Disclaimer: I may have a few things out of order in this entry. These years are very blurry to me. The kids were little and well, anyway. I did my best.
All the while I was working at the Birth Center, I was also cultivating my photography and darkroom skills. I was a film-only photographer back in those days and did all my own printing. I was very experienced at this point in what I would call “event photography” what, with the college year book photography job and now having photographed so many childbirths. And I also was getting a bit more artsy-fartsy with my personal work. And I even began to venture into portrait and wedding work here and there.
After I left the Birth Center, Paul went back to work so I could be home. We were committed to homeschooling our children and I would be their teacher. And thus, homeschooling and caring for our children became my main focus with photography and art stuff as periphery. The children and I had a lovely daily-weekly rhythm and both of the children thrived during this time. Also it turned out that I was a great teacher for my own small children. I ran a tight ship and always made sure that they not only completed formal studies in math, reading, handwriting, science and more but also learned how to cook, how to clean, how to use public transit, how to use the library and other human skills of that nature. We also played at the park a lot. No screens on smartphones (they didn’t exist yet), no TV, no computer, nada. I don’t know how parents do it now with all those distractions.
These were very lean years financially and when I look back, I’m not sure how we made it but as mentioned I had started printing black and white artwork in earnest and putting myself out there to take photographs for people. Slowly but surely I garnered a steady stream of photo clients during those years and many would go on to be repeat clients year after year.
At some point I got an idea to take some artsy behind-the-scenes pictures at the independent art house theater and hang them in the bar lobby as a sort of meta-art exhibit. I approached the theater manager and he liked the idea and with that, I installed a gorgeous photo exhibit of my own black and white prints. This was when the movie business was still completely film and to document the film-platter infrastructure was a very unique experience. I sold almost the whole show and had several artist friends ask if I could also produce a show for them. It was then that I realized that I had a knack for being bold and making something happen with artsy things.
And so I started to produce shows for my artist friends. They loved it because their work had more eyes on it than in a traditional gallery and I loved it because I made a small commission on these works. Pretty soon, I met an art scene acquaintance named “D” who could see that I had a gift for selecting and showing artists and he asked if I wanted to go in on a space with him in the Expo Park area.
I remember the request clearly. We were in New Amsterdam Coffee House (now known as 8 Bells Tavern). He asked if I wanted to open a gallery in a space he was looking at renting. He couldn’t quite afford the whole rent and so the offer was for me to sublet the front of the space for $200 per month while he lived in the back. It was a stretch financially at the time but after sleeping on the offer, I decided to go for it. And thus, my beloved IR Gallery was born. (The “IR” stood for Integration Research and I’ll just let the name rest here as it is. A much larger narrative is behind the name but I don’t feel called to get into the details about it at this time.)
I showed my own photography work at the gallery’s grand opening and then moved on to other artists I’d recruit through studio visits and referrals. The website is now defunct, which is a shame because the artists (and musicians!) I showcased there were incredible. Fortunately I saved a hard copy scrap book of all the invitations and articles written about that space. (I can show you if you’re ever curious!) Seriously, I was able to lure a who’s who of whoville to show their amazing work in my space.
Soon enough, I was running the movie theater gallery and then also my actual gallery-gallery. It was around this time that I met a gal named “N” who was doing something similar with alternative art spaces. She had a small roster of venues that included a hair salon and a catering company. We smartly joined forces and combined our efforts and created this amazing thing called “Pigeon-Stone Project” thusly named for the slang term for public art sometimes being called “pigeon stones.”
PSP was wildly successful and we transacted several thousand dollars in art, all sold in small businesses using underutilized wall space. We garnered tons of press and again, fortunately I have all the press clippings from this time period. The artists loved it because we treated our artists as real artists. We hosted receptions, sold their work, invited people to attend and so on. The businesses loved us because we brought fresh people into their establishments. And we could accommodate almost any type of work because at our peak we had like 13 venues and were working with dozens of artists. To give you a sense, we had a church, a tattoo parlor, the movie theater, a loft building lobby, a couple of restaurants, a hair salon and more. The other neat thing is that “N” and I trained others interested in curating and producing shows to take over some of the venues and learn how to do what we were doing.
The year was now 2005. Hurricane Katrina had just happened in August and several of us were feeling very helpless. We wanted to do something and make a difference. Our city had been flooded after all with Louisiana residents evacuating. My friend Jason asked me if I knew about ten artists that we could get together for an art show. I responded, “Ten? How about a hundred! You’re thinking too small, man!”
With that, Art Conspiracy was born, completely by accident but inspired by the idea of helping others. Jason worked on securing the bands while I worked on recruiting the artists. And of course I knew a ton of artists because I ran an art gallery and this Pigeon-Stone Project operation. Word of mouth spread and we cobbled together a group of friends and found the perfect space: the Texas Theater. It’d been locked up for decades prior and a group of neighborhood folks had slowly been working to restore the bones of the building. Our event Art Conspiracy would be the first time the doors opened in years.
And the name. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Not only were the artists and musicians of Dallas conspiring to do something good, we were using the famed location of where Lee Harvey Oswald was watching the movie War is Hell after he allegedly shot JFK.
Oak Cliff was dry at the time so I recall personally driving to TABC and asking how we could have booze at our event. It would have to be a BYOB event and so to make money on it somehow we invented something we called a “beer check.” Similar to a coat check, but with coolers and alcohol. Looking back it was utter insanity.
The artists were invited to come onsite to the Texas Theater to create work the day before our big fundraising event. Having worked with so many artists, I know what a touchy subject it is to always be asked to donate, donate, donate artwork. So we flipped the script and said “look, bring your art supplies and we’ll give you a piece of plywood. You only have a couple of hours to make your piece and then get out of here.” We asked for TIME instead of expensive unsold inventory. The theme was just “art conspiracy” and the artists could interpret that theme at will.
The result was much more amazing than any of us could imagine. 100 gorgeous pieces of art were auctioned live the next night while five bands played over the course of the evening. The fire marshal came because the theater was packed to the gills and guess who had to deal with him? Me! In the end, we raised a ton of money and gave it all away to the Children’s Health Fund (founded by artist and musician Paul Simon) because we figured poor kids coming to the North Texas area from New Orleans as a result of Katrina that had health issues would end up at Parkland and this was a good way to make an impact.
So while I technically made zero money on this event, it was an important milestone in my career journey because it would go on to be much, much bigger and one of my living master classes in how to set up and run a nonprofit, how to work with all types of people, how to navigate terrain that can only be navigated with artists and alternative spaces.
After this first Art Conspiracy, people came up to me (and others who led it) and literally begged for the next one. “Oh no,” we said laughing, “that was a one-off event!” Little did we know it would go on to help over a dozen small arts-related nonprofits through this annual event and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. So much more could be written about Art Con but now’s not the time.
During the Spring after that first Art Con, the key relationships behind Pigeon-Stone Project and IR Gallery sort of fell apart. Folks moved on. The guy “D” who I sublet the gallery space from had only signed a one year lease. The gal I ran PSP with, “N,” was up to other things and I had to let both of these ideas go with a measure of bittersweet remorse. I kept my movie theater gallery going for a while but eventually passed the torch to others who were interested in curating alternative art spaces.
In the meantime, I shared with another friend “C” that I was complete with my gallery and PSP. It was sad and I wasn’t sure what was next. I remember her turning on her heel in a quick pivot and saying to me “I know what you’re doing next! You’re going to open an artist residency with me!” And I naively asked “what’s an artist residency?” I had no idea. I’d never heard of such a thing.
Thus, the La Reunion journey began. The year was 2006. Keep in mind I was still on point and diligently homeschooling the kids but as time wore on and I got busier, Paul took the reins with homeschooling adventure. Our household income began to shapeshift once again. Here I sit in 2022 writing this and it’s a good reminder that we’ve been through “this” many times before.
Periodic updates and observations from Aurah in the Field.