A Conversation with Henry G. Sanchez at DiverseWorks

by Robert Boyd December 18, 2017

Houston-based Henry G. Sanchez is an artist and organizer, the founder and director of LOCCA: Law Office Center for Citizenship and Art, and founder and director of the ENGLISH KILLS PROJECT. Last month, on the occasion of Sanchez’s participation in DiverseWorks’ recent group exhibition Lines Drawn, Robert Boyd sat down with Sanchez to talk about art, politics, the issue of community and citizenship, and the role of artists in today’s roiling political environment.

Henry G. Sanchez: I was hoping to get Deborah Grotfeldt to come today. Deborah is very instrumental in the Houston art scene for the last 30 years. Probably a little more than that. She was once the assistant director of DiverseWorks when it was at its original location. She was instrumental in helping out Project Rowhouses. But now she has a business that helps non-profits. I was hoping she would come today but I think there was an email mix-up.

She’s a person who has sort of been on the forefront of the idea of social practice. Not just in Houston, but in Europe. Also, because of her connection with Joseph Beuys, she would be a good person to talk to when it came to the ideas of artists’ prerogatives and how important they are when we think about contemporary, expanded, internal forms of citizenship.

I have a talk that I’m supposed to moderate with Xandra Eden. We’ve been trying to figure out what kind of panel discussion to have. We need to make it more art-centric rather then just having a bunch of experts in the field of international relations and Mexican-US relations. What about artists? How do artists feel about these ideas? And not just the ones in the show? I proposed to Xandra that really we should try to find a way to get some of the very instrumental people here [in Houston] who helped create the kind of contemporary art scene that we have.

Robert Boyd: Give me some names.

HS: It would be good if the artists here in Houston — the ones who are part of this nascent coalition of artists and activists — were to hear from people like Jim Harithas, Deborah Grotfeldt, Jesse Lott. Michael Peranteau would be good, too. To hear their perspective. To hear about, okay, this is the role that artists have taken in previous movements. What happened during the civil rights era? What was the artists’ role during that? What happened during the Vietnam War protests? What happened in Europe? What happened in different locations around the United States where one [artist] — two of them, three of them — were instrumental in helping to create some of the most socially active art scenes that we know of?

We forget that Jim Harithas was the first curator to have video art. Why video art? Well, video art had a certain social component to it. It was about upending the authorities that were feeding us information. So that’s why artists were working in video.

Jesse Lott would be great. Jesse Lott has been here I think all of his life, really. If anyone can tell us what the oppression was like back in the ‘60s and what we can do now, he would be one. And Deborah, of course; she has the international perspective as well as a domestic perspective. So she’s quite unique in tying together how Houston looks compared to other places internationally.

What I would like to see happen is an older generation, a mature generation with experience, to be able to talk about these things — that the artists are very important to helping us create a kid of aspirational society. And this is what legal theorists are also saying as well. Legal theorists are saying that the kinds of contracts — social contracts — shouldn’t be based on these rather old, utilitarian ideas. They should be based on fundamental, internal feelings that people have that make life worth living, that make life fulfilling. And that is a kind of society that we want to live in. That’s the kind of society that we want to be governed by.

We want a society that allows people to express themselves in a variety of different ways, where they can affiliate with different people, where they can not worry about having their bodies being violated, of being coerced to do something or being coerced not to do something.

To me, artists would play a central role in helping to create that new kind of aspirational society. That new kind of contract.

RB: Where do you come from? What’s your background?

HS: I feel lucky, though during the times where I collected my experience and background, it wasn’t quite so lucky. There was a lot of failure involved in the different sorts of endeavors that I had.

My father was an attorney here in Houston. I think the longest continually serving Hispanic attorney in Houston, and I think Harris County. He served as a practicing attorney for 55 straight years. And one of the things that I learned from him and my mother is that you always have to give back. We have to be part of ways to deal with social bills and social revenues.

When I was here in Houston I went to school. I went to the University of Houston, got my BFA, and as soon as I graduated, I moved to New York. So really my time here in Houston, being in the art scene in Houston, was so brief. I’m lucky that I got to meet some great artists [with whom] I’m still friends, very close friends in some cases. But most of my really formative years were in New York.

