The Amazing Public Art Deep in the Heart of Texas

Houston has a healthy allowance for beautifying its streets and parks. See how it spends it

Houston art
Flickr user seabright hoffman

Houston, affectionately nicknamed “The Big Heart,” is home to more than 450 public artworks, spanning the city’s parks, plazas and walkways. In 1999, the city established an ordinance mandating that 1.75 percent of funding for city capital improvement projects be set aside for civic art and its maintenance. The Houston Arts Alliance granted $3 million to 220 artists and nonprofit arts organizations last year, to create temporary and permanent sculptures, murals and large-scale installations. Here are 10 of the city’s creative mainstays.

Gus S. Wortham Memorial Fountain

Gus S. Wortham Memorial Fountain
(Flickr user Katya Horner)

The Gus S. Wortham Memorial Fountain, dubbed “the dandelion fountain” by locals, was built in Buffalo Bayou Park in 1978. It was designed by Houston architect and Rice University professor William T. Cannady, who was inspired by a similar fountain he saw in Australia. Multiple lacquer-coated bronze pipes jut out of the fountain’s core, spewing water in all directions. The pipes are all of equal length, a construction that gives the fountain its spherical shape.

“Points of View”

Houston art
(Flickr user cybertoad)

Located in Market Square Park, “Points of View” is a nearly 30-foot-tall abstract sculpture, made of pine and painted steel and mounted to a concrete base. A pinecone shape with 25 protruding wooden planks sits atop five metal legs. Modernist sculptor James Surls, a former professor at the University of Houston’s School of Art, created the sculpture in 1991 for the center of the park, but today it stands above a small water installation along the periphery near Travis Street.

Atropos Key

Houston Art
(Flickr user brighter than sunshine)

Located in the outdoor Miller Theatre in Hermann Park, the massive, bronze-cast key represents the Greek goddess of fate, Atropos. According to Greek mythology, Atropos, along with her sisters Clotho and Lachesis, were responsible for human destiny. Atropos held the scissors to cut the thread of life, while Clotho spun it and Lachesis measured it. The late artist Hannah H. Stewart designed the sculpture in 1972; her name is engraved on one of the key’s vertical legs.

Armillary Sphere

Houston art
(houstontx.gov)

An armillary sphere is a model of the circles of the celestial sphere, with Earth at the center, the celestial equator and north and south poles. Houston’s version of this sphere is a 72-inch globe set against a backdrop of high-rises in Sam Houston Park. The sculpture has a large vertical ring that represents the meridian of the city. A wide band around the middle of the sphere is decorated with the signs of the Zodiac, and a rod passing through its center represents the Earth’s axis and points up toward the North Star. Elizabeth Bracewell, president of the Houston Heritage Society from 1969 to 1971, donated the sculpture to the city in 1977.

Ceramic Tile Benches

Houston art
(Photo courtesy of Houston Parks and Recreation Department)

Ceramic tile benches, designed by artist Malou Flato in 1992, line the perimeter of Market Square Park. The hand-painted ceramic tiles feature colorful, impressionistic scenes of the park as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A favorite spot for office workers on break from nearby buildings, the benches offer a view of the walkways of Market Square, which are paved with the raw material remains of the neighborhood’s demolished buildings.

“Personage and Birds”

Houston art
(Library of Congress)

“Personage and Birds” offers a splash of color in downtown Houston’s JPMorgan Chase Tower plaza. The steel and bronze-cast sculpture is an abstract representation of a woman with birds circling her head. The triangle, made up of thick metal bands painted green, red, blue, yellow and black, is the figure’s body. Joan Miró, a Spanish Surrealist sculptor, designed the 35-foot-wide, 55-foot-tall sculpture, and it was installed in April 1982 to commemorate his 89th birthday.

“Synchronicity of Color”

Houston art
(Flickr user seabright hoffman)

A Rubik’s-cube like sculpture called “Synchronicity of Color” is located in Discovery Green, a 12-acre park in downtown Houston. The work consists of more than 1,400 aluminum boxes painted in 65 colors, with the same paint used in underwater applications for oil rigs. The massive geometric work was built to conceal drab concrete stairwells leading into a parking garage beneath the park. Designed by Margo Sawyer, an art professor at the University of Texas at Austin, it was installed in 2008.

Paley Stairway Sculptures

Houston art
(Albert Paley / Paley Studios)

The Paley Stairway Sculptures, completed in 1987 by American artist Albert Paley, line the escalator leading to the entrance of the Wortham Theater Center, a performing arts center in downtown Houston. Some of the ribbon-like sculptures required 400 pieces of steel to create. Painted in pale green, mauve, orange and purple, they weigh about 30 tons altogether.

“Seven Wonders”

Houston art
(Flickr user eschipul)

The public art at Buffalo Bayou’s Sesquicentennial Park is hard to miss. Seven 70-foot-tall pillars, known as the “Seven Wonders,” flank the park’s Promenade and Preston Avenue Bridge. Each column, designed by Mel Chin, contains 150 drawings, created by 1,050 local schoolchildren. With the help of artists Rachael Splinter and Helen Nagge, Chin translated the drawings into a computer image and then etched them into the pillars’ stainless steel with a laser. The student artists, who were 12 years old when the pillars went up in 1998, were all born in 1986, the year Houston celebrated its 150th birthday. The themes of the tiny works—agriculture, manufacturing, medicine and technology—fit into the context of the city’s history. At night, “Seven Wonders” gives off a lantern-like glow, illuminating the park and buildings around it.

Heritage Lanterns

Houston art
(houstontx.gov)

Located in the northeast corner of Root Memorial Square Park, these five stainless steel sculptures are lit from the inside with LED lights that change colors. The lanterns, which range from five to seven feet tall, are built in the style of the Victorian era; their ornamental spires are typical of the time. They pay tribute to the downtown area in which they stand, once home to architecturally elaborate mansions in the early 20th century. Designed by artists Carter Ernst and Paul Kittelson, the lanterns were installed in 2005.