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Glaring inequalities

Dr. John Biggers won, and my father won, numerous local area artist exhibits that the Houston Museum would have, and I remember one of my earliest recollections was of him having a solo [exhibition] there. Well, other artists like John Biggers who also won the area art exhibit were not allowed to go in the front of the show, and were not able to attend their own award ceremony.

Blacks were allowed to visit the museum only one day a week. Because the reception for the award had been scheduled for another day, the prizewinner could not in fact attend the function honoring him. Biggers and a colleague from the university were invited to a private viewing of the exhibition by the director. In the months following, Chillman was successful in abolishing the museum’s segregationist policies, and in increasing its accessibility to the black community. (Source: The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, 1995 by Alvia Wardlaw)
They had to go with their own African American group through the back door, which I remember my father threw a huge fit about. It was my father who stood up and said we weren’t going to have that here. He said, “If I’m going to be dean of this school and we’re going to be here teaching, all people will be equal and there won’t be any favoritism or any kind of prejudice whatsoever towards women or African Americans.” That’s one of the things that colors a lot of my memories, because he had John Biggers over all the time. They were very dear friends. Several other people knew of Biggers’ and my father’s friendship, and I remember my father being also really upset by that segregation. He was just absolutely horrified at what he witnessed from childhood on, the whole problem of African Americans not being [considered] equal in so many ways. I was always raised up in an accepting environment, so for me to see it at school and then the n-words and all the other things that were used in culture so openly—it was just horrific.

I remember his love of the south—but not the south that would color and characterize hate, but a kind of exuberant resonance of hope and light and the kind of inclusion that our house was remembered for. And [this was] what got my father into such trouble with the right-wing establishment of the cowboy gentry of this city in so many ways. He was always an outsider and in some ways proud of it to the end of his life.

Lowell Collins teaching at blackboard, c. 1940. Courtesy of Michael Collins

Like father, like son

After I graduated high school in ’74 I began to teach with him and started a junior school in ’75. And by the time I was about a sophomore at the University of Houston, wet behind the ears, not knowing anything, still struggling to make an “A” with Richard Stout in drawing (which was no small occurrence), he allowed me to start teaching. Lowell Collins, my father, allowed me to start teaching a children’s class under his umbrella of a school of art. And so from that time period, the summer of ’76, starting with ten students to I’d say to the summer of ’79, ’80, we ended up developing a hundred students in the afternoon and a large children’s program under his adult program. He retired from teaching in 1981 more or less, and let me become his co-director. I had also by that time graduated from the University of Houston, and had become chairman of Strake Jesuit and Saint Agnes’ art department. At that time during the 60s, 70s and 80s, we maintained from 100 to 140 students a week.

[My father] had an amazing ability to teach. It was so rooted in his early paintings and drawings and carvings and sculptures as an artist. He wanted to go down deep into the core of whatever it was in nature. His design courses that he taught were rooted in a type of theory which came right out of the core of nature. So one of the gifts he had was to recognize that most of the classical artwork from the Renaissance on, even prior to that if you will, really related to a rhythm in nature. So one of the things that he asked students to do is to embrace through nature and thought the use of line and gesture…to become more connected to nature’s rhythms and surface texture and color and light—the traditional elements that so many artists of the 70s would later abandon. I saw much of his teaching rooted in the human figure and the drawing and the painting of it, and the ability to capture a lifelike quality of a person in portrait. That probably came from Robert Joy and other people like Sargent that he adored, loved greatly—and a respect for [painting]the figure. He was one of those people amidst abstraction to always wrestle as a teacher (as he did in his own art) with the notion of figuration and abstraction and how best to present a platform of possible problems for a student to go into nature starting to see its rhythm.

Lowell Collins in front of his work "University of Houston Registration," 1952. Photo by Maurice Miller. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archives.

Legacy

It’s just amazing the kind of place he provided for people. His sense of generosity, of helping other students—I certainly have inherited that passion and interest and enthusiasm for helping and teaching—but I think that where he was really instrumental for me as an artist and a teacher was to set the example that you have to continue your craft. “Son,” he’d say, “I did 30 years, but that’s just where it gets interesting. You must continue it into the next 30 and that’s when you make art…when you really get into the seminal groove of your thinking.” So he, until the very end of our conversations together, was insistent and very critical of my work.

He’d say, “You’re the painter in the family, I was really more of a sculptor…but you want a little critique? Can I help you a little bit?” And so we’d have this game back and forth. Finally toward the end when he was sick, he’d say, “I really can’t tell you too much now—everything you’re doing I’m really excited about.” He said, “I’ve had a good life doing exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve been able to be an artist; I’ve continued that love to my dying day. I’ve drawn. I’ve painted. I’ve carved. I’ve been able to teach and help others, which was a wonderful thing to be able to do. But the greatest thing I’ve done was to help you become an artist, because I have the feeling that you will allow me to be the first chapter in a hardbound book that I know your dealer is going to have written.” So he said, “There’s no greater joy I have than my friendship with you.”

So I think to sum up his life as an artist, and as a person, as a thinker, as a teacher, it would just be simply: Extraordinary. Giver. Curious. Learner to the end and an extraordinary human.

Michael Collins was interviewed about his father, Lowell Collins, on June 21, 2006. You can listen to the interview here .

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Source:  OpenStax, Houston reflections: art in the city, 1950s, 60s and 70s. OpenStax CNX. May 06, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10526/1.2
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