The Early Years
EARLY EVENING IN ORANGE, TEXAS, 1950. My great aunt and I were in the back seat of
our family’s green Pontiac, my father at the wheel. The warm wind circulated around us.
Riding down my favorite tree-lined country road, I took in the colors: the infinite shades
of green, the blue and purple specks of sky flashing through, the earthy textures from
ground to sky forming a seemingly endless canopy that gave me assurance and comfort.
Completely enveloped in a timeless space, nothing disturbed the joy that I experienced on
that evening drive. It was one of those indelible experiences that established my love for
being outdoors and my resonance with the natural world.
My artistic tendencies were shaped by the rich mosaic of influences that surrounded me
while growing up—nature, family, language, food—all of which played an instrumental
part in nurturing the growing question I carried inside: How do I fit into this matrix of
things? It was my compulsion to understand relationships, to arrange and bring into close
proximity disparate elements and have them make sense internally, that led me to create.
I always knew that there was something operating underneath all the things that I could
see, smell, taste, and hear. That something was what I was most curious about, and why I
was so insistent on trying things, on discovering what configuration might unlock my
understanding. Nature provided the most important key.
As a child I imagined that I was the creator of all that I saw—the entire landscape with its
vast expanse of flora and fauna. I remember my fascination with insects, studying their
patterns of movement, noticing which plants they liked and how they moved with such
proficiency, cooperation, and persistence. I recall standing under the stars, pondering the
great complexities of the endless outdoors. Being still, looking out and up, I knew I was
part of an amazing web of interconnectivity that was both frightening and deeply
reassuring at the same time.
In our yard, grand pecan and bay trees stood sentinel. Pines and spruce in abundance
offered a varietal bouquet of scents that floated on waves of unremitting humidity. With
no fences to designate property lines in our neighborhood, I had free reign to roam the
surrounding yards as well. Weather permitting, I collected objects that caught my eye.
Being on the Gulf Coast, there weren’t a lot of rocks; most of the natural material was in
varying states of decomposition. So I concentrated on gathering sticks and dried organic
matter with colorful and interesting surfaces.
In the afternoon I would bring my stash home, and secretly take my treasures under my
great aunt’s bed to arrange them. These were my first creative works, the beginning of
my interest in making and collecting. I tediously ordered and rearranged, sensing
particular relationships I needed to achieve before I could leave them, satisfied with my
efforts until the next day. I took the impressions of these experiences to bed at night,
letting them percolate in my imagination, as my aesthetic sensibilities began to form.
I had no idea what art was, or even if there was such a thing. I simply followed my
instincts, ordering objects and creating a little proscenium stage from bits of paper,
discarded letters with stamps, and images from the newspaper and magazines. I would
cut out the images, usually figures, and reinforce the paper with cardboard glued to the
back so I could stand them up. The most significant piece I created was a gigantic ship
that I built during the Christmas holiday from various boxes and colorful paper from gift
packages. It occupied an entire room. When my grandfather, who was a businessman and
not inclined towards such endeavors, walked in and saw it, he turned to me with a hint of
admiration and asked me if I had made it. I nodded. In that brief exchange I could feel his
approval, and knew that it was okay for me to continue to make stuff.
The smell of food was a constant growing up, and aside from nature, defined my world
more than anything else. The heat of the summer days brought distinct aromas from
Garrett’s Barbeque Pit next door. The owners, from New Iberia, Louisiana, brought
knowledge of spices and cooking foreign to Southeast Texas. Continuing the tradition of
the many generations who had come before them and settled in the area, they preserved
and cultivated their native vegetable and seafood dishes.
Creative cultural blendings were pervasive in my childhood. Languages and dialects from
various regions of Southwest Louisiana mixed with a hardy South Texas accent that did
not bend to my ear. My great aunt spoke a form of French Creole with her friends from
the old country. I did not fully understand their stories, but did not mind; in fact, I found
it comforting because they were so joyfully animated, their hands and bodies describing
various life events, their expressions and tones of voice rich and textured. These
conversations with the elders almost always took place in the kitchen, where culture
breathed, and where spirits were fed, acknowledged, and referenced in stories that were
Music was a big part of our home life. My uncle played piano, and exposed my sister and
myself to classical music. Chopin and Mozart were his favorites, which he played with
virtuosity and feeling. I liked music very much and easily navigated between genres,
from classical concertos to the blues of Momma Thornton, to Little Richard blaring from
the jukebox at the barbeque pit. These sounds, too, were part of the complex tapestry that
formed my world and my sensibilities.
The work in this book owes its origin to those early years, when life was play. I knew
then that my future work would be an extension of that play, shaped by the love and
admiration I held for a place imbued with the warmth of family and the mysteries of
nature, a place that I knew as home.