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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.