“I focus on the history of art more than the creative aspects,” says Randy Tibbits as he looks around the walls of his townhouse in the Rice University area. His unique art collection, which is unmatched in the city, is known within Houston art circles as the premier collection of works created solely by Houston artists.
Tibbits’ collection covers nearly every available wall. There are landscapes, portraits, still life, ceramics, and even faux food that was produced to complement museum exhibits. Styles include watercolor, contemporary, cubist, impressionist, and pointillism.
Rick Bebermeyer, Tibbits’ partner of 38 years (whom he married in 2009), says he is also proud of the collection that his husband has pieced together. Tibbits adds with a smile, “I collect. He accommodates.” Although new acquisitions have tapered off due to a lack of space, when a new piece arrives there is considerable reworking of the collection in order to fit it in.
As Tibbits’ reputation spreads, the couple has been receiving more requests to view the collection. The couple also enjoys loaning out their paintings for exhibitions, which they have done numerous times in the last few years—including an exhibition entitled Houston Paints Houston. “We are happy for others to enjoy the art, just as we do,” they say.
As part of Tibbits’ research on the Houston artists in his collection, he uncovered a part of Houston LGBTQ history that had never been recorded. “Gay artists were the young Bohemians of 1930s Houston,” he says. His findings are now a part of the popular pop-up Houston LGBTQ history exhibit known as The Banner Project. The banner is entitled “1930s Art Scene—Left Bank on the Bayou.”
Emily Langham, Kathleen Blackshear, Forrest Bess, Chester Snowden, Gene Charlton, Carden Bailey, Anna Belle Peck, and Mignon Weisinger are among the LGBTQ artists represented in Tibbits’ collection. “It’s an exciting extra connection that grew out of the broader collection,” he says.
Tibbits gathered together his research on Houston LGBTQ artists and presented it during a symposium sponsored by the Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art (CASETA). The amusing presentation, entitled “2015 CASETA Symposium: Randy Tibbits, Guys and Gals Like That,” can be found on YouTube.
Tibbits emphasizes another important reason to research the lives of the early LGBTQ artists who helped establish Houston’s cultural scene. “Claiming our history is a militant and radical effort. People who don’t want to acknowledge homosexuality say there wasn’t any in Houston’s past. If documentation doesn’t exist, it’s hard to prove. But information is there—we just have to find it.”
A Man on the Move
Tibbits was born in 1948 in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where his father was in the Army. But the family soon moved to Lubbock, and Tibbits spent his early years there. He moved to St. Louis to attend Washington University, and earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in history.
But career opportunities were scarce for history majors, and since Tibbits had worked in the college library, he decided to earn another degree in library science. “It’s a very transportable degree,” he says.
Tibbits chose the University of Texas at Austin and earned his library-science degree there in 1980. He then moved back to St. Louis and soon met Bebermeyer, who was teaching dentistry. The two became a couple and lived briefly in Baltimore before settling in Houston in 1983. Tibbits found a library position at Rice University and (except for a short stint in the oil business with Shell) stayed at Rice until he retired in 2003, the same year his partner retired.
Tibbits currently works as an independent art writer, reviewing art exhibitions for the Houston Press. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA and the coordinator of the Houston Earlier Texas Art Group (HETAG).
Clues to a Rich History
Tibbits began his Houston collection after seeing a tag on the back of a piece of art that stated “Early Texas artist.” This was an aspect of art history he had never thought about before, and he was intrigued.
A collector by nature, Tibbits began to research early Texas artists, which he initially defined as any Texas artist from at least 40 years back. The field of Texas art was too broad, though, so he narrowed his focus to Houston.
Tibbits realized he knew nothing about early Houston art because no collector had ever specialized in this area. So in 1999, he began to build such a collection. Tibbits discovered that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) had held juried art exhibits from 1925 to 1961, featuring only artists who lived in Harris County. He located the names of the participants in these exhibits, which gave him a starting point.
Antique shops, eBay, art dealers, and even The Guild Shop served as sources for early Houston artwork. “A lot of works by contemporary Houston artists are available,” Tibbits says. But works before 1960 were difficult to come by.
Tibbits laughs when he says his partner thought that a collection of early Houston artists would probably consist of about 14 paintings. To date, their collection has grown to nearly 500 pieces created by Houston artists from 1880 to 1970, including works by Emma Richardson Cherry, Grace Spaulding John, Ruth Pershing Uhler, Hattie Virginia Palmer, Beulah Schiller Ayars, Frederic Browne, Robert Preusser, Frank Dolejska, Mildred Wood, Dixon Sherwood, and Henri Gadbois. Except for one landscape with bluebonnets, none of the paintings depict the usual Texas scenes of longhorn steers and cowboys.
Tibbits considers Cherry—who was an art student in Paris and lived in the Cherryhurst area of Montrose—to be the first prominent Houston artist. She was involved in the Houston Public School Art League, which morphed into the Houston Art League in 1913 and eventually became known as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Cherry traveled extensively and brought back ideas from Europe that she shared with her students and other artists. “She had a very international vision,” Tibbits says. Two prized pieces of his collection are Cherry’s cubist painting and an impressionist work she created in Giverny as the first female artist to visit that city. She went on to organize an impressionist art exhibit in Houston.
“If you think history is important, then the history of art is important,” Tibbets says. “Part of a city’s culture is its art. Houston’s early art was unique to this city. It demonstrates what artists in Houston did to show their vision of the world, or their vision of what they felt was important.”
This article appears in the May 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.