Fall Arts 2014

6 Young Artists Who Are Reshaping Houston’s Art Scene

This year we salute the new wave behind this season’s thrilling slate of cultural events—a lineup as fresh and new as the artists behind them.

By Michael Hardy, Peter Holley, and Adam Casteñeda Photography by Arthur Garcia September 30, 2014 Published in the October 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

David Portillo Tenor, 34

He didn’t see his first opera until he was 18 and a freshman at UT–San Antonio, but the performance—he drove into town to see Houston Grand Opera’s Così fan tutte—left a mark on David Portillo. Just 16 years later, the tenor is set to make his HGO debut, fittingly in another Mozart opera, The Magic Flute. “Opera combines everything that I love,” he says, before reeling off a list: orchestral music, singing, dance, costumes, theater, foreign languages. “Having to translate and actually learn the language is an incredible challenge and one of the reasons it’s such a well-rounded art form.”

Over the past decade Portillo has earned a master’s degree from the University of North Texas and done stints in the artist development programs of the San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In 2012, after years of travel, he decided to put down roots in Houston. 

Like a professional athlete, Portillo follows a strict training regimen overseen by his voice teacher at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. His voice requires daily maintenance, including attention to diet and good hydration. 

“Because we rely on our bodies, there is something very personal about our instrument,” he tells us. “But also, like an athlete, you’re always going to have subconscious paranoia about your skills, about whether they’re going to be the same tomorrow.” Last season was Portillo’s busiest yet, with performances at Opera Angers-Nantes, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Salzburg Festival, and the Saito-Kinen Festival in Japan.  

If Portillo is an artistic athlete, you’d have to say he’s in his prime. —Peter Holley

The Magic Flute | Jan 30–Feb 14 | Houston Grand Opera | houstongrandopera.org

Michael C. Rodriguez Painter, 31

Set against a background of generic skyscrapers, we see a series of brightly-colored, cartoon-like figures: a wolf in a leisure suit; two menacing dinosaurs; a robot carrying a scantily-clad woman in his arms; a bear wearing a T-shirt. It’s Michael C. Rodriguez’s latest mural—stretching across an entire wall of the cavernous Winter Street Studios complex—and it cements his reputation for blending the cute and the grotesque, the innocent and the evil. For last year’s Station Museum show dedicated to street artists, Rodriguez painted a stunning image of a boy and girl holding hands, skipping merrily into an apocalyptic landscape where drones patrol the sky and plumes of smoke rise from the ground. 

Rodriguez is a mild, soft-spoken man, a man who began drawing because of a childhood illness that often kept him home from school. “It was hard to keep friends in school because I often wasn’t there, so I just turned to art,” he says. “It made me happy—I loved drawing. I’d come home and do that, and I found a lot of comfort in it. Even today, it makes me happy to draw.” 

Rodriguez’s murals begin with a pencil sketch, which he then finalizes in ink, using watercolor or graphite to add texture before scanning the image into his computer, where he adds color in Photoshop. Finally he paints the image onto a wall using a combination of acrylic and latex paint. “I’m very digital—I like clean lines, solid colors,” he explains. “I’ll take a long time on a mural because I want everything as clean as possible, like it was made on a computer, and really bright.” 

For the past decade, Rodriguez has mostly supported himself by creating artwork for local and national bands, over a hundred of them at last count, including two album covers for local favorites The Tontons. But murals remain his first love, one he’s happily able to give more and more attention to these days, thanks to a growing number of commissions. He says his biggest aesthetic influence is ’60s-era comic books, which his father collected. 

“I just love a lot of art from the ’60s—comics, even fashion,” he says. “It just has this romantic feel to me, which I love. I like to put romance into my work.” —MH


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Ashley Horn Dancer/Choreographer, 32

“Dance is a gift. To move the whole body, to project through space, to fall down, to be off balance—I really enjoy moving with abandon and moving freely.” So says this local rising star who, despite having started dancing at the age of 7, never thought it would be a part of her career. In college, Ashley Horn changed majors eight times, but always found herself in a studio. She ended up at the University of Houston, where she minored in dance, and it was there that she met Rebecca French, the artistic director of FrenetiCore Dance. French invited Horn to dance with her company, and the opportunity began a “whirlwind that won’t stop.”

Horn went on to work with many Houston companies and choreographers, with early inspiration coming from Jennifer Wood’s Suchu Dance. “I have a distinct memory of the first Suchu show I went to. I didn’t know that this type of dance theater existed, and I didn’t understand this world [Wood] had created, but I was so invested and so charmed.” Part art installation, part interactive exhibit, Horn’s own evening-length efforts also have a fully immersive quality that engages the audience. 

In the spring she’ll be dancing with Frame Dance Productions, but at the moment she’s hard at work on her own show, Dans la lune (To the moon). The new dance work, which will premiere at Rice University in December, takes its inspiration from Georges Méliès’s 1902 silent film Le voyage dans la lune, best remembered for its bizarre image of a bullet-like spaceship lodged in the Man in the Moon’s eye. “I saw it a long time ago, and I keep watching it because it’s fascinating,” Horn explains. “I like old-timey special effects, and the beginning of sci-fi and fantasy films. Méliès was kind of laughed at the time, but he was an über-pioneer.” —Adam Casteñeda

Dans La Lune | Dec 5-6 | Rice University | ashleyhorndance.com

Kevin Downs Cellist, 28

After being away from Houston for close to a decade, Kevin Downs decided to return to his hometown in 2012. Having basked in European high culture at places like The Royal Conservatory of the Hague in the Netherlands, however, he made sure he had an escape plan in place in case things didn’t work out. 

