Wandering through Waco

Normally when my husband and I visit his family in Texas, we stick to Houston and Austin (where they live). This past Christmas, however, we had some more time to visit close friends in another, smaller city of roughly 130 000: Waco.

I didn’t know much about Waco but when I told other people I would be going there, they were quick to jump on David Koresh’s cult that left 80 people dead in 1993. Apparently the rural complex at the Mount Carmel Centre just outside Waco attracts many tourists to this day. We did not go there.

Instead, we went to a site in downtown Waco that is emblematic of how the economy of the city has changed in the last few years, giving it a better reputation and thousands of tourists each year: Magnolia Market at the Silos. This food truck park + garden + bakery + antique stores + seed supply store sprawls across two and a half acres under two grain silos. The market is the result of the success of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s hit HGTV show Fixer Upper.

Unlike most of the world, it seems, I had never heard of this couple, nor their famous show. I toured their big warehouse full of farmhouse chic furniture and home goods, but I honestly didn’t find it much different than similar home stores in Vancouver. But I was told Joanna Gaines was the one who made that barnyard look famous (shiplap, anyone?), so what do I know?

Speaking of fixing up homes, we stayed in one (not by Chip and Joanna), but by East Waco entrepreneur and community activist Nancy Grayson, who also runs the Lula Jane‘s bakery just down the road on Elm Avenue. You can read more about her and the bakery in this article. The Airbnb, called “The Peach House” was fabulous. I loved all the details of this fully restored house, including the door knobs, the sun room, the original wood floors. And what’s a better welcome than freshly baked goodies waiting for you?

I learned this style of a house is called a “shotgun” house. Why, you ask? Here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say:

Shotgun houses may have derived their name from that room format, as it was sometimes said that a bullet shot from the front door would pass through the house without hitting anything and exit through the back door.

These houses originated in the Southern United States and were the most popular style from the American Civil War to the 1920s.

The house is within walking distance to Waco Suspension Bridge that opened in 1870 and was the first bridge to cross the Brazos River. A steel cable suspension bridge, it became the prototype for other suspension bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge (I included a photo of that below to compare the two). Originally it was open to traffic (beginning with cattle, then stagecoaches, etc.) but now it’s only a foot bridge.

Just a little ways down Brazos River is another beautiful bridge: The Washington Avenue Bridge built in 1902.

As you may know, I have a thing for bridges so it was delightful to come across these two in Waco (we were only there for a day though, and catching up with friends was more important than seeing ALL THE SIGHTS). For instance, we didn’t go to the Dr. Pepper Museum. The drink was invented in Waco, but seeing as I don’t like that drink anyway, I don’t think I missed much.

I’ll leave you with a few other notable downtown buildings: McLennan County Courthouse and the ALICO building, a 22-story office building, the tallest building in Waco and the second oldest skyscraper in Texas. Like the Waco Suspension Bridge, these two buildings are also on the National Register of Historic Places.

All postcards found on Wikipedia, sourced from the University of Houston Digital Library.

Missing the Point

The day after Christmas, I sat in a dark room staring at 14 large canvases painted in deep purples and blacks, hung in an octagonal building known as the Rothko Chapel.

I grew aware of this chapel because of a poem by Jesse Bertron in Ruminate magazine titled “Outside the Rothko Chapel, Where Big John’s Eyes Appeared upon the Canvas on the Eastern Wall.” It was one of the best poems I read this year. The speaker talks about taking a group of young students to visit this interfaith sanctuary in Houston, Texas, which also serves as a public art installation and centre for human rights. He notes the kids’ boredom and reflects on the differences between a museum and a church, between watching and being watched. I had a long discussion with friends about whether the poem is cynical or hopeful, and I lean toward the latter. It ends with these lines:

I know now what they know, to know you’re being watched
will never satisfy.
 
Once you know somebody’s watching, how you long
for them to speak to you.

This poem was hovering in my mind as I sat on one of the austere wooden benches looking at the art, opposite other people doing the same thing.

The 14 paintings depart from Rothko’s earlier canvases featuring horizontal planes of colours with soft, blurry edges, such as this one I saw at the Seattle Art Museum.

Mark Rothko, #10, oil on canvas, 1952.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is considered an Abstract Expressionist painter whose objective, like other colour-field painters, was to show the human connection to the sublime, the primordial, the cosmic using large, meditative planes of colour. Yet Rothko rejected this label, as you’ll read below.

