Under the guidance of the CASE-PRH fellows Regina Agu and Eyakem Gulilat and PRH Curator and Program Director Ryan Dennis, area undergraduate artists participated in PRH’s 2018 Summer Studios Program. Program Residents engaged in a multi-week mentorship culminating in fine-art installations displayed within the row houses, intending to reflect on and engage the surrounding Houston community.
Alexis Pye, a student at the University of Houston and a summer studios resident, took this opportunity to develop The Breadcrumbs Project; a visual and auditory retrospective on Houston’s historical blues scene. Her installation combined gestural and layered paintings with a series of interviews playing on loop in the background.
“It was cool to learn about how everything here, before there was a Motown, was very independent, and there were so many black-owned record companies here in Houston,” Pye said. “But since Houston is not really based off of that, it’s not really written in history; or as strongly as other things like oil, or space and NASA.”
While Pye is from Detroit, immersing herself in the Houston blues community led her to create the premise of her project. She emphasizes the impact of research on her creative process, and how it taught her about Houston from a perspective that’s hardly documented.
“Because I’m not from Houston, I didn’t want it to appear that I was doing ‘this is my life,’” Pye said. “I wanted it to be like, ‘I’m just a person researching because I don’t know much about Houston and I think this is a great way to do it,’ because I love music myself.”
What really stands out about Pye’s work is its context. Stories of the Third Ward’s vital role in making the recording industry what it is today are kept alive by those that witnessed it. Through interpreting their stories, Pye places her work on a larger narrative arc.
“I didn’t know how ambitious it was until I started,” Pye says of pursuing as many leads as she could manage on a student’s busy schedule. “One person led me to another person, and then that person led me to another person… That’s why I called it Breadcrumbs.”
While researching, Pye was eventually confronted with the complexities of personal and oral histories; especially those that go unrecorded.
“Oral history is them telling a story, it’s going to have some biases, but that’s kind of what history is,” Pye said. “It can be a little tainted because it’s their view…. What I really tried to reflect was their stories and what’s personal to them and personal to Houston.”
There’s a connection between an individual’s perspective of history and how the artist interprets their research into visual art. Just as the culmination of facts and experience becomes a historical record, the facets of an artist’s research manifest in the final interpretation.
“I’m very detail-oriented,” Pye, said, “but with these paintings, I wanted them to be spontaneous and almost like music itself.”
Pye emphasizes the role that the fellows played as mentors to her as an emerging artist looking to reflect a community.
“Regina and Eyakem, they were pretty awesome,” Pye said. “We would have weekly meetings on Tuesdays around six, and we would have a reading,or talk about a painting that I recently painted.”
As a young woman starting her art career, Pye spoke of Agu with admiration.
“She was a wealth of knowledge,” Pye said. “I learned that Regina didn’t go to grad school, which really made me like ‘wow you still have all these opportunities’… The pressure is kind of less now.”
Pye now sees research as a permanent part of her creative process, and hopes to continue with Breadcrumbs when she finishes school. As for her PRH installation, she pays homage to legends like Duke-Peacock Records, “Big Mama” Thornton and “Gaitmouth” Brown -- highlighting a genuinely exceptional piece of Houston’s history
“People you’ve never heard of but are the foundation of the people that we know of today,” Pye said. “People who really made the blues circuit, or the Chitlin’ Circuit before it was called that, for people like Elvis. His first number-one hit was ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.’ That was written by ‘Big Mama’ Thornton.”
Learn more about Summer Studios: https://projectrowhouses.org/public-art/summer-studios
Feature by Erin Davis