|2006 photo of Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses, in front of duplexes designed by Rice University students to provide low-income rental homes as part of the project. Photo by Michael Stravato for The New York Times.|
Founder of Project Row Houses given prestigious award to pursue his dreams
Text | Claudia Feldman for the Houston Chronicle
Published | September 16, 2014, updated September 17, 2014
Rick Lowe, Rick Lowe's cellphone wouldn't stop ringing. He ignored the calls from area code 312 and a number he did not recognize.
But finally, the artist stepped outside the Epicure Cafe on West Gray, put his cellphone to his ear and received the call of his life
Lowe, the founder of Project Row Houses in Houston's Third Ward, has been named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow. The prestigious award for creativity comes with a $625,000 grant to be paid during five years and little else - no ceremonial dinners, no speeches, no plaques. Instead, the MacArthur Foundation says, the fellowship provides recipients with flexibility to pursue artistic, intellectual and professional activities without any strings attached.
John Henneberger of Austin, an affordable-housing advocate, also won one of the 21 awards, commonly known as "genius grants."
A model project
Lowe's Project Row Houses, which now spans six blocks and includes 71 structures, was a collection of dilapidated shotgun houses when Lowe envisioned something entirely different: the revitalization of a historical piece of the Third Ward and a place where artists, young single mothers, kids needing a safe haven after school - anybody and everybody - could meet and learn from one another. Twenty years later, it has served as a model for similar redevelopment projects in Dallas, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles - even South Korea.
"Rick pioneered a form of art that had no name," executive director Linda Shearer said. "Now his concept is taught in undergraduate and graduate art programs. It's called 'creative place making' and 'social practice.' What's remarkable is that Rick was on this track of socially engaged art and developing community long before anybody thought about it. He imbued those shotgun houses with value that people respect and treasure today."
When President Barack Obama learned about Lowe, Shearer said, he appointed him to the National Council on the Arts.
"Rick doesn't call attention to himself," Shearer said, "and he's not an egomaniac. He's all about being a catalyst and asking, 'How can we transform our communities through art?' "
A change of plan
Lowe, 53, was born in rural Russell County in Alabama. He was the eighth of 12 children, and all of them worked in cotton and peanut fields when they weren't in school.
"We felt like we were the last sharecroppers in the world," Lowe said. "That was my upbringing. I grew up mainly with my mother. My dad wasn't around consistently."
Lowe sums up the life lessons he learned in two words. "Everybody works."
In high school Lowe played enough basketball to earn an athletic scholarship to Alabama State University. But he realized early he wasn't an elite player and transferred to what was then Columbus College in Columbus, Ga.
He paid tuition and other bills by working as a bus boy, dishwasher and waiter. It was a time, Lowe said, "to piece things together and find out how the world worked."
Lowe took his first drawing class as a freshman. Teachers praised his work and encouraged him to become an art major. Nobody, including his mother, asked how he would earn a living with such an impractical degree.
"What my mom taught me was to work hard, have a strong ethical component to my work and live my life right."
Though Lowe teaches classes at Southern Methodist University in Dallas now, he did not graduate from college. He was still in school but struggling when a professor told him, "You're a doer. You should go out into the world and do it."
Lowe moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to spend time with one of his brothers. He worked in an ice cream storage plant and as a hair dresser.
In 1984, he moved to Houston "for no particular reason, except that I wanted to be in large city," he said. "I didn't think I'd last very long, but here I am 30 years later."
Lowe remembers it took several years for him to find his niche and artist friends with whom he felt comfortable. He hop-scotched from Spring Branch to an artists' warehouse on Commerce Street to still other artists' studios on Feagan Street near downtown.
By the late 1980s, Lowe realized he had lost touch with his African-American roots, and he spent considerable time trying to connect with Houston's black communities. He took art classes at Texas Southern University. He met black artists including Bert Long, Bert Samples, Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, George Smith and James Bettison. He also spent many hours visiting with the executive director of S.H.A.P.E. Community Center, Deloyd Parker.
That, Lowe said, is when he starting thinking about the intersection of art and community, art and social justice, art and social services, art and basic human needs.
"All of us were looking for something," Lowe said, "when I came up with the idea of reclaiming these little shotgun houses on Holman."
The 22 homes built in the 1930s were practically falling down, and some were occupied by drug dealers and addicts. If entrepreneurial Houstonians looked at the shacks and saw town houses, Lowe says his friends gave him the confidence to move forward with his vision.
A focus in Houston
Henneberger, 59, said he intends to use his grant to help low-income neighborhood advocates gain more leverage in their struggles for better housing, more equitable public services and relief from environmental racism. Houston will be a particular focus, he said.
"Houston is of special interest because it is the place where we have seen more effective, democratic community engagement on issues than anyplace else in the state," he said. In addition, "conditions in the neighborhoods are among the most unequal of any place in the state that I've ever encountered."
'Have to be thoughtful'
Lowe hasn't decided what to do with his infusion of cash. "I have to be thoughtful about the best way to use the money," he said. "This is not something I'll play around with and throw away. I do want to have a big impact. And a lot of the money will go to the Third Ward."
When Lowe is not working or traveling for work, he shoots basketball at his gym, the 24 Hour Fitness in Midtown.
"Sometimes it's in the middle of the night, when I can't sleep," Lowe said. "I'm one of those people."
Lowe also plays dominoes with the regulars at Project Row Houses. "We have what we call the humility table, which is a reminder that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Sometimes it's about skill and talent, and sometimes it's about luck. But whatever happens, you know to check your ego at the table."
Jazz musician Jason Moran, a native Houstonian who moved to New York, won a MacArthur grant in 2010. Poet Edward Hirsch, who taught literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, earned his MacArthur grant in 1998.
"He left town after he got his," Lowe said of Hirsch. "I'm not going anywhere."
Houston Chronicle Staff writer Mike Snyder contributed to this report.