Under the Radar -Houston Chronicle

The News Magazine of HCU

“Under the Radar,” the group show at Williams Tower Gallery this fall, contained such a range of works it almost appeared random.  A casual visitor might have wondered how a large, wreathlike work made of plastic water bottles relates to abstract paintings, portraits of characters with tattoos, inky drawings of animals, a vitrine of quirky mixed-media objects and edgy ceramic sculpture. The show offered a glimpse of one of the most surprising developments on the Houston art scene in years. The works were by graduate students at Houston Baptist University, a school that barely had an undergraduate art program a decade ago.  Curator Sally Sprout is a friend of Michael Roque Collins, the program’s director. “His boundless enthusiasm about the program is hard to deny,” she said. Still, she was surprised by the work she discovered during studio visits at the campus’ three-year-old arts building.  “It’s an emerging program, distinctly different from what you would see at the University of Houston,” Sprout said. “The UH kids have been around the block; they’re hip. At HBU, they seem a little more innocent. Maybe it’s the mind-set of the school.”  Collins said he happily left a tenure-track job at Texas Tech University in Lubbock to rekindle HBU’s oncesleepy undergraduate art program when the prominent theologian Robert B. Sloan Jr. became president in 2006. “My friends at Baylor thought the world of him,” Collins said.  A pedigreed painter with a mile-long résumé, Collins grew up among Houston’s art elite. “I’ve been painting since Methuselah in this city,” he quipped. His father, Lowell Collins, was a dean of the Houston Museum School, the precursor to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Glassell School. His mother, Glinda Gayle Simpson Pritchett, managed an art gallery. The legendary John Biggers was among the family’s close friends.  Michael Collins also has a magnetic personality; he’s more likely to give you a bear hug than a handshake the first time you meet. He turned on that charm full-throttle for HBU, recruiting top-flight artists to teach — among them the painter, curator and widely published author Jim Edwards, co-author of the recent Texas Abstract; UH alum Laura Kreft; German sculptor Hans Molzberger; and art historian David Brauer.  Collins and his colleagues had the school’s undergraduate program running by 2008. They launched the graduate program in 2011 with three students. This year it has 22, from a field of more than 40 applicants, Collins said. That’s just less than half the number of graduate students in the University of Houston’s studio art and art history programs.  “We’re kind of an equal opportunity provider for the master of fine arts degree,” Collins said. He attributes that program’s “meteoric” growth to professional need. “There are people that come out of undergraduate programs, maybe UH or St. Thomas, and they don’t want to go back to the same school for an MFA,” he said. Space has become tight, but each graduate art student has a studio in the school’s arts building.  Reflecting the campus at large, the art programs attract diverse students who are as likely to be Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist as Christian. The graduate students are also diverse in other respects — aged 28 to 72, from all over the world and all walks of life. About two-thirds receive financial aid, and the school has begun to build endowed fellowships to support them.  While some of the school’s liberal arts program courses explore how art, philosophy and poetry plumb the soul through Christian themes, others have an aesthetic and intellectual viewpoint that demands students think for themselves.  Collins, Edwards and Kreft put all applicants through a two- or three-day interview. “We’re essentially building a family here,” Kreft said. “We want to make sure everyone can finish the program.” Collins said graduates emerge with powerful portfolios partly because the faculty delivers hard but positive criticism.  The masters program quickly became a force to watch in “Rising Eyes,” an annual juried show at the Rockport Center for the Arts featuring works from the state’s 19 graduate art programs. The school’s art students also frequently built installations Project Row Houses and win awards.  They’re making commercial inroads, too. Camille and Debra Samara, owners of the year-old contemporary artfocused Samara Gallery on Main Street, have snapped up several HBU alums including Rachel Gardner, Carlos Canul and Abidemi Olowonira, whose first solo show was on view there this past fall. Their holiday show will featured small works by HBU students. “It’s a hidden treasure over there,” Camille Samara said.  He and his wife sought out Olowonira at the urging of the collector and dealer Gus Kopriva. On their first visit to the school’s studios, they also signed on Canul and Lesley Anne Walker. And they presented a show by Moltzberger in February 2015. “It’s a great source of good art, and it’s been successful,” Samara said. “The work sells. We couldn’t be happier.”

Olowonira, a Nigerian native who stitches works together from shards of leather and fur, has a drawing degree from Texas Southern University but realized he needed a master’s because many galleries require it. Those two years of rigorous focus at HBU helped him develop a work ethic that might be more important than the degree itself, he said. He worked closest with Holtzberger, who helped him build welding skills, but all the HBU faculty were supportive, he said.  Kreft feels HBU’s program is at “an absolutely beautiful place at a moment in time where everything is working.” She makes sure students are exposed not just to Houston’s large and varied art scene but also to things happening around the state. “We’re not an island over here,” Kreft said.  The HBU art faculty also leads by example. Their work was recently featured in a group show at Texas A&M University. The prolific Collins also had a solo show, “Sojourn in the Shadowlands,” at the Holocaust Museum Houston this winter and a retrospective, shared with his late father, which opened in January and runs through April 5 at Allen Center Gallery.  Collins said while his exhibition record and Edwards’ reputation as a curator and author may be helping to propel the school’s street cred, their program is succeeding because — as Sprout noticed — it is closeknit. Of course painting, sculpture, drawing, ceramics and print-making are covered in-depth. But during a weekly reading day, graduate students also discuss their religious philosophies. And they share baked goods on “pie” days.  “It’s a fertile territory,” Collins said. “Community is the key here. We care about each other.” He’s not expecting masterpieces out of the gate.  “They’re all hungry. I don’t think any one of them feels they’ve done great work yet,” he said. “We tell them, ‘You’ll probably be much older before you understand your life deeply enough to make something that’s truly profound…It’s the long haul that counts.’”