The Orange Show for Visionary Art

The Orange Show, 2401 Munger St., Houston, TX.

Like contemporary art itself, The Orange Show in Houston does not lend itself easily to a neat and complete description that would mean much to a number of readers. Aficionados of the normal Houston Homeowner Association neighborhood would scream at first glance. This place has nothing to do with “fitting in,” or blending its exteriors into shades of grey or brown-tone fade for the sake of sameness – and it’s been that way at 2401 Munger Street in the Houston East End off the Gulf Freeway before you get to Telephone Road wile heading south since 1956.

A fellow named Jeff McKissack was the father  of The Orange Show back in 1956, when he started collecting and bringing home all kinds of paint and other building materials from demolished Houston architectural sites and began the conversion of his place into an ongoing, living tribute to the fruit orange, the color orange, and/or all things colorful in life. The former Houston mailman also had a background as a welder in the Houston shipyards after his tour in the military during World War II and he possessed the kinds of skills needed for converting vision into actual works of contemporary art. His whole house became a living creature of the art that originated in his mind, heart, and soul.

Lesson Number One: If homeowner associations controlled every square inch of urban life, there would be no spontaneous art in Pleasantville.

Orange Show Founder Jeff McKissack (1902-1980).

Ironically, McKissack’s major basic work on The Orange Show took place during the late innings of Houston’s reputation period as a killer of anything architecturally classic for the sake of more space for parking lots, strip centers, and billboards.

Lesson Number Two: Artist Jeff McKissack was building for Houston history while many Houston entrepreneurs were tearing things down for little more than their own personal gain.

It’s not really clear if or when the business of creative intent began to take over McKissack’s plan as an active effort to take his art to the people, rather than simply allow them to find it, but he opened his home as “The Orange Show” on May 9, 1979. To his disappointment, Houstonians failed, at first, to flock like flies to honey when the production opened.

McKissack withdrew in disappointment. Seven months later, and only two days shy of his 78th birthday, Jeff McKissack died of a stroke in the middle of his apparently stillborn creation, The Orange Show, on January 26, 1980.

Lesson Number Three: For The Orange Show, the death of founder Jeff McKissack turned out to be a Phoenix Bird experience.

Within a year of McKissack’s death art patron/civic leader Marilyn Lubetkin rallied a diverse group of Houstonian supporters to save The Orange Show for posterity. Along with people like Dominique de Menil to the rock group ZZ Top, a consortium was put together to purchase the stilled, but still vibrant Orange Show property and its collections from McKissack’s heirs.

The Orange Show Foundation was established in 1981 to re-open The Orange Show and promote support for its programs of contemporary art and art education to children. Today the Orange Show continues to flourish in the East End as a tribute to a Houstonian who believed in art and the expressive preservation of Houston hero.

For further information on The Orange Show and its range of public art programs, check out their official website.

Jeff McKissack and my dad weren’t too different by way of background. Jeff was a little older than Dad, but they both grew up in small towns and moved to Houston as a result of World War II. Both were welders; both worked in Houston shipyards; and both bought property in the East End as places to raise their children. Both also found other income-producing lines of work after the big war ended and settled into lives as the men who took care of their families.

Like McKissack, Dad had a talent for art and storytelling too. He simply never gave himself permission to act upon these abilities until a heart attack later almost took him totally out of the game. And then he put them away again, once he recovered from the immediate threat of death. Like a lot of people, Dad had to almost die to take a peek at life outside the box. And maybe that was enough for Dad. Who am I to know or judge?

All  know is, thank God for Lesson Number Four: Jeff McKissack brought Technicolor, but especially orange, to the visual history of Houston. Hope you take the time to check out The Orange Show or its annual art car parade someday. I think you will have a good time.

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