Sound + Art: The Oral Histories of Archway Gallery

Abstract/Artist's Statement: Over the course of the semester, I engaged in the Archway Gallery community as both a researcher and an artist. Conducting extended interviews with four artists and collecting other short oral histories with several other Archway artists at various events and other gatherings, I immersed myself in an environment brimming with creative introspection but largely undocumented annals and histories. While working on my project, I began to see the interconnections between art and community history, especially through the use of storytelling. This led me to understand how Oral histories, while widely considered to be historical artifacts, also have the potential to be considered art pieces in their own right. This semester-long research project culminates in a site-specific audio installation titled Sound + Art: The Oral Histories of Archway Gallery. In this project conducted in partnership with Archway Gallery (Houston’s longest-running member-owned gallery), I capture the life stories of several of the Gallery’s member artists. Additionally, I explore the artistic significance of historical items and the obtained benefits in engaging with these relics from a non-traditional perspective.

Archway Gallery, which opened its doors on April 1, 1976 in The Jung Center, is Houston’s longest-running member-owned gallery. The name “Archway” springs from The Jung Center’s many arches, and the Gallery has maintained its sense of openness and aspiration even as it has moved to different locations over the years. Developing with the mission that artists should have complete control over their work, Archway has evolved into an organization that promotes love for aesthetics, craftsmanship, and creativity in the greater Houston community. As part of the celebration of the institution’s 40th year, a creative research project was started to collect the oral histories of several of the Gallery’s artists. This project was planned as a way to spotlighting the people who make the Gallery what it is in addition to producing a starting point for future undertakings in recording the entire Gallery’s history. Now that the Gallery is almost half-a-century old, Archway wanted to begin to establish a solid archival collection while filling in the gaps from the previous forty years.

Archway’s historical collection lacks a meaningful base. With its preeminence as Houston’s longest-running member-owned gallery, one would think that there would be an official historian on staff, collecting oral histories from artists passing through and managing an extensive archival collection forty years in the making. In Archway’s case, they do not have the financial resources and time to hire someone specifically to do this job. All the artists at the Gallery perform a unique role that promotes the healthy functioning of the institution. For instance, John Slaby acts as treasurer--managing the budgets and making sure the money is being handled properly. He performs this role in addition to being an artist and holding a full-time job. For a full-time historian to exist at Archway, there would have to be one of the artists who can do the job, is willing to do it, and does not have conflicting responsibilities--on top of contributing to the Gallery as a member-artist. A person like this would be extremely hard to find.

I noticed the issues with Archway’s archival collection very quickly after starting my project there. Initially, I planned to skim the Gallery’s archives to get a clearer understanding of the nature of the organization, but I was unable to find anything substantial. Filled largely with scrapbooks of unlabeled pictures and non-descriptive news-clippings, the archival materials do not really tell the story of Archway, it’s character and personality, and its history-making impact on Houston. My research project addresses this by providing a comprehensive understanding and historical timeline of Archway’s existence and describing its uniqueness and influence on Houston artists. (It was actually during the research process that I came across some very valuable archival documents in Margaret Bock’s possession. Bock has been an artist at Archway for over 35 years.)

Oral history is a preserved record of an individual’s oral testimony and life story. It is based on contemplations of the past and the effect of former experiences. This is a perfect fit for Archway because the Gallery’s history is not buried in any of its locations, but in the individual artists that make up the institution. These individual personalities create the building blocks for the Archway’s character. Each distinct life contributes to the intentional, institutional community. What this looks like is a group of individuals prioritizing fellowship and community above all else so that the organization can succeed in all its endeavors. The life stories of artists at Archway comprises the life story of the Gallery itself. Consequently, Archway’s history can best be found by conducting oral histories with its artists.

I recorded the oral histories of several of the Gallery’s artists. I conducted four extended interviews averaging about one hour each. Two of these interviewees were newer arrivals to the Gallery while the other two had been with the Gallery for over twenty years. As a result of this methodology, I was able to gain a more comprehensive view of Archway through the years and its continued impact on artists in Houston. I also recorded several special events such as Installation Day (where all thirty-two artists set up and hang their pieces for the monthly opening reception) Opening Reception Night, and the Palette to Palate dinner (a special five-course dinner with entrees inspired by various artworks created by some of the Archway artists). I was given the opportunity to not only get to know the Archway community but also appreciate aestheticism’s impact on my daily life. It was then that I began to change my perspective on the direction of my research project. Because aesthetics, environment, and community play a huge role on my own personal artistic journey, I decided to model this in my research project.