I was 25. I had no money. Those first few years were kind of bleak because I just didn’t know any artists. I was working barely minimum wage. Though I was earning so little, I could still afford my own apartment. That’s the way New York was back then.

It took a while to get to know other artists and other people, but it got to be rather frustrating as well, so I started thinking about having a different kind of career. The reason why was because of the Republican rise of the right wing, The right-wing portion of the Republican party, which rose during the early ‘90s. That affected me a lot.

The kind of antagonism and vitriol we see now really started showing itself in the ‘90s. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich and the Contract for America. Which has this extreme, racial, anti-people of color, [anti]-women tinge to it, that created what we see now, and the administration we see now. That affected me a lot and I thought: I gotta do something.

So I started volunteering at the local Democratic headquarters in Jersey City, and I started getting more involved, and realized that maybe this might not be a bad career path. I could still do the artwork on the side and be more involved in trying to make some kind of political change.

At the same time, I was thinking about doing something that involved international relations [IR]. Part of the inspiration was the first presidency of George Bush, who had a particular style of statecraft that is of course completely missing in the Republican party of today. It was very much about trying to maintain a certain amount of stability, and not to overextend US power. There are some problems with Bush’s foreign policy — no need to point that out. But I saw how he managed the Cold War. I saw how he managed the first Gulf War. And I knew that there was another viable way of doing it, looking at how the Democrats were talking about how to manage the international system after the end of the Cold War. So I was thinking about studying that.

I became a volunteer for the United Nations Association of New York, which is a local chapter of the UNAUSA. The UNAUSA was started by Eleanor Roosevelt to create a constituency for the UN here in the United States. It was a way to say, look, we need to be part of this new system that we’re creating in order to maintain world peace, and start talking about standards of human rights. So I started volunteering for them.

Somebody there at the UNA took me under his wing — Richard Diesing. He was an anti-nuclear activist. He was also [one of the] directors in New York City of Planned Parenthood. This is back in the ‘70s. So he’s like a long-time peace activist and social activist. The same thing with Molly Bruce. Molly Bruce was part of the commission that helped create the Human Rights Declaration. She was there with Eleanor Roosevelt during the founding of the UN.

So those two took me under their wing. Then I decided that maybe I should go and study this. I applied and got accepted into the Rutgers University International Relations program.

RB: So you got a formal IR education. 

HS: I got a masters degree in IR. Its political science/IR. It’s very theory based. Other programs at different universities are more region-based. Rutgers is quite good. I got my degree, and I was finding my way to work in the NGO world, and because of the years I was volunteering at UNA New York, they eventually asked me to become the president of that chapter. Through that I met people like Kofi Annan, other diplomats. So it was a real pleasure and a real privilege, but it was a lot of hard work.

In Hudson County, I was the Intergovernmental Relations Aide. I worked for the County executive, and I was basically his political liaison. I would serve as the lobbyist for this county government… I would liaison with all the mayors in Hudson County.

That was a paying job, but Hudson County and New Jersey — well, corruption runs rather rampant there. And it just so happened that the person I ended up working for was taking kickbacks. I did not know this. That was kind of disillusioning. Unfortunately in the political world, if you’re part of a particular political team, you’re pretty much painted with that same brush. That experience was very important in my life, especially understanding party politics and how government works. It was during that time that I was also serving as the president of UNA New York.

I kept looking for work in government and the non-profit field, but it just didn’t pan out.

I had to start concentrating on the art career. I think those things have sort of formed my particular perspective, and my wish to try to find a way to meld the art practice with the political and social concerns that I had. And it took a while for me to figure out what kind of role that I wanted the art to play. Was it something that was only talking about politics? Or was it art that was interested in doing something, and trying to find some kind of minuscule change?

In Brooklyn, the major project that I had was the English Kills Project. The English Kills Project is about a Superfund site in Brooklyn that is on Newtown Creek.

What it was was an investigation of the most polluted part of the creek. I worked with a biologist, trying to come up with particular ideas for bioremediation. The social engagement would come in where I would have these workshops and these talks, where I would ask and encourage people to input their own ideas. How would you bring in more oxygen to this very polluted creek? How would you redesign wetlands in this creek that doesn’t have wetlands? It’s a walled-in creek.

