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Project Row Houses Commemorates 30 Years: Exhibit Pays Tribute to Gay Co-Founder James Bettison

James Bettison (1957–1997) pictured circa 1984 in his studio at DiverseWorks’ Artist in Residency Program.

In 1992, when artist and activist Rick Lowe toured Houston’s historic but blighted Third Ward neighborhood with a group of City officials, no one could have foreseen the transformative change that his visit would unleash.

In 1993, Lowe joined forces with six other visionary African American artists to start the process of revitalizing two blocks at the corner of Live Oak and Holman, using art as a catalyst to create change. Armed with seed money from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the seven artists and an army of community volunteers set about rehabilitating 22 dilapidated shotgun houses in a neighborhood that had historically been home to Houston’s African American community, but one in which crime was rising.

The artists were inspired by the ideas of Dr. John Biggers, an esteemed Black artist and founder of the Texas Southern University art department, and the philosophies of Joseph Beuys, a German artist and theorist who advanced the idea of “social sculpture” that could reshape society. The seven founders conceived a plan to establish a haven for Black artists to connect and create opportunities. More significantly, the collective invited the entire Third Ward community to join with them as co-creators.

An American Cultural Treasure

Project Row Houses renovated 22 shotgun houses in Houston’s historic Third Ward to serve as artist studios and exhibition spaces. Pictured here is Jasmine Zelaya’s Art House from the fall of 2020. (Courtesy of Project Row Houses)

As Project Row Houses grew and evolved, it created other programs that strengthened the community, including the Young Mothers Residential Program in 1995, which allows young single mothers to live in the shotgun houses to stabilize their lives; a CDC low-income housing initiative; incubator programs for small businesses; and free art classes for area children.

Over the last three decades, Project Row Houses has emerged as a national model for the ways in which art can be utilized to catalyze change in economically struggling communities. In 2020, the Ford Foundation recognized Project Row Houses as one of America’s Cultural Treasures and awarded it a $3.5 million grant. That same year, the New York Times selected Project Row Houses as one of the 25 most influential works of American protest art since 1945.

Today, Project Row Houses encompasses five city blocks and 39 structures that serve as a home base for a variety of community-enriching initiatives, art programs, and neighborhood-development activities. In 2023, Project Row Houses oversaw the triumphant rehabilitation and reopening of the Eldorado Ballroom, a hub of Black entertainment and cultural life located at 2310 Elgin Street that thrived from the 1940s to the 1970s before falling into disrepair.

Honoring “The Magnificent Seven”

To honor its 30th-anniversary milestone, Project Row Houses is sponsoring The Founders Round, a series of exhibitions in the row houses showcasing the work of “The Magnificent Seven” founders—African American artists who had the boldness to imagine a new vision for the Third Ward in the 1990s: James Bettison (1957–1997), Bert Long Jr. (1940–2013), Jesse Lott (1943–2023), Rick Lowe, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, and George Smith.

The exhibition James Bettison: More Stories to Tell, co-curated by Kathleen Coleman and Danielle Burns Wilson, provides a prime opportunity to reappraise the legacy of Bettison, an openly gay Black man living with HIV. During the 1980s, he was one of Houston’s most vibrant and active artists, showing works and performing in galleries and art spaces across the Bayou City. Bettison’s astonishing resilience and perseverance in the face of extraordinary medical crises serve as a model for both Project Row Houses and today’s contemporary artists. 

Bettison’s Childhood Inspirations

Born in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 1957, Bettison studied art at Michigan State University for a semester before moving to New York City for six tough months.  From 1978 to 1981, he lived in Chicago. In 1981, he and his close friend Michael McDonald relocated to Houston for the economic opportunity that the city’s booming economy offered. For a year, Bettison pursued a retail career at Lord & Taylor before deciding to focus on his passion for art. In 1984, he received a DiverseWorks Artist In Residency fellowship, working at JC Penney part-time to help pay the bills.

“He was always a great artist,” says Michael Peranteau, then co-director of DiverseWorks. “I met him when he first moved here, and we sat down together then to look at his work. His early work was funny and whimsical, but over the years that I knew him, his work became much more sophisticated and monumental.

“James had an incredible sense of humor; he was subtle but incredibly funny,” notes Parenteau. “He was also incredibly honest in his humor. He hated all the pretense in the art world. We all loved James. He was easy to love.”

Bettison made fast friends with another young artist in the DiverseWorks program, Beth Secor.

“He painted on washcloths, towels, and sheets he got from the store. Maybe they were damaged or seconds, or he had just taken them,” she recalls. “He sat on the floor to paint. I liked him from the start because he was so full of energy and funny, and he never complained when I played Superfly over and over and over again while I was working.

“He loved watching cartoons as a kid, which one could easily see reflected in his work. At DiverseWorks, he was painting kind of cartoony frogs on the washcloths and sheets, with squiggly lines around them, leaving part of the material unpainted. But over time they grew more complex, more fantastical and full of color. I think he painted with house paint. There was a kind of outer-space, fun-house quality to his work, especially the larger, more realized paintings he did over time.”

