Art League Houston Names Recipients of 2024 Art and Leadership Awards

by Jessica Fuentes June 2, 2024

Art League Houston (ALH) has announced the winners of its 2024 Texas Artist of the Year, Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, and Lifetime Achievement in Arts Leadership Awards.

Headshots of artists and cultural workers Beili Liu, Kathy Vargas, and Michelle Swain Barnes.

Left to right: Beili Liu, photo by Philip Rogers; Kathy Vargas, photo by Cameron Brennan; and  Michelle Swain Barnes, photo by April M. Frazier.

In a press release, Jennie Ash, ALH’s Executive Director, remarked, “In celebrating the achievements of Beili Liu [Texas Artist of the Year], Kathy Vargas [Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts], and Michelle Barnes [Lifetime Achievement in Arts Leadership], we honor not just their individual impact, but also their collective contributions to the rich tapestry of the Texas art scene. Their unwavering dedication, bold vision, and tireless advocacy serve as beacons of inspiration, guiding us toward a future where creativity thrives and artistic expression knows no bounds. As we proudly shine a spotlight on these extraordinary individuals, we reaffirm Art League Houston’s commitment to nurturing and championing the diverse voices that shape our cultural landscape.”

Recipients of ALH’s annual awards are selected by an anonymous committee that includes artists and art professionals from across Texas. This fall, the organization will present solo exhibitions featuring the work of Beili Liu and Kathy Vargas. All three awardees will be celebrated at ALH’s annual gala on Saturday, October 5, 2024, at Thompson Houston. 

Learn more about this year’s awardees below via biographies provided by ALH.

A still image from a performance piece by Beili Liu in a snow-covered field in Norway.

Beili Liu, “Arctic Mending.” Performance still, Svalbard, Norway. Image courtesy of Blue Way.

Beili Liu is a visual artist who makes large-scale, site-responsive installations that address themes of migration, cultural memory, materiality, and labor. Ms. Liu was born in 1974 in a rural village in northeast China near Siberia to parents who were among the 16 million “sent-down youth” during China’s Cultural Revolution. Ms. Liu grew up during a time of complex social transformations at the dawn of China’s “Social Market Economy” era and lived through political upheavals denoted by the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. These formative years have shaped Ms. Liu’s approach to her subject matter and process throughout her artistic career. 

Ms. Liu immigrated to the United States at the age of 21. Navigating two cultural systems first as a youth in post-Mao China, then as an immigrant, and later a female artist in the U.S., Ms. Liu’s personal journey from village to city, from the East to the West instilled in her an ongoing desire to explore the lived experiences of those who navigate on the margin. Topics of diaspora, assimilation, and the fundamental question of otherness versus belonging are at the core of her work. 

A self-portrait by Kathy Vargas.

Kathy Vargas, “The Living Move (Self Portrait).” Image courtesy of Kathy Vargas.

Kathy Vargas was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and began photographing in 1971 under the guidance of rock and roll photographer Tom Wright. She attended San Antonio College in the mid-1970s and was mentored by painter Mel Casas, who invited her to join the Chicano art group Con Safo. She received her MFA with a concentration in Photography from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1984. From 1985 to 2000, she worked as the Visual Arts Program Director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio. From 2000 to 2013, she served as Chair of Art at the University of the Incarnate Word, where she is currently a Professor of Art/Photography.

A headshot of artist and cultural worker Michelle Swain Barnes.

Michelle Swain Barnes. Photo by April M. Frazier.

Michelle Swain Barnes is a visionary artist, educator, mentor, and community leader whose impact on the arts landscape of Houston is profound and far-reaching. With a career spanning decades, Ms. Barnes has dedicated herself to creating opportunities for artists and advocating for the power of the arts to effect social change.

Born in Austin and raised in Houston, Ms. Barnes developed a deep appreciation for the arts from an early age. She attended the University of Houston, where she earned a Bachelor of Science with a focus on education. It was during her time at the university that Ms. Barnes’ passion for both creating and promoting art began to blossom.

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