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A Restless Artist, Still Untamed

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Devon Britt-Darby, who is the public affairs director at Blaffer Art Museum at University of Houston, is seen here in 2013 when he was visual arts editor at Arts+Culture Texas.
Devon Britt-Darby, who is the public affairs director at Blaffer Art Museum at University of Houston, is seen here in 2013 when he was visual arts editor at Arts+Culture Texas.

Devon Britt-Darby has packed a lot of living into 44 years, but he’s far from done.
by Brandon Wolf

Artist Devon Britt-Darby says the only thing he ever really wanted from life was to have an interesting one. Looking back on his 44 years, it’s fair to say that he has accomplished his goal.

Raised in fundamentalist churches while growing up in Alvin, Britt-Darby has gone on to rub elbows with porn stars, politicians, and socialites, partying on yachts, and interviewing celebrated artists—from pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg to actress Tilda Swinton—along the way. He’s also had thousands of doors slammed in his face, seen the inside of one psychiatric hospital and a couple of jail cells, and sat cross-legged and shivering in pre-dawn darkness at a Zen temple, staring at the wall and searching for enlightenment—or at least for the wherewithal to make it until the morning bell rang.

Growing up in Alvin, Texas

Britt-Darby was actually born Douglas Britt, in 1969, in Texas City, but mostly grew up in Alvin. His family attended fundamentalist churches, but Britt-Darby drifted toward agnosticism by age 16, around the time the family moved and he transferred to Klein Forest High School in northwest Houston. He came out during his last semester in high school, attending HATCH meetings at First Unitarian Universalist Church, and going on to serve on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Students Association at the University of Texas at Austin.

Despite doing well his freshman year, the restless Britt-Darby dropped out, got a British work permit, and moved to London, where he was a bartender in a gay pub. After a year abroad, he returned to Austin and found work as a door-to-door canvasser, which took him to dozens of cities around the country and sparked a lifelong love of the open road.

In 1994, the 24-year-old moved to Boston and took classes at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, studying photography, painting, and video. For the next three and a half years, he alternated classes with telefundraising shifts on behalf of progressive nonprofits.

2009 – Devon Britt-Darby,  then known as Douglas Britt, is named new society reporter for Houston Chronicle, along with Lindsey Love. Photo courtesy Houston Chronicle.
2009 – Devon Britt-Darby, then known as Douglas Britt, is named new society reporter for Houston Chronicle, along with Lindsey Love. Photo courtesy Houston Chronicle.

In 1997, he moved to San Francisco, intending to transfer to the San Francisco Art Institute. But he soon gravitated to Zen Buddhism and, for the next year and a half, took up the semi-monastic practice of a live-in Zen Center student.

Britt-Darby says of this time, “My spiritual vision grew, and I learned how to be present in my body.” He worked through the anger and guilt from his youth, and grew more at peace with himself.

A Really Dramatic Change

In 1999, Britt-Darby read the phrase “aging boy’s body” in Michael Cunningham’s novel Flesh and Blood and immediately joined a YMCA gym. Mainly “hoping to ward off gravity,” he was surprised to see more dramatic changes to his body. He soon realized gay men were responding to his newly muscular physique. It was empowering—social currency that he had never before possessed.

In 2001, the owner of a San Francisco sex club took notice of him and asked if he had ever done sex work. He hadn’t, but now he felt encouraged to try. He placed an ad in the Bay Area Reporter and became a male escort. “The artist-sex worker combo is very common in San Francisco,” he says.

Britt-Darby separated himself from the competition with a popular blog, Devon the Escort’s Diary, which he promoted with simple ads featuring nothing but his shirtless torso, his website URL, and the question, “Who is Devon and why is everyone reading his diary?” Britt-Darby wrote not just about sex, but all parts of his life, including the art he was seeing and making. Unlike Cowboy, the hustler in The Boys in the Band, Britt-Darby could talk intelligently about art.

Because the San Francisco market was extremely saturated, particularly in the wake of the dot-com crash, Britt-Darby often traveled to other cities (especially those where his online diary had a strong following) to expand his clientele. “Houston was definitely not one of those cities,” he says.

Britt-Darby at James Melchert’s Changes at Contemporary Art Museum Houston, June 10, 2010.
Britt-Darby at James Melchert’s Changes at Contemporary Art Museum Houston, June 10, 2010.

Britt-Darby says he developed his critic’s eye on those trips, visiting first-rate museum collections and exhibitions and often blogging about them. The downside was that in order to pay for his travel expenses and still make enough profit to live on, he had to see as many clients as he could—sometimes as many as five in a day.

He started dabbling in crystal meth on those long days. As he began to use more and more, the crashes became harder to endure. What had seemed to help was now undoing him. He was caught in Tina’s powerful web.

A Breakdown of Tragic Dimensions

By 2004, Britt-Darby decided to take up a quieter life as an artist in Providence, Rhode Island. He found a two-bedroom apartment—for the same rent as his San Francisco efficiency—and shipped his largest paintings there. He loaded the remainder in a van and started on the journey eastward.

