The champion

Groundbreaking, surprise Houstonian lands major honor: The Texas Artist of the Year is . . .

Groundbreaking, surprise Houstonian lands major honor: The Texas Artist of the Year is . . .

Artist of the Year 2013, Rachel Hecker, Jesus paintings in progress
Hecker's Jesus paintings in progress: Viggo Mortensen, left, and David Gilmour Rachel Hecker Blog Spot
Rachel Hecker, head shot, with camera
Rachel Hecker, pictured, has received the Art League's Texas Artist of the Year Award. Photo courtesy of the artist
Rachel Hecker, Jesus # 2, David Gilmour
Rachel Hecker, Jesus # 2, David Gilmour Photo courtesy of the artist
Rachel Hecker, arrangement_4-1
Pieces from Hecker's 2009 show at Texas Gallery titled My World Is Really Small and You Are in It Photo courtesy of the artist
Artist of the Year 2013, Rachel Hecker, note board, calendar
Rachel Hecker, GT Calendar Selection, 2010, acrylic on canvas Rachel Hecker Blog Spot
Artist of the Year 2013, Rachel Hecker, Anamorphic Skull, detail
Rachel Hecker, Anamorphic Skull, (detail, view from left), 2010, from Paintings That Do Something Rachel Hecker Blog Spot
Rachel Hecker, Artist of the Year, Art League Houston
Photo courtesy of Rachel Hecker
Artist of the Year 2013, Rachel Hecker, Jesus paintings in progress
Rachel Hecker, head shot, with camera
Rachel Hecker, Jesus # 2, David Gilmour
Rachel Hecker, arrangement_4-1
Artist of the Year 2013, Rachel Hecker, note board, calendar
Artist of the Year 2013, Rachel Hecker, Anamorphic Skull, detail
Rachel Hecker, Artist of the Year, Art League Houston

Rachel Hecker is a bit of a Houston legend when it comes to art — a respected painting professor, a co-founder of the Art Car Parade and an celebrated artist whose work has garnered national recognition from the Los Angeles Times, Art in America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Art League Houston has placed yet another feather in Hecker's cap with its Texas Artist of the Year Award, ushering the artist into an illustrious list of Lone Star greats that includes Dorothy Hood, Al Souza and Bert Long, Jr.

"Let me tell you, if people think I'm a pillar of the community, everybody's in trouble. Believe me — this is scary. "

CultureMap caught up with the painter to find out how it feels to be an official pillar of the Houston art world.

"Let me tell you, if people think I'm a pillar of the community, everybody's in trouble," she laughs. "Believe me — this is scary. "

Armed with degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Philadelphia's Moore College of Art, the New England native relocated to Houston in 1982 to assist her former RISD instructor Allan Hacklin establish the acclaimed Core Program at the Glassell School of Art. The temporary post quickly lead to an assistant directorship at the Glassell, which she held until 1991 upon joining the faculty at the University of Houston School of Art.

"Houston kind of just happened to me," Hecker says. "I never had any intention of moving here, being here or staying here. But it's a fantastic community for artists to live and work in.

"It was when I first got here and I think it's even better now."

Then and now

Texas has been good to the artist, who, through the years, has enjoyed solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Dallas Museum of Art and ArtPace in San Antonio. In 2001, Hecker's paintings were featured alongside work by Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman in the Menil Collection's esteemed Post-Modern Americans exhibit.

Hecker describes the early-'80s Space City arts scene as still very much in its infancy, a "relatively small pond with a few big fish in it." This was a time before the Menil, an era when the MFAH operated from a single building and the Lawndale was run by the University of Houston.

"I've always been more project-based than linear, so my work can look kind of sporadic. Nevertheless, there are  still these connective tissues."

But with that environment came a tightly-knit community of artists willing to to take chances unheard of in larger, older cities.

"Because Houston's so pro-business — which has its downsides, of course — there's always been this a sense of possibility," Hecker says. "It's very different from the psyche in the Northeast, which has probably been depressed since the Industrial Revolution."

And though she notes a certain void as far as art criticism is concerned, Hecker says the city's endless optimism is a constant influence that has encouraged her to embrace a natural tendency to jump from medium to medium.

"Looking back, I realize that as you mature, you give yourself permission and be less self conscious about your choices. I've always been more project-based than linear, so my work can look kind of sporadic. Nevertheless, there are still these connective tissues."

For her upcoming Texas Artist of the Year exhibit — which will run from Oct. 4 to Nov. 15 at the Art League — Hecker says that she'll confront these tendencies head-on with a large installation project she's calling Group Show.