In 1947, Forrest Bess moved to Chinquapin, a tiny unincorporated settlement at the end of a dirt road on the northeast side of East Matagorda Bay. “The peninsula is a lonely, desolate place,” he wrote, “yet it has a ghostly feeling about it—spooky—unreal—but there is something about it that attracts me to it—even though I am afraid of it.” He was determined to stay.
In a 1982 feature on Bess for Texas Monthly, Michael Ennis reported that “He built a shack on a concrete slab using the hull of a tugboat and copper sheets from the bottom of an old ferry, and he added a slanted concrete ‘prow’ to his little home that would, he hoped, withstand the battering of hurricanes. He continued to fish for a living and to record and paint his visions.” After Hurricane Carla hit in 1962, only the slab and the concrete prow of his shack remained. Bess rebuilt. In the end, it was the sun that forced Bess to move from Chinquapin. After having surgery on his nose for skin cancer in 1966, Bess moved to his mother’s house in Bay City.
What Ennis doesn’t say is whether Bess lived on an island or on the mainland. In his catalog essay for Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible at the Menil, Robert Gober describes his home as being “on a tiny spit of a treeless island.” Houston Chronicle columnist Sigman Byrd visited Bess at his shack. He wrote, “After supper at Forrest Bess’ house at the mouth of Chinquapin Bayou (surely the loneliest spot in Texas), we all went into the shipshape studio to drink tequila and coffee and look at our host’s pictures.”2 So was the bait camp on an island or not? Either way, the place is remote. Chinquapin lays on East Matagorda Bay between (but not particularly close to) Matagorda and Sargent, two barely-there communities. The nearest town of any size is Bay City, with about 20,000 residents, 25 miles away.
Why should we care where Bess lived? He was an important artist, and I like knowing about the lives of Texas artists. That’s probably reason enough. But I think the place was important to who Bess was and how he made his art.
His work is arcane and very private. It doesn’t admit the viewer easily. Bess painted the symbols he saw in visions, developed a theory of immortality through hermaphroditism that led him to perform dangerous autosurgery on his own penis, and was eventually hospitalized for schizophrenia and alcoholism. Whatever benefit Bess derived from his illness, the costs he bore were far higher.
A frustrated sexuality played into his esoteric theories, which informed his paintings. Bess was homosexual, but had no outlet for it in Bay City, where he was afraid to reveal himself. While he was in the army, he received a savage beating when he divulged his homosexuality. He was able to meet other gay men in Houston and San Antonio, but he complained that they found him too masculine. After his retreat to Chinquapin, he may have experienced no sexual relationships, much less romantic love. (No wonder he was such an avid letter-writer—his correspondents, who included Meyer Schapiro and Carl Jung, were some of his closest acquaintances.) Loneliness shines out in his work.
He started seeing the visions that fueled his most important work after he moved out to Chinquapin. Would he have seen the same things, done the same work, if he had been living in Houston or New York City? It seems to me that the extremity of his life on this desolate shore must have had some effect on his art. Jesus and the stylites also went to bleak remote locations to facilitate their visions, after all.
The remains of a concrete slab on the mainland—could it be Bess’ cabin’s foundation?
I drove out in June to see for myself. Chinquapin Road is a 10-mile dirt road off of FM 521. My iPhone, chirping at me to turn right or left, took me through miles and miles of corn fields and past the Big Boggy National Wildlife Refuge and seemed to be leading me to the end of the earth. Chinquapin Road ends at East Matagorda Bay, where there are a number of houses, apparently all built after Carla, which scraped this area clean. The houses are all on a winding creek called Chinquapin Bayou which runs down from Lake Austin, just to the north. The whole area is surrounded by water—lakes, creeks, the bay, marshes—and very little of it rises more than a couple of feet above the water. People in these parts are fishermen and shrimpers.
My first trip was inconclusive. If Forrest Bess lived on the mainland, he didn’t leave anything still visible after 49 years. And if he lived on one of the islands, I was going to need a boat. I looked around a bit, took a few photos, and left.
That afternoon, I drove straight from Chinquapin to Galveston, where there was an exhibit opening at the Galveston Artist Residency, where I met Eric Schnell, the director of the GAR. Eric had a friend from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency who needed to take a trip out to Matagorda to look at a couple of potential habitat restoration projects. The expedition was on. If Bess lived on an island that was near the terminus of the Chinquapin Rd., there were only four islands it could be.
Four candidates for Forrest Bess’ island
Eric’s friend Kristopher Benson is a marine habitat resource specialist at the Galveston NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory, he was interested in checking out Bird Island, a protected wildlife habitat off Chinquapin bayou. He proposed that we accompany him as he went to West Matagorda Bay to look at an oyster reef, then over to East Matagorda Bay to see the islands.
