The greatest living Texas artist you don't know — but should
Edge Life is a new CultureMap column that chronicles unusual people with uncommon passion. People out on that thin ridge of life where not many of us have the courage, conviction or will to reach — let alone stay.
"It was back in the 1950s in Richmond, Virginia where my father had what we called a 'stable house.' He let Otis and I paint there as our studio" Robert Kaye told me over the phone. I tracked down Kaye as a college friend and roommate of Otis Dare Huband (pronounced who-bend) — arguably one of Texas's most important living artists if not our most prolific. Kaye added that Otis was born an artist, through and through .. that he is "the real thing."
Otis's dress, build, height, hair and face are all together unassuming. By appearance, he could be an accountant, teacher, doctor, engineer ... pretty much any normal profession. His crispy southern fried accent and calm demeanor offer miscues of regular guy-ness.
None of this 77-year-old's outwardly looks signal the inwardly artist he has arduously toiled to become. An artist whose must-see, 50-year retrospective is on view now until October 2 at the William Reaves Fine Art Gallery at 2313 Brun Street. The opening reception is Saturday from 5-8 p.m. with an artist talk on September 25th from 2-4 p.m. Bill Reaves, the gallery founder and owner, calls Huband, "one of our greatest living figurative expressionists."
Hence Reaves motivation (and pride) to show 37 of Otis's pieces from nearly half of century of work — most not seen by anyone until now.
I met Otis and his wife Anne last Spring at a reception at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston following a lecture by the French artist Bernar Venet. Cramped near the cheese table, we exchanged opinions on the lecture which quickly expanded to art in general, then to my discovery of Otis as an artist. I asked for his card, promising to see his work.
A few weeks later, I was in the Hubands' house and studio accompanied by fine food (Anne is well known for her French and Italian culinary skills), drink and passionate talk of art, literature, travel and politics. It was the kind of conversation where time slipped and ideas blossomed. I realized that Otis and Anne had decided early how they would live their lives, with a conviction and joy that most of us struggle to find or certainly to hold onto.
As for Otis, the reason his artwork has barely seen the light of day in so many decades is not due to a lack of a following. His work is owned by dozens of prominent art collectors who regularly visit his studio. It is because, as Otis says, "some people go to galleries to be seen, not to see."
He's not exactly keen on showing for showing's sake. So save for two trips a year to France and Italy where he refills his creative well, Otis works every day. It is that simple. He is an artist who creates exactly what he wants to when he wants to for no other reason than the journey — to see where he can go. It begged the question: Why show now?
Otis said he reached a point in his life where he was ready to share his work again. Typical Otis, nothing complicated: just a clear, straight answer. As Page Piland, an artist and graphic designer who studied under Otis in the 1970s, recalled, "I asked him why he stopped teaching and he said, 'Oh hell Page, I'm nearly a hundred years old, I just can't do everything.' " His plain talk must be the Texan in him.
The journey of this great Texas artist started 72 years ago when in kindergarten he was given a block of clay. Otis says he knew then that "art was his calling." And from that moment, he has never looked back, questioned or deviated from it. His whole life has been dedicated to his work, with Anne, a retired math teacher, by his side since they decided to chuck a conventional life and, against the warnings of family, boarded a merchant ship off the coast of Virginia bound for Italy where Otis studied "with those communists" for the equivalent of $16 a year at the prestigious Accademia di Belli Arti in Perugia.
They settled in Houston in 1965 when Anne accepted a teaching position. For almost 50 years, Otis has been creating in the same studio, one that he built entirely with his own hands.
As I entered the two-room studio, it became clear how his process works. In the morning he sits at a desk in front of an open sketchbook with magazines and colored paper strewn about. Here he cuts, pastes and pieces together shapes and colors into his book to warm up and find inspiration. Or he produces remarkably expressive nude figures from only his imagination with gorgeous lines of ink, charcoal or goauche. These sensual drawings, stacked on shelves by the hundreds in large manila folders, would be admired by anyone and even by themselves could make a show.
In the other room, large cuts of canvas are mounted on an even larger, sturdy wooden "big board." From his barber chair, looking every bit a Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek, Otis contemplates, then rises like a conductor to apply fat oil sticks and oil paints producing a mix of soft curves and colors that cut, bleed and smudge into an abstract utopia. He says he likes to "get his DNA" all over his work. And that he has to "mess up things" if he feels the canvas is starting to look too pretty.
"It's about composition, not decoration" claims Otis. Not surprising given that one of his biggest influences is the Dutch-born American abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning.
The painting he was working on when I visited was called Drowning off the Dalmatian Coast. It was captivating in its current state and like all of Otis' work, worthy of being seen.
"I seek to violate the 'white' of the canvas, to make order out of a chaos" he told me with a twinkle. It seemed there was a bit of his art imitating his life with that statement. For those few of us who live life according to some higher calling, there is order given to an otherwise chaotic journey.
I don't know if you will be inspired by Otis's artwork. You can go to the William Reaves Fine Art Gallery to decide for yourself. But I think we can all be inspired by the kind of life someone like Otis has lived: A 77-year-old artist going strong.
Matthew Wiliams is co-founder of Mouth Watering Media LLC, a Houston-based company that developed the platform for CultureMap