Payne Lara at work on a life-sized equestrian sculpture
Folks around the Brazos Valley never give it much thought, but Navasota has an impressive stable of fine artists for such a small town. The reason is simple, Navasota has always been an inspiring yet affordable place to live.
I submit here a totally random listing of artists that I know here in Grimes County. There are other, quite famous ones that I have not yet met. I'm going to list them in order of their approximate status in the Texas art world, such as it is...
Payne Lara: Payne has made tons and tons of large, monumental bronzes, and is one of the leading sculptors in America. He was born here in Navaosta and discovered quite early and started casting his clay sculptures into bronze before he was twenty. He is also an accomplished horseman and rodeo competitor. In his youth he divided his talent between sculpting and team roping. He started making a name as an artist right out of High School.
Payne immersed himself in his chosen subjects, learning everything he could about Native American culture. He has studied anatomy, not only of human forms but of horses. Every figure he sculpts is built from the "bones out." Today he also manufactures those "bones" for other sculptors as well.
Payne has eventually taken his world class sculpting talent all over the country, to invitational art shows reserved for the very best. He has done many bronze monuments, for the City of Bryan, local ranches and the Houston Livestock Show. He is currently working on a landmark series of commissions about the American soldier, being installed at the Veterans Park in College Station.
Payne is also an inventor, and has a couple of patented products he is marketing, and in the process has established himself as one of the most noteworthy of Texas sculptors. His Tru Form sculpture armatures will probably become a standard in the figure sculpting world. And his sculptures will inspire and teach all of us about our historical and wildlife resources forever.
Payne has recently moved his home and studio to Millican, Texas, just across the Navasota River in Brazos County. But we still claim him.
There is just no way, even after twenty years of knowing and dealing with Leon, to begin explaining him. But since he is the most successful artist in the Brazos Valley, I guess I should try. Leon and I have been good friends for many years, and long before he took his art seriously. For nearly three decades, I have known him as an extremely creative person, one heck of storyteller, and one of the best antique pickers I have ever known...
Leon Collins & Molly Bee
Leon and his daughter Molly at a show at the Arts Council of the Brazos Valley in College Station.
My friend and neighbor Leon Collins does a kind of folky-edgy/borderline unsettling art and cannot keep his work in stock. Leon produces art like a madman with a gun to his head. He paints an average of at least one painting a day. A LARGE painting. That includes prep work and framing, and annoying me occasionally when he gets restless ;). He does not have time to think a thought. He paints what he sees, what he dreams, what he remembers, anything that comes to his mind. There is often no symbolic theme, no deep story behind his works, no mission, no central message; A little girl avoids the jaws of an alligator, a man ducks his wife’s rolling pin, black women sail through a cotton field dragging enormous sacks… A crazy looking bird watches… you don’t know what it is… He is as purely stream of conscious as I have ever known.
I purchased this painting by Leon Collins about a year ago. I had acquired two from him earlier but sold them for very satisfying profits.
This composition is very tame for Leon, who often paints ghoulish characters overtaking expressive female forms, or black men and women in chains, suffering and enduring, often with allusions to Black Magic. His average customers are white, upper middle class, who befriend him and embrace his work as if on a pilgrimage.
Smothered in approval and acceptance, Leon is even more addicted to the action … the thrill of painting and selling. He has no website, no business card. No agent. And he has sold thousands compared to my scores, just painting on the sidewalk in Navasota, Texas. His highest art actually begins when he begins to talk about the paintings… then he is at his most creative. Leon is nothing if not the biggest, the most talented salesman and story teller in Grimes County. But his verbosity is matched only by his impatience. And if you catch him after a slow day, you will land a hell of a bargain.
Almost everything Leon Collins does is the antithesis to whatever any artist or professor or knowledgeable person has ever told me. And yet his sales outstrip whatever might be second. We talk all the time about the hows and whys... Leon's work and its success is a perfect storm, the juxtaposition of local color, black culture, popular fantasy, and the white need to prove something. He is thriving purely because he offers a product that hits this culture right between the eyes… and they do not even know why. Ever since Picasso's Guernica, art has denied the soul. But when people meet Leon Collins, they seem to discover theirs. He is the high priest of racial atonement, and his sidewalk easel the confessional. And he has won thousands of converts.
And yet amazingly, against all workshops and lectures about marketing to the contrary, his success is completely dependent on word of mouth.
He came to my art studio after he came to Navasota almost thirty years ago, and explained he was an artist and wanted to pursue an art career, and I took an interest in him and encouraged him. At the time another black artist, David Woods was setting the brush on fire with his black genre art, and I knew there was room for more. Then later one day I met him walking down the street, (he never drives, never had a car, ever) and he was carrying some antique fire buckets he wanted to sell. He was not painting, but had found he could make out better as an antique "picker." I purchased quite a bit from him over the years, always talking about his talent, and him pretty much ignoring my advice.
Now it is the other way around.
Then around twenty years ago another artist, Junior Tenneyson came up with an idea that inspired Leon and soon he was exhibiting in Bryan and even Dallas. You may wonder what inspires him, and it is simple: making money. His black and white ink drawings sold pretty well... better than me for sure. Then he got bored with it and set aside painting for several years and went back to antique picking. When his daughter Molly, whom I have known since she was a little monkey that would climb me like a tree and take off my glasses, began to paint several years ago, he picked it up again. Especially when he saw how well people recieved her work. Leon has always loved the action of trading. And he responds to friendly competition too.
