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Harvey and Margaret Bott, 1987. Courtesy of Harvey Bott.

The blue barn on barnes

Number One in the decision to move to Houston from Galveston had to do with the contacts that DeeDee had, for her career. Number Two had to do with the fact that both of us really felt that Houston was coming along as an art center. And so when we made the decision to leave Galveston it was either Long Island or it was Houston. I found that I could work with less pressure here. I always felt that in New York there was too much careerism and that was one of the reasons why I left. People were always so involved in becoming famous instead of doing their work.

The art world is really a microcosm of the rest of the world. You can influence a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean you are going to be famous. You can look at what takes place in Washington and see the same kind of thing taking place in the art world. It’s all the chicanery that everyone gets upset about—but if you’re going to be an artist you should do your work and let the work just speak for itself.

When we moved to Houston in 1979 I didn’t have a studio to start with, and I moved everything from those 15,000 square feet into storage units. We took up an entire bank of I think 15 units…and filled them up from floor to ceiling.

I was looking for a loft, you know, and I went downtown and would see these wonderful places that would make fabulous studios and also living quarters. The owners of the buildings—this was in ’79—they thought I was a real flake. Who would want to live in those old buildings? They’re making fortunes down there today, or I hope they are.

DeeDee found me this wonderful studio which I’m still in on Barnes. So we offloaded the 15 storage units and I finally moved into my studio on the fourth of July, 1979. We watched fireworks on the bayou (Buffalo Bayou) from the studio, which was really fun. Now it’s all developed, but it was very undeveloped at the time—only a few metal buildings and a few little houses in the area.

A motif of one’s own

When I moved down here from New York, part of the move had to do with the search for something that was my own. I wanted my own motif…my own process that could become like a driving force. I came up with something I recognized because of my cultural anthropology background. I was working as a management consultant and I was in this meeting and just bored out of my mind. As I was doodling, I drew a little square and [divided it into quadrants], then drew an “s” through that square that was almost like little half circles. Not needing to do anything more with it, I saw the rest of it…and it was like, “Oh my God!”

I had this cornucopia of all the homo sapiens archetypes and these four interlocking forms become all these archetypes: the major crosses, paisley, the yin and yang, and it goes on and on and on. Well, in this meeting as soon as I drew that “s” and saw what I saw, I said out loud, “Oh my God!” and there was a lull in the meeting.

The vice president for business affairs at the medical branch just said, “Oh, don’t worry about Bott, he’s just working on his art.” He had no idea that’s exactly what had taken place. Well, I went home and showed it to DeeDee and she said, “Oh that’s wonderful, but what does it mean?” So I started trying to talk about it, but you know, I was so full of myself at the time (which I still am) that for days I just went on and on and didn’t do any more drawings. Then I finally made some drawings that I have in our apartment that became foundation of all of this. It allowed me to have something by which I could work on some very formal issues aesthetically, and I could work on figure-ground relationships and still maintain the fact that I was using what I then called volume displacement, moving this half circle around inside this square. I took this into three dimensions, and probably 80 percent of my work was [and still is] sculpture.

Harvey Bott pictured in his studio in the Heights area of Houston. Photo by Emerald Homes. Courtesy of the artist.

Recent history

In the 20 years since [I arrived in] 1979, Houston has become as vicious as New York. There are four or five very acrimonious coteries that operate in the city. It’s just part of what the art world is like. Careerism has attacked here and is a very dominating kind of fact. Some of that has to do with people wanting to survive [off]their work, and that necessitates being more self-promotional, more careerist oriented. I think that overall the city has suffered from that. No one city has everything and you can find some real gems out there, undiscovered.

I went to one group show on Vine Street and was so captured by this kid’s work that I just had to buy a piece, right there on the spot. I felt he needed that sense of approval that was beyond, you know, “God, I really love this work!” He’s young and God, is he inventive. He [had] six pieces in a row…thousands of hours of work and so labor-intensive that they’re just unbelievable.

This instilled in me [the conviction that] there has to be a mentor. There has to be a catalyst before you can really accomplish anything. And if I do nothing else in my life I can be a catalyst for someone. I would say that I’m very satisfied with what I have achieved, even though there’s no superstardom to it. But I’ve influenced a lot of people and not just in the visual arts. [In contrast]the coteries that exist are very, very helpful to those that are involved in that coterie, but they are very destructive to those that don’t have the wherewithal to become a part of it.

Young artists have to understand that there are an awful lot of disappointments out there. The one thing you must achieve for yourself is the satisfaction that what you are doing is the best that you can do at the time.

Harvey Bott was interviewed June 8, 2006. You can listen to the interview here .

Questions & Answers

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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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