Talk about pressure to break down and cry! To not miss the point! On going to the Rothko Chapel, I wanted a spiritual revelation like many others have had viewing his work. These are the thoughts that flitted through my head instead:

This is much heavier than I expected. Thank God for the skylight. Wish I had come on a sunnier day.

Where do I look? There are so many canvases, which one do I choose?

How long are the attendants’ shifts? They must be super spiritual from being in this space for so long. I wish I could ask them what they see but is talking even allowed?

The kids in Bertron’s poem stayed for half an hour. I don’t think I can last that long and I’m an adult who works at a contemporary art gallery. What’s wrong with me?!

Should I sit on the bench looking towards the centre to see the whole room, or should I sit facing the outside and focus on one painting?

Is that the outline of eyes in the upper right corner of the canvas? Yes, I think I can see something there. Wait a minute, do I really see something or am I just pretending to see something?

Rothko Chapel, image from their website.

Apart from showing how expectations did not match reality, I write down these thoughts in hopes of breaking down the elitist mystique that often comes with viewing modern art. It’s easy to look at others in an art gallery and assume they “get” the work because they look really serious and are nodding intently, as if revelations are cascading over them like a baptism.

I thought that about other people in the Rothko Chapel, and maybe they thought that about me. The truth is, I found the experience quite self-conscious, concerned with having the right etiquette and seeing the right thing that’s supposed to appear to help me decode the paintings.

And I had to keep correcting myself: Maybe there’s not something to decode. Maybe this is my brain wanting to rationalize everything, to understand and move on, and maybe Rothko was trying to get people like me to sit in the discomfort of the dark and just be. And I was missing the point terribly but then I would just strive harder to get the point, which seemed counter-intuitive and so my thoughts kept spinning round and round until I felt dizzy.

I expected instant gratification, but like any spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, worship, etc), I get the sense the Rothko Chapel requires repeat visits. I talked to one local afterwards who said she keeps going back because the light is always different and can really make the canvases come alive.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of revelation Rothko had when painting these works in his New York studio. He never got to see them installed as he committed suicide after finishing them. They were his swan song.

Even with all my self-consciousness, there were some references that came to mind when viewing Rothko’s works as it’s natural to interpret things, to find meaning.

The two sets of triptychs, where the outside panels are hung at a different height from the centre panel, immediately reminded me of church altarpieces. The one at the front of the room, however, has three panels evenly hung, with the centre panel a lighter shade than the others. If there is a main work of the chapel, this felt like it. Knowing that Rothko was influenced by Christ’s Passion (and some interpret his 14 paintings as the Stations of the Cross), I pictured these panels as the crucifixion scene: Jesus in the centre, flanked by the two thieves.

Rothko Chapel, image from their website.

Opposite this work is a single canvas that also stands out because it has an obvious colour variation. The bottom quarter is painted darker with a frame running around the edge and proportions that evoke the painting of Christ’s death and entombment by Masaccio that I saw in Florence last year.

Back wall of Rothko Chapel (see painting between the two doors). Photo by Hickey-Robertson, courtesy of Rothko Chapel.
Masaccio, The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John, and Two Donors, fresco in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, ca. 1425.

Maybe these interpretations are all missing Rothko’s point but for someone who strives to do things right and meet other’s expectations, perhaps missing Rothko’s point is just as necessary to experience the work genuinely. That and going when the light is shining.

Drawn in by Degas

My favourite outing the few times I’m in Houston is visiting their Museum of Fine Arts. I happened to be there recently when Degas: A New Vision was on display and got to see this retrospective exhibit of this famous French Impressionist’s work—the largest in the US in nearly 30 years!

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The exhibit begins with an insightful chronology of Edgar Degas’s life. I cherished this quote from his family because it shows such familial concern yet tenderness for their hardworking artist—something that all families of artists have felt at one time or another. I wish I could have told them from where I stand in history that it’ll be alright.

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Degas painted everybody everywhere—from prostitutes sitting in cafés to bourgeois women at concerts; from male patrons loitering backstage at ballets to businessmen making deals on the streets; from the ordinary event of women washing their hair to the spectacle of Parisian society watching a horse race. All these types of paintings were on display at MFAH but I’ll show you a few of my favourites that were particularly exciting to see in person.