“The Next Basquiat”

“If someone would ever write…(my life story)” is one of several works by James Bettison on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Gift of Victoria and Marshal Lightman. (Estate of James Bettison)

What struck his friend Michael McDonald most about Bettison was his singular focus and drive. “He was drawing all the time,” McDonald observed. “He always knew that he was going to live a short life, somehow. I don’t know how he knew that, but it seems like he was always running against the clock—and more focused than most people.”   

His discipline paid off in 1985 when he was featured in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s landmark exhibition Fresh Paint: The Houston School. It later traveled to the Museum of Modern Art’s PS 1 community art center in New York.

At this point, Bettison’s career gained serious momentum just as Houston was earning a national reputation as a flourishing center for contemporary art. He won an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. When the Isabel Neal Gallery in Chicago presented an exhibition of his works, they considered him the next Jean-Michel Basquiat, the legendary artist who caused a sensation in the 1980s. Several of Bettison’s pieces were taken into the MFAH’s permanent collection.

Super-Hilarious Drag

Bettison’s artistic practice ranged from figuration to abstraction, shot through with vibrant color. He worked as a performer and also created sculpture. He described his style as folk art.   

He also incorporated discarded objects into his work, many found by accident in his neighborhood near downtown Houston. “I’ve become a scavenger,” he said.

Of his artistic practice, he observed, “The work is created out of a need. I’m recording my impressions of the world in which I live, and that’s really what my work is about. I’m part of this world.”

“He also was a performance artist and performed all over town,” remembers Michael Peranteau of DiverseWorks. “He also did drag at times—super-hilarious drag.”

In the mid-1980s, Bettison began working on his Black Man series, examining the visages of Black men. The anniversary exhibition at Project Row Houses features two outstanding examples from this series.

During this time of burgeoning success, Bettison also experienced racism and homophobia.

“At the time, a gay man was not accepted at many collectors’ scenes at private dinners,” observed his friend Kathleen Coleman, who also co-curated the PRH exhibition. “James and I would attend together. James knew I received him as a gay man, so we would laugh and call it part of the game.”

Coleman remembers that she and Bettison took solace and comfort in their shared
passion for rock-and-roll concerts by David Bowie, Tina Turner, and Carlos Santana.

A Miraculous Coma Recovery

In the last decade of his life, Bettison endured a series of calamitous personal tragedies.
First, his home and studio caught fire, destroying a large portion of his work. Then he was bitten by a spider and received a cortisone shot, but did not inform medical personnel that he was HIV-positive. Soon after, he contracted spinal meningitis and fell into a coma, from which many doctors thought he would not recover. He eventually regained consciousness and, almost miraculously, relearned to paint and draw. During this period, he came together with six fellow artists to create Project Row Houses.

He spent a long period in a nursing home, with his care arranged by DiverseWorks and Lawndale Art and Performance Center. “James was okay for a number of years. But by the time he was able to get the lifesaving HIV drugs that came out in the mid-1990s, I think it was too late,” observes Peranteau.

The desire to create animated him until the end of his life. “When he was in hospice care at his most incapacitated, he still made collages,” his friend, fellow artist Beth Secor, recalls. “I remember he had a stack of Ebony magazines and TV Guides in his hospice room that he was cutting stuff out of to make them with. As far back as I can remember, the collages were more somber and full of sadness than the paintings were, even before the fire in his home, even before he was bitten by the spider, even before his diagnosis with AIDS.”

Bettison died on May 11, 1997, of complications from AIDS.

An Enduring Legacy

A quarter-century after his death, Bettison’s legacy is still felt in Houston’s Third Ward and in Houston’s visual-arts community. His work is displayed both at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and at Project Row Houses.

Veteran Houston artist Bert Samples, also a co-founder of Project Row Houses, believes that Bettison’s medical crises exposed just how precarious the situation of some independent artists was in the 1990s—especially for those who did not have access to employer-sponsored health insurance.

“James really galvanized the art community to come together,” Samples recalls. “They saw that a lot of us can be afflicted by situations, and we have no protection, no medical coverage. At that time, there was not much support for local artists to receive aid, unless they received a minor grant here and there.

“For me, he became the galvanizing force to pull artists out of their studios to have discussions, and a lot of things started happening at that time. James was one of the major people who made that happen. Everyone knew him because he was always so visibly active in the art community.”

To honor his legacy, Project Row Houses sponsors an annual James Bettison Performance Art Residency. It serves as a platform for urban artists to explore their creativity and challenge existing norms by pushing boundaries and experimenting with bold, contemporary performance art. According to Project Row Houses, the residency celebrates “Bettison’s unwavering commitment to perseverance, both in his artwork and in his life.”

But perhaps most importantly, Bettison’s legacy lives on in the way that Project Row Houses continues to enrich Houston’s historic Third Ward and empower the Bayou City’s African American community.

What: James Bettison: More Stories to Tell
When: Through February 18
Where: Project Row Houses, 2507 Holman St.

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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