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A quiet catalyst

Jim Harithas came in the early 70s. He came in and said, “No—you guys are good, too. You guys are doing quality work here. There’s great work being done and you should step up to the plate and do it.” He was a tremendous catalyst. Particularly for myself, and then Surls and John Alexander. He made sure people saw the work and was always there hanging out with us and supportive. He was a great man. Whatever his faults were, God bless him, he did it.

He was such a great influence on all the arts in Houston, and he had his friends coming in. He’d bring in Norman Bluhm and younger artists. I was never a member of his posse; I was standoffish, too aloof for that. But these were great influences that he brought in.

Transitions

Bob Camblin and I were sharing a studio together off of Montrose near Richmond. We had a studio together, then Joe Tate [my replacement at Rice] showed up and he had a part of the studio. Then we rented a big place down the street from St. Thomas on Sul Ross, and we took it over as a collaborative studio. We were hanging out there and conversing and talking constantly. We taught ourselves. Camblin actually taught me how to paint. He taught me the rules by watching him, and he and Joe and I worked together on projects and ideas and shows at St. Thomas, and whatever happened there.

Of course, our marriages broke up within a few years and I had to leave that group for survival. So I moved out into my own studio—I rented the bottom floor of a building and eventually in the next couple of years while I was getting a divorce I had the whole building. It was there I began to do my myths, my story-making, about my life. I said to myself I wasn’t going to do art anymore, I was simply going to tell stories in the most dramatic or outrageous way. Then I started just letting it go on canvas, and I had a lot of anguish to deal with at that time that all came out on these very large canvases.

A woman [from the Whitney Museum] named Heidi Solomon showed up in Houston and somehow she had heard about me either through Fredericka Hunter or Jim Harithas. She came to the studio and saw the works I was doing, then she took the word back to the Whitney. That’s when the Whitney chose me to be in the 1974 Biennial. I remember the day I heard about it…it was very exciting and I had nobody to tell. I had lost my wife and I had left Camblin and Tate, and I couldn’t tell them. I was just like, “I’m in the Whitney. Whoa.” Now, the Whitney is a career-maker. It wasn’t the big deal then that it is now. I know the Whitney showed up at my door about the year I was getting a divorce, the lowest period. Harithas showed up. All of this showed up.

Rice Art Department, 1955. Left to right: Sandy Haven, David Parsons, Katherine Brown, John O'Neill, Early Staley, and James H. Chillman, Jr. Courtesy of The Menil Collection.

Advice to the next generation

If you have to do [art], if you absolutely have to do it—do it. But my idea is that you shouldn’t get involved in it because you will only be discouraged constantly. I’ve been teaching more or less 40 years. I did have a ten-year span of time when I wasn’t teaching full-time, but I’ve been back at it now for 15 years at a community college. For anybody who is an art major, 99.9% will not go on past school, either undergraduate or graduate school, because you can’t make a living at it. I say artists should be discouraged at all costs because the consequences are that you will end up at 50 [without]anything to fall back on. Of all the students I have had, I only know of four or five or six that are still practicing artists.

I was told to be a success in this you have to be very good, but you also have to be very lucky and very crafty. You have to know how to work the crowd. You have to go out and hustle your work. So if you’re not a good hustler, if you’re not a people person [who can] sell what you do, it’s not going to happen. But if there’s a spark in you that demands that you pick up a brush, if that’s you, stay in it. Do it. I do this to amuse myself. If it doesn’t amuse me, I ain’t going to do it. I’ll amuse myself so long with this, and then I’ll do something else.

I remember when I was in graduate school in Arkansas I was up there in my studio, painting away, and I knew there were four or five other graduate students, but they weren’t in there with me painting. So about the second week of school I walked over and there they were, in the faculty lounge having coffee. They were hanging out. What am I doing? I’m painting pictures. Crazy. I’m so tickled to death to be here just to be able to paint a picture…and they were over there having coffee.

So I never did like to schmooze or hang out. I’d rather be in the studio painting because that’s who I am. Consequently, here I am.

Earl Staley was interviewed on October 6, 2006. You can listen to the interview here .

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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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