In Conversation with Rick Lowe
Interview by Liz Kabler
Photography by Skye Parrott
Rick Lowe is the founder of Project Row Houses, a neighborhood-based non-profit arts organization located in Houston’s Third Ward. Since the organization’s inception in 1993, Rick has restored dozens of “shotgun shacks” to their former beauty, instilling the neighborhood with an architectural and historical richness that has profoundly enhanced the community. Today, the “project” is stronger than ever, incorporating artist residencies, residential programs for young mothers, childcare, a library and multimedia center. Stemming from this success, Rick has been commissioned by international communities—from South Korea to New York City to Los Angeles—to assist them in initiating revitalizing change. Among the reasons Rick has been able to achieve this type of renewal is because he is an artist. As an “artist,” he is able to engage people without threatening them; and in the process, he’s been able to serve as an adviser, activist, architect, urban designer and businessman. Rick’s work has never been conventional, and his role or “job” is not easily defined. It is precisely the acceptance of this ambiguity that allows the people who come through Project Row Houses to change their own identities. A struggling mother can become a powerful social activist and an artist can step outside his or her standard practice and explore a new medium, empowered by Rick’s belief in the “profound creativity in everyone.”
Liz Kabler: Tell us about the evolution of Project Row Houses?
Rick Lowe: So the story is I was doing all these kind of political installations that were commenting on political and social issues. A student came to the studio, was looking around and before he left, he said, “Mr. Lowe, while your paintings and sculptures show what’s going on in our communities, that’s not what we need. We already know what’s going on. We live with it every day. If you’re an artist, you create a solution. That’s what we need.” That was the turning point. I decided to shut down my studio and start trying to figure out how I could move from being one who was making work that was reflective and commenting on issues to [one] who was actually part of the change that was needed.
As I started to do a lot of reading on the subject, someone told me about a German artist named Joseph Beuys. I knew of him and his work, but it never really touched me until someone gave me a book: Energy Plan for Western Man. I was flipping through [and] saw that Chapter Two was titled “Social Sculpture.” In that chapter, Beuys defines social sculpture as the way in which we shape and mold the world around us. He’s advocating that everybody live as an artist. I took that to suggest that if we thought of the world as a big piece of sculpture, then each and every day we are all adding to it. We can add to it in a beautiful way or we can add to it in a negative way.
So I started student volunteer work in this community, Houston’s Third Ward, listening and trying to figure out how I could actually apply myself as an artist and as a creative person in the context of all the issues that these community leaders are dealing with. That was the start. Then Project Row Houses came about because I was on a tour with city and county officials, looking at dangerous places in the neighborhood. They had located one site—where Project Row Houses is now—and said that it was the worst place in the entire neighborhood, an abandoned, overgrown place with drug activities and prostitution. Then I saw the work of an artist named John Biggers. [Biggers’ work] gave me some context to start looking at the old houses on this derelict block. This gave me the platform with which to start addressing something specifically in that community. That was my beginning in social sculpture.
Liz: How important do you think art and the celebration of creativity are in building a
Rick: Extremely important. Because what art does is it challenges people to think about the possibilities around them. It opens them up. It challenges them to look beyond the expected. In most daily activity, people get involved in a routine but when you present [that routine] with some sort of cultural confrontation, there’s an opportunity. You have to think about it. You have to kind of struggle within yourself to understand it.
Liz: So in Project Row Houses, what are the criteria for artists-in-residency?
Rick: The criteria have always been: There are no boundaries. We have no expectations. Instead of saying, “We want you to work with this community,” the most important thing is for artists to do what it is they do: access their creativity. We like to think that because they are situated in a different context from that in which they usually are, it will have an impact on what kind of creativity they end up exploring. We try not to put hard and fast rules upon them. Consequently, what happens is that a lot of artists go into their comfort zone, producing the kinds of things they’ve become comfortable with and that’s OK, because they are going to do their best work doing that. Then there are others who will find opportunities where they can do things that are completely unique to this opportunity. Those are the ones I really get excited about. But I also get excited about the ones who are just doing what they do really well, because that is also a value to our community, to see any kind of work that’s being done really well.
