Horton Humble first walked into my life on one of those nights in late August that can nearly break you. A friend and I were sitting in the backyard waiting for a breeze to carry away the oppressive heat when he came in through the side gate. Though he was there to see my shotgun neighbor, within minutes he had joined our vigil.
Some people need to figure out where you are coming from before they are willing to share their thoughts and struggles, but Horton is an open book if the mood is right. The mood established around the table that night was one of intimacy and confession, likely aided by the bottles of wine I opened. I was mesmerized by the connections he drew between his work, life experience, and interior world. Horton’s warmth and curiosity compelled us to do the same, and so conversation lasted well into the night. The breeze finally arrived, bringing with it a comfortable silence.
When our editorial team went to interview Horton at LEVEL, his collective studio in the CBD, it was his turn to set the mood. The expansive space had high ceilings and was so flooded with light it seemed to be made up entirely of windows. After making a run to the corner store for a six pack, he gave an extensive tour, highlighting his fellow artists’ work before his own. Between the openness of the studio and his hospitality, we were immediately put at ease. The next few hours of conversation, though recorded, felt like sitting in the backyard again. No pretense; just honesty and revelation.
Describe your method. How do these paintings get from your head to the wood or canvas?
It starts blindly, in the sense that I like to let the subconscious come about. For a lot of the imagery in these paintings, I can now, only after the fact, understand why I incorporated them. A lot of the imagery is about connecting people, probably because I spend a lot of time on the computer. So, in a way, I see my latest body of work as an extensive lifeline of wires. And that’s how this idea came to me to create faces that connect people together, because that’s what it’s all about.
My mom told me, at 50, you get the face you deserve. I was in Lisbon, and I was walking down the street. You know when you’re in another place, you get an opportunity to really see people for what they are; you are more in touch with their reality than they are in a sense, even if you don’t understand the language. But I was able to see their thoughts in their faces: crisis and love, I could see a lot of things, and I knew somewhere down the line all that was going to show up in my face as well. My spirit, the things I’ve been through, the traumas, whatever. So after that I set out to create these faces, portraits of pure emotion responding to reality
I want you to be inspired to just stare at the work because in the end, I really just want the work to be healing. So no matter what you see, I want you take something good away from it. And that can be as simple as just leaving here in another mood. For me, mood means a lot, because without that mood I can’t work. So I tend to focus on that mood and the feeling behind it.
What’s the biggest challenge for maintaining your mood right now?
My place in the art scene. Coming back to New Orleans and feeling like there’s another level for me and my contemporaries here. I know that opportunity exists in this environment right now, but having to emerge, being around pretentiousness, things that I feel take away from what’s real; that’s a struggle. I’ve got to take all this out on the road now because it’s my ministry. I think the thing now is to stay truthful and to give this work a pure platform. Presenting it right, you know.
I’m here to be a part of this fresh new century. And every artist, everyone who is working a profession can claim this century as their own. We have a part in our history, for the type of work that we are going to be remembered for. That’s how I see it. Besides that, there is just a lot of stuff going on in my head. Painting is a dual performance; you always hope your better half wins. But I believe that what comes out of me is what you’re supposed to see; it’s just my job to make it legible.
Who do you love? Who inspires you to keep creating?
Louise Nevelson. She was a phenomenal sculptor. Francis Bacon is another artist that I look at. I love to look at his work and see the
emotional crisis. His perspective and frustration during the war. Rembrandt and Raphael. I look to those guys because I love perspective. I love to see how they set up different angles. The wonderful Wifredo Lam. When I see something that’s already been done, it inspires me to try to get there. It’s magic. It’s healing. I think my job as an artist is to get the onlooker focused back into the image and be healed by looking at honest, truthful work. All my life, I’ve never had a hard time being truthful. I feel like my truth has always been cut and dry. And I think here with my work, I can give my truth without answering to anyone. Maybe it’s manic and electrifying, but it’s my truth.
Tell us about the LEVEL Collective and what this space means to you. What is being an artist as an individual and as a collective?
This sort of thing happens so organically. The base here is friendship. I came back from Lisbon one year ago, and I saw New Orleans as a place where we can do this art. So many spots and spaces needing to be filled. And it’s not about black art, or the artwork of people coming in from other places—it’s about all of it happening at the same time. Because there is room for all of it. Right now New Orleans is still cliquish, but we need people who are willing to stir that up. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a group that could come together and build a platform, but also able to emerge as individuals and do their work from that platform.
So, you’re saying relationships and community is the platform.
Yes, because I want to do things that impact the community. And you can’t do that on your own in the gallery. So it means finding spaces and doing the work. What we are going to do in this group is to take our talents and skillsets to beautify our community. And that doesn’t have to be painting necessarily. It could be fixing someone’s plumbing artfully. Taking art into the reality of daily life to make our community more beautiful.
Can you give me some examples?
I love the print shop on Mazant because they are always doing stuff for their community, and it’s not a big deal, it’s just part of their art. They don’t see themselves as separate from the community. They let people from the neighborhood come and sell food at their events, they allow kids access to their shop whenever.
