By Valentino Stradford
On February 25th “Social Artist” Rick Lowe visited the Menlo College campus and spoke about art and the type of work that he does, including several projects that he began and others that are still ongoing. Mr. Lowe was born in Alabama, but has been based in Houston, Texas for some time and, as such, does most of his work in that area and the cities surrounding it. In recognition of his artistic social work he received a Fellows award from the MacArthur program in 2014, a program which “awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
The project that Mr. Lowe is best known for is Project Row Houses. The project began in 1993 in Houston, Texas. According to Mr. Lowe, this project was inspired by the cultural art of John Biggers and his work depicting shotgun houses. Biggers’ art and the public outcry surrounding the dilapidated neighborhood involved in the project, 22 houses in total, pushed Mr. Lowe into action. With the involvement of other artists and the community, he renovated the neighborhood turning it into a community center, community garden, a base for a program aimed at helping single mothers, and a model for future low-income housing.
It is important to stress community when writing of Mr. Lowe, or any “social artist.” His work revolves around the people and culture of a community as shown by the title of his presentation to Menlo, “Socially and Community Engaged Art: The Genuine and The Artificial.” Near the beginning of the presentation he mentioned that he believes in “creating authentic art.” He further explained that this does not necessarily mean paintings or sculptures, but instead turning the un-exceptional parts of life into the extraordinary, and pushing the unseen beauty of the common into the foreground. When asked what advice he had for those of us just coming into our own lives he expressed that people nowadays are too impatient and absorbed in wanting something ‘now.’ He recommended that we should find a mentor and become their apprentice in order to have a model for our own lives.
Throughout the presentation Mr. Lowe showed us several examples of what is seen as ‘art’ by the general populace. He would create parallels of some of those art pieces with people and activities he’d captured during daily life. It made me think about things that happen to catch my eye in a different way, and I’m sure that it had the same effect on the others in the audience. In a post-presentation session, I asked Mr. Lowe about failures he may have experienced in his career. He replied that he’d had several, but he didn’t really see them as failure; instead he looked at them as learning opportunities. This answer perfectly describes Mr. Lowe’s view of the world and the beauty and opportunity that surrounds us in our everyday life.
In acknowledgment of his work, Mr. Lowe has been invited to join artists from around the world, to create a brand new piece for 2017’s Documenta, a world-renowned cultural event held once every five years for only 100 days in Kassel, Germany since 1955. We hope this won’t make him too popular to return to Menlo in the future.