Texas Talent- Lee Jamison

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Texas Talent- Lee Jamison

The region of East Texas, notes historian Dr. Caroline Crimm, is “little noted and often dismissed,” but “hidden behind the thick forest of the ‘Pine Curtain,’” it “holds a treasury of views and vistas.”  Lee Jamison thinks so, too, and his newly published book, Ode to East Texas: The Art of Lee Jamison, lends considerable evidence to his belief.  What follows is an interview with Jamison—part dialogue, part travelogue—as we explore the art, sights, and character of East Texas.

What is it about East Texas that makes it art worthy?

LJ: The landscape possesses a very particular beauty, marked by pine forests, mixed timber, gently rolling farmland, meadows, and some grassland.  Collectively, this is a pleasant landscape, but it also affords a privacy, a sense of being set apart, and it is a contemplative region.

Contemplative not only describes East Texas; it also describes Lee Jamison, as a thinker, artist, and (as I learned from reading his book) writer.

Jamison matriculated at Lon Morris College, the now-defunct East Texas College located in Jacksonville, Texas.  “It was where I got serious about art,” Jamison recalls. “I still think if you want to know who humans are, what they believe, and how they treat others, art history is a better way to do this than political history, and I learned that and more at Lon Morris College.”

While Lon Morris may have been the “Genesis Nexus” for Jamison’s East Texas, also looming large is Sam Houston State University, in Walker County, where Jamison has lived for the past 40 years.

One of the paintings I was a bit surprised to see in the book is “Old Main at Dusk,” capturing Sam Houston State University’s most impressive building (which, unfortunately, burned in 1982).  How does this Gothic structure embody East Texas?  

LJ: Old Main needs an article of its own.  It is a beautiful and multifaceted design, with fascinating history.  From a distance, Old Main had a classical appearance.  But as you draw nearer, its Gothic style becomes more distinct, reflecting the aspirational nature of a university building and, as I argue, the nature of the community in which it was built. It’s not an inherent part of the landscape; it’s a reflection of the people.  This includes Huntsville’s founder, Pleasant Gray; Sam Houston himself; and the people in the community who attracted Sam Houston to live here.  So, in Huntsville, I focused a bit less on the landscape, and a bit more on the structures they created.

Vestiges of Old Main still exist, in the form of preserved ruins from the 1982 fire.  Visitors can see the building’s footprint at its original site, which is next to Austin Hall, the oldest educational building west of the Mississippi.

Across from Old Main is the Sam Houston Memorial Museum and the grounds, which are also included in the book.  This setting captures both landscape and the character of the area’s residents.

LJ: One of the paintings I do is the “Frontier Law Office,” which is firmly nestled in the landscape tradition.  The physical structure it depicts is the law office of Sam Houston. Joshua Houston, the Houston family’s slave, was charged with the upkeep of the office, and he availed himself of its library of books: law, classics, and history.  Following the Civil War, he was appointed alderman in Huntsville; he was subsequently elected as a County Commissioner and as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. In that sense, he reflects the aspirational character of the community.

Heading a couple of hours north, in our art travelogue, we arrive in Tyler.  This city is designated not only as the “Rose Capital of the United States,” but it is also home to the beautiful Azalea District.

One of your Tyler paintings features the Goodman-LeGrant House and Museum, which you describe as anchoring “Tyler’s magnificent azalea tour.”  Tell us about its intriguing history.

LJ: It is an Antebellum home whose significance is born in the horrible conflict of the Civil War.  It was a place where refugees could come for comfort and respite.  The home survived that catastrophe, was designated as a historic structure in 1962, and has been beautifully preserved.  It is an almost resurrectional symbol–capturing history, beauty, and place.  The setting, however, is somewhat marred by a giant water tower in the background.  If I were just designing a beautiful painting, I would not have included the water tower, but as I say in the book, “this particular home’s depth of meaning seemed to make including the ugly thing the wrong thing not to do.”

About a half hour southeast of Tyler is the town of New London–a seemingly odd name for an East Texas town, until you remember the region also sports Paris, Carthage, New Boston, Atlanta, Pittsburg (no “h”), Palestine, and Athens. This town was the site of a 1937 public-school explosion that killed 294 people, almost all children.  This event is captured in a monument, which is, in turn, captured by Jamison’s painting “Foundations of Progress.”

Perhaps another symbolic painting is “Foundations of Progress,” which depicts the New London memorial.  Tell us about that.

LJ: I learned about the New London explosion from my mother, who told me about it within the context of the regulatory changes it brought about.  Prior to the explosion, natural gas could be used without added odorants.  Following that explosion, Texas passed a law changing that, thus providing a warning of a leak. I have seen photos taken shortly after the explosion, and the scene was horrific, with bricks spread over the countryside.   

Near the memorial is the New London Texas School Explosion Museum.  One artifact on display is a reproduction of a piece of recovered chalkboard, on which is scrawled: “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing. Without them, this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”

At the time of the explosion, the town’s population was 2,129.  But with one explosion, an entire generation passed.  A majority of these victims are buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery and can be identified by the date of their death (March 18, 1937).

Today, the town has fewer than 1,000 residents.