In the past few years, no kidding, he and Molly have painted and SOLD hundreds and hundreds, maybe a thousand paintings. She has pretty much moved on, but Leon has become a local, even a statewide phenomenon. TV interviews, magazine covers, articles... and more money and attention than he ever dreamed of.
He and Molly began by setting up outside of Tejas Antiques in Navasota, and selling to tourists passing through. They painted on boards, doors, even over other artworks. Dwayne Garner gave him a home inside the place eventually, and since then Leon has eclipsed the rest of the shop. People love his paintings and buy them by the carload. He goes to art shows all over Texas and sells out. Important collectors make their way to Navasota and look wantingly up and down the street for him. They hardly ever leave empty-handed. They hardly ever give a hoot about the rest of us...
Leon has taught us a lot. He did all of this without advertising, or a website, even a business card. He never looked to the Chamber of Commerce or the art club or anybody for help. Yet he has created the single most successful marketing campaign Navasota or any town has ever seen.
He smiles, talks about his life, and paints like crazy. He is always courteous and friendly. His countenance is infectious. He may be the most prolific artist Texas has ever produced. In the process, his art has become a true economic stimulator for Navasota, Texas.
Leon has proved that "word of mouth" is the very best form of advertising; That people buy when you get their attention, and are worthy of it; That sometimes the art is what people take home as a souvenir from a cherished acquaintance.
Leon has had a ball. He has never gotten all wrapped up in art talk or concern about materials or framing or anything. His may be the most pure, unpretentious art I have seen made. He gets a thought, and within hours it is drying in the sun. His works are composed without much research or visual resources, and he depends a great deal on his imagination and his personal experience. If he finds an old closet door, or a canvas screen, he paints on it. One day he is painting bluesmen, the next cowboys and Indians. One day Texas missions, the next day slaves in bondage. He does whatever appeals to him, unrestrained by the academic structure of design, drawing, or proportion. Or "good taste." If his colors seem garish and his subjects edgy, then too bad. That's what he did that day, no apologies. The off-the-wallness of his work seems to be part of the charm. He makes no pretense about what he makes or what it might be worth.
He often walks into my art gallery, sincerely wanting to help me, and suggests if I really wanted to make some money, I should buy some of his and double the prices...
And he is right!
The son of Mr. Alex Woods Jr. and Mrs. Mosie Lee Woods, David Woods grew up in Montgomery, Texas and attended Montgomery schools. He was born 1953 in Navasota, Texas and grew up working in the cotton fields of Grimes and Montgomery Counties and learned to pick and chop cotton to help feed his family before he was a teen-ager. He remembers forsaking his education in order to meet the expectations of the cotton producers, who pressed him and most of his siblings into service every year at harvest time. But today he draws inspiration from these experiences of his childhood.
There was always around half a dozen children around the Woods household, and times were hard, so as a child David learned to make new toys out of cereal and cigar boxes, entertaining himself and others with his native creativity. He first began to draw and make posters while in school, and eventually realized that he had real talent in art.
David met me one day in 1979 in Plantersville at our family store, and showed me some of his paintings. He shyly showed me these wonderful little miniatures of Texas black folklore. An instant friendship began that day and I helped David make the transformation from miniature paintings to full sized oil paintings on canvas. Eventually he fell in love with acrylics, as they fit his fast, hard-edge style. For about a year he shared my studio in Navasota, where he began his art career.
David was a quick learner and soon attracted collectors around the area, who loved the paintings of his authentic childhood memories. He was commissioned to do major works for local ranches and businesses, and one large portrait of Security State Bank in Navasota (Now Wells Fargo Bank). David worked for the American Basket Factory in Navasota for years, painting Texas folk scenes on their baskets and wooden products. He later worked for Christian Enterprises, now relocated in Tyler, where he continued to use his talent as a decorative artist until they left Navasota.
One peculiar anecdote I remember when he first started was when he had a one-man show at Security State Bank in Navasota. His magnificent paintings adorned the bank for several days and then suddenly the bank was caught in a quandry, feeling pressure to take them down. Some black citizens seemed to object to the artwork, saying it was an insult to them. They found nothing redeeming about his works. Steve Johnson, the bank Vice President who had arranged the show decided to leave them up. He argued sincerely that David's works were done by a black person, about blacks and their heritage, and that he was just offering space to let that story be told... "It's history!" he exclaimed, "You can't argue with history!" Alas it still was not considered "PC" and the work was retired prematurely. Ironically, David Woods suffered prejudice from his own.
Every year David pleases fans by showing his works at the Navasota BluesFest, where he has also been known to pick the guitar as well. He has been the official artist of the event for over a decade.
David has done several gallery exhibits and was interviewed by Ray Miller and appeared on the Eyes of Texas, where his talent was showcased for Houston area television viewers. He has also been written about in the Navasota Examiner over the years, and the subject of one their feature articles.
David's works are realistic, but largely painted from his imagination. He loves to depict the dignity of people engaged in hard work, and the atmospheric effects that Texas humidity has on the landscape. He loves to paint the world he was born in, just one generation from the horse and buggy days, mule-drawn plows and water sipped from a hand dug well. David paints the old Southern angle of Texas, when blacks made up one half of the population in his hometown, and took pride in their role in building the State. He represents the last generation that can tell the story of Texas plantation life, fresh from his own experience. After painting professionally for over thirty years, his message still rings true and timeless, and will someday remind all of us of who we were and how far we have come.