Texas Vignette Pivots to Help Women Artists

El Paso-based artist Haydee Alonso was working as a manager in a gallery during March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the space to close for an undetermined amount of time. Though she stayed employed for as long as possible, she eventually found herself among countless other artists forced to rely on unemployment checks to help alleviate a stressful financial situation.

But artists have a knack for finding beauty and meaning in unexpected places. She shifted her own perspective.

“Being laid off brought forth deep introspection and self-reflection,” Alonso says. It’s a story we’ve heard repeatedly among artists over the course of the past year: Suddenly having ample time to devote to their passion, yet with little to no income from exhibitions, residencies and workshops to cover expenses. That was the primary reason Texas Vignette launched its 2021 Artist Grant Program, meant to benefit five female-identifying artists in Texas during a time when work has been scarce.

“The pandemic has obviously been difficult for everyone, but artists have been hit particularly hard,” says Texas Vignette President Jessica Brit Ingle. “Art is viewed by most people as a luxury good, so anytime funding needs to be cut or money needs to be saved, it’s the art world, and artists in particular, that suffers.”

Ingle founded Texas Vignette in 2017 with a group of women who work in the art scene in various capacities. They envisioned the non-profit to serve as a platform to support female artists in Texas through several initiatives, including an annual art fair to showcase the talents of what has been a traditionally underrepresented population in the creative community. When closures prevented their 2020 fair from taking place, they began looking at alternative ways to come to the financial aid of female-identifying artists by awarding five grants of $2,000 each.

The art fair’s cancellation also resulted in the repositioning of Vicki Meek’s role. Meek, a nationally recognized artist and longtime arts administrator, had been chosen to be the juror for the 2020 fair, but her responsibilities were instead refocused as the juror for the inaugural artist grant initiative.

“I selected grantees on the quality of their work and the originality of their aesthetic,” Meek says. “I was intrigued by each of their practices and found myself wanting to see more than what they submitted for consideration. The media differed widely, as did their approaches to making work.”

Alonso, the El Paso interdisciplinary artist with a passion for creating jewelry and handheld objects, is one of the recipients. Living in a border town has greatly influenced her work through the years by giving her a unique perspective on divided spaces, both geographically and metaphorically.

“A border has a conclusive purpose, which may be surreptitiously open to interpretation: It either separates that which is not us, or it builds a bridge between yours and mine,” Alonso says. “I believe jewelry serves the same purpose. It is an intermediary between selves. Jewelry is an extension of our identity; where one ends, the other begins.” Alonso intends to use part of her stipend to produce a new body of work that she plans to showcase during Texas Vignette’s next pop-up art fair in Dallas, while also covering the travel expenses.

Meek says she has admired Alonso’s work for decades, as well as that of the second grantee, Fort Worth-based Tammy Melody Gomez. “In many ways, Gomez intersects with Alonso in her investigation of the centering of Whiteness in Texas, ironically a state whose foundation is both Mexican and Native American,” Meek explains.

Indeed, Gomez’s interdisciplinary body of work is profound. As an award-winning poet/writer, performance artist, and collaborative producer, her witty wordsmithing fearlessly addresses poignant issues of domestic violence, environmental racism, and the impact of mass incarceration on families of color. “I am trying to use humor, compassion, and this awkward English I speak to demonstrate—by performance of personal poetic narratives—the power in revealing vulnerability aloud,” Gomez says. The grant from Texas Vignette will enable her to archive her multimedia materials and purchase video equipment for future projects, while also providing financial relief for her day-to-day living expenses.

Houston-based interdisciplinary artist Ann Johnson, another Vignette grantee whose work has been exhibited from coast to coast, uses her affinity for experimental printmaking to explore issues of race and gender, particularly in the Black community. On a personal level, she says the pandemic has been tough because of the isolation from her family and friends.

“I am a teacher, so we were definitely on our heels in the beginning,” says the Prairie View A&M professor. “Professionally, however, I have been able to throw myself deeper into my work and continue to push boundaries within my own creativity. I continue to use my creativity as activism and have spoken on several panels during this time.” Meek notes that she enjoys Johnson’s use of unusual materials in her pieces, such as feathers and household objects. “Even though Johnson often addresses some very painful issues in her work, she somehow manages to present them in the most gorgeous embodiments.”

Houston is also the home base of artist and Vignette grant recipient Lisa E. Harris, a genre-defying soprano whose work as a performing and recording artist has taken her to places as far away as Eastern Europe and as close to home as Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood.

Harris is also the founder of Studio Enertia, an arts collective and production company in Houston, where she recently produced an opera film archiving the effects of the gentrification of her neighborhood. Equally versed in jazz as she is in opera, the Huffington Post recognized Harris as “one of fourteen artists who are transforming opera” in 2014. “Besides having an absolutely gorgeous voice, Harris has a fertile, imaginative approach to performance that blends nicely with the various topics of choice she pursues,” says Meek.

Representing Austin is Rehab El Sadek, an Egyptian-born conceptual artist of Sudanese ancestry. In 2017, El Sadek was appointed as the City of Austin’s first Artist in Residence and her works have been exhibited worldwide over the course of her 25-year career. By utilizing mediums such as sculpture, sound, photography, and the written word, El Sadek focuses on issues related to immigration, belonging, communication and language.

“I’m inspired by creating projects around the themes of social justice, inclusion, and empathy,” she says. “The thing I enjoy most is the positive energy and camaraderie, working closely with communities and making a positive change.” One of her most recent solo shows, Transient, was staged in a converted house in an Austin neighborhood undergoing gentrification. She included a sound installation with audio recordings of speakers, many of whom were immigrants, then collected personal reflections of home from more than 800 visitors. “El Sadek’s work caught my attention because it was both vulnerable and dangerous in its use of materials, some of which evoke a sense of antiquity wrapped in modernity, but when used together, stand firm in the world of contemporary installation,” Meek says.

The beauty of the Texas Vignette grants is that they were crafted to be unrestricted, so that artists can use the funds in whatever way is most helpful to them, explains Jessica Brit Ingle. The intent is simply to encourage their artistic practices by lessening financial burdens imposed by the pandemic. They’ll also be invited to take part in the organization’s auxiliary programs, including a pop-up art fair, plus a panel discussion with Meek.

“One of the few good things to come out of everything that has happened over the last year is that organizations are finally starting to take note, and many are offering grants,” Ingle says. “My social media feed is full of calls for grant applications from non-profits, institutions, and even galleries, and many of these are in Texas. Hopefully, what will come out of the last year is a significant and lasting change, but we still have a lot of work to do.”