Change Font Size:   A A A

Nov 23, 2016 | Kathy H. Culmer, DMin

Houston Curator is Early Champion of Black Artists


Robbie Elayne Lee

[Diolog Magazine] When Robbie Elayne Lee was growing up in the Third Ward of a segregated Houston, “Black people didn’t cross Main Street,” she said. “Main Street was the bridge that you didn’t cross.” It was the proverbial railroad track that Dr. John Biggers referred to when he said, “If you want to find Black neighborhoods in a town, cross the railroad track.”

Biggers is one of the featured artists in the upcoming “Crossing Bridges” art exhibit—to be on display at the at the EDOT Gallery in the Houston Diocesan Center, January 16 to March 30, 2017. Biggers was a painter, muralist, illustrator and sculptor who came to prominence following the Harlem Renaissance. He also established the art department at Texas Southern University where he taught for 30 years.

Lee, who will curate the show, is a licensed art appraiser, lecturer on Black art and former owner of the Black Heritage Art Gallery, which was in business for 37 years before closing its doors in 2014.

Lee’s own involvement in art began in childhood. She remembers that when she and her siblings would walk along the railroad tracks on Velasco Street on the way to their grandmother’s residence in Cuney Homes, they would often stop and go into the art department at Texas Southern to get water and cool off. Inside the walls of this building, their eyes were opened to “a world of gorgeous art and sculptures,” as Lee describes it. Prior to this experience Lee and her siblings had no knowledge of art beyond what they had seen in their grandmother’s house—framed pictures on the wall of Jesus, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., a “Holy Trinity” that graced the walls of many African-American homes. But, unlike her grandmother’s art, the art at TSU featured black images, faces and the work of black artists in a way that intrigued and captured their imaginations, and perhaps, their hearts as well.

 On one of their stopovers, Lee met Biggers, who asked the children to be models for the students in his drawing class. Insisting they couldn’t without permission, Biggers wrote a note to their grandmother asking if she would allow them to stay. With her grandmother’s permission, the seeds of Lee’s passion for Black art planted on those initial water breaks began to take root.

They were further nurtured when Lee earned a business degree at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Almost as chance an encounter as she had had at TSU, her next was the result of a wrong turn on the way to pick up her father-in-law at the train station. The wrong turn led her down a street where she saw an array of Black art hanging on fences and it was from this makeshift outdoor gallery that Lee made her first art purchase. She continued to be drawn to the artists and artwork that captured the experience of African-Americans. Artists whose work she purchased would call her to let her know about other exhibitions, and as she attended more events, her connection with artists strengthened and expanded. At the same time, her art collection grew.

When Lee returned to Houston in the late 1970s, with an impressive collection purchased from the Northeast and the West Coast, she discovered an alarming scarcity of Black Art in her hometown. After an extensive search, she found only one gallery that carried any art at all by Black artists, and that was work by Dr. John Biggers. The gallery was Lowell Collins Art Gallery in the Montrose area near midtown Houston.

After repeated requests by friends and other art enthusiasts to sell her art, Lee began having art parties and making sales from her home until her husband agreed to a rental space so he could “reclaim his home.” In January 1977, Lee opened Sutton’s Black Heritage Art Gallery, later renamed the Black Heritage Art Gallery. Her goal was to provide a venue for Black artists’ work, to increase their visibility and to facilitate a greater understanding of and appreciation for their work. She remains committed to the perpetuation of the works of African-American artists today. When asked about her greatest contribution, Lee said she has at least a dozen artists she represented in their early careers whose work now hangs in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Lee intends the “Crossing Bridges” exhibit to “Share our community across the bridge,” through the art of African-American artists in the Houston area. While it is meant to display the extraordinary work of some of Houston’s most notable African-American artists, it is also intended to “open the doors to our community as a whole,” she said.

The exhibit will feature work by Biggers, Lionel Lofton, Earlie Hudnall, Charles Washington, Leonard Freeman and Harvey Johnson. With the exception of Biggers, who passed away in 2001, all the artists currently reside in the Houston area. All were mentored by and/or students of Biggers. The exhibit will include paintings, drawings, books, dolls, statues and other Black memorabilia.

Lee currently tours, exhibits and lectures on artists at schools, colleges, museums and social organizations in America and around the world. Her goal is to get African and African-American artists accepted and exhibited as a part of the American cultural norm.

Culmer is a professional biblical storyteller and a member of St. James, Houston.