Otis Houston Jr.: My Name is My Word (in response to Jesse Howard)
Otis Houston Jr. (born 1954) is best known for his public performances and installation work on FDR Drive by New York’s East River, where he has been working since 1997. His site-specific installations and performances include writing, poetry, singing, found objects, and fruit, which are used as both props and materials. A series of spray-painted towels and canvases succinctly express Houston’s beliefs and protests. His work often addresses racism, poverty, and addiction, while promoting messages of health, love, and self-acceptance.
Close to a half century prior, in the 1950s, a landowner in Fulton, Missouri, Jesse Howard (1885–1983), began filling twenty acres with hand-painted signs and objects that communicated his views. The signs, often whitewashed, present meticulously ruled, lettered, and composed biblical verse, religious and patriotic decrees, and social commentary. This accumulation of text-based sculptures came to be called Sorehead Hill. Over time, countless drivers passed the site, and it became a destination for visitors worldwide.
Despite the geographic and cultural separations, both men prioritized free speech, using signs to communicate their worldviews and concerns.
Houston’s life in Harlem prompts viewers to understand that their spiritual, physical, and emotional health is indivisible from their broader community. In stark contrast, Howard’s mid-century rural Missouri community led him to a more individualized relationship to religion and politics. The sites chosen and methods of communication implanted by each artist demonstrate a desire to provoke the passerby.
From October 3–7, 2022, Houston was at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, making new work for his two-part exhibition Otis Houston Jr.: My Name is My Word. While in Sheboygan, he spent time with Howard’s work. Houston produced several signs in direct response to the encounter, which are on view in this second iteration of the exhibition. The first iteration of the show was presented at the Arts Center from October 3, 2022–January 14, 2023.