Meet the artists taking Houston by the horns—and the patrons whose means, and moxie, give the city its creative clout!
Is it weird that one of the coolest voices in Asian-American theater in Houston this year has been that of unmistakably Caucasian Jordan Jaffe, 25? Nah. The tall, handsome actor-director, whose Rice educator mom took him to Asia often when he was a kid, and who later was an exchange student in Japan, became “fascinated with everything from Asian history to art to... first and foremost, the food,” he says. His first major at Rice was Asian studies, which he sidelined after “the theater bug bit” and switched to drama. After tours of New York and L.A.—that was him as an extra getting busy with a pretty girl in that nightclub scene on Gossip Girl—he found his way home, where he saw an opening for a company specializing in edgy new plays, and, in 2011, his “itinerant” Black Lab Theatre was born. “I thought, maybe there’s room here.” Lab’s Jaffe-directed spring production of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, exploring gaps between the Chinese language and English, was the first play staged at the gleaming new Asia Society Texas Center theater—and was hailed by the Chronicle as “hands down, the funniest play of the season.” And this is reason to smile for Shanghai native Y. Ping Sun, 56, who—as both an Asia Society board member and an official ambassador for Rice, where her husband David Leebron is president—takes pride in Jaffe’s emergence. “You educate young people... and hope they will make contributions to the mutual understanding of cultures and the development of society,” says the Columbia law grad and mom of two teens, “and that’s exactly what Jordan is doing.”
Houston Ballet demi soloist Soo Youn Cho’s dance style is a bit like her unique demeanor—gentle and subtle, but with the unmistakable edge of a perfectionist. (For the day’s photo shoot, the makeup must be just so, every hair sleekly in place.) The Korean, who trained in Tulsa, Toronto and the German city of Stuttgart before coming to Houston two years ago—and who’s now dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker—makes such beautiful poise on stage look easy. But it’s anything but. Long, intense days of body-bruising rehearsals are required; she allots little time for socializing or relaxing. “I wake up, and right away, I’m ready for work,” says the 20-something Cho, who even practices in her down time. “I’m not saying it’s work, though. I love it.” For her part, Kristy Bradshaw, 33, herself a former ballerina, can relate. The busy mom of a newborn works hard in her career as an equity analyst, and as a champion of expanding the Ballet’s reach to new, younger audiences. To this end, she and pal Lindsey Brown started the Ballet’s young-professionals group, Ballet Barre, in 2009. “If you weren’t raised going to the ballet,” Bradshaw says, “you probably aren’t going on your own. We wanted to expose that to a wider group of Houstonians.” Having shepherded Barre to new heights—with successful fundraisers such as the $65,000-earning Raising the Barre dinner in the spring—the pretty wife of aviation exec Chris Bradshaw is deepening her support of the dance org by joining the Houston Ballet board, committing to help find and nurture new donors to support the longevity of the troupe and the art form. “Ballet has been my passion since I was a young child,” she says. “And that passion has only continued to grow.”
At first, when a warehouse near the tracks in the Washington Corridor went up for sale in 2004, Jon Deal, now 47, saw an opportunity to expand his real-estate holdings, which include bars and restaurants such as nearby barbecue star Beaver’s. But after learning the space known as Winter Street Studios had been used previously as an off-the-grid, underground arts space, the husband and father of three boys saw a good bit more. He became fascinated with art and artists, and adopted a mission. “A city this size?” he asks incredulously. “Someone had to break the ice and legitimize an arts studio, so that’s what I did.” He bought and upgraded the building and rented it out to artists as work spaces—and later did it again at Spring Street Studios. About 135 creators, including major players such as Nicole Parente and Kelley Devine, work out of Deal’s facilities now, but it’s emerging artists like Houston native Micah Simmons, 39, that Deal really takes pride in supporting. When the tall, broad-shouldered painter’s old studio started leaking eight years ago, he found a sympathetic new landlord in Deal, who’s been lenient with rent payments. Simmons has had to overcome a number of challenges to pursue his art, not only economic—he coaches high school soccer and works as a bouncer to make ends meet—but also healthwise. Legally blind since he was a teen, he’s recently begun corneal transplants, improving his vision dramatically, and adding new depth to his vibrantly colorful semiabstract pieces. He credits Deal with providing a place for healing. “I’ve had a number of shows at Winter Street,” he says, “shows I would’ve never been able to pull off had it not been for his understanding that I need to work.”
The profile of “early music” is on the rise, thanks in no small part to UH music prof and Ars Lyrica Houston founder Matthew Dirst, 52, a world-renowned virtuoso of the harpsichord. “It’s the most beautiful music that you never hear,” laughs the musician, longtime partner of arts administrator Sixto Wagan, of the Renaissance-era sound of his Grammy-nominated group. But the laugh may be happily on Dirst, as Ars Lyrica—and other local organizations with similar missions, such as the Mercury Orchestra—find themselves increasingly in the spotlight. This is, ahem, music to the ears of gregarious German immigrant Birgitt van Wijk, 66, a history buff and aficionado of the style. “I have a passion to keep it alive,” she says. The mother of three adult children, and CEO of a helicopter-charter company and flight school, has lived in Houston since 1990, not only joining the Ars Lyrica board, but also supporting HGO and the Houston Symphony. She is taking a leading role in launching the Houston Early Music Festival in February, in conjunction with hosting the annual meeting of the Early Music America board, a prestigious national body of which she’s also a part. She believes that Houston eventually can rival Boston as a major U.S. capital of baroque and sacred music. “It’s uplifting,” she says, touting Ars Lyrica’s sound as a time-honored salve for the troubled modern world. “This is music that makes it all better.”
It didn’t take long for fifth-generation Houstonian Michael Peranteau, 62, who began his career as a commercial gallerist in 1979, to decide he belonged in the nonprofit, community-based realm instead. “Sales don’t drive what we show,” he says. For 12 years he shepherded DiverseWorks, and was integral in starting art-based, urban-renewal-minded Project Row Houses. Now 18 months into running Art League Houston, he’s reenergizing a 65-year-old institution. He’s insisted on more cultural diversity in its art school. And he’s leaped into public art, sponsoring Patrick Renner’s 180-foot “Funnel Tunnel” outside League’s Montrose HQ; Selven Jarmon’s beading of the entire building is up next. But as Peranteau pushes new ideas, he’s embraced a tradition—the naming of a League Artist of the Year, recently convincing Rachel Hecker, 55, to accept. “It’s a lovely kind of thing,” smiles the noted painter-sculptor, “but I don’t believe it.” The Rhode Island native has been here since ’82, when she was tapped for an eight-month gig to launch the MFA’s Core Residency Program, then wound up helping run it for a decade. Now she’s a UH prof and working artist, “doing what I want to do, not what I feel I should do.” Recent pieces have included large-scale depictions of everyday notes such as shopping lists and receipts; meant as “unintentional poetry,” they’re actually kind of funny. “Humor doesn’t always play well in art,” she says, “but I find it increasingly necessary.”