Life can throw you lemons with just a phone call. Except for Marilyn Oshman, it was an orange, one that would morph her path into becoming a crusader advocating for the art of a single man.
Lounging comfortably encircled by good friends — a wall-sized John Alexander painting, two James Surls sculptures, a Frida Kahlo and an elaborate mantle piece crafted out of Brazilian cherry by Dorman David — Oshman sat comfortably shoeless sipping decaf Lipton while reminiscing on a 30-plus-year relationship with what many consider to enfold Houston's ethos: The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.
It was James Harithas — executive director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston where she served as board president — in the late 1970s who challenged Oshman's familiarity with local art.
Harithas made a wager.
Jeff McKissack: Discovering folk art
"I bet you don't know the best artist in Texas, that's what James said to me," Oshman recalls. "It couldn't be possible, I thought. I knew everyone he did.
"So he drove me to the Orange Show, we toured the monument, met Georgia-born Jeff McKissack still at work. And something changed in me."
Think of the Orange Show Monument as a 3,000-square-foot folk art environment crafted by one untrained artist with a single vision. Using found objects, steel wheels, turnstiles, tractor seats and used tiles, McKissack erected an architectural marvel of walkways, balconies, mosaics, colorful figures and mazes that pay homage to the artist's favorite fruit and its nutritional qualities.
The monument hadn't been completed; it would take another year for the postman to complete a lifelong project 25 years in the making. Yet it was already showing wear and tear from exposure to the elements. Rust never sleeps.
"Jeff McKissack was kind," Oshman says. "He was thoughtful, he had a gleam in his steely blue eyes, he looked at you straight, he was self-sufficient, he was industrious, he was a complex man. I was a young woman when I met him, he was a lot older. And he loved to dance."
Oshman and McKissack became friends.
McKissack died from a stroke six months after finishing his ode to the orange, and two days short of his 78th birthday. He fancied that his monument would be visited by everyone, more so than the Astrodome. McKissack imbued his work with love and beauty and wanted the Orange Show to be thronged by crowds. Perhaps, he'd even become wealthy from all the visitors while charging a modest fee for admission.
"I was a young woman when I met him, he was a lot older," Oshman says. "And he loved to dance."
"He was an artist but not in the sense that we think of artists," Oshman adds. "He didn't think he was building a work of art. It was a compulsion and he, without help, had to complete it."
But very few people came and McKissack withdrew.
Oshman wonders if he passed from a broken heart — something he would have had in common with John Milkovisch who crafted the Beer Can House (now owned and maintained by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Arts). After a stroke, it is believed that Milkovisch died because of his condition rendered him unable to pursue his life passion.
McKissack never married, he never had children. He had no one to bequeath his belongings, including the Orange Show, which at the time was in very bad shape.
Oshman's phone rang.
Acquisition and reopening
It was Alex Hurst, McKissack's nephew. McKissack had left a note for him on top of his desk that read, "If you don't know what to do with the Orange Show, call Marilyn."
Oshman spent three days with Seymour Rosen, who had experience saving the Watts Towers in Los Angeles to formulate strategies to preserve the monument. Ultimately, that lead a groundswell of 21 influential art supporters — including Dominique de Menil, Nina Cullinan, members of the Texas rock band ZZ Top and Tommy Schlitzberger, East End funerary director — who each contributed $500 to purchase the Orange Show from Hurst for the sum of $10,500.
Thus the Orange Show Foundation was established. But there were serious problems.
The south side needed reinforcements — the whole structure stood without a foundation. Balconies needed support, floor systems were buckling. A sensitive engineer that understood the intricacies and the significance of the monument was needed.
Architect Barry Moore stepped up and oversaw the improvements pro bono and in the fall of 1981, the Orange Show reopened to the public.
Challenges and growth
"Two things happened," Oshman says. "People didn't like visiting the East End of Houston and we had to find a way to encourage people to come back."
Susanne Theis, now Discovery Green's program director, was charged with entering the Orange Show into the mainstream of Houston's cultural life. It was in the middle of nowhere. That was a challenge.
When Willem de Kooning visited Houston, he declared McKissack the best artist working in Texas.
Deploying outdoor movies, Barbie doll beauty contests, dance recitals, Polka concerts and grassroots folk events, Theis focused on artsy affairs that carried an element of surprise, quirk and humor suitable for all ages.
According to Oshman, storied Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Peter Marzio believed the Orange Show embodied the soul of art in Houston. When Dutch American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning visited Houston, he declared McKissack the best artist working in Texas.
"Dominique de Menil warned me never to let anyone claim that this was children's art," Oshman says. "It's not. The power of thinking that created this environment is akin to Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh (India) and Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Idéal in Hauterives, France, who was also a postman."
Growth was organic. The first art car was commissioned in 1984. The first Art Car Parade was held downtown Houston in 1988. The Beer Can House was acquired in 2001. In 2003, the Orange Show Foundation changed its name to the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.
It is now listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, an accomplishment that crowns Oshman's volunteer work with the Orange Show.
The Orange Show: the next generation
Smither Park is next in expanding the scope of the nonprofit. A $1.2 million folk art half-acre park in progress next to the Orange Show Monument envisioned by self-taught artist Dan Phillips at the request of Hunstville-native Stephanie Smither to memorialize her husband John — he was heavily involved in the acquisition of the Beer Can House — Smither Park promises to be eye candy, a smorgasbord for the senses.
"When I first got involved with the Orange Show, I fell hard in love with folk art," Stephanie Smither says. "It felt natural to honor my husband with something he loved, too.
"Parks and art projects like this one never work if they are conceived by committee. It was important, just like the Orange Show, for the concept and design to come from a single artist."
Smither intends the end result to be a memory park for all of Houston where anyone can donate something — like a locket, jewelry, tile, a tea cup, a plate — to be incorporated into the bright design.
Oshman says she will always be involved at some level.
"The biggest gift that we can give to the Orange show, Beer Can House and the Art Car Parade is to have them written into art history, not just as a flash in a pan, but as a representation of the human condition that allows us to have joy, so our spirits can soar," she says.
"When I am ready to move on, when I get too tired to do this, I am sure a solution will come to me."
Then, someone else will get a phone call.
The Orange Show Center for Visionary Arts will celebrate its 30th Anniversary Gala on Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Heritage Center. The event will feature Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame honoree Dr. John & Lower 911. Appropriately, the fundraiser will also honor John Alexander, Ann and James Harithas and James Surls.