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Edgar Degas, Rehearsal Hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier (1872).

I appreciate that Degas didn’t just paint final performances. He showed the work of preparing for a show—the stretches, repetition, boredom, sweat, and fatigue. He did countless drawings of ballerinas’ movements before he painted them (many of which were also on exhibit), and I like how the description on one of the panels said Degas became such a master of technique that he could tell when a ballerina had done a move incorrectly.

It’s also fascinating to see how he edited his preliminary drawings when he added them to his paintings. Notice in At the Louvre (1879) how the two women change position and the umbrella changes hands. Interesting fact: the woman leaning on her umbrella was fellow Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

This ballet rehearsal was probably my favourite to see transformed from a textbook page to the colours and brush strokes on the gallery wall:

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Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1874).

The composition is so striking. Degas crams all the figures into the upper left and bottom right corners, leaving your eye to wander up the middle where the central ballerina leans forward on one leg. Her outstretched arm connects the gap between her and famous Parisian dance master Jules Perrot. Degas literally renders a slice of contemporary life here through the truncated legs on and around the staircase and the two cropped groups of ballet students—one set working, the other waiting.

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Edgar Degas, Theatre Box (1880).

Degas has the reputation of being an acute observer of contemporary life. You can see that in the painting above where he isolates a female theatre-goer in an ornate box. The artificial light of the stage reflects back on her face, making her look ghostly. Going to the theatre is a social event (especially for this time period in Paris), so why is she alone? Degas captures the alienation typical of modernity. I think this painting is another way of showing that feeling of being alone on a crowded street.

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Edgar Degas, In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875-76).

The last work I’ll mention is In A Café (The Absinthe Drinker). Talk about alienation! This painting so moved me when I first studied it in undergrad that years later I wrote a short story about a blind date inspired by it. I like how Robert L. Herbert describes what’s going on in Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society:

Shoulders slumped, eyes cast down, feet splayed out, her costume frowzy, she is the café habituée rooted to her seat, without aspirations. She will derive little comfort from the man next to her, the kind of elbow-leaner who will remain there for hours, eventually shuffling off to an uncertain destination. This is one of Degas’s most devastating images of public life.

There are many devastating things about this painting—how the floating tables trap the man and woman behind their drinks; how the two figures sit beside each other without engaging; how Degas seats us at the table diagonal to these forlorn figures, watching all this as if we too are supposed to be as detached as the painter but we cannot help but be drawn in.

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Small Town Texas, Big Taste

On our Christmas trip to Texas I told my husband (the Artist) that I wanted to see more of Texas.

So we went to Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas with a fun name to say (the “g” is silent). We toured the outside of Stephen F. Austin State University, his alma mater.

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I thought these circular dorm buildings were particularly interesting. I was reminded of the round room we had in the turret of the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

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We walked through the arboretum along the creek where we took in some swinging benches, lovely bridges, and alarming student public art.

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The trail opened out onto a grove of pecan trees, aptly named Pecan Park.

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The downtown was small but charming with its cobblestone streets and red brick buildings. The 28 degree Celsius weather certainly didn’t make it feel like Christmas, but it was fun to see the decorations regardless.

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They sure know how to do their window displays.

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But what I’ll remember most about Nacogdoches are these Texas-sized onion rings my husband accidentally ordered, wanting to make sure the four of us had enough. After living in Canada for so long, he forgets what “Texas-sized” actually means. Oh we had enough alright. The pile was so high a table of eight looked at us incredulously when the waitress placed it in front of us.

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The other small town we visited was Lockhart. It has a beautiful courthouse but we went for their barbecue at Smitty’s Market.

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This unassuming place (behind the motorcycle) was named one of the Top Barbecue Restaurants in Texas, and my taste buds would agree. The smell that hits you when you walk into the barbecue pit is enough to get you salivating, and you’ll be salivating for a while as the line-up is long (for good reason, though it goes pretty quickly).

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You watch the apron-clad employees take the meat from the smoker and cut it on a table right in front of you, the walls black with decades of built-up grease (it opened in 1948). My father-in-law warned me not to lean up against the walls because you’d be taking some of that grease home with you.

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De-li-cious. We devoured brisket, ribs, and pork chops on the tailgate of his truck. A stranger walking by took in the sight of the three of us and said, “Ain’t that the life?”

