A new group called etx creatives wants to change the way you see art in Tyler

The arts are big business in Texas, but some local artists say East Texas needs a stronger fine arts scene. Here's how they're working together it make it happen.

Sculptor and illustrator Addie Moore, ceramic artist Jessica Sanders, and mixed-media artist Joanna Gifford

According to a new report from the Texas Cultural Trust, the arts-and-culture industry generates nearly $6 billion dollars a year in taxable sales for the Texas economy, and students who take art classes are more likely to graduate high school and attend college. A new group in East Texas is trying to help our region get more of the benefits of a healthy art scene—and help local artists make a living.

“Houston and Austin and Dallas are huge hubs for the arts. Why can’t we strive to be one as well?” says Addie Moore, co-founder of etx creatives, which launched in November to help local artists show their work, find mentors and patrons, and develop the future of East Texas’s arts community.

I recently sat down with etx creatives co-founders Moore and Jessica Sanders, along with Joanna Gifford, an artist featured in a one-night-only show organized in February by etx creatives at the former home of True Vine brewery. Why do the founders of etx creatives think Tyler and East Texas need new ways to talk and think about art—and what are they doing about it? What can everyday East Texans do to support a stronger arts scene in our region? Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. You can catch etx creatives’ next show, Still, on April 12; they’re accepting artist submissions now.

Tell me how the idea for etx creatives came about. What gap were you looking to fill?

Addie Moore: Last year, I got my first ceramic studio outside a university—it’s literally a storage unit. I immediately started craving the community you get in a university setting, a tight knit group of people to talk about art with. I found myself having more and more conversations about how the art community here in East Texas is so segmented. We have a lot of people doing different things on their own who can’t network, or might not even know what else is happening in the arts scene.

I started playing with idea of an artists’ “book club,” and asking friends if they’d be interested in opening a little studio together. I tabled those ideas for a long time and focused on finishing my teaching certification. Finally, a few of us got together and planned a meeting for Tyler creatives in November and got the word out through Facebook. About 15 people showed up. That was great, but we wanted to do more. We came up with the idea to make an online community called etx creatives, and started planning our first group show.

Who’s part of the etx creatives community, and how are people finding you—especially people who are outside Tyler?

ext creatives co-founder, ceramic sculptor, and illustrator Addie Moore has interned at the National Portrait Gallery. She graduated from U.T. Tyler in 2016 and teaches at a local high school.

Addie Moore: Joanna, Jessica, and I all went to college together [at U.T. Tyler] and we added people from our personal networks to the Facebook group. My mother is also an artist, and she added people in her generation. It grew from word-of-mouth. To get in the group, each member fills out a form with questions like, “What kind of work do you make—poetry, art, music?” and “Why do you want to be involved?” and “Where are you making your work?” Artists who live in Austin or Dallas but are originally from Tyler have wanted to join, but we truly want this to be a group of East Texas local artists.  We also ask people to share their work as part of the application process, whether it’s a link to an online portfolio or just sending in images of their art. We’re looking for dedicated creatives, not hobbyists.

Joanna Gifford: That’s part of the reason why I wanted to hitch my wagon to this group: there’s a kind of academic rigor to what they’re requiring of their members. It’s not exclusionary, it’s more like a vetting process to say, “Are you someone who’s going to contribute to the progress of the fine arts community in Tyler?” It’s a way of keep some integrity as we grow, so our foundation is strong. I was actually considering moving out of state around the time that Addie and Jessica and Michael Lewis started talking about their vision of etx creatives, and it made me think, “I’m not so sure I want to move anymore!”

What can etx creatives offer someone who’s trying to create art in our region, or someone who just wants more opportunities to see and interact with art?

Addie Moore: Through our online community we’re sharing calls for outside opportunities, but we’re also creating opportunities to share your work by putting on our own shows. Through our Facebook group, we also plan to provide a mentorship program where you can sign up to be a mentor or a mentee. We’re creating opportunities for critique, for skill building, for building your inner ring of supporters. Those connections are really important for an artist.

Jessica Sanders: I would say a huge part of being a successful artist is finding a group of people where you can constantly talk about the work. If you don’t have those things, it’s so easy to just quit.

How do you want to impact the way people think about art in East Texas?

Mixed-media artist Joanna Gifford earned her M.F.A from U.T. Tyler last year and is a founding member of the local ASG Art Collective. She is a board member for Gallery Main Street.

Joanna Gifford: There is a lot of revitalization going on in Tyler right now. Some of that growth has been stilted in the past because of a lack of education around the value of culture. What is East Texas’s culture? As we’ve grown to have more than 100,000 people, we’ve landed on the map for a lot of commercial businesses with this new influx of people and traffic. There’s this growing community of people who want to help define what East Texas culture is and what the value of that culture is.

