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A Houston-Born Artist Created Some of the Earliest (and Trippiest) Forms of Visual Music

A Mary Ellen Bute retrospective puts the spotlight on the oft-forgotten film pioneer.

By Josh Davis January 30, 2018

The best way to describe Mary Ellen Bute’s Spook Sport is to picture Disney’s Fantasia—but on acid. Painted directly on the film, radioactive green squiggles star as Ghosts, blood red arrows as Spooks, and black bats as, well, Bats. Set against a pitch-black background, Spooks pulsate outwardly, forming fiend-like faces. The squiggles then frolic about the screen, dancing to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. This mysterious, mystical, mesmerizing, and trippy ballad of colors, sounds, and music characterizes many of Bute’s shorts.

The Houston native—distinctive for her flaming red hair, plastic spike heels, and Southern accent—moved to New York in the 1920s and pulled herself up by her high heel straps to pioneer a new form of experimental filmmaking using visual music, sometimes dubbed “seeing sound.” So why don’t we know much about her?

That’s something former Metropolitan Museum of Art Curator Kit Basquin is trying to change. Over a dozen of Bute’s most notable shorts will be featured in a rare screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston this Saturday, and Basquin, a family friend of Bute’s who’s writing a book about the artist, will introduce the films by pointing out how Bute was simply a woman in a man’s art world.

“It was much, much harder to be a woman, let alone a filmmaker,” Basquin says. “For one thing, it was very difficult for her to get money. Foundations would give money to men, but they were very hesitant to give it to women. They’d give men $10,000 and give her $1,000.”

However, with very little money came lots of imagination. The psychedelic abstractions of Bute’s films were often produced using everyday objects such as kitchen tools. If you look closely, those dots of light captured in Bute’s Synchromy No. 2 are the product of holes in a colander, and those swirling backgrounds in her other films are the mingling of cream in a cup of coffee.

That said, visual music, while mesmerizing, was also extremely foreign, requiring Bute to preface her films with brief technical explanations. For example, here’s her introduction to Synchromy No. 2 (1935): “Music in addition to pleasing the ear brings something to the eye. The following film is designed by a modern artist to create moods through the eye as music creates moods through the ear. Do you see anything like this when seeing sound?”

This provocative question appealed to millions. From the 1930s through ’50s, her work screened ahead of major motion pictures at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and in theaters across the country in a similar fashion to today's shorts that precede Pixar films.

But good luck trying to find Bute’s films online; official versions are no longer widely available and reside only in archives or on DVDs. According to Basquin, the Center for Visual Music elects not to upload them because it doesn’t feel YouTube does justice to Bute’s refinements, though there are a few bootleg copies available for streaming (and embedded here). That’s why Basquin says this Saturday’s opportunity to see her work is a must.

With her forthcoming book titled Mary Ellen Bute’s Escape, Basquin further argues that art wasn’t just a creative escape for her friend—it was an emotional one as well. Bute had a difficult life being married, having children and running out of money while still trying to make it as a experimental filmmaker. It’s the classic struggle of a starving artist, but it was that very struggle that helped birth a new form of art. 

“I want people to know about Mary Ellen Bute, to remember her, and to appreciate what she accomplished with tremendous odds,” Basquin says. 

Seeing Sound: Mary Ellen Bute Retrospective, Saturday, Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet St. 713-639-7300. More info at mfah.org.

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