“When I bought my plane ticket from the Hague to Houston I bought a round-trip,” says the cellist, who came home just after his final recital, one for which he’d received the highest score by the Royal Conservatory’s judges. “If I decided I’d made a huge mistake I figured I’d just get back on the plane in a month and pretend none of it ever happened.”

Fortunately for Downs and fans of chamber music in Houston, his feelings of uncertainty about our city didn’t last long. He settled into a cozy Montrose walk-up and began reacquainting himself with his birthplace (he grew up in Memorial), quickly discovering a burgeoning DIY classical music scene filled with entrepreneurial young musicians. Two months later he had landed a job as the principal cellist in the Mercury orchestra, formerly known as Mercury Baroque, which has expanded its repertoire and size in recent years, becoming one of the city’s premier classical music institutions. Not yet 30, Downs remains modest about his rapid ascent—the Cleveland Institute of Music, the New England Conservatory, and private study in Paris with legendary French cellist Michel Strauss. 

“I guess the fact that I had studied in Europe and done some interesting things made me a bit more unusual than some of the musicians in town,” says Downs, who started playing piano at four before moving on to cello at 11. “But one of the things I quickly realized about Houston is that it’s a very collaborative place, a place where people are open to supporting one another. You can sort of do anything you want.”

Recently, Downs has been touring with Vicennium Void, a four-piece new music ensemble he started with a few friends. The group recently returned from playing in Thailand, and will release their debut album later this year. “Three years ago if you’d told me I’d be settled in Houston, I’d have been very confused,” Downs says. “Musicians never have any idea where they’re going to end up, but I could see myself being here for a long time.” —PH

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40  |  Oct 11  |  Beethoven & Elgar  |  Nov 22
Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center  |  mercuryhouston.org

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Paul Otremba Poet, 35

Though he traces many of the poems in his first book, The Currency, to his experiences living in his home state of Minnesota and later in Washington, DC, Paul Otremba’s second collection of poetry, Pax Americana, out next April, will be his first work produced exclusively in Houston, where he’s lived since coming to UH in 2005 to pursue a PhD in creative writing.  

For a writer who has always craved urban stimulation—the kind you find in, say, the nation’s capital— Houston presented a new kind of artistic challenge. “Poetry has a way of asking you to pay attention,” he explains, sitting in his airy Montrose townhouse. “In DC I would just have interactions with other people—the people who you’re sitting with on the train, or the people you see walking down the street and experiencing their own world. When you get in your car and drive through Montrose you kind of see some things happening outside the window, but you’re not really paying attention in the same way.”

Otremba did begin finding inspiration, however, and in unexpected places—strip malls housing expensive restaurants, or corrugated metal townhouses pushed up against urban blight. “That kind of a rapid juxtaposition between things that have different functions, things that have different perceived aesthetic values, high and low mashing together, things that are pleasant and melodic and abrupt and violent, but exist in a simultaneous way, is its own kind of stimulation,” he tells us. “But it can take you a while to see it.”

While his first book used landscape as a metaphor for emotion, Otremba says that Pax Americana is filled with dramatic monologues and shifting voices that, like Houston itself, can’t be easily mapped or decoded, especially by newcomers. “The persons who are speaking or being addressed are sort of shape-shifters,” Otremba says. “I never thought about it as being a product of being in Houston and the way the city has influenced me, but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.” —PH


Daleton Lee Jazz Drummer, 33

Earlier this year, a capacity crowd filled Cezanne, Houston’s premier jazz club, to hear the Ken Easton Quintet perform songs from their excellent new record The Fountainhead. The youngest member of the ensemble, Daleton Lee, a wiry man wearing a baseball cap over his shoulder-length dreadlocks, sat behind a drum set at the edge of the stage, facing his fellow musicians. Keeping his eyes on bandleader Easton, Lee laid down a steady beat, adding an occasional flourish on the hi-hat or cymbal. Every once in a while he smiled to himself ever so slightly, as if he heard something he liked. That’s the stuff, he seemed to be thinking. 

Lee comes from a musical family—his father was the band director at Westbury High School in southwest Houston, and he grew up performing in his church choir. As a youngster, he drove his parents crazy by banging on pots and pans before graduating to drums at the age of seven. Inevitably, perhaps, he ended up at The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the incubator for countless local musicians, as did his younger brother Brandon, a trumpeter who’s now on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“I always call him my older little brother, because he was so much more mature,” Lee tells us during a break between sets. “He was just so focused on what he did, and it took me a little longer to get that focus.” Now that he has it, Lee is dreaming big. He plans to launch his own jazz quartet sometime in the next year. And he plans to start composing.

“I want the music to be really different, so that’s why I’m taking a while with it,” Lee says before returning to play the second set of the night. “After playing everybody else’s music for so long, I’m looking forward to doing my own.” —MH

Playing with Woody Witt | Oct 24 at 9 | Cezanne | cezannejazz.com

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