Paula Newton: A Kind Lady Lives Here

by Prince Varughese Thomas March 19, 2020

“A [drawing of a] cat signifies that a kind lady lives here. To cope with the difficulty of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to other hobos.” -from Paula Newton had this image of the cat tattooed over her heart. It succinctly says everything you need to know about Paula.

Paula Newton: March 20,1962 – March 14, 2020

Paula Newton lived. Not just existed, but Lived. Paula’s body passed of natural causes at her home in Houston, Texas on March 14, 2020. (This was not COVID-19.) She is survived by her siblings Randall and Laurie and many nieces and nephews. Her dog K.C. (Kitty Cat) and cat Cooper (for Ed Cooper, a dear friend who tragically passed away in 2013). She had another brother I do not know much about. She is Dottie’s daughter. A true Texan & Houstonian. Born and Bred.

“Oof! So THAT’S when I looked like Lou Reed’s sister.” – Paula Newton. Paula painting at UT circa 1990.

Most people know about Paula Newton’s art activities in the Houston art scene; I am going to focus primarily on Paula, the person. I first met Paula in the early ’90s. Possibly 1993 or 1994. Too many years ago to recall correctly. She was in her first year of graduate school in painting at the University of Houston and I was returning from a leave of absence to finish out the program at UH. We immediately connected. But that was not unique. She was adored by everyone. Professors and classmates alike. I had a crush on her. But so did every girl and boy around. Bright. Talented. Smart as a whip and damn could she paint. Loyal to a fault. A Romantic at heart. A Real Badass Vegetarian with a dry sense of humor. A lover of Words. A defender of righteous causes. An advocate for those who were oppressed. When given the right circumstances, she could be silly. Downright goofy. Respected by her peers, her advice was sought out by many. And if needed, she could verbally slice you up with her masterful use of language. I remember, in graduate school, a professor was incessantly hard on me — overly harsh.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, Paula came to my defense — met him in the hallway, and told him in so many words to “BACK OFF.” She was a force and lived her life unafraid. 

“Those who have suffered understand suffering and therefore extend their hand.”

-Patti Smith

Paula loved music. Years ago, she had a full drum kit permanently set up in her little Montrose apartment. She had some chops. Many a night, dinner and drinks at her home were ended with her attacking those skins (electronic skins in this case). She tried to put on some good “drummer face” too. It would make me laugh because she was too cute with her dimples to have that fierce punk-rocker face that she was imagining she was pulling off. And man, could Paula sing. If you never heard her voice, you missed out on another of her talents. Sitting on the front porch of her mother’s house with a family of musicians and music lovers, her brother Randall and her brother-in-law both playing guitar. She could sing beautifully. She was a fan of Patti Smith. The Carpenters. Paula’s voice was soft like her nature, but she could carry every tune and hit every note. Amazing when you consider she was essentially deaf in one ear. 

Video stills from the Frank Stella documentary “The Making of Frank Stella’s Houston Mural.”

Paula had many lives. So many in fact that I felt privileged to only a small portion of her worlds. An HSPVA graduate. A walk across the country. No, literally: she joined a walk across the country. A mistake marriage. Worked at Whole Foods in Austin before Whole Foods was hip. A graduate of UT Austin. A graduate of the University of Houston. Studied art in Paris. Coordinator for FotoFest’s Literacy through Photography Program. Director of Education and Public Programs at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston where she steered its Teen Council program into being one of the best in the country. She positively affected many young (and now adult) artists through her leadership at the CAMH. Main news writer for Glasstire. If you were around the Houston art community in the last 25 years, odds are you knew Paula Newton. And if you can get a hold of the documentary of Frank Stella making his work for the UH Moores School of Music building, you will see a young Paula working with him on that project. She was an integral part of the Houston art scene.

“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this… .”

           – Pablo Neruda 

Neruda. Neruda died. A black cat. I remember when she had to put Neruda down. It was heartbreaking to see her crushed by her dying cat. She was always one of the strongest people I had known, and to see her break down: devastating. I remember watching from afar as she whispered in Neruda’s ear near the end of his life. It was heartbreaking, and life-affirming. What were the words she had offered Neruda? Words of comfort, words to soothe. I wish she could whisper in my ear now.

Paula walking in her Rockport neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey.

She followed her own beat. A few years ago, she decided to throw caution to the wind, pick up and move to Rockport, Texas. It’s a big risk and takes massive amounts of courage to pack up and move away from family and friends in one’s 50s, alone. She wanted to be near the water. She took a leap of faith and bought a small house near the Gulf. You could see the water from her backyard. Unfortunately, Hurricane Harvey came and destroyed her home, along with most of Rockport. The tragedy upon tragedy was that her home was on the market and the sale was pending when Harvey hit. The blessing was that she had already moved back to Houston. The blessing was mine. Ours. I could see my friend again.  

After she moved back to Houston, we would have regular morning coffee outings at Double Trouble. It was walking distance from her home. I can’t tell you the number of homeless people who would stop to say hi to Paula and give her a hug, in those few short blocks from her apartment to the coffee shop. Once a homeless man confided to her that he got a job, but that he couldn’t make it to work because he didn’t have transportation. She took him up to her apartment and offered him her bike. They agreed on a price of $20, that he assured her he would pay back when he got his first paycheck. The bike was easily worth at least $100; it had been her source of transportation for years — she did not drive. He took the bike. She never saw that $20 and she never cared.