Liz: I know you were a proponent of bringing young mothers into the community because when you were first building Project Row Houses you saw that they were the ones who were suffering the most. Do you see them as doing things differently, or sort of accessing their “best self” in the same way the artists do?
Rick: Absolutely. That’s where social sculpture comes in. The people who are involved in
our community are part of the social sculpture. They’re not a part of it in a passive way; they’re part of it in an active way. They have to be artists. Being an artist means, in this context, how you practice excellence in a very deep way—in a way that you care for your child very well. You care for your child so well that it allows you to reflect upon that. You’re basically handling yourself as a work of art, as an artist, because you’re symbolic to the people around you.
Liz: You’ve also talked about the importance of saying you’re an artist when you were creating Project Row Houses, because that would take away the stigmatization of being a
Rick: It was interesting how I came to that because I talk about going from doing this early work into doing social sculpture, but [the transition] wasn’t so smooth. There was a whole lot of self-doubt. Back in 1992 when I started moving in this direction, there weren’t a lot of people doing it.
Liz: Since there was no template, what did you do?
Rick: For me to step out and just sort of claim Project Row Houses as social sculpture was just sort of... I had a lot of doubt. It was actually Tom Finkelpearl—who’s the director of the Queens Museum of Art and who wrote a book called Dialogues in Public Art—who encouraged me to be true to my artistic practice and to not allow it to be pushed out. A lot of it is about having the audacity to lay claim to something that you feel is important and honest. Project Row Houses was the first place where I started to understand the importance of conversation in social movements. There are big public meetings, but those are different from the conversations that happen on the porches of people’s houses, where people stop in and you have these intimate conversations that are not big public meetings, but just conversations. That’s where people’s ideas start to formulate. I started to learn that through studying John Biggers’ paintings and looking at the architectural form of the shotgun houses and just studying how the porches function within those communities and, strangely enough, to take that learning from the real example of shotgun communities and abstract it out of that into a kind of public form situation.
Liz: So what would your definition for a contemporary artist be today? What is necessary for someone to call himself or herself an artist?
Rick: We’re at a point in the history of art where there is such a wide range of possibilities for participating in art. I’m always careful to not get to that point where I’m saying, ‘This is the new way of artistic practice.’ To not fall into the trap that the art world has fallen into many times over, where in the ’70s sculptors were saying, “Painting is dead.” No, painting’s not dead, but there are other ways to practice. There’s a new practice now that is emerging that blurs the line between what one might engage in on a mundane basis—like daily life, daily activities—and what can also be seen as something that is hyper-concentrated in a way that becomes symbolic. There was someone, I can’t remember her name, who said that the question: “What is art?” is the wrong question to ask. It should be: “When is art?” Based on this idea, we could say, “Dance is art.” But not all dance is art. It’s only art when it’s done in a certain way. All drawings are not art. People draw all the time, doodle, but it’s only when it’s done in a certain way that it becomes art. So the question becomes: When in a process of any activity does someone do it in a way that pushes the boundaries of what could be a mundane activity into something that is highly concentrated, so that it becomes reflective [and] symbolic? It becomes something deeper than what it actually is.
Liz: In the past, you’ve also mentioned words that I think are so integral to your own practice, especially with Project Row Houses—words like “trespassing.” Could you talk about that a little bit?
Rick: That’s one of those components that is crucial for artists who are practicing in the social realm. Being able to trespass from outside their “expertise” into areas that they may not have expertise in but they have some instinctual inclination towards. To be able to move into those other things is where you can begin to force those mundane things out of the mundane way of doing it. The experts would do it in a very mundane way, but it’s the novice, the curious who are exploring and dabbling. [They are] the ones who will bring us new and deeper ways of seeing these mundane things.
I get asked all the time: “So what’s the difference between you doing some housing and this developer doing some housing?” My response is always that developers are generally experts at what they do and they have a very clear understanding of what they are after. They want to put X amount of units on the ground. They want to make X amount of dollars. It has to fit a certain economic model. For someone like me, those are important things because I want [my project] to fit in the real world, but more important than that is: How can this project help me, my community and people around us think more clearly about housing? As an artist, the practical end of getting the houses done is there, but it’s much more important to generate a conversation about the houses in which we can understand what housing means. That’s when it becomes an art project.