Although Britt-Darby intended to give up meth once he arrived in Providence, about halfway across the country, “I lost all contact with reality,” he says. “The rest of the trip is pretty much a blur, but I must have barely missed getting arrested—and in some cases cheated death—half a dozen times between New Orleans and Brockton, Massachusetts.”

Brockton, about 35 miles northeast of his new apartment, is where a pair of young carjackers ejected a ranting Britt-Darby from the van—but not before he helped them unload its contents, including all his artwork he hadn’t shipped, into a dumpster.

2011 – Douglas Britt marries Reese Darby, at Tony’s Corner Pocket, November 18, 2011, in a performance art entitled Art Gay Marries a Woman. He wanted to show how a gay man can inherit 1,200+ legal rights in a couple of minutes—by going through the charade of a straight wedding.
2011 – Douglas Britt marries Reese Darby, at Tony’s Corner Pocket, November 18, 2011, in a performance art entitled Art Gay Marries a Woman. He wanted to show how a gay man can inherit 1,200+ legal rights in a couple of minutes—by going through the charade of a straight wedding.

After wandering around all night, Britt-Darby curled up on the back steps of a local Catholic church to sleep. When a caretaker told him to leave, Britt-Darby chased the man into the school on the property and hurled his shoe through a window. The police arrived immediately, handcuffed him, and threw him in the backseat of a cruiser. Still ranting incoherently, he kicked out the car window and was promptly pepper-sprayed in the face.

After that, he managed to calm down and even develop a rapport with the arresting officer, who recommended “professional mental-health help” in the arrest report. After spending three weeks in a forensic psychiatric hospital, he pleaded no contest and was given deferred adjudication and ordered to see a psychiatrist and a counselor during his six-month probation. He returned to Texas and enrolled as a transfer student at the University of Houston, studying communications—“the most practical-sounding major I thought I could stand,” he says.

A Whole New Life—and ‘Stardom’

Britt-Darby thrived at UH, started freelancing for the Houston Chronicle his final semester, and began working as an online editor in the neighborhood news division a few days before his May 2007 graduation. He filled in for longtime Chronicle art critic Patricia Covo Johnson when she went on vacation, and when she accepted a buyout offer from the downsizing paper, Britt-Darby was named her replacement. The art community accepted him as intelligent and hardworking, and his reputation grew—particularly in 2009, when he took on The Art Guys, a conceptual duo and Houston art-scene fixtures since the early 1980s.

What prompted one of his most popular—and controversial—articles was The Art Guys Marry a Plant, a performance in which they staged a mock wedding to a live oak sapling in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Annoyed by what he saw as the married heterosexual artists’ tone-deaf insistence that “this is not a pretend wedding,” Britt-Darby panned The Art Guys Marry a Plant in the Chronicle: “As far as Uncle Sam is concerned, [same-sex couples’] unions have no more legal standing than the Art Guys’ marriage to a tree. Of course, it also inadvertently reinforces a slippery-slope argument that labels gay marriage as a gateway to marrying animals and other non-human partners.”

Britt-Darby models for a class at the Glassell School of Art in 2013.
Britt-Darby models for a class at the Glassell School of Art in 2013.

That fall, Shelby Hodge, society reporter for the Chronicle, quit and moved to the popular online CultureMap. His editors added society reporting duties (which he shared with Lindsey Love) to his already-full plate as a way of securing a staff position for him, because technically he was still a contractor. A quote from Britt-Darby appeared on the full-page article announcing his and Love’s hiring: “There I was, minding my own business as the Chronicle art writer, when my boss said, ‘You’d look good in a tux.’”

Although he chafed at the toll it took on art writing, he did get a few scoops at museum galas, particularly after certain trustees had had a few drinks. While some events were undeniably spectacular, featuring performances by the likes of Hall & Oates and Bon Jovi, Britt-Darby insists, “It’s not glamorous for long. When you see the same people four times a week—and sometimes four times a night—it gets to be old.”

Nevertheless, in 2010 Britt-Darby, who had completed almost no paintings since his abrupt “retirement” from escorting, began secretly revisiting his past through art. Recovering photos from his long-defunct website through an online digital archive, he transferred them to unprimed linen or painted canvas using T-shirt iron-on paper, literally searing his memories into the canvas. “Sometimes I wouldn’t even change out of my tux after getting home from a gala,” he says. “I’d just kick off my shoes, plug in the iron, and get to it.”

In 2011, a few months after hiring the curator who had commissioned The Art Guys’ “wedding,” the world-renowned Menil Collection quietly acquired the tree for its permanent collection, planting it near the Rothko Chapel, a human-rights sanctuary on the Menil campus where many AIDS memorials were held in the early days of the pandemic.

Britt-Darby decided another negative article wasn’t enough this time. “To demonstrate what really marrying for art looks like,” he staged a counter-wedding. His bride was Houston art publicist Theresa “Reese” Darby, who via Twitter accepted his open call for a female to enter into “a short-lived marriage.”

