Seven artists, seven media: The Tyler Loop presents an East Texas arts tour de force

Although far from urban conservatories, art schools and world-renowned museums, local artists in small East Texas towns are creating and sharing their art through a variety of media. 

The Tyler Loop contributor Jessica Payne takes us into local studios, theaters and parks to experience the work of seven East Texas artists who work in painting, drawing, yoga, belly dancing, glass sculpture and music.

📷 all photos by Jessica Payne

To explore beauty and creativity in spades somewhere near you, read on.

The artist: Kinnari Bhakta, Jacksonville

The artform: henna sketches

Kinnu Bhakta’s henna drawings are on display at Homeplace Inn in Jacksonville, a hotel owned by Bhakta and her husband.

Five word flash quote:

“Drawing art makes me happy!”

The story: 

Originally from India, Kinnari “Kinnu” Bhakta moved to Jacksonville in 2014. Bhakta creates traditional henna design, prevalent in her native country. “Our culture has intricate and colorful henna designs during our weddings and in festivals,” said Bhakta.

“I follow the Indian Mandala art style. I like to focus on the peacock. It is a beautiful animal found in my country of India. Each peacock’s feathers are unique, just like human features.”

Kinnu Bhakta poses with her mother, Taraben Bhakta, who learned henna drawing with the end of a matchstick. Kinnu Bhakta credits her mother with cultivating her love of the artform.

Bhakta says while she typically works on a piece over a few days’ time, she has finished some of her work in one sitting, which usually takes four to five hours. 

Bhakta was eight years old when she began sketching and credits her mother as her primary inspiration. Her mother actually began learning henna in India with henna paint and the end of a matchstick. 

As for a favorite among her pieces, Bhakta says it’s too hard to choose. “I love all my artwork. Every one of them has a unique theme.”

The artist: Stacy Bass, Whitehouse

The artform: yoga

Stacy Bass began her yoga practice two decades ago with power vinyasa when her mother suggested it as a way to relieve stress. Here, Bass poses during a class at The Yoga Den in Tyler. 

Five word flash quote:

“Expression of your true self.”

The story:

Bass grew up in Maryland but was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She moved to Texas 22 years ago and has lived in Whitehouse for the last 11. Her mother inspired her to do yoga. “She taught me yoga when I was young and suggested it to me as a way to reduce stress.” 

Bass began practicing in 2001 as yoga was becoming popular in Tyler. She started with power Vinyasa yoga but says her practice became more fluid over time.

“I began practicing as a way to alleviate stress. It didn’t take me long to figure out all of the wonderful benefits, and that it strengthens our body and mind, builds confidence, teaches compassion and how to breathe through difficult situations. I decided I wanted to share this with others. I got my 200-hour teaching certification in Dallas at American Power Yoga in 2003 and have been teaching ever since.”

Bass says yoga is an extremely powerful practice that affects people on a physical, mental and emotional level. 

“My classes involve flowing from one pose to another. I encourage my students to be creative in their practice and to mindfully move in a way that feels good for their body. There is a huge focus on the breath as you flow, strengthen, stretch, relax and open your body. Yoga is about being mindful and compassionate.”

Bass teaches in Tyler, Bullard and Montalba.

The artist: Michelle Filer, Alto 

The artform: painting

Born in Korea, Michelle Filer has traveled the world studying oil and acrylic painting. Here, she sits at her farm in Alto among several of her pieces. 

Five word flash quote:

“Art sets the soul free.”

The story:

Michelle has lived all over the world. Born in Seoul, Korea, she moved to the states at two years old. She then relocated to England and back to the States after high school, eventually landing in upstate New York. She moved to a small farm in Alto in 2014. 

Filer’s “Range and Silver Still Life,” painted in Alia el-Bermani’s gouache workshop at Atelier Dojo in Austin. 

Just like her life, her art primarily oil and acrylic paintings have taken her around the world. 

“Moving to Texas from upstate New York and not knowing anyone, I started taking art classes at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches so I could meet people and hone my skills as a painter,” said Filer.

Michelle Filer’s daughter, Kendall, is the subject of “Warrior 1.”

“As my art began to grow, I felt the need to take art workshops from other artists around the world to develop my skills even more. I have taken classes in Austin, Washington D.C., New York, South Carolina and Spain.”

Not surprisingly, Filer’s art is largely inspired by the beauty of East Texas. “Living on a farm has always been my dream and being surrounded by animals. It seemed like a perfect fit for the isolation sometimes felt as an artist. I love trying to capture the different personalities of each animal.”

Michelle Filer’s “Fiddle Leaves.”

Filer says her art style doesn’t come with labels or fit into any one box. “I took a workshop with Colombian artist Nicolas Uribe who informed me that I was an expressionist painter. I did not know at the time what that was, so I looked it up and it really described my style. I embraced it and my art went in a different direction from there.”

Filer currently sells her artwork at Canton First Mondays and also does commissioned pieces. 

The artist: Minnette Bryant, Jacksonville 

Minette Bryant said her love of theater was inspired by a record album when she was just seven years old. Bryant poses at Cherokee Civic Theatre, where we writes, directs and sometimes performs.

The artform: theater

Five word flash quote:

“Life is brief and fragile.”

The story: 

Minette Bryant calls herself a child of the cosmos. Born in Jackson, Mississippi she went to school in Louisiana, lived in Virginia and moved to Jacksonville in 1995, but she lives in Maine during the summer. Bryant writes, directs and sometimes performs for the Cherokee Civic Theatre in Rusk. 

