memory of that afternoon in the Third Ward has always lingered, the beauty and dignity of life observed, remembered, and recorded in art.
MF: I love how you express yourself through your clothing. In what ways does fashion inspire you?
CA: Vintage is my mantra, with a side of pop — high and low, peopled by lucky finds, plenty of patterning, and nary a little black dress or structured business suit in the mix. One of my fave recent finds was a red, red St. John gown with mandarin collar — scored at Shelbi Nicole’s Whimsy World pop up — that I paired with an exuberant floral crown to cover Asia Society Texas Center’s Tiger Ball 2019, appropriate for its ruby-themed anniversary! The crown was designed by Houston milliner Debra Linse, and I’m also a fan of her purses. For the opening of Warehouse 72 in July — a new eatery in Spring Branch informed by great design and Mr. D’s street-art portraits of power femmes — I also combined one of Linse’s purses, festooned with fruit, with a vintage find from Genesis Benefit in Dallas (which funds a family shelter), and my favorite Kimono Zulu, representing a collaboration between PR maven and influencer Tina Zulu and artist Selven O’Keef Jarmon.
MF: What are your tips for both seasoned and fledgling art collectors?
CA: Support and collect Texas artists and acquire from their galleries, in Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. That to me is the most important aspect of being a collector living in Texas — if you are in the midst of a state that has the third largest community of working artists in the country (as in the case of Houston) and extraordinary museums (many of which collect and exhibit Texas artists, although there could be more of this), why would you want your collection to look like someone living in New York or Chicago? Do step up and be bold, and be engaged in this world-class art community. Finally, collecting is a journey, an investigation, and a lifestyle — it should not be, buy a painting for your great room, then you’re done. Also, as an aside, very happy to see all Marie Flanigan and your team is doing to enlarge the art dialogue and foster new collectors!
MF: That is so kind! Thank you! Who are three of your current favorite up-and-coming artists?
CA: All three talents — perhaps no surprise — are based in Houston, and also underscore the diversity of our scene and the range of art practices
JooYoung Choi, whose compelling mashup of puppetry, soft-sculpture, painting, and animation smartly addresses issues of cultural identity and ideas of home, from her own perspective as a Korean-American adoptee.
Regina Agu, for her unforgettable installation, “Sea Change,” for Project Row Houses. It featured a curtain simply adorned with an unspoiled beach scene, and earned her an Arcadia Award. It spoke to me of environmental issues and the power of an image to transport the viewer from one place to another.
Robert Hodge, whose speakeasy for his Lawndale Art Center residency featured a blues singer for opening night, performances throughout its exhibition run, as well as actual furniture, neon signage, and ephemera sourced from neighborhood music joints.
MF: What’s your favorite art gallery in the world and why?
CA: Will have to amend that question to favorite museum — as it is impossible to select from Houston’s rich array of long-standing galleries, many of whom have blazed trails in their commitment to putting forth a dialogue about modern and contemporary art, supporting Texas artists while doing it, and developed connoisseurship and community. And most importantly, many have been connectors between artists and collectors for decades including gallerists like Betty Moody (40-plus years) being honored for her lifetime commitment to Art League Houston this fall.
So for top museum, while we are fortunate to have the MFAH and CAMH as beacons, plus the Blaffer, Asia Society, rabble raising Art Car Museum and Station, and very innovative Moody Center, The Menil Collection for me will always be a beyond-the-beyond experience — intimate, contemplative, dedicated to a world-view of art that respects and honors ancient, African, Native American especially Northwest Coast, Byzantine, as well as modern and contemporary voices. To spend Sunday afternoon at the Menil, checking in with Thelma Smith at the front desk and Paul Forsythe and his team at the Bookstore, is indeed sublime.
MF: What work of art would you love to see in person, but never have?
CA: I would consider archaeological and world-monument sites as the ultimate arts destination — better than a museum pilgrimage even — and a magnum opus as to signifying a civilization! I’ve been to Pompeii, but never Herculaneum, so that would be on the list. I would also add Angkor Wat, Petra, Leptis Magna, the Palace of Knossos in Crete, and Edwards James’ mystical surrealist garden, Las Pozas, in the Sierra Madre mountain village of Xilitla, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. (Read about the show — at one of my favorite Houston galleries — inspired by this mystical place here.)
Thank you so much for joining me, Catherine! This has been educational and inspiring. Who’s your favorite artist? Share in the comments!