New Art Center Exhibit Highlights Waco’s History

In Ben Livingston’s “Spirit Houses, Ghosts, and Memory” exhibit, Livingston uses neon for an eerie feel. Grace Everett | Photographer

By Avery Ballmann | Personal editor

The Art Center Waco’s new exhibit marvels at Waco’s lesser-known past. Austin artist Ben Livingston has created a tale of stories through photographs, artifacts and neon glass work.

This exhibit, titled “Spirit Houses, Ghosts, and Memory,” will be held at the Art Center Waco through April 23 and is free and open to the public. When visiting the exhibit, be sure to enter through the entrance on the Ninth Street side to view it in the correct order.

“Spirit Houses, Ghosts, and Memory” is a site-specific traveling art exhibit, where Livingston ventures to a Texas town to uncover events and antiquities that are left in the dust only to be presented as art. ‘art.

“There’s a lot of Waco undersides that I dug up on the show that Wacoans probably don’t like to talk about,” Livingston said. “Maybe it’s a little uncomfortable, delicious or maybe it’s where their grandfather worked – who knows.”

As you walk through the exhibit, you first see photos and computer graphics lining the walls. A sinister piece, enclosed in a transparent box, is a gun that killed a local journalist and Baylor supporter in 1898.

William Cowper Brann wrote in a magazine called “The Iconoclast”, which can be seen in the envelope, and was known for his outlandish opinions, which ultimately led to his own demise.

An example of Brann’s writing that finally took a turn is when Brann wrote an article about a woman from Baylor and how much he hated Baptists. The woman’s father ambushed Brann on Fourth Street, shooting him in the back. Brann retaliated with his Colt .45 pistol, given to him by a local banker. Both parties ended up dying of their injuries the following day.

Other events such as the Gay Raid in 1953 and The Reservation house, a Waco red light district, artifacts are displayed in this space to illuminate all of Waco’s history, although this may be uncomfortable for some.

“So by traveling, instead of going to a museum where they bring things from somewhere else, I’m serving a really interesting part of the community,” Livingston said.

Moving forward through the exhibit, behind the wall of black curtains is the neon artwork. Livingston creates spirit houses, which are small structures to honor ancestors and are found primarily in Southeast Asia. A twist to Livingston Homes is that the spirit resides in the neon colored glass and artifacts it encounters.

Although the day before the opening, Livingston felt that the exhibition was not complete. At 2 a.m., he visited the old art center, next to McLennan Community College, and saw a vinyl quote beaming through the abandoned building.

It was Thomas Merton’s quote: “Art is the only thing in which you can lose yourself and find yourself at the same time.” Merton was a monk and writer in the 20th century.

Livingston decided that this piece would complete the show. He cut out this piece of wall and created a spiritual house there. He believes that was their mantra and so he donated this spiritual home to what is now the Art Center Waco.

A different piece in the neon space used a cable from the Waco Suspension Bridge, as handcrafted blacksmith sculptor Skip Ralls created “Roebling’s Nuts.” A featured piece in the exhibit, Ralls was able to use a material that many Wacoans may recognize in the sculpture.

“We [Livingston and Ralls] were having lunch in the sun and I said, ‘Wait a second,’ I grabbed some other bridge components that I have in New York,” Ralls said. “Put big magnets and thread the cable, the original 1800 cable, thread it through the eyes and Mr. Ben freaked out.”

The two artists hit it off immediately. What started as a material trade turned into a harmonious relationship. From there blossomed one of Waco’s most monumental pieces in its history transcending the interior of a local art gallery.

“My position with Ben was to support him throughout the show, that’s all, but it turned into a put-down.[ting] a piece that supports his show,” Ralls said. “I built a room for a friend.”

Livingston has also worked with The Texas Collection, located in the Carroll Library on the Baylor campus. He spent two weeks in this library sifting through images to tell a complete story of Waco’s history.

While Livingston worked on “Spirit Houses, Ghosts, and Memory,” for only two to three months, he captured a lifetime of stories in this space.

“I never really thought of myself as an artist,” Livingston said. “I’ve known real artists in life and I don’t think I belong in that category, but what I’m capable of doing is expressing beautiful things.”