I have chosen two audio clips specifically because they describe the interrelation between the art, community, and personality of Archway Gallery. The first is a clip from my interview with Cecilia Villanueva, which I believe shows the important influence of creative collaboration on the development and growth of an art institution’s character and artistic vision.

The second is a clip from my interview with John Slaby, which I think displays the effect of community on a creative organization’s personality and its production of unique and distinctive art.

Both of these clips we just heard are important because they shine a light on how community has impacted the personality, art, and shared history of Archway Gallery. Fellowship and community engagement--notions Archway regards highly--heavily influenced my understanding of how to form this research project. The one thing missing was the significance of cultural heritage and its relationship to art and community.

Through the varied experiences of this oral history recording process, I was able to gain an appreciation for Archway’s emphasis on community, aesthetics, and the artistic process. First and foremost, Archway Gallery’s history is alive in its artists and the community these artists consistently choose to maintain. Unfortunately, this history is in danger of being lost. Because Archway has not kept an extensive archival collection, the memories made and experiences had will only live on as long as each of the artists. Nothing physically tangible will be left. But, history-making and history-recording can be sustained through community. This has already been proven at Archway when they created and exhibited The Wishing Tree--a site-specific installation established as part of Archway’s 40th Anniversary Celebration. In this installation, all the artists came together to make history by producing the Gallery’s first collaborative piece. Additionally, the installation invited audience participation, allowing viewers to write down their own life stories through wishes and place it in the tree. This entire process used community to generate an anthology of histories while promoting internal reflection--something several Archway artists value highly. This process also upheld community and even furthered it by more closely connecting the Archway artists to their audience.

My project attempts to replicate this process, but in the reverse; instead of the audience bringing their life stories to the artists, my project brings several of the artists’’ life stories to the audience. Because Archway Gallery is a visual arts institution, I wanted to honor them by producing a creative research project in a vein that simultaneously confirmed and broadened their artistic endeavors. The oral histories I recorded could provide a meaningful base for their collection while fitting into their mission of artistic relevance. Thus, my project bridges the gaps between history, art, and community by a) producing the history of Archway through several of its artist’s oral histories, b) exhibiting a creative product for the audience to experience, and c) furthering Archway’s community by tying the artists and their audience closer together.

My semester-long research project culminates in a site-specific audio installation titled Sound + Art: The Oral Histories of Archway Gallery. The medium was purposefully chosen because it is not visual but auditory, something that Archway Gallery has never done before. When interviewing Cecilia Villanueva, she mentioned how The Wishing Tree installation for Archway’s 40th anniversary was the Gallery’s first collaborative site-specific piece. I was surprised to find out that Archway had never done something of this scale before. It was then that I knew the final project could be an installation because it would follow in the footsteps of the Wishing Tree by being collaborative between me and the Archway community and would continue the trend of engaging Archway’s audience with the individual minds of the artists at Archway.

The audio installation is comprised of six MP3 players connected to six speakers, creating six individual audio packages. Five of these packages are placed on L-brackets that are attached to the walls beneath five artists’ visual art pieces. Each of these plays that artist’s oral history interview, so that when you stand in front of an artwork, you can hear about the artistic process of the person who made it. Some of the audio focuses on the community aspect of Archway’s art. One audio package--playing a recording of the busy fury of Archway’s famous Installation Day--is placed close to the front desk so that visitors can hear how the Gallery sounds when the artists set up for the monthly opening reception.

When all the audio packages are turned on at the same time, the listener becomes completely immersed in a chorus of audible introspection. One of the community artists even described it as a “super cool, almost cinematographic experience.” The visitor still has the option to listen in and focus on an individual audio piece when standing in front of one of the artist’s artwork, thus obtaining the opportunity to delve into each artist’s history and see how Archway has impacted them--and vice versa. All in all, the viewer is overcome by how much history the people of Archway have and its influence on Archway’s own history.

The recorded Oral Histories will be archived in Archway’s newly expanded historical collection that will continue to grow with the help of future interns. Furthermore, the Woodson Research Center’s Cultural Heritage Collections will house additional copies of the audio recordings. As mentioned in Cecilia Villanueva’s interview, an individual’s creativity can be further developed through community art-making and collaboration. The constant interchanging of ideas and thoughts contributes to the expansion of one’s imagination and artistic vision. I experienced exactly this process while conducting my research project at Archway. With all the suggestions and advice provided by the artists, I was able to expand my original way-of-thinking and produce a worthwhile project that enhanced and improved my artistic skills.