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In that moment I felt like this bumper sticker I got in my stocking was not far off the mark.

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Armpits, Armadillos, and Art

Last week I shared my Austin experience. This week you get to hear my Houston experience. I spent less time there so I don’t know it as well—I never even went downtown. My boyfriend who grew up in Houston describes it as “the armpit of Texas.” I  could see what he meant and I guess other people feel the same.

Houston signIt’s not that there aren’t nice parts, because there are (I’ll show you some below), but the majority of it is highways and yellowy-beige strip malls that sit half empty. It’s quite depressing how much vacant retail space there is. It’s like the developers built them without knowing if there was a demand, or they’re only occupied for a short season before the business shuts down. I’m looking through my photos and I don’t even have a single strip mall or highway to show you, which I guess demonstrates how uninspired I was by the suburban landscape.

But I did get out of my camera for a lot of other things, such as this weird beer can house that could belong in Austin.

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A house made entirely of beer cans

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Transco Tower (now called the Williams Tower) is the most distinguishable skyscraper on Houston’s skyline, and it’s not even downtown. It’s located in the Uptown District. This office tower with a beacon on top was built by New York-based John Burgee Architects with Philip Johnson—the famous architect who designed the Glass House. You can see that glassy influence on this postmodern tower which is the 4th tallest in Texas.

Transco TowerOpposite Transco Tower is the Waterwall that I alluded to in my last post. I stood under its Roman arches and heard the thunder of 11,000 gallons of water spilling over the edge. Its height is also significant as 64 feet references the 64 stories of the Transco Tower.

WaterwallWaterWall PlaqueStanding by WaterwallThe other highlights of Houston, also in the Uptown District, were their fabulous museums. We first checked out the Museum of Natural Science which required much more than the 2.5 hours we gave it. Still, we managed to see the Lester & Sue Smith Gem Vault, the Hall of Ancient Egypt, and the Morian Hall of Paleontology (rather rapidly).

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A sample of one of the cool configurations of fossils in the paleontology hall

The Morian Hall of Paleontology

dinosaurs, dinosaurs everywhere!

Did you know the nine-banded armadillo is the state mammal of Texas?

Did you know the nine-banded armadillo is the state mammal of Texas?

On the way out I snapped some pics of beautiful Hermann Park across the street with a large spider sculpture in the middle of the reflecting pool, reminiscent of Ottawa’s spider in front of the National Gallery of Canada.

Reflecting PoolThis area of town is called the Museum District for a reason, so we visited The Museum of Fine Arts until we called it a day. I was really impressed at the size and quality of their collections, and especially how many Impressionist paintings they had (my favourite kind!)

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Orange Trees by Gustave Caillebotte, 1878.

The Orange Trees by Gustave Caillebotte, 1878.

Water Lilies (Nymphéas) by Claude Monet, 1907.

Water Lilies (Nymphéas) by Claude Monet, 1907.

The Rocks by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

The Rocks by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

We only had time to do the European and American collections, but we did walk through this bamboo-style installation made of 24,000 plastic tubes that hang 28 feet from the ceiling to the floor. Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto has made 25-30 of these works he calls “Penetrables” that “epitomize his investigations into space and movement. For Soto, space was a perceptual field that had to be experienced, not just with the eyes but with the entire body and senses.” (quoted from the plaque) Soto was a pioneer of the Kinetic Art Movement. I’m a fan. I love interactive art, especially ones you can get lost in!

Soto: the Houston Penetrable by Jesus Rafael Soto. It was exclusively created for this hall at the MFA in Houston, a space designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Soto: the Houston Penetrable by Jesus Rafael Soto. It was exclusively created for this exhibition hall designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

So there you have it, a snapshot of my Austin & Houston experiences. Contrary to what everyone had been telling me and how it normally is, Houston actually had “cooler” temperatures than Austin. God knows I needed it! There was a massive thunderstorm while we were touring the MFA and it was impressive to hear rain pounding so loudly on the roof. I thought a machine had gone haywire in the building. Vancouver gets a lot of rain, but not like that! I was telling an older gentleman in Austin about the Houston storm when we returned to Austin to finish the trip, and his response was, “Well, what can I say? We Texans like to put on a show for y’all!”

