Jesse Lott, a Houston-based artist and mentor who co-founded Project Row Houses (PRH), died on Monday, July 24, 2023 at the age of 80. Known for his sculptures made from found materials and his devotion to community enrichment, Mr. Lott was a significant figure in the Houston arts scene and beyond.
Born in Simmesport, Louisiana in 1943, Jesse Lott moved to Houston’s Fifth Ward with his family in the 1950s. Mr. Lott has noted that both his father and uncle were early supporters of his artistic spirit. He also attributed his creative spirit to the way in which he grew up.
In an interview by Eureka Gilkey, Executive Director of PRH, for the organization’s podcast On the Row: Conversations on Social Sculpture, Mr. Lott recalled, “I lived in south Louisiana, bayou country. You ain’t got nothing you can’t do nothing. So, you gotta go make up something. That’s the definition of creativity.” This mentality of creating something from nothing, or working with what you have to create something previously unimaginable, was a hallmark of the way Mr. Lott approached his art and life.
As a teen, Mr. Lott attended Kashmere Gardens High School in Northeast Houston, which was then a newly built state-of-the-art school serving a predominantly Black community, in part due to an exodus of white residents. During this time, Mr. Lott sold his first painting and also met Dr. John Biggers, who founded the art department at Texas Southern University, a historically Black college or university (HBCU). Dr. Biggers had recently returned from a 1957 trip to study West African cultures. Though Mr. Lott was never an official student of Mr. Biggers, he guided Mr. Lott in his artistic, educational, and personal development.
In the 2017 documentary Jesse Lott: Art & Activism, directed by Cressandra Thibodeaux and filmed by 28 students from the 14 Pews Film Academy, Mr. Lott remarked, “One of the things I learned in the early days from Dr. Biggers was that in the traditional tribal expression, the art, was always done in a group and it was always done for a purpose… So the artist had a position in the society that was reflected by the fact that they did work in a group.”
Mr. Biggers also guided Mr. Lott to study at Hampton University (then Hampton Institute), an HBCU in Virginia. Soon after that, Mr. Lott went on to study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles under Charles White. Mr. Lott later noted that he learned his drawing skills from Mr. White and larger conceptual ideas from Mr. Biggers. Also while in California, Mr. Lott got involved with a group of Black artists associated with the Black Arts Movement, including David Hammons and Joe Overstreet.
Mr. Lott returned to Houston in the mid-1970s, and in 1977 he had his first solo show, Relics of the Future, at Robinson Galleries. In honor of Mr. Lott, Aurora Picture Show, a Houston-based nonprofit media arts center, recently published documentary video footage filmed by video artist and documentarian Andy Mann in the late-1970s and 1980s of Mr. Lott installing work. One video depicts this exhibition.
Though in his conversation on PRH’s podcast Mr. Lott noted that he personally did not face problems showing his work in galleries in Houston, he joined forces with a group of Black artists to develop PRH as a space for artists of color. While the artists James Bettison (1958-1997), Bert Long, Jr. (1940-2013), Rick Lowe, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, George Smith, and Mr. Lott each had their own reasons for banding together to create the space, Mr. Lott has said that his goal was to create “revolutionary change.”
Following Mr. Lott’s death, PRH shared the following message via social media: “News of the passing of our founder, mentor, teacher, and friend, Brother Jesse Lott, has devastated the Project Row Houses family… He moved among us with grace and confidence, unbothered by convention and always focused on breaking down barriers for artists who, because of their heritage or practice, were not always immediately welcomed into the mainstream. He found beauty in what others discarded, spoke truth to power, and took time to mentor untold numbers of Houston artists…”
Similarly, Art League Houston (ALH), which awarded Mr. Lott its 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award, posted a statement acknowledging the artist’s legacy. The organization noted, “We are mourning the loss of Jesse Lott — someone whose light touched our hearts and souls in ways we could never have imagined. In his presence, we found extraordinary joy, love, and memories that will forever remain etched in our hearts. Though his absence has left an unfathomable void, we will hold dear the cherished memories we created together. We will embrace the invaluable lessons he taught us, treasure the stories he shared, uphold the values he held dear, and forever be grateful for his impact on our community.”
Throughout his lifetime, Mr. Lott maintained a studio in the neighborhood where he grew up and continued to be a presence at PRH. In April, he attended the grand reopening of the historic Eldorado Ballroom and celebrated his 80th birthday.
Throughout his lifetime, Mr. Lott had exhibitions at venues across Houston, including Hiram Butler Gallery, Lawndale, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), Midtown Art Center, the O’Kane Gallery at the University of Houston Downtown, Deborah Colton Gallery, and beyond. His art was featured in solo exhibitions at the Five Points Museum of Contemporary Art in Victoria, Texas, the Oakland Museum of Art in Oakland, California, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Lott also received the 2022 Texas State Artist Award for Three-Dimensional work. His iconic sculpture Basketball Players, depicting Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets players from the 1986 NBA Finals, was included in the inaugural installation of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Kinder Building.
Despite his successes, Mr. Lott remained ever humble. On PRH’s podcast earlier this year, he hesitated to refer to himself as an artist. Instead, he noted, “I am a person who makes an attempt at expressing myself through some form that some people recognize as art… I’m just a human being and all human beings are prone to expression.”
Mel Chin, who also grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward and has known Mr. Lott for most of his life, told Glasstire that “Jesse would allow you not only just to see things in things because of his art, but he would allow you to see what you needed to see and feel through his actions…”
Mr. Chin recalled a time when the two went to an opening at CAMH and the museum guard at the entrance stopped Mr. Lott and prevented him from coming in. While Mr. Chin was outraged and attempted to address the issue, he noted that Mr. Lott was gentle and calm in his response to the situation.
He explained, “What he taught me, in reflection, was that he in an instant showed the systemic racism that imbued the entire world we live in… and he understood not to make a fuss because the guard was African American and he didn’t want to cost the person his job… and so, it was a compassion for the person but understanding this world is just not right. And to see it through the way he did it so gently, it’s almost like how he would look at a piece of wire or a piece of rope or a piece of glass or a piece of discard and see something in it… it’s the same way he would look at society and still be comfortable and present as he always was…”
Many have remarked on Mr. Lott’s caring, philosophical, shaman-like presence. Beyond the legacy of his art is the legacy of his spirit, which will continue to live on through the organizations he was a part of and the people he mentored and inspired.
On the power of art and expression, Mr. Lott has said, “It is our most fundamental right as Americans to express ourselves. But the right to express yourself without the ability to express yourself is meaningless. It’s very important to be able to express yourself as an artist because it’s one of the few ways that we can make an effort to make real changes in the real world without having to resort to any type of violence.”
Correction August 4, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect the correct location of Kashmere Gardens High School. It is in Northeast Houston, not Northwest Houston.
Correction August 7, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the university where Dr. John Biggers worked. It is Texas Southern University, not Texas State University.