Houston Artists Fund
2900 Weslayan, Suite 200
Houston, Texas 77027
(713) 439-5740 (Fax)
To donate to HAF for the production of the book about Gertrude please click HERE.
When her mother instructed Houston artist and activist Gertrude Levy Barnstone (now 89) never to marry or have children, the blue-eyed six-year-old promised herself that, dammit, she’d do it all. “You’re going to be an artist,” Mrs. Levy told her daughter. “Put down that broom." And, for the last 89-odd years Barnstone has been busy making good on her promise. The arts were booming in Post-Depression Houston. New museums, theaters and orchestras were sprouting as fast as oil companies. Gertrude attended Houston public schools, took classes at the art school of the Museum of Fine Arts, and graduated from Rice University in 3 years.
A stunning dancer, actress and painter, Gertrude continued to draw, paint, sculpt, and act in local theater after marrying Howard Barnstone, a rising architect fresh out of Yale. The Barnstones befriended contemporary artists, attended museum and gallery openings and contributed to the founding of the Contemporary Arts Association. Among their friends were sophisticated art patrons and collectors, including John and Dominique de Menil, Charles Barnes and Marguerite Johnson, Claire and Sam Sprunt.
Barnstone was always an activist. She volunteered at Poe School when her three children attended and founded a Montessori school. Barnstone occasionally shifted her focus from art to politics. In 1963, angered by the conservative Houston School Board’s attack on its lone African-American member, she ran at large for a place on the Houston School Board which had, in 1963, been blocking integration for a full 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed Separate but Equal in the 1950’s. Howard Barnstone supported Gertrude’s School Board campaign, as he had supported her art. “He never wanted a stay-at-home wife,” she says now. She ran at large, wore out 8 pairs of shoes and won by 30,000 votes. While on the School Board Gertrude cajoled, argued and pushed the stubborn conservative block towards full integration.
In 1965 the Barnstones' marriage burned itself out, the bonfire fueled by Howard’s resentment of Gertrude’s public accolades, love affairs (his and hers) and finally by Howard’s mental breakdown.
Through the sturm und drang Gertrude preserved her smile and kept her footing. She enrolled in welding classes and went to work part time for a company making skylights. Since their divorce in 1965 Gertrude has been making a living by creating vivid and lyrical sculpture, much of it architectural. Her garden gates, chairs, railings, tables and screens have enlivened Houston’s landscape. But it’s her spirit, vivid, lively, and above all indomitable that she’s given us. Once I asked her why she went into politics in the first place.
“I looked at myself in the mirror and decided I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t run,” she said. “Act or fold your tent.”
Words to live by.