BILL DAVENPORT, HOUSTON’S RESIDENT POP ART MAD SCIENTIST, specializes in making the mundane magical.
Over a Bayou City career that’s spanned nearly three decades, Davenport, 56, has become an elder statesman in the Houston art scene. From wacky sculptures of giant technicolor mushrooms, pirate-ship treasure chests, and balls of yarn to smaller, Warhol-esque paintings of everyday items like foodstuffs and book covers, his creations have delighted audiences far and wide.
Davenport calls his style “the pathetic aesthetic,” and it’s endearingly earnest. Whether they’re paintings or sculptures, each piece gives off an air of homespun, rough-hewn warmth and, often, a sense of clever goofiness. He counts Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp among his main influences, as well as American outsider art heroes Howard Finster and Steve Keene. “Mr. Baker, my junior high shop teacher, taught me more than anyone else,” Davenport tells us with a grin.
Davenport sees his art career as a logical extension of his youthful adventures in suburban Virginia. He’d spend hours cruising around on his bicycle looking for interesting scraps he could take home to use in his creative experiments. “Pretty much what I’m doing now is what I’ve done since I was a kid,” Davenport explains.
His parents let him commandeer the patio where he spent his days building things like a boat, a makeshift printing press, and a nearly-functioning hovercraft (he could never find a proper propeller). The Davenports gave their son a wide berth to tinker to his heart’s content. But back then, he didn’t think what he was doing on the patio was art, per se.
“I always had a project, except I thought it was science,” Davenport says, “and then when math got into it, I decided it was really more like art than science.”
Although he went on to study sculpture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Rhode Island School of Design, Davenport considers himself a Houstonian through and through. Since moving here in 1990 thanks to a funded fellowship from the MFAH’s Glassell School, the city’s funky, free-wheeling spirit has seeped into his work.
Back then, Davenport says, the city was still reeling from the oil bust and felt like “this weird post-apocalyptic ghost town.” Real estate was cheap, and artists existed far from the eye of the highfalutin art-world gatekeepers in places like New York. Davenport felt like Houston was somewhere an aspiring artist like him could chart a new path and be “willfully stupid” without fear of failure. “You could do anything,” Davenport remembers. “It really was the Wild West.”
Not all of that freedom has evaporated. For the past 10 years, Davenport has been the purveyor of Bill’s Junk, a catch-all shop in the Heights open every Saturday where his own creations, secondhand works of art, and an assortment of quirky knick-knacks and forgotten keepsakes are all for sale.
How much will a keepsake from the store run you? Well, that depends—prices are determined by Davenport on-the-spot, mostly based on how nifty he thinks a given item is.
The genesis of Bill’s Junk was practical: Davenport and his wife, local painter Francesca Fuchs, had purchased the building where the store now resides as a public gallery for local exhibits, a studio space for the two artists downstairs, and a place to live with their family upstairs. In the move to the new space, Davenport found he had more “junk” than he knew what to do with—works of his own, random tchotchkes he’d accumulated over the years, and leftover materials from past projects.
At first, Davenport set up a yard sale for several weekends in 2009 where passersby could purchase anything that struck their fancy. Then former Contemporary Arts Museum Houston curator Toby Kamps swung by to check out the sale. He was so tickled by the concept he asked Davenport to agree to set up a replica inside the CAMH as part of an upcoming exhibition framed around the city's notorious lack of zoning. Davenport agreed, but only on the condition that everything included would really be for sale.
The CAMH incarnation of Bill’s Junk was a runaway success. The artist had to restock the exhibit multiple times after selling through all sorts of items, including Davenport’s RISD MFA diploma. Davenport ultimately decided to keep the store running, and he’s constantly refreshing the shelves to this day with new pieces of his, interesting bits of amateur art gifted to him by friends or found on eBay, and all sorts of odd curios he’s come across. The brick-and-mortar location has been a Heights institution ever since.
As for what project he plans to tackle next, Davenport has a few things in mind. Hot-off a successful Bill’s Junk pop-up in Dallas this spring, he’s planning a bigger roadshow for fall 2020 with the goal of setting up a temporary fireworks stand-style version of the store in different locales across Texas. Other ideas, which he says “vary from the likely to the pretty unlikely,” include putting on a Christmas-themed pantomime play, creating a massive paint-by-numbers mural, starting his own graduate school for local artists, and realizing “Pastry-saurus,” a bakery pop-up that would sling sweets from a T-Rex-shaped storefront.
But don’t hold him to any of those—Davenport reserves the right to pivot to whatever new, fun idea strikes his fancy, even if it means putting his dino bake shop on the back burner for a while.
“I’m not willing to do stuff I don’t want to do," Davenport says. "That’s what you get for having permissive parents."
That’s also what you get for coming of artistic age in a place like Houston—the freedom to march to the beat of your own drum, expectations be damned.
Bill's Junk, open Saturday 12–5 p.m., 1125 E. 11th St. More info at billdavenport.com.