So, those are the sort of things I envision for our collective and studio. I really want to start inviting other artists in here who don’t necessarily have the space or supplies. I’ve got two students coming in here next month to do that. Because when we come into a space, when we spend enough time somewhere, our bodies record what’s going on, negative or positive. So having someone come in here and spend some time, feel inspired and change their mood. Again, I feel like we are governed by moods. And the great thing about moods is that they can easily change.
You say you make art to heal. How does art accomplish that? How does it interact with your healing process?
It’s been the best conductor and positive choice that I could have made. I think I chose art, because maybe through my own traumas or spiritual legacy, I had to grab onto something.
I had a good childhood, but I always felt like I wanted to be somewhere else, that I wanted to create another world. I started out with writing, but it wasn’t really until I started painting that I found home. My mom was ordained as a minister three weeks ago, and I was sitting there looking at my mom, and I realized that art was my ministry in the same way she saw the church, her beliefs, as hers. I don’t see art as a religion, but I do see it as a practice. And it has given me the same stability that Christianity and fellowship has given my mom. I believe in it the same way.
What motivated you to leave New Orleans, and even the country, and what drew you back?
It started with my mom. She didn’t want me on Bourbon Street, so she would tell me I needed to find something else, another way, without getting involved down there. At the time, we lived on Esplanade and Galvez. So I eventually made my way down to Frenchmen Street. A street that just had a couple little bars and the locals would always have friends visiting from all over the world. So that’s how I started meeting people, and they would invite me to come visit them. This was back when there were all kinds of people and scenes down there, not just jazz. So, I’d meet these people, show them my city, let them meet my family and they would want to return the favor.
At the time in the 80s, New Orleans was really only known for Mardi Gras. I was feeling like I was outgrowing it, like I was deprived in ways. And of course I was a teenager and I felt like if I didn’t escape, I’d never become anyone. I was attracted to the freedom of being anonymous, and I think I really wanted to escape my history so I could interact freely. So I started leaving.
I would go somewhere for three months, nine months, and then I would come back to regroup here in New Orleans. And everywhere I traveled, people were so excited that I was from New Orleans, so I started saying to myself that I was going to be this international artist that represented my city. That led me to realize that it’s a privilege to be born in a place like this, to cherish it. It was never really about the city, it was about me. Having to accept that New Orleans is in me, and that I’m not trapped in it. No matter where I go, it’s coming with me.
The last time I came back, I knew I needed to establish myself again, because things were changing. And I came back to be a part of this movement, to see what’s coming out of this art scene, root myself, and then maybe get back out there in the world. And the city has changed. There’s a new flux of people.
Gentrification, the painting. Talk to me.
Here, I was thinking about what people have to face when they are being pulled from their history and environment. Or even pulled from a relationship that they were comfortable in. It’s the gritty reality of biting down, and holding on to what is yours. But being forced to.
I guess you can say that the stories that I’ve heard concerning gentrification are both about people who have come into a society and not felt welcomed, or not even thought if they are doing anything harmful. And then on the other side, the people in the community who have no voice and just feel like they have been taken for a ride. The ones who are hiding the fact that their house doesn’t have a roof by keeping the facade intact, all so they don’t have their home taken from them. I’ve heard some really horrendous stories about people losing their homes.
When I think about gentrification, I think about both of these people. Those who are looking for housing and those who are having their houses taken from them. That tension, the crisis. And also the hope that whatever happens, some sort of beauty will come out of this.
How do you balance this idea of bringing in new energy, change, with keeping what’s important to the city intact?
I think if you come to New Orleans as a transplant, it’s important to connect in and see what’s going on, but don’t abandon what you are bringing to the table, because that’s exciting. Find out what’s going on in the social climate, but be yourself. If you want to start something in your little corner, bring in your fresh energy. But also connect into the community.
For me, I welcome change, but at the same time, it’s about making sure that whoever comes here understands the community. You can support your life, but also support the life that’s already here. Know you don’t have to cut down the whole forest.
I also think it’s wrong that we are using the transplant as a scapegoat. Blaming them for all the deforestation. It’s about us locals too. Be accountable for the change that they are bringing in too. I think a lot about that, shared responsibility. Stopping the finger pointing. We have to get back to taking on healthy responsibility, being willing to get on someone’s ass, not just complain and blame. If you see someone doing something you don’t like, start a conversation. Because I believe that living around things that make you unhappy, whatever it may be, and not doing anything about it, is a form of mental illness.
So, like your paintings, the outer landscape reflects the inner.
Born in New Orleans, Horton Humble is a self-taught American artist and a traveler. Horton is a founding member of LEVEL Collective and a 2015 nominee for the United States Artists Fellowship. His artwork is included in private collections and showcased in “Reparation: Contemporary Artists from New Orleans,” curated by Diego Cortez for the Luciano´s Benetton Imago Mundi Collection, P3+ , NOMA, “Instructions”: Prospect 2 Satellite, Antenna Gallery, and Barrister’s Gallery.
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