These [interactions] would come out with different designs and different ideas. They were all scanned and put on the website. There was the social engagement. There was the art and science intersection. And being able to let people know what the problems are with the creek and trying to move people to some sort of action about it that people could participate in. To find a way to pressure our elected official to give us public access to the creek.

The complication of Newtown Creek is that all of the property along the creek is private, owned by small manufacturers or distribution places or warehouses, so it’s difficult to get to. I lived near the creek. I could smell it. It was part of the neighborhood. I was there for 10 years. [The area] is populated by low-income people of color for the most part. Also the fact that 40% of the waste transfer sites are in that exact area; it’s not too much of a coincidence about why it’s there. Poor people are so easily manipulated by policy planners and decision makers because they think they can get away with it. And many times, they do, That was why I did that project.

I came back here to Houston after my parents passed away. My parents died seven months apart. I have certain responsibilities here.

When I did move back — it was about a year ago at the end of August — I had already been thinking about it. I had [my father’s] law office and my father’s partner still practices there. He’s there every day. I want him to continue working there until the day he dies. I also want it to be a place where people can get the services that they need. I want it to continue to be a law office. I rented out the space that my father had to another attorney who practices family law. So now it’s still the place where people can come to to get basic legal services that everybody needs.

At the same time, as an artist, I’m impelled to think about it in a different way. I thought maybe I can bring the art here, and have that as a service as well. The art provides the service of giving people some sort of aesthetic experience and even to talk about the issues that concern them in the neighborhood. It could be about immigration or civil rights or the environment or the new developments that are happening, or gentrification. So I want it to be that.

RB: Where is this law office?

H: The law office is in the East End of Houston. It’s on Canal about a block and a half east from Wayside. So basically it’s in the Magnolia area.

I live just a few blocks away off of Wayside and Lawndale. I was born in that area — I was born in Denver Harbor. Eventually my mother and us kids moved up into the suburbs. Of course, when I started going to UH, I lived with my father there in Denver Harbor and there in the East End. It was only for the few years I was in college; then I moved to New York. But now I’m back, and I’m back in my father’s house. I’m in my father’s apartment, I’m going to my father’s office every day. I find myself kind of recreating his routine, which is really kind of strange. And I’m driving my mother’s old car. There’s a legacy there, if you want to call it that. I feel that there’s no reason why I can’t find and marry this history with the way I feel that art should serve.

It all kind of worked together that way. Which is the Law Office Center for Citizenship and Art.

It’s a funny name. “LOCCA” with two Cs. That was sort of a pet name I had for my mother and my mother had a pet name for me. My sister came up with the idea: “How about Law Office Center for Art.” I said, “No. The Law Office Center for Citizenship and Art.” So that’s the two Cs.

Why citizenship? Why am I always harping on this theme? I got my second masters degree at the School of Visual Arts and was teaching for like 10 years. With that masters degree at SVA, of course you have to write your thesis. Mine was a 50-page thesis about trying to explain our art practice and philosophy, our framework for making the artwork. To me, it was always important to be able to explain what difference the art was making. Is it actually doing the things you believe in? Does it reflect the values that you have? Where do I find that?

There’s lots of literature about social practice art. But I’m not doing my artwork for social practice theory. I’m doing my artwork for particular reasons. I’m doing it because I believe you need to follow through on your values. You have to follow through on your ideas.

I went through this period where I was working for Hudson County and working for politicians, doing work with this international NGO. [Back then I thought]: Maybe citizenship is something I need to investigate. My graduate mentor encouraged me to look into that. So I did.

What started off as a very dry investigation about what citizenship means — [I] ended up finding a particular theorist who expressed the ideas and the prerogatives that artists have, as part of understanding what citizenship really means. Which means the fulfillment of all humans. Not just the laws that we adhere to and the exchanges that the state gives us, then in return for entitlements we give them duties and obligations, and they give us the right to vote, and we have particular things we have to give back like taxes, and what-have-you. But there’s more to it.

RB: Who was the theorist?

