A Tour through the Bower: DiverseWorks and Texas Artists Celebrate the Locke Surls Center for Art and Nature @ Splendora Gardens

“I am turning 80 on April 19, and this is one of those ‘woulda-gonna’ projects that is finally happening,” Surls said. “If I’m going to do it, I have to do it now.”

In collaboration with DiverseWorks and longtime Houston artist Jack Massing, 10 artists and three artist pairs have installed sculptures in bowers on the property. These bowers are small, naturally-formed clearings a few steps off a main path that meanders through the woods. Titled “A Gift from the Bower,” the show will debut on Earth Day Weekend, April 22-23, 2023. The opening celebration takes place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. both days and includes map-guided self-tours, performances, sound installations, a related gallery exhibition, and complimentary food and beverages. The exhibition will remain in place for two years, although some of the pieces are ephemeral and will disintegrate naturally over time.

“James turns 80 that week, and it’s DiverseWorks 40th birthday, so this is a perfect time for an outing in nature,” said Xandra Eden, executive director of DiverseWorks. “We have been planning this for more than two years, and it’s finally coming together. This is a legacy project for the Surls-Locke family. We are going to publish a catalogue to document the history of the site and the couple’s ongoing involvement in the Houston art scene.”

Participating artists are Surls, Locke, Massing, Leticia Bajuyo, John Calaway, Alton DuLaney, Carlos Canul/Rachel Gardner, Lina Dib, Ronald L. Jones, Sharon Kopriva, Sherry Owens/Art Shirer, Patrick Renner, Kaneem Smith, and George Tobolowsky/Susan Budge.

Curated by Surls, Massing, and Eden, the pieces by 13 artists and artist teams have been created in collaboration with various musicians, performers, and writers to create a unique, outdoor experience. “Surls and Charmaine envisioned each piece as the result of an artist working with a musician and writer to create a trilogy of creativity,” Massing said.

“Jack Massing called me with the idea in the fall of 2020,” said Eden. “He and Surls had already brought together some of the artists, and they asked for DiverseWork’s support. It makes sense because we have so much experience with these types of interdisciplinary projects. All the artists have relationships with either the curators, DiverseWorks, or the Splendora property.”

According to Eden, the curators and a few of the artists met early on and walked through the woods discussing the concept. They agreed that it was important to have a sound or performance element with each piece. Some artists have incorporated recorded sounds from the site like bird calls and the wind in the trees. Others will have a live performance alongside their work and record it so that it can be accessed with a smartphone.

Guests first will encounter Bowerbird, a ceramic sculpture by Houston artist Susan Budge flanked by two metal sculptures from George Tobolowsky, who works in Mountain Springs, Texas. Male bowerbirds are known for their courtship behavior, which involves decorating their elaborate nests with colored sticks and other objects to attract a female. Tobolowsky creates steel sculptures by welding together discarded machine parts and pieces of scrap metal alluding to that fascinating avian practice.

Next on the bower tour is Alton DuLaney, a multimedia, text-based artist based in Splendora. His piece, ART Bench II, is a 500-pound granite bench etched with the word ART. DuLaney celebrates the human quest for immortality through the art of monument-making.

In the third bower is Houston artist Sharon Kopriva, who is known for her spiritual connection with nature and sculptures that incorporate natural materials like braided hemp, branches, and other organic materials.

John Calaway has been exploring large-scale 3D printing, and Birdman is a large polycarbonate sculpture that would have been impossible to create with conventional materials. Using hand-held, high-resolution scanners to capture visual data, he creates 3D models that can be printed on any scale.

Locke constructed a beehive-shaped structure enclosing two figures pointing toward a globe on top. The sculpture is based on Jewel, a drawing by Locke in the MFAH collection and references the collective “hive” of activity that is necessary to save the earth from the calamities of climate change, which include drought, wildfires, hurricanes, and mudslides.

Patrick Renner constructed a vessel from recycled wood on a circular base, while Ronald L. Jones’s used wooden pallets to create a circuitous path for viewers to navigate while contemplating the challenges of life.

Kaneem Smith chose burlap coffee sacks and plant-based fibers to create her installation. Her choice of materials previously used for import or export voices her concern that all trade be ethical and not involve economic imperialism. Smith’s work also reflects her attitude regarding racism, sexual inequality, and social politics.

Dallas artist Sherry Owens uses branches of the crepe myrtle tree to express environmental concerns, as well as her connection with nature. She carves, whittles, dyes, paints, or otherwise manipulates the branches before creating an installation. Owens is a natural choice for the show, given her longtime connection with the land and her concerns regarding deforestation, loss of habitat, and climate change. She and her sculpture partner Art Shirer collaborated on this piece, which is one of many joint installations they have done since 1986.

Leticia R. Bajuyo engages viewers with site-specific installations that involve community collections of media and memories. A Filipinx-American artist, her piece is titled Swing Set: Share a Share (Duyan: Ibahagi ang Balato) and features a swing set composed of 20 seats. Inspired by roundabouts where drivers must communicate through eye contact and hand gestures to navigate safely, participants must communicate as they share their part of the swing set. It challenges participants to engage actively and be aware of others while experiencing the sculpture. The wooden seats were carved, sculpted, and personalized by members of the Filipinx Artists of Houston.

Carlos Canul’s oversized white chair and Rachel Gardner’s life-sized wolf and owl create a place for quiet contemplation. Canul draws inspiration from his Mayan heritage and the natural surroundings of his home in Splendora. Gardner’s beasts convey the vitality and transformational effect of nature, as well as the magic and mystery of wild things.

Jack Massing’s installation is a green-and yellow-interstate highway exit sign that says Exit 2050 and below that Anthropocene, referencing the current geological age during which human activity is having a disastrous effect on the planet. Ironically, he has planted clover around the sign to create a serene space.

Lina Dib’s piece, which is installed in the red barn on site, is a 20-channel sound piece with birds and animals she recorded on the property. She is an artist and anthropologist whose work highlights ecological change.

There is a new welcome center where guests check in, learn more about the project, and pick up maps and biographies of the artists. There will be musicians performing throughout the opening weekend. Due to the remoteness of the area, all parking will be offsite with shuttle buses running from a designated parking area. Buses from Houston and Dallas will also be available.

Surls installed a massive tree stump in his bower that he dug up in the early days of clearing the Splendora property. The top bears the chops marks, while the base and roots are sanded smooth. Like all of Surls’ wood sculptures, it reflects his upbringing in East Texas, where clearing the land by hand and digging up tree stumps was a way of life. He found magic in the wood, and so he became the magician, releasing that magic and making it visible. In an interview with Susie Kalil in Sculpture Magazine in 2020, Surls says, “The responsibility of the artist is to communicate his or her inner vision with as much clarity as is possible.” Inviting these artists to share their vision with visitors to Splendora truly is “A Gift from the Bower.”