Houston’s natural beauty transformed into walking art exhibit

Winford Hunter

Houston may seem like an urban art paradise, but just 40 minutes northeast, at the edge of the Sam Houston National Forest, is a massive 177-acre compound and gallery space founded by two of the city’s most influential artists of the past 50 years.

That compound, known as the Locke-Surls Center for Art and Nature, just outside of Splendora, Texas, will host a massive, multidisciplinary outdoor sculpture exhibition co-organized by DiverseWorks, opening April 22 and 23 in honor of Earth Day.

Called A Gift From the Bower, the show will feature 14 newly commissioned works of art, each situated in small, natural clearings in the forest along a half-mile trail. The sculptors, who include Patrick Renner, Alton DuLaney, Leticia Bajuyo, Susan Budge and others, have worked with writers, musicians, and sound engineers to create multisensory installations that interact with the natural world around them. In addition to Earth Day, the show will be a celebration of both DiverseWorks’ 40th anniversary, and artist James Surls’ 80th birthday.

James Surls and Oak Stump, a work in progress.

James Surls and Oak Stump, a work in progress.

James Surls

Surls was born April 19, 1943, in Terrell, Texas, east of Dallas. His father was a carpenter, and Surls, who has referred to himself as a “being of the woods,” began making sculptures at an early age out of trees cleared from his parents’ land. He attended Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan before returning to Texas to teach.

In the late 1970s, while working at the University of Houston, Surls founded the Lawndale Alternative Arts Space (now Lawndale Art Center), originally conceived as a collaborative gallery space for graduate students in the UH Department of Art.

“It was a small but very vibrant art scene,” says Xandra Eden, executive director of Diverse Works. Eden is co-curating the show along with Jack Massing, one-half of the artist collective better known as The Art Guys. “He really helped to rally artists to collectively work together,” she says.

Surls was very focused on community-building in the Houston art world during the 1970s and ’80s, according to Eden. For example, he introduced Massing to his longtime co-collaborator Michael Galbreth (who died in 2019), and Lawndale became a place where many other Houston art movements, including the Art Car Parade, were born.

Around the same time Lawndale was founded, Surls and his wife, artist Charmaine Locke, moved to a rural and rustic cabin outside of Splendora. Surls built a massive studio there, and slowly, the couple began to accumulate more land. In 1984, they launched Splendora Gardens, meant to be a place, like Lawndale, that could serve as an artist’s collective.

“It was a big scene,” Eden says. “There were a lot of different events there over the years.”

Splendora Gardens is now known as the Locke-Surls Center for Art and Nature (or LSCAN), and has grown to 177 acres, which includes a visitors center and print shop, as well as artist studios. But much of the land “is wild for the most part,” Eden says. Surls and Locke have relocated to Colorado. Their daughter, Ruby Surls, and her husband, artist Carlos Canul, now live and work on the premises.

A work in progress by sculptor Patrick Renner

A work in progress by sculptor Patrick Renner

Patrick Renner

The show, Gift From the Bower, is about inviting people to reconnect with nature, but it’s also about honoring the collaborative legacy that Surls and Locke helped foster. Locke, Surls, Massing and Canul will all have works in the exhibit. DuLaney, a Splendora-born artist who is also curator of public art for Houston’s airports, Kaneem Smith, and Renner all represent a younger generation of artists.

“Many of the artists in the show were definitely a part of (the Splendora Gardens/Lawndale) scene,” Eden says. “But the show kind of bridges all those different generations and the communities they’re involved with.”

DiverseWorks, which celebrated its 40th anniversary on April 13 in a joint birthday party with Surls, is known for showcasing multidisciplinary works in unusual spaces. Adding an audio element to the installations extends that tradition. Audio collaborators include poet Toussaint St. Negritude, saxophonist Dickie Landry, Filipinx Artists of Houston, and more. Of the 14 works in Bower, 13 will be along a trail that winds through the forest. The 14th will be in Surls’ former studio—a 20-channel soundscape of birds that is meant to evoke and blend in with natural sounds from the woods.

The show runs through October 29, but for opening weekend, DiverseWorks has several special events planned. Throughout the day Saturday and Sunday there will be live performances in each bower of the audio collaborations. Food will be available on site, with lunch for $8 provided by Little Kitchen HTX, and a live-fire dinner ($17) by acclaimed chef Jonny Rhodes, whose Food Fight Farms is right down the road in Splendora.

A “Bower Bus” will be taking visitors from DiverseWorks’ headquarters to LSCAN each afternoon, in an effort to encourage people to carpool for Earth Day. The bus departs MATCH at 2 p.m. and returns to Houston at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and registration is required. (There is also offsite parking near LSCAN).

The show, which Eden says has been a huge undertaking for DiverseWorks and LSCAN, has been largely funded by private, individual donations. In a way, that also honors Surls’ collaborative ethos.

“Everybody knows you can’t do something like this without trusting and depending on each other,” she says. “People wanted to support the project and they wanted to support James on his 80th birthday. It’s part of his legacy.”

Gift from the Bower runs through October 29 at the Locke-Surls Center for Art and Nature, 26041 Midline Rd, Cleveland, TX. Opening weekend festivities take place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 22 and 23.

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