HS: Her name is Martha Nussbaum. Martha Nussbaum is probably the preeminent political/legal theorist in the United States. She is the founder, along with Amartya Sen, of a form of thinking about how we have a different sort of measure for human life that’s called the Capabilities Approach. It started off as a way to counter how states measured productivity and wealth. And normally that was done through a method called Gross National Product, or GDP now. They have rightly pointed out that this is not a true measure of how a country is doing, not just in terms of its wealth, but on the values and health of its citizenry. You can say that for this particular country, the average income is $20,000. That’s not a quite a true measure — those averages are skewed because you have a low percentage of people who are earning a huge amount of money. As opposed to the vast majority of people who are living in abject poverty who can barely make enough money to survive day by day.

They came up with the Human Rights Index. And that was a capabilities approach. If a country says that everyone has the right to work, but there is no way or capability to reach a workplace, is that really a right that is being used and fulfilled?

If, for instance, you have women in particular who have a right to work in the workplace, but they are discriminated against, then obviously that is not a right that is truly fulfilled. If, for instance, everyone has a bicycle to travel, that’s all fine and well, but if you’re in a mountainous area… . Those are small anecdotal ones. I can go into where everyone has a particular right to express their political opinion, but they know that if they do, they will be harmed, and in particular might be oppressed. They will be ostracized. One has to really look at whether or not the entitlements and rights and privileges that states are giving people are really being fulfilled, not just in the letter but in the true sense.

Capabilities Approach is an evolution from other theories about laws and contracts. Those particular theories were championed by people like John Rawls — about whether or not laws are actually fair. Whether or not there is actually the level of justice that should exist.

Nussbaum said if we want to find another way to think about the happiness of individuals, whether or not people are part of an economy, maybe we should look at it as whether or not they have a fulfilled sense of citizenship. And being the classical philosopher-scholar that she is, she looked back into history. She looked back on how Aristotle talked about having a fulfilled sense of humaness. She uses all these other philosophers to back up her idea that essentially, to really be human is not just to observe and to think, but also whether or not you can do or be all the things that you can be.

She decided that she wanted to take it an extra step. She came up with a list of items and entitlements that all humans should have to be fulfilled humans, to be fulfilled citizens. It’s a list of ten. They’re called Central Human Capabilities.

Of this list of ten, she lists a number of things that basically say that the normal exchange between a citizen and the state has to be more than an external exchange. It has to be whether or not that person can have the internal capabilities to have a fulfilled life.

On that list are particular internal entitlements that all people should have. One is emotion. Emotion is that everyone should feel like they have a right to emote freely, without being coerced. To emote in public. To emote in a way that really expresses how they feel. In some countries you are not allowed to mourn. In some countries you are coerced into having a certain feeling.

‘Lines Drawn’ took place at DiverseWorks, Houston, from September 23 – November 18, 2017.


This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


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Beth Secor December 19, 2017 - 12:16

Henry, I think you were in school when I was at graduate school, and that Julian Schnabel bought a little painting of yours, when he came to UH to do studio visits, and when he had a show at the Blaffer (that was the show, if I remember correctly, when Walter Hopps walked in the Blaffer and stole a painting to prove they had lousy security, and that was the show I believe, where Schnabel had broken plates on his paintings). What I remember about the little painting you sold, is that it had purple in it, and a monkey, and it was a take off on a Dadaist painting. I also believe, shortly after that happened you moved to New York. It’s good to hear you are doing great things.

Jack Livingston December 19, 2017 - 13:01

Great interview. I have known Henry since he was attending school at University of Houston. Then we met up again on the east coast a couple years ago and I was most impressed. Yet, even then while I knew of his various projects in NY, I did not know the details of how it all came about—excellent to have the oral history published here. Impressive. It is interesting how Houston artists tend to easily pursue an art practice with profound political and social implications. Sanchez’s work is much needed and inspiring. Good to see that Diverse Works remains an art hub dedicated to presenting artist/activists such as Sanchez.

Arielle Masson December 19, 2017 - 21:51

Fascinating trajectory, Henry! I wish you all the best. ( By the way, the little painting Julian Schnabel bought figured a surrealist horse with two rears and no head, correct?)


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