Keep Austin Weird

I apologize for being MIA on here this past week. I was in Texas where I stared at the domed ceiling of the State Capitol Building in Austin; stood underneath the Gerald D. Hines Water Wall in Houston; smelled the seaweed-infested beaches of Galveston; posed in front of Texas’ oldest dance hall in Gruene; and dropped my mouth at the size of their college football stadiums, fast food drinks, and Buc-ee’s gas stations that look more like a Walmart.

Renaissance Revival architecture of the Texas State Capitol in Austin

Renaissance Revival architecture of the Texas State Capitol in Austin

Looking up from the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol

Domed ceiling of the Texas State Capitol

Texas Memorial Stadium at University of Texas in Austin.

Texas Memorial Stadium at University of Texas in Austin

Before this trip, the furthest south I had been was Oregon. Texas is only a two-hour time difference from Vancouver, but it felt like a completely different (albeit fascinating) world. Many of the stereotypes are true: American flags on houses, stores, and car dealerships, spaghetti-style highway systems (made me appreciate Vancouver’s highway-lessness even more), and big portions of everything, especially food—so much so that there’s even a “Texas size” option on many restaurant menus.

Have you ever seen onion rings this big?

Luckily there were 4 of us sharing these beastly yet delicious onion rings.

I got used to seeing these colours everywhere

I got used to seeing these colours everywhere

But I was also pleasantly surprised at many things—particularly in Austin. Like how green and pretty it is after stopping over in Phoenix, Arizona, and how snazzy their skyscrapers are, like this Frost Bank Tower with its owl-like face:

Frost Bank Tower. 33 floors & 3rd tallest building in Austin. People say its owl face helps keep Austin weird.

Frost Bank Tower. 33 floors and 3rd tallest building in Austin. People say its owl face helps keep Austin weird. One critic said it resembles an enormous set of nose hair trimmers. What do you think?

I loved strolling along Town Lake, experiencing TexMex food, and taking in the plethora of live music acts along Sixth Street competing for your ears and your wallets. Austin is the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world” and in staying there for a few days, it’s easy to see it’s a hip, artistic, friendly, and vibrant city. Being introduced to Texas through Austin was probably the best and least shocking way of meeting this strange state—although the 33 degree Celsius heat was shocking enough to almost send me running back into the airport. Thank goodness for AC in every single building.

Lady Bird Lake in Austin (but what everyone still calls Town Lake)

Lady Bird Lake in Austin (but everyone still calls it Town Lake) with a view of downtown skyscrapers. Pretty, eh?

6th Street - home of live music, pubs, and tattoo parlours

Sixth Street – home of live music, pubs, and tattoo parlours. Locals call it “Dirty Sixth”

I was also surprised to learn that Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan was the original city to birth this phrase intended to promote small businesses. This happened in 2000, and Portland followed in 2003. In honour of that slogan that you can find on banners, billboards, bumper stickers, and T-shirts, here are my favourite “weird” Austin photos, most of them from South Congress Street (or “SoCo”) which I would compare with Vancouver’s Main Street, although I think SoCo is even more eclectic.

Keep Austin Weird sign on South Congress Street

Keep Austin Weird sign on South Congress Street

public art near Town Lake

public art near Town Lake

a favourite local Austin business

a favourite local Austin business

Austin Motel

A classic Austin lodging that sums up the city’s ethos pretty well

A costume store that has everything you could possibly imagine and things you don't want to.

A costume store that has everything you could possibly imagine and things you don’t want to

Allen's BootsAlligator skin boots

Called the "grandaddy of all local music venues," where Stevie Ray Vaughan and other famous musicians played.

Called the “grandaddy of all local music venues,” where Stevie Ray Vaughan and other famous musicians played. Opened in 1957.

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue by Town Lake

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue by Town Lake

Yard Dog art gallery featuring American folk art on South Congress Street

Yard Dog art gallery featuring American folk art. Allen’s Boots just up the street where I even tried on a few pairs. Not the alligator skin ones shown above though.

South Congress Street

View looking downtown from South Congress Street. Can you spot the State Capitol Building straight ahead in the distance?

Austin has a lot of food trucks. Here's a crepe place in a space shuttle

Austin has a lot of food trucks. Here’s a crepe place in a space shuttle next to an art market.

I’ll write about Houston and the other places I visited some other time, but to finish off this post, I’ll leave you with my favourite weird Austin photo. There are hardly words.

Just in case you're unsure about finding your car...

Just in case you weren’t sure which car was yours…