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How a Houston artist puts his parrot to work

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 8/28/2020 By Molly Glentzer, Staff writer
a statue of a person: "Joss" is the title work of Joseph Havel's sculpture show at Asia Society Texas Center. © Courtesy Of The Artist / Courtesy Of The Artist

"Joss" is the title work of Joseph Havel's sculpture show at Asia Society Texas Center.

This parrot may not want a cracker.

But a deep shoebox would please her, especially if her owner, the Houston sculptor Joseph Havel, praises her as she pecks holes into it.

That is how Hannah, an African gray parrot, helped to create some of the teetering bronzes in “Joss: Works by Joseph Havel.” The exhibition is up through Nov. 8 at Asia Society Texas Center.

Hannah entered Havel’s life 23 years ago as a fledgling and a surprise. (The wife who brought her home is no longer in the picture.) Havel and Hannah bonded instantly but have been collaborating only about six years, he says. “It was sorta semi-accidental.”

Hannah ripped up expensive chew toys for years before Havel realized he could substitute balsa wood he had in his studio. Then he noticed that she was chewing to get his attention. “She would respond to what I liked,” he says. “In some ways, it felt like she was making things for me … We developed this dialogue.”

Parrots chew to keep their beaks honed but also to make environments. Hannah prefers shoeboxes because she perceives them as the right size for shelter. She sometimes works on the floor or a table, but her preferred roost is atop her cage. She pecks from the inside-out, “so she can get views of the world,” Havel says.

He has always appreciated the idea that he doesn’t make his art alone. Havel has his bronzes forged by Ken King, a former student who rents space in his northeast Houston studio building. Incorporating Hannah’s work puts him into a “between situation” of a three-part process he likes, partly because it embraces accidents.

“I’m making architecture out of her architecture,” he says. “There are things you control and can’t control, kind of like waiting for a hurricane.”

The Asia Society show takes its name from other materials Havel has been using: cardboard objects made as joss, or Asian spirit money, that were designed to be burned as offerings to ancestors.

Five blocks from his second home in San Francisco, Havel frequents the Exquisite Buddha, a shop that sells joss in the shape of dollar bills as well as objects that represent worldly goods ancestors might be missing in the afterlife, including Mercedes-Benz cars and jet planes.

Havel’s taste is more humanistic, expressing gray areas between ephemerality and permanence, consumption and preservation, beauty and irony. He has stacked books and cast them in resin. Torn up shirts and strung the collars together with wax. Covered walls with thousands of individually pinned, custom-made shirt labels.

He looks for the profound, Havel says, “ things you can learn about the world by choosing the most humble, domestic objects.”

Some of his new pieces are formed from simple, shoe-shaped joss. Along with poetic possibilities, they had the practical advantage of keeping their shape as the paper was burned away during the forging process.

Havel and Hannah were busy on their shoebox pieces when Asia Society curator Bridget Bray invited him to create a contemporary response to the center’s upstairs exhibition of ancient Chinese ritual bronzes from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Havel, a Minnesota native, remembered being moved by the Chinese treasures decades ago as an undergraduate ceramics student. “Those bronzes were made so early, with techniques that have changed, yet they are so exquisite,” he says.

In spite of their intricate decorative details and sometimes demure size, the ancient pieces have a brawnier sensibility than Havel’s bronzes, which can possess a fragile, somewhat weightless spirit. (For example, his monumental bronze “Curtain,” a piece familiar to anyone who has entered the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Beck Building from Main Street, looks like it could waft in a breeze.)

“Joss” features 10 sculptures, including “Pollen,” cast in 1993 from a pair of paper umbrellas that was first displayed at a Florida museum. Havel has kept it close in his studio ever since. The other nine works are new.

“I look at this as a show about empathy,” he says. “I’m using my empathy to hopefully create a sense of awe and wonder, so people can engage in their own questions.”

Hannah’s hand, or more specifically, her beak, shows in some of the joss pieces as well as the more rigorously distressed forms made with boxes. Havel says it took him a year to realize he and the bird were developing a work relationship.

“By watching her, I could learn what she was interested in chewing,” he says. “It’s a good thing for coffee in the morning. She chews, I praise her, and she gets very happy about it.”


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