Bayou Diaries Finding Peace at the Rothko Chapel: What Local Arts Can Teach Us About Our Cities—and Ourselves
In Houston, as with everywhere else, the arts serve as tiny lifeboats—and sometimes, if we’re lucky, we all find ourselves floating together.
This is Bayou Diaries , a column by Bryan Washington on his life and history in diverse, expansive Houston.
A few weeks back, the Rothko Chapel was vandalized . The space is billed as a non-denominational space for prayer, meditation, and introspection. It sits just off of West Alabama, right behind the Menil Collection flanking the University of St. Thomas. The grassy area is an enclave just off of the main thoroughfare, hosting sidewalks stuffed with college kids spread across quilts, and cats sunbathing on porch stoops, and locals in sombreros and shades shading under trees.
The Chapel itself sits in front of a reflection pool and a Barrett Newman sculpture; inside, after you’ve signed in, eight walls don fourteen murals painted by Mark Rothko. The images are, to my eyes, various shades of darkness, but my uncertainty is hardly unique. You’ll catch something different every visit, and then again on the visits between visits. Rothko’s murals are variations on a theme, which are themselves variations on some colors, and there’s no talking in the Chapel, no texting or fucking around. No tapping your feet. No ringtones disrupting the silence.
When I lived around Montrose, I’d make these tiny pilgrimages to the Rothko on a fixed-gear. When that bike got stolen, I’d walk the two miles on foot. I hadn’t known that the Chapel was internationally renowned, or that visitors came from all over to visit the space, or that it’d hosted the Dalai Lama, or that Susan J. Barnes deemed it “the world’s first broadly ecumenical center.” All I knew was that it was a building I stepped inside because Houston, in the summer, is an overgrown bathhouse. But I went back every few weeks, because the Chapel is also a place to hear yourself think. For a minute, it became integral to my routine, and those regular visits were a piece of how I came to define myself.
There are plenty of spaces in Houston that remind of your role in the city, but less where you can just see it, in silence, with no commentary. You enter the room. You sit on the benches. You walk around. You share the space. And then you’re gone, unless you choose to come back, tethering yourself to one of the pieces that keeps this town together, and that implicit temporality is so subtle that you can spend a life poring over it. (Plenty of folks have.)
And then, last month, the Rothko was debased. Whoever did it spilled IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE, in white paint, across the entrance and the lake behind it. It’s worth noting that the incident happened just a few hours before the Santa Fe High School shooting across town; but a few hours later, its employees scrubbed the Chapel clean. Its executive director called the graffiti “minor in the scope of things.” By the weekend, the Chapel and its visitors had moved on.
Although Houston’s still expanding in the country’s popular consciousness, its stake in the art world has never been questioned among locals. The city’s Museum of Fine Arts was established in 1900, hosting pieces ranging over six millennia. The Houston Symphony was founded in 1913, and has given its residents and visitors performances from conductors and performers across the globe. There’s a litany of other venues throughout the city, from the Third Ward’s Project Row Houses, to the Menil Collection flanking the Rothko Chapel, to the Beer Can Museum, and the Buffalo Soldier Museum, to the towering statues of John Lennon and Paul McCartney that were tucked behind the Target in Woodland Heights. And you can’t go four blocks without hitting some scrawl of graffiti, or some inkling of an idea scrawled by a resident, as indelible to the city as the MFAH’s permanent collections—there’s no conversation about art worth having in Houston without the “Be Someone” sign graffitied above I-45 South.
But honestly, at this particular juncture, I’m less interested in whether geography is essential to forwarding an individual’s cultural emulsion, and their receptiveness to that emulsion, than poking the ways in which our communities find a way to tell our stories with what’s on hand. When most non-locals think of Houston, capital-C Culture isn’t the first thing to surface on their Rorschach. Strip malls, probably. Or hospitals. And yet, all over this city, like everything else we touch, its residents ingest and absorb and reform whatever culture they come across.
Case in point: Once, when I was a kid, my mother and I were listening to one of those DISH channels that only plays music. We were cleaning the house, vacuuming and scrubbing and dusting, and all of a sudden an aria settled across the speakers. The singer was Denyce Graves. The song was Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” If that song sounds familiar to the point of redundancy, then I’m happy for you: it didn’t to me. My parents listened to loads of music, but I’d never heard them murmur the hint of a note from the melody of anything classical—so imagine my surprise when my mom, apropos of nothing, began to sing along. It was June, I think, and I wouldn’t have been more surprised if Black Santa himself had knocked on our door and collapsed on our sofa. When she’d finished, my mother told me that she’d always wanted to sing opera. Ever since she was a little girl. This was twelve years ago. She had never before, and has not since, expressed that wish to me again.
