Art and the Undertow

Julian explores the art scene of downtown Galveston, drawing perspective from curators and artists along the way. Follow him as he navigatesthe necessary balance of the tourist kitsch and the maverick edge, starting with Galveston Artist Residency’s current retrospective, “True Artist Tales” by Scott Gilbert. Photo: Galveston Artist Residency

“I feel like Galveston’s the kind of place that, if you poke around, [offers] hidden gems you can find,” says Eric Schnell, one of the founders of Galveston Artist Residency. I’m standing in the foyer of GAR’s gallery, taking in the striking black-and-white ink strokes of the framed cartoons on the wall when Eric continues his ruminations. “So what I do is: always expect to be surprised. Sometimes you might go into a commercial gallery thinking you’re gonna not be interested in what they’re doing, but you find something that’s really sincere that really creeps up on you.”

Another Galveston ArtWalk is in full swing, and I watch the patrons wander in and out, cups of wine or red Solos of beer in hand, as they stop, nod in appreciation, and float on to the next work.

“You think about the art’s kind of like the music scene,” Eric adds. “There’s a lot of pop music, right? But some days you just wanna go to a punk show that has some crazy energy to it... I feel like when you’re in a big city you have to do things a certain way, but being in Galveston there’s a kind of freedom to it where kind of anything goes. If you have some kind of wild project, you can just go for it here.”

Watching from the sidelines as a local, I’ve seen how that dynamic has established itself in the culture here. You see it in the beach houses and the gift shops and the chain restaurants that line the seawall. But if there’s one thing that we here at the zine are tapped into, it’s that fiercely independent undercurrent.

Check it out for yourself—nestled between oil-stroked seashore sunsets and lens-flared photographs of seagulls, you get the weird and wonderful pieces that make you wonder. Tucked in the alleys behind the vacation home decor shops, you’ll find a mural or a spray-painted stencil that’s a straight shot of sovereignty eschewing the safe, the easy. That something that taps into that strangeness, that makes Galveston unique, something that bounces like a live wire in your hands. I don’t think there’s any other place that somehow mixes these two aesthetics in such a fascinating way. The most awesome thing about it all? The two mindsets don’t clash in a way that undercuts either.

“Yeah, Galveston is a mixture between the touristy and the smaller ‘interesting’ scene,” describes Pat Palermo, one of the selected artists for this year at GAR (shout out to his contributions to the zine!). He tells me that he isn’t interested in making judgements on the art culture of the island.

“To me it’s like two different industries. It’s like asking someone who makes motorcycles what [they] think of someone who makes industrial semi-trailer trucks. It’s not the same thing.”

Dennis Nance, the new curator at Galveston Arts Center, characterizes the Galveston art experience as a more synergistic whole. He described to me how the crowds that filter in, regardless of their background or experiences with art, all draw from the same love of culture.

“Those two ecosystems... are not necessarily separate,” says Nance. “They overlap in many ways because, all in all, everyone’s in it for this kind of love and joy that art brings to them. But I think that exists everywhere where there’s an art community because you have these overlapping circles. Some people might feel comfortable in certain realms, other people in another. But they all rely on one another... we don’t need to show the same work. If people that visit pop over here, maybe they don’t like it, maybe they won’t love it, but it offers another idea, another viewpoint. And that’s ultimately what art can do.”

That viewpoint speaks to how Galveston is one part vacation and one part subversive, shaken and stirred with the kind of DIY mindset that follows when your connections to the mainstream are separated by literal bridges. That distance, that isolation—it’s one of the biggest reasons why I feel like the island is such a petri dish.

Given the fact that the culture on the island is still in its infancy, I hesitate to call it a scene just yet. But the fact that the city isn’t quite on the map is a great thing. We’re not too cool for ourselves. So when I see the primordial beginnings just oozing out of every corner, with every new piece adding more volatility to the mix? It shows that the scene down here is on the cusp of something truly beautiful.