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Howard Porter, The OK Corral

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About the Artist/Site

Little is known about the early life of house painter Porter, who lived in an area on the western edge of Houston’s Fourth Ward. Known as Freedman’s Town, this neighborhood was named after the hundreds of emancipated slaves who moved here in the late 1800s, cut down and harvested the old cypress trees, and built small homes in the “shotgun” style. Its early hope turned into a poverty-ridden, tough neighborhood during the latter half of the twentieth century, however, although by the early years of this century it was beginning to be gentrified and the tiny shotgun homes were either being replaced or renovated.

Porter rented one of these homes, and he spent decades ornamenting the house and surrounding yard. The simple clapboard building was painted with a base of red, purple, and yellow coats of paint, each then embellished with wispy white swirls that he made by dipping a feather duster into paint – a technique he’d learned on the job some years before. Practicing in his bathroom by painting everything, including the tub and toilet, a bright purple, and then lacing the filigree on top, he then moved onto the rest of the house, painting chairs and larger furniture pieces as well as walls and floors.

A fan of western movies, Porter particularly loved Burt Lancaster’s 1957 Gunfight at the OK Corral, and, as he moved from the interior of his home to the small exterior side yard, painting the garden furniture with the same swirling paint technique, he also began adding western-style ornaments. Old boots, iron skillets, farm tools, rifles, hats, and other found objects that he associated with the Old West (or not, such as hubcaps, hardhats, and metal lamps) were hung on the fence and installed in the yard. It became one of the most elaborate art environment sites in Houston, a city well known for other wonderful and creative sites. He would stage a monthly western-themed barbecue party, and artists and friends involved with the Orange Show would convene to enjoy the conviviality and the view of downtown Houston from Porter’s tiny but colorful yard. He would also paint furniture in his iconographic style for people on a commission basis, charging five or ten dollars for a chair, a bit more for tables or file cabinets.

By spring 2004, however, Howard Porter had disappeared, leaving his rental property to begin to deteriorate; the painted furniture had been removed and weeds had begun to choke the yard. No one knew where he had gone, although neighbors noted that his landlady had recently died, and the rental house had been sold to developers. Then, in early September, the house was gutted by a fire that was suspected by the authorities to be arson. The other area shotgun houses were being torn down, replaced with new townhouses and younger, wealthier, and hipper residents. Perhaps arson was an easy way for the new owners of 1912 Gillette to avoid paying demolition expenses, as they moved to develop the property?

It is unclear what happened to Howard Porter, or even if he is still alive and, perhaps, somewhere still making art. His colorful Houston version of the OK Corral, however, is no longer extant.

~Jo Farb Hernández

 



Map and site information

1912 Gillette Street
Houston, Texas, United States
Latitude/Longitude: 29.751954 / -95.383087

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