Rekindling Collaboration: The University of Houston and “The Orange Show Show”

by Doug Welsh October 2, 2023
A woman extending her arm and smiling out of a car window

Susanne Theis driving Jackie Harris’ “Fruitmobile” art car, 1986.

The Orange Show is a folk art environment and visionary art space that was constructed by artist Jefferson Davis McKissack from 1956 to 1979. Weird and wonderful, the monument is a sprawling, maze-like, and multi-level architectural structure created with concrete, brick, steel, mosaics, and found objects. Among the many strange and fabulous elements are a pond and a stage, both of which have been used for concerts, poetry readings, and performance art pieces over the years.

There has been a long history of collaborations between artists from The Orange Show and University of Houston (UH). The Orange Show Show, which happened earlier this year, is part of an effort to reforge this history. Other recent and ongoing initiatives include the Conservation Corps, led by visionary artist Jonathan Paul Jackson (JJ), and The Happening, a monthly series of performance events curated and organized by UH artist Alexandra Lechin. The Orange Show Show was an exhibition and print sale featuring sixty UH printmaking students; the event was co-organized by artist and G5 Collective co-founder Liz Gates (disclosure: I co-founded the collective with her), Orange Show curator Pete Gershon, and JJ. This event was a positive sign for those of us who want to see more innovative collaborations between The Orange Show and UH.

Photo of two dimensional works leaning against a wall

Silkscreen and relief prints at “The Orange Show Show.” Photo: Felipe Harker

It’s important to Gates that her students realize “everyone, everywhere, can make art, and every effort is equal and valid.” This is especially true in Houston, a city with a rich history of visionary, self-taught, and outsider artists. With that in mind, Gates brought her silkscreen and relief students to The Orange Show to learn about its art historical significance and to sketch for future prints. It was only later that she envisioned an exhibition and print sale at the space itself, featuring her student’s prints inspired by the monument. This idea aligned with another aspect of Gates’ educational philosophy: she wants her students to feel that a career in the arts is possible, that they belong in the art world, and that they have the necessary tools to exhibit and sell their work. Families, friends, and local professional artists attended the event, which validated the students’ efforts. 

A group of students and educators sitting in bleachers holding oranges

Pete Gershon, Jonathan Paul Jackson, Liz Gates (third row, from left) and UH printmaking students at “The Orange Show Show.” Photo: Felipe Harker

Printmaking has always been a uniquely democratizing medium — produced in multiples, editioned prints are generally more affordable and accessible than other forms of art. Gates described this quality to me as “irreverent.” There is a kind of artistic purity and rebelliousness at the core of printmaking. For Gates, The Orange Show possesses a similar sense of irreverence. The space is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of visionary arts, by artists who historically were isolated from the world of fine art; as such, both the folk art environment and the organization that runs it make up a uniquely democratizing arts institution. That was part of the reason why Gates wanted to present the exhibition and print sale at The Orange Show. 

Gershon shared with me some of the rich history of collaboration between UH and The Orange Show. Less than a mile from each other, the institutions’ close proximity has been a major reason for their natural synergy. After graduating from UH, Susanne Theis was the original director of The Orange Show Center For Visionary Art when it became a nonprofit organization. Tasked with preserving McKissack’s monument, Theis organized volunteer groups to assist with the effort. UH strongly supported the idea of preserving the monument, which strengthened the relationship between both organizations.

Gershon told me that “Susanne Theis was a catalyst for this symbiotic relationship.” Baked in from the beginning, there was extensive programming that wove UH and The Orange Show together, led by Sharon Kopriva, Paul Kittelson, Noah Edmondson, David Kidd, Jackie Harris, and countless other artists. When describing this collaborative history, Gershon told me, “It was kind of like a UH art club at The Orange Show… and we want that back!” 

Three women posing with oranges

Alexis Cross, Taylor Bussell, and Ceara Colvin. Photo: Adrian Martinez

Most of the student artists in The Orange Show Show had never participated in an exhibition at an art space outside of an academic setting. For Gates, it is important that students have real-life experience to further their art careers. With this in mind, she kept her students in the loop at every stage in organizing the show, so they could learn and develop skills around putting together exhibitions. Gates is an exceptionally gifted teacher, who is completely invested in her students’ artistic and professional growth.

Aubree Hughes (UH class of 2023) told me, “Liz is a huge advocate for selling our work and getting out there.” With seemingly few opportunities for emerging artists, breaking out of the haven of academia can be a daunting task, but it’s much less intimidating as a group. Carly Bancroft (UH class of 2023) said that because of The Orange Show Show, “we are more like an artist cohort than just classmates.” Thanks to Gates, Gershon and JJ, these young artists are equipped to organize and participate in future exhibitions. 

Photo of students and educators participating in the Orange Show show

Nina V, Adrian Martinez, Alexis Cross, and Jen Miller. Photo: Ceara Colvin

When I asked JJ about The Orange Show Show, he said, “Jeff McKissack would have loved it.” The idea of emerging artists from UH presenting an exhibition and print sale at The Orange Show, with work inspired by the monument, is probably how McKissack envisioned the space being used when he created the monument. Art spaces like The Orange Show matter more when people engage with them. And with such close proximity to UH, Gates, Gershon and JJ hope that faculty and students will again take up the legacy of collaborative magic between both organizations. This exhibition and print sale is a spark for more fruitful art experiences and dialog. The Orange Show Show is a strong reminder that we get to decide what kind of an art world we want to have. 


To join The Orange Show Conservation Corps, contact Pete Gershon: [email protected]. For more information about The Happening, go here.


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Beth Secor October 3, 2023 - 11:16

1986- 19899 I was in graduate school at UH Central, majoring in painting and minoring in printmaking and was hired by The Orange Show in 1988, and worked there until Dec. 2000. Other UH art students worked there as well including Chris Thompson, Tony Rubio, Joseph Blanchard, Kelly Pike, etc. It was a great honor and pleasure to do so!

Beth Secor October 3, 2023 - 11:18

oops, it did not take me 18, 913 years to graduate (or at least I don’t think I did). That should read 1986 – 1989.


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