That was Paula; she helped people in ways she could. A dollar here, a twenty there. Whatever she had, she was willing to give. She cared. She paid attention. Her ego was not invested in money, status, or pretense. She didn’t play those games. In these difficult times of COVID-19, this is a perfect reminder that we should all be a little more charitable to our neighbors and the less fortunate, as Paula did by example in her daily life.

Paula at Colquitt Gallery opening.

She was a Progressive before we knew what that meant. She believed in social causes, social justice. She believed in fighting the good fight. She believed in equality. She volunteered at women’s shelters. She lived her life in the present and gave her focus to what was in front of her. She had a way of carrying herself that exuded self-confidence. She knew who she was. Private. Modest. Humble. And had an endless capacity for Love and Emotional Generosity. She was the person I would go to for advice on Life, Love & Art. The person I trusted most to tell me I’m full of sh*t. Many people would say the same thing about Paula. There is such beauty in that.  

I got married later in life. Britt, my wife, was given the seal of approval from Paula. Britt is only person in my many years of knowing Paula that she had ever approved of for me. That meant a lot. I trusted Paula and her judgment. She was right. When I got married, Paula stood by my side as my ‘Best Woman.’ I could not think of another person more suited to hold that honorable position. We had both gone through a lot in our lives by then. Love gained. Love lost. Death. Grief. Sorrow. Personal Demons. Happiness. Joy. We supported each other and made each other stronger for it.

My story is simply one in the many lives that Paula touched. I am not sure I have fully processed what has happened. I am not sure how to deal with the passing of my friend — someone who has been a meaningful part of my life for almost 30 years. We all have our ‘why we love Paula’ stories that need to be shared. She wasn’t much for tooting her own horn. It’s up to us to do it for her! Today, March 20, is her birthday. Wherever you are, please raise a glass and share your best Paula story.

Paula’s birthday, 2018.


A special thanks to Gretchen Phillips and Britt Thomas for providing these wonderful photos of Paula. 

Family and friends will organize a public celebration of Paula’s life at a later time, when public gatherings are more feasible.



You may also like


Alex March 20, 2020 - 09:57

Thank you Prince, that was beautiful.

Katy March 20, 2020 - 12:33

I’m so sorry. What a wonderful tribute.

cheryl blissitte March 20, 2020 - 13:34

I hope Paula had just a small inkling of how much she was loved, appreciated and admired while she was alive. You could never tell with her and this will haunt me forever. I have always, with confidence, said that there is “something” after this life. It is easy to say that with confidence until someone very significant dies and you want to believe it with all of your heart and soul. I need to know that Paula is somewhere where she is hearing our collective outpourings of love for her and has to finally sit still and accept them.

Marti May March 20, 2020 - 13:34

Thank you Prince for this heartfelt and true tribute to our beloved Paula. She was very very special and greatly valued by so many. The world is a darker place now, without her.

Jennifer March 20, 2020 - 13:54

Thank you, Prince.

Kristina March 20, 2020 - 14:08

Beautiful tribute.

Diane Barber March 20, 2020 - 16:30

That is absolutely beautiful. What a remarkable and perfect tribute to a very special woman. She will be missed.

Susan Whyne March 20, 2020 - 17:01

Thank you for this perfection of a portrait of Paula….

Robert Boyd March 21, 2020 - 07:43

Prince, that was beautiful and moving.

Bette Lenz March 22, 2020 - 11:29

It’s taken me a while to be able to comment here. Thank you, Prince, for lovely memorial. Thank you all for the heart-felt comments and wonderful photos. I met Paula later in life than most of you, maybe 20-25 years ago. I had never met anyone like her before then, and I’m sure I never will again. As many have mentioned, she was/is super smart, way too funny, wise, kind, calm, loving, loyal. We went to Cuba together in 2015. She bought a Panama hat the first day and wore it every day after. On our last day, she threw in all the Cuban and U.S. money she had left for the maids. Damn, she looked fine in that hat. We lived in Rockport when she moved there. Helped her w/her house. I remember the day she found Casey at the shelter. He was six months old and his feet were bigger than the room. When I mentioned that, Paula just laughed. Turned out, he was a pretty good part Great Dane, webbed toes and all. God, how they loved one another. When she moved back to Houston, I was very sad, but I understood that she needed to be w/her pack. I saw her whenever I went there for medical appointments. But I haven’t been since the holidays and it breaks my heart that I haven’t seen her since then. A horrific disease took away much of her energy and many of her smiles, but she always had more than most of us. Wherever you are, Little One, I hope you know how much you are missed. And loved.

Linda Renner March 23, 2020 - 01:41

Beautiful tribute, Prince. I didn’t know Paula, but I wish I had.

Marianne Green May 20, 2020 - 16:05

I don’t nowhere to begin… what an absolutely beautiful tribute to Paula. She was very special indeed, just as you so eloquently described. Even though our time together was short, some of the sweetest moments in my life were spent with her… in Austin just painting and being free, and singing… yes she could sing! Thank you, Prince, for writing this and reminding me how lucky I was to have had her in my life! I still see her in my dreams which makes me very happy! xo

Francesca Fuchs May 31, 2020 - 10:54

Thank you Prince.


Leave a Comment

Funding generously provided by: