Houston Chronicle Sunday
MFAH’s Glassell School of Art survives a turbulent two years
Patrick Palmer glides across two floors of the Glassell School of Art discussing various attributes in works of art created by friends, colleagues and students. He speaks in a way both measured and proud, with curatorial restraint and a teacher’s enthusiasm. The Glassell’s concrete stairwell divides two shows Palmer curated: “Glassell Figurative Students, Past & Present Artists: 2000-2021” upstairs and “Figurative Art in Houston: 20002021” downstairs.
The shows are a celebration, certainly, of figurative artists who work or have worked at the Glassell School over the past two decades. They’re also a case of the school assembling an exhibition during one of the most difficult times in its history. The Glassell’s new campus — a gorgeous 93,000-square-foot creation that came with a $450 million price tag — enjoyed nearly two years of expanded operations before the pandemic caused upheaval.
“Enrollment just crashed,” says Palmer, faculty chair and dean at the Glassell School. “We were right around 50 percent last year when we opened up again. We had no money for an exhibition. Joe (Havel, Glassell School director) asked me to curate a show. So we knew it would be a mostly local core.”
Doing so meant shipping and curation fees were waived. Favors were called in with notable artists who live in and around Houston and others who have some connection to the school.
“I know every artist here,” Palmer says. “Some are good friends, some aren’t friends but still people whose work I love.”
Back to school
Palmer tells a story about his first encounter with photographer Will Michels years ago. A Houston native, Michels has taught photography at the Glassell School for more than 20 years and has worked with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for even longer. Palmer saw a photograph by Michels he loved, but the $150 Michels sought was more than Palmer had available at the time. Palmer that day walked out to the MFAH parking lot and found an envelope with $20 bills inside, waterlogged and torn open from having been run over repeatedly.
“I took it to the front desk and they kept it there,” he says. “After a few weeks, nobody claimed it. There was $160 inside. So that was the first piece Will ever sold.
“But he’s famous for his frames, look at this…”
Clearly, Palmer’s work lends him a degree of comfort inside the Glassell building. He pulls one of Michels’ pieces off the wall to display the meticulous craftsmanship of the frame.
Palmer embellishes each piece in “Figurative Art in Houston” with some biographical info on the artist and some commentary on the piece. He sounds loathe to cherry pick favorites, so Palmer touches on all of them. Many of the works were lent due to local connections. Others were included because of good timing. David McGee’s “Colonial Wipeout” is a mixed-media canvas with an austere division. The busy lower third floats a few images — a guitar, boxing gloves — among some waves, with the top two thirds of the canvas a powerful hash of thick white brushstrokes. “He finished it during COVID and wanted a place to show it,” Palmer says. “So we got lucky.”
Palmer relishes describing the ways the artists connect back to the Glassell School. He points to a series of photographs by Amy Blakemore, “a grand dame of film photography,” he says. She’s also the department head for photography at the Glassell, and Palmer says the school’s division between film photography and digital photography was at her demand.
He marvels at “Honest Living,” a painting by Eddie J. Filer Jr., showing a Black man — haloed and in profile — carrying a glass pane while riding his bicycle. The faint row houses in the background give away Filer’s base of operations in Galveston. “We had to work really hard to get him to teach a class here,” Palmer says.
Palmer’s own path to the Glassell School covered more miles than a drive up Interstate 45. A California native, he was hooked by figurative art while attending the Los Angeles Art Center of Design. After school, Palmer spent most of the 1980s creating his own art and teaching beginning design, graphic design and drawing at City College of San Francisco. But, Palmer says, “I wanted a home garden. And eight years living in San Francisco as an artist, I knew that was never going to happen there. When there was an opportunity to come here, I took it. I miss the physical beauty. But I love the people, the history, the school.”
100 years of teaching
That school is marching toward its centennial. Though the Glassell School of Art opened in 1979, the MFAH’s operation of an art school date back to 1927. The Great Depression began shortly after the school’s founding; another example of trying times following new endeavors.
Early on, the school was dedicated to teaching children. Today, the Glassell Junior School continues such programs, while other students find their way into the Glassell Studio School, which also includes the BLOCK Program for advanced studio students and the Core Program, a postgraduate residency program. Many Glassell teachers and artists passed through the Core Program. In March, the MFAH opens “Extraordinary Realitiez,” an exhibition by Shahzia Sikander, who passed through the Core Program years ago.
The Glassell School — once in rare company with a handful of other museum-affiliated schools — has become the last one standing, as the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are now university affiliated.
“That leaves us as a museum school,” Palmer says. “I love that phrase.”
But the past two years have put some strains on all artists and art institutions, the Glassell School included. Because of COVID-19, the school’s enrollment was whittled down from about 1,000 students to around 480. “Around the time registration started to go back up, then the delta variant hit,” Palmer says. “Things started to look good again, then omicron.”
But Palmer exudes a cautious optimism, and for good reason.
While he notes the downstairs exhibition represents “the cream of figurative art in Houston,” the “Glassell Figurative Students, Past & Present Artists: 20002021” exhibition upstairs finds new greenery growing.
Palmer serves as a sort of fulcrum between the two. Though he is primarily a painter, Palmer contributed a sculpture downstairs, “Unspoken Words,” comprising two heads that resemble his painting style. He contributed a piece of text that accompanies the work and serves as a welcome to the two exhibitions: “The figure. It pervades my art, my teaching, my vision. I love it.”
Upstairs offers the work of 20 students who have studied at the school over the past 20 years; each is represented by a pair of pieces.
Romeo C. Robinson’s “He Who Wears the Crown” is an attention grabber. His mixed-media piece sprang from an assignment in which the students were tasked with finding some sort of scraps of paper to incorporate into a work.
Some of the pieces are by younger students. There are also some by artists like Carolyn Marks Johnson, an attorney and former district judge. Palmer’s approach to teaching is the same for all his students.
“I need to get them to understand the figure,” he says. “To understand figure, anatomy. But the thing I try to impress on every student is to find a story. It’s great to understand proportion, but you can’t be an artist without being a storyteller.”
“I know every artist here. Some are good friends, some aren’t friends but still people whose work I love.”
Patrick Palmer, dean at the Glassell School of Art