Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Where are they now? Photographer & former Art Dept. Chair Barbara Houghton dances with Galileo

As one of the first female photo program heads in the United States and one of the major advocates for an off-campus Center for Visual Art (CVA), artist and former Art Department Chair Barbara Houghton made a lasting impression on Colorado with more than just her pictures.

“She left a very significant mark at Metro State in the Art Department, and she was an integral part of making the Center for Visual Art happen,” says Jennifer Garner, the CVA’s director and curator since 2005. “I know she would give credit to other people, but without her it wouldn’t exist.”

So what is Houghton doing now? According to her, she is dancing with Galileo, taking photos of women in India, and teaching photography at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). As well, she was recently invited to jury the Center for Visual Art’s MERGE, Metro State Alumni Exhibition 2010.

“It was a real honor to be able to jury this show,” Houghton says. “The work was really varied in approaches. You don’t want students to come out of a college and just keep doing work that looks just like the work of the people who taught them. I want them to have their own vision, and I saw a lot of that. I chose the work I thought had something special about it … with an original approach or that was more traditional, but really well executed.”

Houghton will be at the Center for Visual Art on the opening night of MERGE. And her visit will be a homecoming. Houghton first came to Metro State fresh out of graduate school in 1974. After spending time teaching photography, it eventually became her turn to be chair of the department.

“We had a rotating chair thing going on at the time,” she explained. “And it was my turn to be in the hot seat!” However, while it was a lot of work, Houghton appreciated the experience she gleaned in the position. She learned about budgets, met people outside the department she wouldn’t have connected with otherwise, and she says, “I learned a lot about being organized and seeing the global picture.”
Plus, she worked with the late Harry Gianneschi, founder and vice president of Metro’s office of institutional advancement, to convince the College to fund an off-campus gallery that would eventually become the CVA.

She and Gianneschi submitted “three or four” versions of a plan for the gallery. “We kept writing over and over again until it was like water torture until finally it was approved,” she says. And their idea was that it would evolve. “When we wrote it, we saw it as the big picture. We saw bringing in shows that would be good educationally for students and the art department, but also for the community.”
Aside from “running a pretty good photo program” that produced many successful artists and photographers, Houghton believes initiating the off-campus gallery was one of her most notable accomplishments at Metro State.

Garner agrees. “Barb’s legacy lives on through the CVA.” But, adds Garner, she brought so much more to Metro State. “She was so energetic and really knew how to personalize her teaching.” And, Garner adds, she was a visionary who was behind getting the first computer generated art going in the department.

“She created the first computer lab at Metro,” Garner recalls. “I remember these little tiny Mac computers, with tiny black and white screens, and she had animated something on the screen, and it was like, “whoa!!” It was a big thing back then. She always had her finger in what was going on, in what was new. She was really able to see and steer the department in a profound direction at the time.”

Though she left Metro State in the early 1990s to become Chair of the Art Department at NKU, Houghton never lost her inspiration to try new things. While on sabbatical for the past year, she recently visited India to photograph women helping women. And she’s created numerous exhibits based around the idea of “how do we become ourselves?”

“I have always been interested in how we find our way and how we became the people we are,” Houghton explains. “I work with metaphors about that.” One of her favorite exhibits was an installation based on her fascination with discovering what made Galileo who he was. It featured photos she took of all the places where Galileo visited and lived, a video of her “dancing with Galileo” (she had a friend dress up as Galileo with whom she danced), music by Galileo’s father, and a narrative about Galileo that went around the walls of the exhibit, among other things.

“This piece was about my love affair with Galileo,” she explains. “The more I read of his writings, the less I knew him. He became this more real figure for me, with lots of flaws, but he was still my hero.” To see the exhibit, click here.

Now her focus is on finishing the piece on India. Then, she says, she’ll attack the long “to do” list that she has formed over the years. She works in her studio every day, whether she is teaching or not.

Houghton admits that while she is content, she often misses Colorado and Metro State. “The students we had at Metro were really sophisticated,” she explains. “A lot of times when you have students who are just out of high school, they aren’t as determined to get an education. They don’t seem to care or want it bad enough. But most Metro State students really wanted the education when they came, and that was a blessing.”

And Houghton’s former Metro State students are as respectful of her as she is of them. According to Gallery Sink owner and former student of Houghton, Mark Sink, Houghton "was one of the first to make me realize you can make contemporary experimental fine art with a camera. She believed in me and had a sparkle and excitement in her eye. Her passion was (still is) infectious. We were flying making amazing bodies of work, filling walls for critiques while the tradional photography class next door had not taken a picture yet!"

Garner echoes Sink’s opinion. “She was a mentor; she had a huge impact on my college career here at Metro, both through multiple classes that I took from her and a study abroad I did with her in London. She’s an amazing educator, amazing person, and amazing artist.”

To read more about Houghton, visit her Web site by clicking here.Bookmark and Share

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