When I arrived to talk with Lowe, I found him playing dominoes with a trio of older artists at an outside table in the sunshine. After he’d finished—the game is a community ritual, he explained, which he never interrupts—we took a walk through the galleries, which contained sculptures made from antique doors, video installations of men recounting their romantic lives and a studio where the performance artist Autumn Knight was rehearsing for her show, Roach Dance. Lowe, who is tall and lean and was raised in rural Alabama, first came to the city on a road trip in 1984, he said. “Houston is a good place for an artist to stretch dollars. The rents are low, there are lots of wide open spaces, there’s cheap Mexican food.” Undaunted by the economic depression of the ’80s (“When you’re poor, everywhere is depressed!”), he found the city’s independent creative spirit addictive. “I thought I’d stay for a couple of years. It’s 28 now.”
The genesis of Project Row Houses dates back to 1992, Lowe recalls, when he was volunteering at a community center in the Third Ward and saw city officials being given a bus tour of Houston’s dangerous places. “They stopped right in front of this row of buildings and were told that this was the very worst spot in Houston.” The next year, he decided to salvage the same blighted stretch. For Lowe, the city’s lack of regulation and zoning encourages artists as well as businesses to carry out plans that might seem impossible elsewhere. “This is a private initiative city,” he says. “If you have an idea and you want to do it, Houston is one of the best places in America to be, because nobody is going to put anything in your way.” Project Row Houses soon became involved in erecting new housing in nearby streets, funded by donations from the city, philanthropists and corporations, including Ikea. (“Just because it’s low income doesn’t mean that it has to look bad,” says Dennis.) So far, five blocks of the Third Ward have been renovated, with plans to help improve another 80 in the area, and Lowe has been invited to advise on urban renewal projects from Philadelphia to Opa-locka, Florida, to Seoul, South Korea. The art critic of the New York Times recently wrote that Project Row Houses “may be the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country.”
The city’s makeshift, unfinished nature fosters a libertarian spirit and home-spun creativity. In the shadow of Interstate 10 northwest of downtown, the Art Car Museum showcases the Houstonian folk tradition of turning its ubiquitous motor vehicles into mobile sculptures—giant rabbits or cockroaches, cars covered in plastic fruit, or bristling with silver spikes, adorned with lurid mannequins or crocodile skulls. “We get participants from all walks of life,” says the director, Noah Edmundson, a goateed figure in a black leather coat who worked in the oil fields before becoming an artist. “Doctors, actresses, bank clerks, gas station attendants...” He says the populist tradition goes back to 1903, when an Oldsmobile dealership started the Notsuoh Parade (Houston spelled backward), with cars decorated in papier-mâché. “They used to drive to the debutante ball and party for a week.” On the other side of town, from 1956 to 1979, a postman named Jeff McKissack created a folk-art labyrinth from mosaics, stucco and found objects like tractor seats, all devoted to his favorite fruit—the orange—and the spirit of “healthy living.” (The space is still maintained as the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.) And on weekends, one can visit a bungalow covered with thousands of flattened beer cans, from which a retired railroad upholsterer named John Milkovisch and his wife drank over 18 years, starting in 1968. “They say every man should leave something to be remembered by,” Milkovisch noted of his work.
At the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, a group show was a multicultural spread of works from eight Houston artists originally from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. “Over 100 languages are spoken in Houston,” says director James Harithas, formerly of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. “It’s the oil capital of the world, one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, so it follows that the art scene here over the last decade has become rich in every way.” According to chief curator Alan Schnitger, artists began arriving in the late 1990s for the cheap rents, but stayed for the sense of independence. “It used to be that Houston galleries just reflected what was going on elsewhere. But now they’ve found their own voice.” The Station is nothing if not irreverent. “What’s happening in New York these days is more about fashion,” says Harithas. “It’s not meaningful. We’re anti-corporation, anti-empire, anti-government. We’ll say whatever the hell we want to say.” One recent exhibition, “Crude,” addressed the power of the oil industry, with oil pumped through giant glass letters that spelled the words “justice,” “democracy,” and, in an apparent dig at President Obama, “Yes We Can.” “A lot of our wars started right here in Houston,” Harithas says. “They’re all about oil! And funnily, a lot of oil executives came to see the show. They seemed to like it.”
“Houston loves Chloe!” roared the emcee, as a parade of models hit the catwalk wearing the designer Chloe Dao’s latest line. “Chloe loves Houston!”
It was the height of Houston Fashion Week, a title that not long ago might have sounded like an oxymoron, provoking cruel jokes about rhinestone-encrusted denim. But the event is as elegant as anything in Paris or New York. After the models, the star of the evening emerged to a standing ovation. Chloe Dao, a Vietnamese immigrant, became “Houston’s sweetheart” when she won the reality-TV competition “Project Runway” in 2006. Her life story itself sounds like a miniseries. At age 5, Dao made a dramatic escape from Communist-run Laos in 1976 with her parents and seven sisters. Now the poster girl for immigrant success, she is asked to give inspirational speeches across Houston, such as at the America’s Table Thanksgiving Breakfast.
I met Dao at the somewhat surreal after-party in a pop-up nightclub downtown. The proprietor, Gigi Huang (whose father had fled Shanghai as the Red Army moved in), had dressed her lithe performers in golden G-strings, the more athletic of whom were pouring flutes of champagne while actually hanging upside-down from chandeliers. “Even in Houston, I had a very Asian upbringing,” Dao told me over the pulsing bass. “But I also had an all-American childhood. I was a cheerleader, I was on the tennis team, I was president of the Latin Club.” The blend of cultures has served her well: The Ao Dai style of traditional Vietnamese fashion, she says, has influenced her designs, which have “a very clean aesthetic, with straight lines and high mandarin necks.”
“But you really should meet my mother,” she adds. “She’s the real immigrant success story.”
So we all meet a couple of days later in Houston’s new “Chinatown”—which is no longer really a district but an endless Asian mall extending along a highway west of downtown. (“You never have to speak English out there if you don’t want to,” Dao said. “You can go to a Vietnamese doctor, a Vietnamese dentist, a Vietnamese hairdresser...” Its counterpart in the Indian community is the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple, an enormous complex of gleaming limestone towers, pillars and domes in Stafford, a city in the Houston metro area.) At the boisterous Kim Son Buffet restaurant, I greet Chloe’s mother, Hue Thuc Luong, a neatly coiffed businesswoman. Chloe had never asked her mother for the full details of their escape from Laos, and over the next hour, they prompt one another’s memories. Hue Thuc Luong explains that, soon after the Communist takeover in 1975, she began planning the family’s escape to Thailand. The family began growing rice in fields outside their village, near Pakse, and pretended to the revolutionary cadres that all eight daughters were needed to work them. The father, Thu Thien Dao, who was experienced as a cobbler, sewed $200 into the soles of each girl’s sandals. (“We used them as pillows at night to make sure nobody stole them!” Chloe recalls.) One dusk, the whole family slipped from the rice fields into the jungle, for an all-night hike in the darkness.