Over a decade later, at the rich-kid house party of this guy I’d been crushing on, the pack of us started a drinking game wherein we’d name the singer, song, and year of the albums in his grandfather’s cabinet. This boy and his friends were dumb wealthy. They had stained-glass windows upstairs, and a backyard larger than my parents’ house. So I was falling asleep on the carpet, because what in the hell was I doing there, when I heard Denyce Graves, again, and her voice crescendoing across sprawling Bose speakers.
I yelled her name, once, and then once again. The eyes of the white kids around me nearly popped out of their skulls. How did I recognize it, this obscure thing that surely I couldn’t have known? The guy who owned the house told me he’d never played the record, that he couldn’t have told us what the fuck he’d just put on. And what could I say? That I’d heard it from a Jamaican woman who’d walked to school, barefoot, up a literal mountain, most days out of the week? That Franz Schubert’s Opus 52 had made its way, over a century later, to that island in the Caribbean? That my mother brought her love of that song to the States, and then Houston, after holding it close her whole life? That even if they didn’t know where they’d gotten it from, as far as I was concerned, it only belonged to one person, and she had loaned it to me?
A few days after the Rothko’s defiling, I drove by the Chapel just to see what was happening. I thought it would be packed, but it wasn’t. No protests. Traffic-wise, it felt like any other week. Some folks were very obviously visiting for the first time. Some folks were very obviously regulars. The undergrads were lounging on the grass beside the sunburnt kittens, and a couple of teens with skateboards sat around vaping by the entrance.
I stepped inside. A gaggle of flight attendants sat on the bench beside mine. A group of women who’d been chatting loudly in Vietnamese beforehand drifted from mural to mural. By the entrance, this white guy sat in front of one painting, weeping into his hands. Then he wiped his face and left.
On the way to my car, a lady fanning herself by a tree waved me over and asked for a light (I have one of those faces that people just talk to). She was from Lagos, she said, in town for her grandson’s graduation. She said, He’s at the top of his class, and then she said it again until I smiled.
It was her first time at the Chapel. She’d heard about it for years. When she asked me how often I came by the Rothko, I told her I didn’t anymore, not really, and she asked if I was joking. It’s just right there, she said, pointing. You’re so close.
I can’t imagine it, she said, blowing smoke.
What a gift that life is full of distractions. For a lot of us, those distractions are what make up a life.
In Houston, as with everywhere else, the arts serve as tiny lifeboats, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, we all find ourselves floating together. They illuminate the world, forming a new one, in spite of the sprawl and everything else between us. And the new world is in the mold of the old one, only with fewer walls, fewer barriers and borders, but while there are those that see these gaps and seek to build new constraints, the moment—the very landscape —is leaving them behind. As it should.
Last year, the ex reached out to ask if I wanted to join him for a symphony concert in the city. He was back in the States for a moment, and his siblings weren’t free, and his parents had stayed in Daejeon.
I’m sixth on the list, I said.
You’re sixth on the list, he confirmed.
I don’t dress up for anything, ever, but I knew that he would, so I found a Scooby-Doo tie and this jacket and a Lyft to the Morris Cultural Arts Center. A Mexican guy picked me up (he had the flag in his car, the soccer jersey across his back). He asked where I was going, why I was going there, ignored it and started in on this story about his daughter. She was interested in an older guy who seemed like bad news. The driver told me he worked the ride-shares to fund her education, and now she wasn’t even sure she’d stay in college; and, at some point, without even breaking stride in his conversation, I realized he’d flipped the radio from salsa to the city’s classical station. By the end of the ride, he’d decided that maybe the situation wasn’t all that bad. Maybe he should give the boyfriend a chance. Maybe people should have more chances.
My ex was waiting in front of the building. He was cheesing when he saw me. He’d gone overly casual, in joggers and a hoodie. We found our seats, and the audience was a mix of under- and overdressed, and brown and black and white, talking among themselves and texting and sitting silently and staring at the ceiling. It was more representative of the world than the world would lead us to believe.
The symphony took the stage. They played Ravel and Yuzo Toyama and The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto. When they started in on “Arirang,” the cellist hit a lift that no one really knew what to do with, and I inhaled, and the room inhaled, and it was sobering to think that this is what it did to its listeners, everywhere the song had been played before, and everywhere it would be played afterward. Even here, in Houston.
And then, gradually, simultaneously, we all came down.
Bryan Washington will teach a 6-week Online Fiction Workshop for Catapult starting on July 3rd.