What helped Rockport become famous art colony?
By Kay Betz
Friends of the History Center for Aransas County
Many factors contributed to Rockport becoming what has been called one of the 10 best coastal art colonies, including hundreds of talented, dedicated people who moved here and had “second lives” as artists. Simon Michael started it all in the late 40s, teaching art to many local adults and children and promoting the area as a creative community. By the 60s, prosperity from the oil and gas industry brought many people to the Coastal Bend, where they bought second or retirement homes and wanted coastal art to decorate them. Palm Harbor opened in 1961, and Carl Krueger began construction of Key Allegro in 1962. The LBJ Causeway replaced the outdated Copano causeway in 1966.
The area was also receiving positive publicity and increased tourism for its wildlife, hunting and fishing. Rockport was called “the duck capital of Texas.” The Aransas Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, established in 1937, was growing. Connie Hagar had been on the cover of Life magazine, and many birders came to observe migrating and resident birds. Some of the visitors decided to stay and take up painting, signing up for classes at numerous studios and galleries that were popping up. Income from teaching helped many beginning artists be able to paint full-time.
Meredith Long, a prominent Houston gallery owner, bought a weekend home in Key Allegro in 1968 and by 1970 had built a gallery at 62 Nassau, which operated until 1978. Many weekends there would be special art showings with the artists and cocktails, followed by dinner at The Islander Club at the nearby Key Allegro Hotel. Jack Cowan, a noted wildlife and sporting artist, frequented the area and became a Rockport resident in 1972. Al Barnes and Herb Booth, also sporting artists, joined Cowan and they called themselves “The Rockport Gang.” Long promoted the artists and their coastal landscapes in Houston, hanging them next to famous painters such as Winslow Homer. It was said, “anybody who was anybody wanted a Cowan, Booth or Barnes painting in his or her Houston office.” Kent Ullberg came to the area and began showing his wildlife and nature sculpture. Several sporting artists did commissions of individuals and their family out in nature fishing or hunting, often sketching or photographing the actual scene beforehand with James Richard Fox as their guide. Wealthy patrons helped support numerous local artists. Numerous books were published highlighting Rockport artists, including The Golden Crescent, A Collection of Paintings by Jack Cowan and The Texas Gulf Coast: Interpretations by Nine Artists.
Rockport also reflected national trends in the art world. More middle-class people had leisure time to take art lessons as part of a democratization of art, a belief “anybody can paint” through “paint-alongs” or by studying “how to” instruction books. Artists such as Estelle Stair, Kit Dinger, and Chris Ely, along with nationally-known artists who came through on a regular circuit, began offering workshops and taking their students out to paint the sand dunes and boats in the harbor. Art festivals were also becoming popular throughout the nation, allowing artists who might not yet be showing in galleries, to sell lower-priced and more accessible art to attendees.
The Rockport Art Guild was founded in 1967; Jan Wendell, Shirley Farley and Cy Johnson signed the Articles of Incorporation at the Colony Room of the Sanddollar Motel on Fulton Beach Road. Early members included Polly Bracht, Carl Duckworth, Sis Harper, Neva Sorenson, Estelle and Nancy Stair. An energetic and committed band of artists including Steve Akin, Steve Russell and others joined with newcomers to start the first Rockport Art Festival in 1968 to help raise funds for a permanent home. Engineers, sign painters, entrepreneurs, architects, bankers, military men and women, physicians and many others contributed their expertise to create the emerging art community and association.
One of the principal reasons many artists and students came here was the camaraderie they developed, gathering together to learn from and support each other. Steve Russell described some of the times at the Estelle Stair Gallery during the early days: “All the artists would go down to Estelle’s, have drinks, and a pot of beans, fried chicken or barbecue. Everybody would tell stories. Everyone couldn’t wait to see each other. It was very impromptu. There were many late nights; no one wanted to go home, especially on a summer evening. The visitors from up north really liked it, so we all waited during the offseason for these folks to get back. It was like the first northern ducks and geese arriving. Here come our Snowbird Buddies piling in. It was a joyous reunion.”