That explosion was brought about by neglecting safety standards.  Juxtaposed to that, however, you argue that, in the case of Jefferson, a form of benign neglect led to the preservation of one of Texas’s prettiest small towns.

LJ: Yes, Jefferson was a busy port in the 19th century, heavily reliant on steamboat traffic for its commerce.  As such, it wasn’t interested in other income streams such as the railroad. Unfortunately, the flow of the Red River changed in the late 19th century, the water level in Jefferson was reduced, and this ended the town’s status as an important port.  Without shipping traffic, it became isolated, with little new development or investment.  Whatever negative effects this had, the lack of development also meant old things weren’t torn down, thus preserving the town and giving us a pretty good picture of what a river port in the middle 1800s would have looked like.

What’s your favorite spot in Jefferson?

LJ: I love the old federal courthouse; it is a beautiful building, with a Richardson-Romanesque style of architecture.

About 30 minutes from Jefferson is Caddo Lake, one of the intriguingly beautiful spots in Texas.

LJ: Caddo Lake is Texas’s only natural lake, and it possesses remarkable beauty.  It has been an artistic haven for years and years, and it comes with a mystery deepened by its seemingly endless channels, which are often hidden away, as if you are entering the underworld.  It is Dante-like in its mystery and intrigue.

As an artist, what approach do you take to capture that mystery and beauty?

I keep coming back to the cathedral-like space in Caddo Lake, defined by the Cypresses that populate the region.  As you travel through these areas, you find yourself looking out from tree canopies into places of light, seeing open water.  It is as though you are peering out from a mystery into light, and as an artist, I try to explore that sense of enclosure and release.

From the seemingly pre-historic shores of Caddo Lake, we travel a couple of hours south to Nacogdoches—the State’s oldest municipality. Visitors here can find the red-brick roads of downtown, nature trails through pine forests, and Stephen F. Austin University (SFA).

Tell us about Nacogdoches and the Old Stone Fort.

LJ: Nacogdoches illuminates the age of settlement in Texas. When the Spanish established a mission, they sought to establish a settlement to support the mission.  In the case of Nacogdoches, the administrative center of that settlement was “The Old Stone Fort,” which is a misnomer, since it never served as a fort.  Unfortunately, it was torn down in 1902, and those stones were used for another building. In 1936, however, as the city prepared for the Texas Centennial, they used these original stones to reconstruct the Old Stone Fort, and that structure still stands today, on the grounds of SFA.

 Just west of Nacogdoches is another historic destination, Caddo Mounds State Historic Site.  You captured this site in your painting, “Journey to the Ancients,” which features a Mound and a Caddo hut.

LJ: Caddo Mounds is a wonderful ancient place, where people have been living for hundreds of years, possibly even longer. Interestingly, my painting reflects a view that no longer exists. The hut I depicted was built not long before I visited and was crafted by a Caddo elder from Oklahoma.  In 2019, a tornado blew through and destroyed that hut.  The mounds, of course, remain, and their simple beauty also elicits contemplation.

From the primitive beauty of the Caddo people and their settlements, we travel two hours south to Polk County, the borders of which are formed in part by Lake Livingston and the Trinity River.

When painting a scene from Polk County, you eschew not only the pine trees, but also Lake Livingston, and instead focus on the courthouse.  What prompted that decision?

LJ: I think courthouses are a source of civic pride for many East Texas towns, and I wanted to reflect that. In Livingston, the courthouse square is indicative of people’s need to share commonalities. The Polk County Courthouse sits near the railroad, next to the intersection of HWY 190 and 59, near the Trinity.  It is a transportation hub, connecting people through travel.  It also connects to other places architecturally.  It shares, for example, elements with the Marion County Courthouse in Jefferson.  And the red building on the Polk County Courthouse grounds, “the records vault,” was copied in Groveton and enlarged, becoming the Trinity County Courthouse.  Our courthouses should tie us together, and, at least in terms of architecture and pathways to elsewhere, they do.

Speaking of tying people together, you highlight the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in New Waverly, Texas.

LJ: Yes, this church was the center of a rather isolated Polish community in East Texas. It is a prime example of Texas’ “painted churches,” more common in Central Texas, where they are often made of stone. While I studied the structure, I became interested in a large nearby tree and incorporated it.  To me, the work of humans and the work of God—the Church and the tree—were matched together.

 

 

Coming full circle, both conceptually and geographically, we arrive in Dodge, north of New Waverly, and a few minutes east of Huntsville. What makes that a special place and an important focus of your book?

LJ: We lived in Dodge from 1984 to 2008, and during these years, I had the opportunity to complete my understanding of East Texas as a distinct place and culture. It’s one thing to experience a region as a college student; it’s another to live “in the soil of the earth,” to see people as they live, to witness the beauty —as well as the less attractive qualities—they possess and display. It was where I experienced people as humans and, as I mentioned earlier, there is a tight connection between understanding art and understanding humans.

Settling in a place, even a place obscured in East Texas’s Pine Curtain, “is to come to love, and then lose, people and things” notes Jamison, in his book.  These people and things “come and go”—much like travelers who seek out new memories by visiting new places. But Jamison’s travels, experiences, and artistic vision, are captured permanently in the images and words of Ode to East Texas, and sometimes, to quote the artist out of context, they repeat “like a melody in a symphony of light and grass and sun.”

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