Although the wedding was partly intended as an act of art criticism, the Darbys were also offering social commentary. Sardonically illustrating the “sanctity” of heterosexual marriage, Britt-Darby titled the performance The Art Gay Marries a Woman. Legally binding despite their inclusion of divorce vows, a random go-go dancer for a best man, and Ring-Pops for wedding bands, the ceremony took place at Tony’s Corner Pocket, a gay strip bar, on November 18, 2011.

With a few words and a license, he now had 1,138 legal rights he could not have with a male partner—at least until their divorce, which took place the following spring. (Tiring of a controversy that wouldn’t go away, the Menil deaccessioned the tree in early 2013.)

In addition to a marriage, Britt-Darby also had an unplanned nervous breakdown. Timed to occur the night before the Menil’s dedication ceremony for The Art Guys’ tree, the wedding also came at the height of the social and art seasons, when Britt-Darby was working up to 80 hours a week.

Throughout the week leading up to the wedding, he had also been shadowed by fellow art critic Mary Louise Schumacher, who has been filming him on and off since 2010 for a documentary about the precarious state of the profession. The night before the wedding, Britt-Darby told Schumacher on camera about his past as an escort and his psychotic breakdown, both of which he had hidden from all but a handful of people in Houston.

Tired of the secrecy, he wrote an essay for the Chronicle detailing his past, and announced he wished to be known as Devon Britt-Darby, uniting his escort name with his family name and his wife’s. He requested an unpaid leave of absence for a road trip to Brockton to retrace as much of the 2004 road trip as possible, this time without meth. The paper denied his request, effectively terminating his employment. Britt-Darby posted his confessional on a blog he used as a travelogue for that road trip.

Healing the Past and Staging Exhibits

Britt-Darby traveled back to Brockton and visited all the sites involved in his breakdown, then decided to continue his trip in the opposite direction, to California, planning his stops according to which museums he wanted to visit along the way. Journaling his experience on his blog and seeing great art from coast to coast, the trip proved to be good therapy.

Back in Houston, he became the visual arts editor of the classy and popular Arts+Culture Houston magazine in 2012. He assumed the same title for Arts+Culture Texas, the statewide magazine formed when A+C Houston merged with its North Texas sister publication and added coverage in other cities.

In January 2013, Britt-Darby showed some of the iron-on paintings in a solo exhibition Keepsakes from Several Occasions, at Zoya Tommy Contemporary. Images from his sex-worker past comingled with scenes from the present, as if he were intentionally conflating the two.

Past and present met again that May, when Britt-Darby staged a two-part exhibition titled Art Criticism and Reporting at Art League Houston. The press release made clear that Britt-Darby had moved on from iron-ons: “The first part of the exhibition features a series of text paintings conceived as portraits of the authors whose words are contained therein. Painted against abstract, reflective backgrounds that cause the words to shift in and out of legibility with changes in the light and the viewer’s orientation, the texts are appropriated from Internet forum posts and press articles written about Britt-Darby during two cross-country road trips—one in 2004, another in 2011–2012—that provoked alarm and public speculation about his mental state.”

For part two, Britt-Darby took up residency in the gallery for a month and created a four-part mural-sized text painting that spread across three walls. This time every word came from his Brockton arrest report. “It was an absurd gesture in a way—all that work for a painting people only had one day to see in a complete state, and that is too big to read in its entirety,” Britt-Darby says. “And then the next day I rolled it up and carried it home. But the show touched a nerve for a lot of people. At the closing reception, one person after another came up and told me really personal things about their experiences with meth, or mental illness, or sex work, or getting arrested.”

Having laid out his past so thoroughly in his art, Britt-Darby wasn’t sure about his odds when he heard that the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum was looking for a new director of public affairs. “I may be too colorful for Blaffer,” he emailed director and chief curator Claudia Schmuckli. “But I’d be interested in talking…if you would.” Schmuckli, who had attended Britt-Darby’s wedding, replied succinctly from her iPhone: “No color too bright for us. Let’s talk.”

As he wrote his farewell A+C column, Britt-Darby got out a map and traced all his road trips and last-minute cheap flights since leaving the Chronicle. “By my count, I’ve visited 93 museums in 23 states in a few months shy of three years,” he wrote. “To be honest, it’s kind of made me want to go work at one.” Now he does, on the very same university campus where he began rebuilding his life nearly 10 years ago.

At 44, Britt-Darby is comfortable as a matured gay male with a honed body and a honed mind. He is a career professional with bold ideas and creative media with which to express them. He is an artist capable of deeply touching the souls of others—a man free of secrets in a world full of spin and image control. And the only thing predictable about Devon Britt-Darby is that he is predictably unpredictable.

Brandon Wolf wrote about Pride marshals Christina Gorczynski, JD Doyle, and Sarah Walters and Fernando Aramburo in the June 2014 issue of OutSmart magazine.

 

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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