A Border Wall to Unite, Not Divide
On the campus of the Orange Show, in Houston, is a new three-dimensional immersive folk art experience that’s a whimsical explosion of colors, textures, and community spirit.
One day, in the spring of 2010, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, an organization that makes art accessible to the average Joe through quirky projects like the Beer Can House and the Houston Art Car Parade, was particularly abuzz with activity. A beehive had just been discovered in the women’s restroom of the Orange Show Monument, across the street from the center’s offices. The monument, a piece of vernacular architecture built singlehandedly from 1956 to 1979 by the late Houston postal worker Jefferson Davis McKissack, is a three-thousand-square-foot carnival-like edifice composed of a bevy of random found objects, the preservation of which was the reason for the founding, in 1980, of the Orange Show Center itself.
A beekeeper was called straightaway and the bees were “vacuumed” out of the wall and ferried off to a more suitable environment. During the process, errant bees swirled into the personal spaces of volunteers and staffers alike, but according to Lynette Wallace, the Orange Show’s executive director, they were “mellow bees” and didn’t sting anyone. In fact, the gentleness of the bees inspired an idea for what to do with an unused plot of land near the monument that the Orange Show had purchased in 1994. Why not plant a small grove of orange trees on the vacant property and bring the beehive back to prosper? As Wallace said, maybe they would even have their very own Orange Show honey someday.
Around that time, Stephanie Smither, who along with her late husband, John, had been a longtime patron of the Orange Show, came up with a way to memorialize John, who had passed away in 2002. She wanted to build a park full of folk art on the same undeveloped land. The orange grove idea was promptly abandoned and a new plan was forged. “As with most of Orange Show’s projects, it was an organic process, from bees in the bathroom to artists in a park,” Wallace said.
This Friday, after almost six years in the making, Smither Park will host a grand opening celebration. There will be food, drink, and live music to take in while marveling at the various elements of the park. There is the Johnson Marble Tower, where visitors can send marbles rolling down a roasting pan, into a couple of cups, across a plate, into a casserole bowl, and, after spinning around for a bit, down some stairs.
There is the Lindley Fish, a bandshell whose underside was designed and constructed by the artist Matt Gifford as a mosaic made up of street signs, mirror shards, and frame samples, which come together to resemble the inside of a fish’s mouth as it opens wide.
And there is the Marilyn Oshman Meditation Garden, a bench in front of a large mosaic wall incorporating various shades of white, intended to be grokked in much the same way Mark Rothko’s seemingly all-black paintings are at another stalwart Houston art bastion, the Rothko Chapel.
But the backbone of the park is the Memory Wall, a stretch of almost five hundred feet of mosaic wall, partitioned into more than sixty sections, each designed and adorned by a different artist or group of artists, ranging from neophytes to pros. The sections depict otherworldly expressions as well as distinct subjects such as a spaceship, a tree, a sailboat, an angel, and a musical band whose players include a lizard, an armadillo, a bear, and an owl. In total, the project is a prime example of the convergence of Houston’s environmental beautification streak and increasing stature as a mecca for the arts.
“When you add art to a community, you suddenly add value to the community, and you add interest,” said Dan Phillips, a Huntsville craftsman and Smither Park’s artistic director. “It is a good financial move for a community to have lots of art because that improves the quality of life. And people go see it, and then they also go to restaurants and stay in hotels and shop and so forth and so on.”
Stephanie Smither, who died this past June, chose Phillips to be the project manager and guiding force for the park. Phillips has a history of some 35 years working with the Smithers. After the couple up and moved their family house from Houston to a lake near Huntsville, they enlisted the services of Phillips to restore their art and antiques. Phillips, who is also a former Army intelligence officer, became more involved from there, refurbishing the house’s casings, doors, and woodwork among other projects. This dovetailed with the founding, in 1997, of Phoenix Commotion, a construction company that Phillips and his wife, Marsha, started, with the intent of erecting unconventional houses for underserved populations using salvaged materials like wine corks, license plates, hickory nuts, aluminum cans, and even bones.
“I’d always wanted to be a builder,” Phillips said. “And I said, ‘Marsha, I’ve got an idea. Let’s wipe out our savings. Mortgage our house. We’ll build for people who have abdicated all responsibility. We’ll build out of trash. And we’ll hire only people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing. What do you think?’ Well, still married.”
Phillips’s enterprise attracted a lot of attention. After putting out a call, he immediately started receiving free scrap materials like western red cedar, granite, and tile by the eighteen-wheeler load from vendors across the country who considered shipping it all to him cheaper than paying a landfill. Then, in 2009, Phillips was the subject of a profile in the New York Times, and he gave a TED talk the following year.
Over time, Phillips learned that his style of design always emerges from whatever particular materials happen to be afforded him. In the case of Smither Park, that included the likes of things such as Legos, plates, broken glass, hubcaps, and spoons. He banned wood, plastic, fabric, and paper because of Houston’s extreme weather swings. Potential artists had to submit a sketch, not necessarily for Phillips to approve but simply to show that they were committed to the project and had a concept to pursue.
Phillips wanted the artists—there were more than two hundred of them—to have complete freedom to cultivate their deeper sensibilities, so he kept the rules to a minimum. No political, social, or sexual agendas were allowed. Words were discouraged save for isolated instances when something had already been printed on the materials during the manufacturing process. And finally, nudity was allowed only in the abstract, because, hey, it’s a family park. Phillips was not into micromanaging; he wanted Smither Park to be for the people, by the people.
“Often enough, one of the newbies would say, ‘Well, Dan, what should I do now? Should I do this or should I do that?’” Phillips explained. “If I say, do that or do this, then what I do is paralyze their momentum. I’m fracturing a sense of self. And so my response was, ‘Well, if you did this, it has this kind of a feeling, but if you did that, it might have that kind of a feeling. But you have to decide. The answer is buried in you.’”
Smither Park is now open to the public, yet it will be an ongoing creation. Not all of the panels are complete. And there are still minor embellishments to benches and lampposts that will be made.
One feature still in the works is the riddles. As a way to raise money for park maintenance and repairs, visitors will be able to pay a fee for a riddle. The answers to these riddles will be embedded throughout the park. Visitors who think they’ve found the right answers to their respective riddles can then enter those answers online for a chance to win cash prizes. But Phillips, a veteran cryptogram and logic puzzlemaker whose games were syndicated in newspapers across the country for 25 years, has some words of caution. “These riddles will melt you down,” he said. “They will scramble your gray matter.”
Smither Park, September 30, 7 p.m., orangeshow.org
Other Events Across Texas
AUSTIN / DALLAS / EL PASO / FORT WORTH / HOUSTON / LAREDO / LUBBOCK / NEW BRAUNFELS / SAN ANTONIO
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Brownsville Historical Association, September 30, 6 p.m., tacosoftexas.com
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Fair Park, September 30 to October 23, bigtex.com
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Downtown, October 6–9, greenvillechamber.com
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Mystic Lyon, October 1 to April 30, 2017, facebook.com/events/1077224599039791/