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ARTS SCENE IN THE 1930S: LEFT BANK ON THE BAYOU
by Randy Tibbits

In the 1930s Houston had a small but vigorous - even avant-garde - arts scene, perhaps surprising in a small-ish Southern city better known for generating fortunes from oil and lumber than for supporting art. But even more surprising - queer artists, musicians, writers and theater people were an integral and even accepted (if tacitly so) part of that scene.

Art Digest, surveying Texas art in 1936, called Gene Charlton (1909-1979) and Carden Bailey (1911-1997), a couple for 15 years starting in the early 30s, "The most progressive artists in Houston today…" Along with their fellow queer artist, Forrest Bess (1911-1977), they formed the core of a modernist art group that would have been advanced at the time even in New York City.

Queer women were part of the scene as well. Artist Emily Langham
(1894-1983), and her musician partner of decades, Julia "Jack" Routt (1899-1997), were active participants in the Museum of Fine Arts and Houston Symphony. Kathleen Blackshear (1897-1988) divided her time between Houston and Chicago, where she taught at The Art Institute school and lived with her partner Ethel Spears (1903-1974).

Many of the younger queer artists coalesced around theater dynamo Margo Jones (1911-1955) and her Houston Community Players. Jones, whose own sexuality is unclear, went on to found the professional regional theater movement and to produce Tennessee Williams plays on Broadway. In addition to artists Charlton and Bailey, queer (and possibly queer) writers William Goyen (1915-1983), William Hart (1916-1986) and Zoe Leger (1900-1990) worked with Jones during her time in Houston.

These queer artists and their straight colleagues consciously thought of the world they were creating as a Little Bohemia - a Left Bank on the Bayou. They were fully aware that they might be skirting "danger" with their edgy work and their unconventional lifestyles.

But then as now (what other major city anywhere has elected a Lesbian mayor?), Houston proved that its queer citizens could survive, even thrive,
and that their contributions could be welcomed in the midst of the reddest
of red states.

             

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