I thought it was strange that Eric happened to know a NOAA scientist. I chalked it up to the fact that Galveston is a small town, but the reason was actually more direct. Kris is married to the director of Artist Boat, a art/education/environmental non-profit in Galveston. Artist Boat has lots of projects that combine art and the environment, including a purchase of some of the last undeveloped land on the west end of Galveston for the purpose of keeping it wild. Kris had firsthand experience mixing art with the environment, so our little expedition was right up his alley.
On July 19, I met Eric at GAR at 7:30am. We drove together over to NOAA and met up with Kris. We had a comfy government Suburban and a flat-bottom aluminum boat in a trailer behind us. The boat reminded me of the boats I used to work on when I worked doing shallow water seismic exploration for Western Geophysical back in the 80s in Nigeria and Brazil. It was designed to go very fast (it had a large outboard motor) and to be able to operate in very shallow water. The tradeoff is comfort, but that’s OK–it was a work boat, not a pleasure boat.
NOAA’s flat-bottom aluminum boat
We headed off first to Palacios, a small, pretty town on West Matagorda Bay. Palacios has a sizable population of Vietnamese immigrants and their descendents. We drove past a Vietnamese neighborhood that could be a suburban subdivision in Houston—brick homes, cul de sacs—except for the shrimp nets drying in the back yard. The other weird thing about Palacios is how people pronounce it—the Spanish origin has been totally forgotten. Folks say “puh-LA-shush”.
We entered the bay from the public boat launch. It was still early, and there wasn’t a breeze. The water was smooth and occasionally glassy. The sky blended with the water at the horizon, leaving us in an indistinct space of blue. Matagorda Bay was like a giant naturally formed James Turrell.
The bay was filled with jellyfish—thousands of them. We chose not to do any swimming.
Kris opened the throttle and headed out to a spot that seemed like literally the middle of nowhere. Even at full throttle, it took a while to get to our destination. We were trying to find Half Moon Reef, 40 acres of oyster reef being restored by The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with several federal and state agencies including NOAA.
Eric Schnell, left, and Kris Benson, right
Except for the shrimpers, we were mostly alone out there. It was an astonishingly isolated place, even though we knew Palacios was nearby.
Finding the reef was not easy. The map and the GPS device didn’t seem to exactly match up. Kris took samples of the salinity (high due to the drought) and dragged the anchor to look at the contents of sea bed.
As we headed back, the motor started conking out. We messed around with it, but we couldn’t get it to work quite right, and limped slowly back to the landing at Palacios. I was worried that this was the end of our expedition, but Kris was still eager to see Bird Island. So we loaded up the boat, stopped for some bahn mi sandwiches, and pressed on, driving over to the Chinquapin Road and thence to East Matagorda Bay.
According to the Texas State Historical Association,
CHINQUAPIN, TEXAS (Matagorda County). Chinquapin is on an unpaved road on Live Oak Bayou just north of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and East Matagorda Bay, east of the Big Boggy National Wildlife Refuge, and eighteen miles southeast of Bay City in southeastern Matagorda County. It is surrounded by swampland. It and nearby Chinquapin Bayou were probably named for a type of tree in the area. The community, which has been in existence since at least the 1940s, was built on land that was once part of Bay Stock Farm, property owned by John J. LeTulle (a half brother of Victor Lawrence LeTulle). At one time Chinquapin had grown to around 100 cabins. In 1961 it was completely destroyed by Hurricane Carla; it gradually rebuilt, and by 1972 a landing strip and nineteen new dwellings had been added. The community appeared on 1989 highway maps. It is primarily a fishing village. In 2000 the population was 30. (Rachel Jenkins, “CHINQUAPIN, TX (MATAGORDA COUNTY),” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hrcer), accessed July 23, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.)
I assume that population of 30 refers to full-time residents.There were more than thirty houses there, and they looked like weekend retreats for serious fishermen.
Some were quite nice (though far short of the palatial beach houses on Galveston’s West End), but most tended towards the ramshackle end of the spectrum. Sometimes they looked as if they had been built one piece at a time, perhaps over several years. I like the one above because it is a classic dogtrot style house. But it worries me, too—a stiff breeze and some heavy rain will flood it.
I don’t know how these houses compare to what was here in Forrest Bess’ day. But let’s just say that the powers that be have never bothered to pave the Chinquapin Road. The community is extremely remote and the dwellings pretty modest.
The Chinquapin Road ends at the Intracoastal Waterway. Islands 1, 2, 3 and 4 are on the other side of this dredged-up channel. But we had to launch our vessel from a private boat launch further up Chinquapin Bayou, which meanders very lazily to the bay. (This is no Houston-style channelized bayou.) I was worried that we’d stall out again and be stranded. Eric stayed on shore just in case we needed to call for help. It took many tries to get the motor to start, which didn’t boost my confidence. But Kris seemed unconcerned.
We headed out very slowly on the bayou. It was very shallow and he didn’t want to risk stranding us by going too fast and hitting a sandbar.