Bryant says the most powerful influence on her work without question is the “Free to Be You and Me” album by Marlo Thomas and friends, released in 1973. 

“This album was given to me as a birthday present when I turned seven, and more than any other influence in my life, this LP record shaped the person I became. It is a children’s album but every song, every story, every snippet of humor is aimed at teaching children about self-empowerment, about negating gender roles and mandates,” said Bryant.

She also emphasized that theatre is more than acting and has an inclusive quality lacking in other activities, especially for children. 

“An important thing I love about theater is the way it creates a community of collaboration rather than competition. In a world where so many parents are deeply focused on putting their kids in sports as soon as they can walk, theater creates a world where everybody wins; where the team is all working for the same goal and there is no opposing team.”

“There are the actors who get the applause, but none of what you see in a performance could happen without the builders, painters, lighters, musicians, make-up artists, costumers, the ‘men in black’ who change the scenes in the dark. There is something for everyone,” said Bryant.

Although she has written several plays of which she is incredibly proud, Bryant says her favorite piece is her musical “A.M.” “It is the most perfect example of my personality and the leanings of my sense of humor.”

The artist: Casey “Muze” Williams, Nacogdoches 

Casey “Muze” Williams has loved music and drums in particular, since the age of two. Here, he performs at impromptu concert at Bergfeld Park in Tyler. 

The artform: music

Five word flash quote:

“Art creates problem solving joyfully.”

The Story: 

Born in Longview, Casey has lived in Nacogdoches for the past five years. While music is his primary artform, Williams says he also considers himself a community influencer, teacher and peace giver. He adopted “Muze” into his name because it signaled a different way to talk, where each conversation is a freeform canvas and the binary ways of messaging are elevated into something more collaborative and natural.

Williams plays hand drums including djembe, conga, doumbec, pan drums and hang drums. He says he is always adding to and evolving his artform. “I find myself acquiring more percussion instruments and joyfully learning how to play them.”

Williams says rhythm has been with him as long as he can remember. “I started playing drums at the age of two when I dragged my mom’s pots and pans out from the cabinets. I started devoting my energy to hand drums in 2016, which is when I founded the nonprofit organization Starr Avenue Co.

Williams has also produced Drumtalk, a presentation designed to provide education on neurological advantages, healing components and communication skills improvement through hand drumming.

Williams’ primary inspiration is his parents. Musically, he has turned to Omar Hakim, Nipsey Hussle, Pharrell Williams, RZA, Daniel Waples, Sigur Ros, Daniel Diaz and Dphill Good.

The artist: Lauren Raqs, Troup

The artform: dance

Lauren McKenzie began belly dancing at age 15 and performs at East Texas festivals. Here, she strikes a pose at The Yoga Den in Tyler.

Five word flash quote:

“Freedom of expression and passion.”

The story:

Lauren McKenzie, also known by stage name Lauren Raqs, is a born and raised Texan living in Troup. McKenzie is a belly dancer of over 16 years, influenced by modern Egyptian and American Cabaret styles.

“I started taking belly dance classes with a friend at 15 years old under the instruction of Melonye ‘Desdemona’ Grant in Tyler after years of hanging out at the local Renaissance fair,” said McKenzie.

Her style of dance has evolved significantly since she began over a decade ago. “It has definitely matured over the years. Dance can tell stories and dancers with life experience are the best storytellers. My personal journey through dance has grown from student to amateur performer to professional performer and instructor. But always [I’m] a student first.”

McKenzie says her former instructor has been her most shaping influence in dance. “Desdemona, who I called ‘Aunt Mel’ was the absolute definition of showmanship and a true performer. She passed away five years ago, and I still refer to her performance videos for inspiration and guidance. She balanced her dance life and family life in ways I only hope to achieve.”

McKenzie currently performs weekends at Avalon Renaissance Faire in Kilgore, Geekend in Kilgore and Tyler Celtic Fest. She teaches a beginner’s class at Southside Park in Tyler every Tuesday.

The artist: Renee Capel Sutherland, Elkhart

The artform: glass sculpture

Renee Capel Sutherland at her studio, Hippie Chicks Art, in Elkhart.

Five word flash quote:

“Beauty, creating started with God.”

The story: 

Although Renee was born in Branson, Missouri she didn’t spend much time there. Sutherland was primarily raised in Florida and Texas and graduated from Robert E. Lee (now Tyler Legacy) High School in Tyler. For over a year now, she has made a home in Elkhart. Her glass blowing craft was born from her father’s work.

Renee Capel Sutherland says her love of glass blowing began at the age of 11 when her father, Jerry Capel, a glass blower for Disney World, put a torch in front of her.

“In 1971, my dad was one of the first glass blowers at Disney World in Orlando, Florida and started teaching me when I was just 11 years old. My fairy tale life only grew after having Disney World as my backyard,” said Sutherland. 

“My style would have to be leaning a little towards animation due to the Disney influence.” 

Sutherland says she is passionate about both creating and teaching. “I want to teach children an art form that can make them self-sufficient the rest of their lives and have a blast doing it.” 

She is in the process of opening Hippie Chicks Art Studio where she will sell her work and teach glass blowing. 

“The studio definitely has a colorful, hippie, bohemian vibe, and I can’t wait to teach others the joy of glass blowing,” she said.

Jessica Payne is an independent multimedia journalist with a focus on photography. Originally from Houston, she moved to East Texas in 2011. In 2016 after spending much of her career in an office setting, she left the 9-5 life to pursue her passion for sharing inspiring stories and capturing amazing moments with her camera. 

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