At the same time, there seems to be this dilution of how people think about art in our region. People tend to see art as something pretty they might pick up at a craft fair and stick up on a wall. Etx creatives is trying to educate the public on this other type of artist community—fine art. It’s not just about commodity. It’s about the development of technique and concept, and the philosophical questions that come from two people standing in front of an artwork and having a conversation about it. It’s adding another facet of depth to our lives.

We’re trying to create a space for people who want to create fine art in East Texas for the longterm, and where the community can get educated on how to value and support that work.

Describe the shows you’ve put on at the old True Vine location. Who are they for, who shows up, what happens there?

Addie Moore: Our first show was titled “Inconsistency.” We had 165 people show up—I would have been happy to get 75. The shows are held in the old True Vine brew room, this kind of gritty underground space with exposed ceiling and walls that aren’t perfect. We have art and poetry and music and beer and coffee all in one place. Our shows are events, not exhibitions. It’s there for one night, and then it’s gone. You have to come and see it and be part of it.

Joanna Gifford: “Components” last month was the inaugural show for the Art School Girls art collective, which is myself, Willow Lanchester, Jessica Sanders, and Lilah Shepherd. We were so blessed—I’ll use a very East Texas word, “blessed”—to have etx creatives host our show. It gave us this infrastructure that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

For someone who’s not very plugged-in to the Tyler and East Texas art scene, describe the landscape. What should they be aware of?

Addie Moore: We have two shows at the Tyler Museum of Art featured right now on Glasstire, which is the Texas art magazine. It’s a big thing that Tyler is showing up there at all. Edom has a great art scene, Palestine has a sculpture walk, Nacogdoches has a fantastic art program, U.T. Tyler has a great ceramics program. There are a lot of great things happening here. We’re trying to pull it all together and start making more people aware of that.

Joanna Gifford: An artist in Jackson, Mississippi named David West came through U.T. Tyler the other day. He talked about how a lot of galleries in Jackson started leaving because there wasn’t a community to support them. So, if I was going to give people a directive, it would be: go to Gallery Main Street, go to shows at the Tyler Museum of Art, get a membership, and make it known that there are patrons of the arts here in our community. I want to find the Medicis of Tyler, Texas, who are going to help the artists survive so the artists can tell the tale of Tyler. That’s what artists do. We tell the visual story of the community and the culture that we’re in.

How are you thinking about diversity and outreach? Is that something you’ve been thinking about?

Addie Moore: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot over my lifetime. I’m from Tyler, a place with a lot of racial divisions and misunderstandings. I’m a product of this region—I don’t have immense diversity in my network. It’s something I’m working on. We’re reaching out to colleges in the area, trying to get people at all of the universities to apply. We would love to have a show with all-LGBTQ artists, or all female artists. We would love to expand in that direction. It’s something we want, and something we are striving for.

Joanna Gifford: You have to start with the realization that segregation exists, that our infant mortality rate [among black mothers and infants] is really high, that we’re divided into north and south. Our worlds are very location-based.  It’s something that the south Tyler community doesn’t necessarily acknowledge or even realize at times. Hopefully, having our shows at the old True Vine location makes them a little more accessible, and it shows that everything doesn’t have to be in south Tyler. If there are ambassadors out there, or people with good ideas, we have the desire to diversify and empower more artists in our community.

When you think about the health of the arts in East Texas, what would you really like to see happen over the next five years?

ext creatives co-founder Jessica Sanders is working on her M.F.A. at U.T. Tyler. She works in ceramics installation and recently had a solo show in Shreveport.

Jessica Sanders: There has to be the willingness to support art that we want to see in East Texas, which means being willing to pay for things, whether that’s a an entrance to an art show or a work of art. There’s a weird culture out here that expects art to be free or cheap. It’s frustrating when you spend so much time creating something, and then someone asks you to bring the price down.

Addie Moore: I think in part that comes from the fact that a lot of people have seen art mostly in places like crafts fairs or art booths. I also think the idea that art is free comes from the willingness of artists to work for free. We have so many artists just starting out here who think they have to do murals for free, or donate artwork to people’s houses or coffeeshops. Our willingness to underrate ourselves hurts the whole community. We’re trying to fight that culture. Artists are worthy of equitable workspace.

Joanna Gifford: When I go to the movies, I pay for my ticket to go in there, then I pay a million dollars for snacks, and when I’m finished with my movie and my snacks, I don’t get to take them home with me, and I might not have gotten to talk to a single person during my experience. And that’s fine, there’s always going to be a place for that. But at our shows, you get this totally different experience where you get to be around experimental music and poetry and a unique grouping of people who are there to talk about art. We have shown that there are in fact people in our community who are willing to pay for that experience, and we want that community to grow.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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