Wander through the concrete jungle of downtown Houston, and odds are you’ll stumble on a wackily whimsical oasis right on Main Street. Artist and educator Floyd Newsum’s Planter and Stems was commissioned as part of the downtown beautification project ahead of the 2004 Super Bowl. And as with most of Newsum’s work, there’s a deeper meaning beyond the piece’s whimsical shapes, Seuss-like drawings rendered in stainless steel in exuberant hues.
The large, multisided structure (the planter) is meant to represent the members of the “8F Crowd,” the wealthy and influential Houstonians, who once ruled the entire state’s business and political spheres from the smoke-laced, whiskey-rivered 8F suite of the now-demolished Lamar Hotel for nearly four decades. You might just recognize their names—Abercrombie, Brown, Elkins, Hobby, Jones, Smith, and Wortham—after all, several are plastered all around the city. Squiggling up from the asphalt around the planter are the “stems” of Newsum’s creation, which represent the Bayou City’s less influential but no less important diverse scope of entrepreneurs, like O.P. DeWalt, owner of Houston’s first Black theater, the Lincoln, and Mexican American restaurateur Felix Tijerina, who opened the first Tex-Mex restaurant in town, the dearly departed Felix’s.
While the amorphous yellow buds on the stems (no, they’re not peanuts—even if they look like them) don’t hold a specific meaning, the line drawings on the planter do. The squiggles covering the structure’s sides are actually mapping out the area’s bayous and roadways, while the wild forms and bright splashes of color are meant to represent the energetic hustle and bustle of the Bayou City. Look long enough and you might even spot the Astrodome.