Liz: What happens to these social sculptures when the “sculptor,” the artist who created this thing, is no longer there. What happens to Project Row Houses when the founder is no longer there? And what happens to this practice as a whole when this generation is no longer there?
Rick: I actually think that because of the nature of the work, it’s ephemeral. There’s nothing that says it’s going to be around even tomorrow. What it does is it adds layers to the practice and to the history of the practice. Beuys was able give beautiful language to [the work] even though his practice, to me, was a little bit more abstract. But he left language that some of us have been able to stand on as we keep the practice moving. And there were people before him who set the stage for him to start thinking about his work. So we’re moving. When I think about the socially engaged or public practice work that’s happening now, I don’t think that we’re at the highest form yet. As time goes on, people are going to become more sophisticated. It’s going to become a much more potent force in society. The way that’s going to happen is that those lines between practice will be blurred even more and people will become much more comfortable with it. I can see a time when sociologists could easily find themselves working with an artist because of shared interests and different kinds of expertise. That’s when the work will become really potent, when it has made its way out into a broader sector. I see parts of that at Project Row Houses. You talk about how things can move on… You should have a conversation with a woman named Assata Richards, who is in our young mother’s program and who got her Ph.D. It’s amazing to hear this woman talk about art from her perspective as a sociologist. That’s when it becomes a really potent form, when it’s not just artists who understand the practice and the value of it.
Liz: I love seeing your work as an artist. There’s really an architectural element to it. I remember hearing you give a really impassioned and moving speech about your work in which you brought up architecture as one of the most important aspects of life.
Rick: Both Project Row Houses and John Biggers have taught me about the importance of architecture in someone’s life. It is the place that frames and shapes the way in which we experience the world. If that place is not one that is healthy and situated in a positive way that allows things you need to come to you and allows you to offer things to others around you, it’s tough. Architecture becomes not just one of the components of good and healthy living, it becomes the beginning. It is where we start.
Liz: Do you feel like your own artistic practice can be separated from Project Row Houses?
Rick: I think so. It’s kind of like music, in that you make a big hit and people always know you for that hit. I remember talking to a guy who played with a group called The Ink Spots in the 1930s—the guy was like 97 years old. I went with someone to visit him at a retirement home because he lived in Houston. This guy started to ask him about some music that he made with The Ink Spots, and the guy goes, “Oh my God. Do you know I have 72 years of musical experience and only three of those were with The Ink Spots? And you want to ask me about The Ink Spots.” But that’s kind of expected. People gravitate towards what they know most.
Liz: If someone were to come to you who wanted to do an artistic practice like Project Row Houses, what type of advice would you give them?
Rick: [That’s a question] that I’ve wrestled with and it’s one that the whole field needs to wrestle with because more and more there are arts institutions that are finding ways to participate in public practice projects, working with artists that are laying claim to public practice. It’s interesting, the differences I see between artists who are engaged in public practice now and artists who were working when I started out, even artists from the generation before me. It’s a very different approach now. I, and most of the artists I know who are older than I am, came at community-engaged work from a more activist perspective [where] there’s this kind of code of conduct that, as a young person coming in, you’re mentored. You pay your dues and you learn from the people who are working in the community. These days, you have people coming out of school with credentials as public-practice people, but they don’t have the community experience. I’m likening it to a problem that’s been happening in the last 30 years or so with technology.
It used to be that someone worked at a company ten years and then they move up. They work at it 20 years, then they move up. Then people started getting masters degrees in business and they come in at age 24 or 25 and they’re placed in a position of authority over someone who’s actually been doing the practice for 15 to 20 years. That kind of dynamic creates a real problem and I see that same sort of problem happening in the social practice world, where there are life experiences that a lot of artists don’t have. They don’t understand how important that is and how to honor that. So the thing I suggest to artists who are interested in public practice work is to go to the place where [they] intend to engage and to listen. As opposed to bringing in something completely new, I’ve tried to focus my innovation on helping people discover new ways of seeing how to get to where they already know they want to go. Listening is the biggest issue around public practice and socially engaged work that is missing. And it’s the most important.