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Museum of Fine Arts Houston Exhibit Emphasizes Preservation

Houston—Art and ecology meet in a photography exhibition opening this fall at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Houston Wilderness: A Collaboration presents more than 50 photographs that offer unique interpretations of the diverse eco-regions that encompass and surround Houston. The exhibition is a joint project of the MFAH and Houston Wilderness, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the natural beauty of southeast Texas.

By choosing photographs from the MFAH’s outstanding photography collection that represent the 10 ecological regions promoted by Houston Wilderness, the two entities hope to further raise public awareness of and appreciation for the area’s environment. The exhibition will be on view from September 22, 2007-January 6, 2007 in the Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street.

“Sometimes art perfectly underscores social concerns and so it is with this exhibition,” said Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. “Houston is in the envious position of being at the center of an amazing configuration of ecosystems, but also must lead the way in taking responsibility for preservation. The museum is proud to work with Houston Wilderness to convey this important message.”

Geographically, Houston Wilderness claims 24 counties whose dimensions extend roughly in a 100-mile radius around Houston. Within that area are ten distinct ecological regions defined by Houston Wilderness as: Big Thicket, Piney Woods, Trinity Bottomlands, Columbia Bottomlands, Prairie Systems, Post Oak Savannah, Estuaries & Bays, Coastal Marshes, Gulf of Mexico & Barrier Islands, and Bayou Wilderness. The regions are described in detail – augmented with maps, photographs, and diagrams – in Houston Wilderness’s Houston Atlas of Biodiversity, recently published by Texas A&M Press. The book can be purchased for $23.95 at the MFAH Shop, 713-639-7360.

Each of the eco-regions is represented in photographs in the show, though some were actually taken outside of the 24-county area. In all, the work of 42 photographers is included, nearly all of them from Texas by birth or by choice. The photographs are primarily black and white, with about one-third in color or applied color, and a few examples of other processes such as cyanotype, platinum-palladium, and photogravure.

“Houston Wilderness describes the various ecosystems surrounding the metropolitan area as a ‘necklace of jewels,’ which is so wonderfully apt,” said Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the MFAH, who is coordinating the exhibition with guest curator Clint Willour of Houston. “This exhibition also gives us a chance to feature photographs donated to the museum such as those originally commissioned by Texas Monthly Magazine. The museum is grateful to Mr. Willour for contributing his expertise to this show.”

In some of the works, the subject is the landscape itself. Robert Bruce Langham III’s Overcup Oaks, Little Sandy fills the frame with a stand of trees seemingly underlined with a fallen trunk stretching across the foreground. In Cynthia Leigh-Nussenblatt’s Lake, East Texas, the viewer is at eye level with the water looking toward trees lining the shore in the distance. In Reeds with Cypress, Village Creek, Big Thicket National Park (1987), the painterly creation of David H. Gibson, the reeds seem to materialize in a ghostly fog.

Particular details of nature are the focus in some works: the single leaf in Debra Fox’s Elephant Ear (1998), Tom Ryan’s delicately balanced fruit in Hooks Blueberries (1993), and Willis F. Lee’s Grama Grass II (1997). There are photographs featuring a pair of hummingbirds, snails, an American crow, a Northern Cardinal, a swan, and a young colt and its mother.

Man’s sometimes compatible, sometimes uneasy existence with the natural world is addressed in several works. Franco Fontana’s Houston (1985) shows people relaxing in a park-like setting with the city skyline dominating the picture even though it’s in the background. Geoff Winningham puts the emphasis on nature in his Little White Oak Bayou and Downtown Houston (1986), in which the city skyline appears in distinct contrast to the bayou on the distant horizon. Winningham also finds unexpected beauty in a fishing spot under a freeway in Fishing in the San Jacinto River at Interstate 45 (1986). A View from the Drain (2003), by D.B. Anderson, demonstrates nature’s resilience in the face of man’s encroachment.

Galveston Bay and its beaches are captured in three distinctly different photographs. Jeffrey DeBevec’s Galveston Bay (1985) is a moody landscape of the bay under an ominous dark cloud. Winningham creates a colorful, enticing day-at-the-beach scene with sun bathers and surf frolickers in Galveston Beach (1986). The beach is equally appealing in an entirely different way in Grandparents (1998), Lewis D. Hodnett, Jr.’s scene of three lone figures taking in the sea on a gray day.

A few photographs focus on people within a certain eco-system. Environmentalist Tony Amos is shown on bended knee on a beach in Rocky Kneten’s 1996 portrait. In Michael O’Brien’s Gatorfest Queen (1990), the titleholder in a formal gown stands at the edge of a bayou, head held high, hands on hips, seemingly unaware—or unafraid—of the open-mouthed alligator behind her. Both are from the Texas Monthly collection and were featured in the magazine in 1996 and 1990, respectively.

A panel discussion is planned on opening day, September 22, in the museum’s Brown Auditorium Theater, located on the lower level of the Law Building. Guest curator Clint Willour will make opening remarks at the 4 p.m. event and panelists will include photographer Geoff Winningham and representatives of Houston Wilderness. A reception and book signing for the Atlas of Biodiversity follows the discussion.

The museum is offering two art-making events for families in conjunction with the exhibition, a Family Day on Sunday, October 7, and a Creation Station and an informal session of sketching in the galleries on Sunday, October 14. These workshops, from 1-4 p.m. on both days, allow children and families to learn more about the exhibition through art-making activities inspired by the works in the show. All materials are provided and local artists guide participants through the process. The workshops are free with general museum admission.

Those who attend can get a stamp for their Wilderness Passport, an educational booklet developed by Houston Wilderness to encourage children to visit ecosystems in the region. The passports will be available at the MFAH during the exhibition.

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