It was on island 3 where we saw this little fella. We couldn’t tell if it was a starving coyote or a fox or a stray dog, and we wondered how it managed to survive on this treeless desert island. Were there mice to hunt?
Before the Waterway was dug, these islands had been part of the mainland. Now the only sign that people had ever been on the islands are raised areas where dredged mud had been deposited in decades past, detritus that had washed ashore, and the occasional duck blind.
Duck blind on island
We crossed the Intracoastal Waterway and passed through the narrow channel between islands 2 and 3. There was no obvious ruin of Bess’s shack, just scrub grass and shrubs, some birds, and our fox friend, who we saw more than once as we rode around the islands.
After cruising past all three islands on the Intracoastal Waterway side, we went out bay side to check out the other side of each island. Kris decided to land on island 3 (he offered to go ashore on each of the islands, but I didn’t see much point—they were all the same).
Except where the islands had been built up with dredged material, the land and water blended seamlessly. The boat went through this area of grass in about six inches of water before reaching dry land.
Bess started to have visions of symbols when he lived here. The visions are the source of the symbols we see in his paintings. These islands are so small and isolated, and may have been even more isolated in the 1950s. It doesn’t seem all that strange that someone living here would start to see things. Particularly someone blessed (or cursed, as it may have been in Bess’ case) with imagination.
Forrest Bess, untitled (The Crowded Mind/The Void), 1947, oil on canvas, 10″ x 11 3/4″
There was a fourth island to check out—Bird Island, but once I saw it, it was obvious that Bess could never have lived on it. As small as 1, 2 and 3 were, Bird Island makes them look enormous. (Having said this, it’s probable that the island was bigger in the 50s—these sand spits are always eroding.)
Bird Island was one of the reasons we were there. It is a protected bird habitat, and this tiny spit of land is covered with birds of all different species nesting. It’s far enough from shore that predators like the fox can’t get to it. While NOAA was not officially involved with any proposed Bird Island project, Kris was interested in checking it out.
And you can see why. Birds use every square inch of the island for their nests. I was astonished to see so many different kinds of birds, from roseate spoonbills to cormorants to brown pelicans and more, nesting side by side. I was torn by a desire to get closer and a responsibility not to disturb the nesting grounds.
Even if we never saw the exact spot where Bess’ cabin was, it was worth the trip to see Bird Island. It was a breathtaking sight. I only wish I had brought a telephoto lens.
We made our way back to the landing, where Eric was patiently waiting for us (hoping we hadn’t managed to stall and strand ourselves). Tired and a little bit sunburned, we loaded the boat onto the trailer and headed back to Galveston. As we drove back, Kris told me that NOAA might be able to help me find the exact location of Bess’ cabin. It turns out that people have been taking aerial photos of the coastal areas of Texas since the 1940s. He uses them in his work to determine how habitats have changed over time.
Photo courtesy of the Texas General Land Office
This is an aerial photo from 1952 of the northeast part of East Matagorda Bay. You can see Bird Island in the center and the Intracoastal Waterway running as a stripe across the top third. Chiquapin Bayou and the three islands are easily visible, but island 3 is connected to a larger island. Between 1952 and now, there has been visible erosion of the islands.
Photo courtesy of the Texas General Land Office
Here we can see what appear to be two structures, one on island 2 and one on island 3. Could one of them be Forrest Bess’ shack? And the other his parents’ bait camp? It’s possible.
What would I do if I found the location of Bess’ cabin? I’d like to go back and put a plaque in the ground there. And wouldn’t it make sense to petition the state government to name that island after Forrest Bess? Here is one of Texas’ greatest artists and, as far as I can tell, he had nothing named after him. “Forrest Bess Island” would be a nice start. But most of all, I’d like to maybe camp out on the spot—just pitch a tent, close my eyes and see what visions come.
Yesterday I saw painter Richard Stout at the Menil bookstore, and mentioned my search and the difficulty of finding Bess’ camp. Stout instantly said it was on an island. I asked him which one–pointing out that two islands at the mouth of Chinquapin Bayou are separated by the bayou itself. He thought for a second and said, I think the east island, which was the island we saw the fox on, aka Island 3.
I walked into the store, and bought a copy of Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle, a new book version of Chuck Smith’s 1997 documentary film. It’s more about Bess the man than his art and reproduces a number of letters and photos, including photos of Bess’ shack! The book definitely states that the bait camp is on the island, on the bayou side. Fishermen coming from the mainland would go through the bayou channel, pull up to the little dock Bess built, and yell out for him to bring out some bait shrimp.
I still don’t know exactly where the shack was, but I’ve narrowed it down. If one were to make a search on foot along the shores of the bayou between island 2 and 3, maybe then one might stumble across a remnant of the concrete foundation or the “prow.”
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible is on view at the Menil Collection through August 18. Read Robert Boyd’s review of the show on his blog, The Great God Pan is Dead.
2“Trawling in the Collective Subconscious at Chinquapin,” Sigman Byrd, The Houston Chronicle, March 11, 1956)