A Hidden Hot Bed
Some of the most exciting art in Austin comes from the historic town of Elgin, where a growing creative community is offered some much needed space.
by Neal Baker
Photographs by Bill Sallans
Texas, vast as it is, has its fair share of small towns, but when you’re a city dweller, they often remain out of mind until you pass through one. Some remote flag stops have become destinations, but only for those willing to venture so farther afield: the mythical desert of Marfa, for instance, or the retro soda pop dreams of Dublin and its bottling works. But half an hour east of Austin, Elgin has been quietly attracting a population of creatives who have cultivated a new sense of energy and excitement in what was already a charming and friendly place. Over the past couple decades, it has become a haven for artists of all stripes, who come searching for inexpensive space and then find themselves amid a welcoming community full of unique interests.
Elgin itself has plenty to offer — a trip into town is a series of delights. Each person you meet is happy to see you, each store you step inside is full of treasures, and each old building has its secrets. Due to its proximity to Austin and its affordability for people looking for spaces to make into proper studios, it fosters the creation of art where it may not previously have been possible. The recent influx also creates a visible but harmonious juxtaposition of new and old. A fair few families have lived in town for generations, while next-door new arrivals bring in fresh ideas and stories every day.
The most exciting part for many will still be the body of artwork that is coming out of the town by an increasing rate. Individuals working in every kind of medium have been able to find their niche, and often what gets made in Elgin ends up reaching far beyond just Austin. The best way to get a sense of what’s great about this small town’s growing scene is, of course, to ask the people themselves. We visited five artists who create in Elgin to better understand what sorts of things are coming out of the town as it experiences change. They have different perspectives on what all of this means for art in Austin and beyond, but they all share a deep appreciation for what Elgin has to offer to anybody who should come looking for it.
She may have picked a small town to make her home, but sculptor and installation artist Margo Sawyer’s reach is far. As a professor of studio art at the University of Texas, her influence touches many new minds, and as an artist, she has installations in every major Texas city and locales as far away as Japan and India. With her recent receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship, it’s more remarkable than ever how something so big can come out of a place so small.
Sawyer’s energy and ambition are apparent from a look around her loft. A home, office, and studio all in one, the old building has been made over in an efficient but luminous minimalist style. On the bottom floor, renderings and illustrations line the walls, tape marks dimensions on the floor, and crates house new pieces of future installations. Above, an open and airy kitchen leads to a rooftop garden dense with greenery. It’s a specific kind of atmosphere that would likely be stifled in the rapidly evolving and closely quartered city of Austin, and it gives the sense that she truly lives her art.
All of her recent work involves calculated explorations of color and light. She covers floors, walls, windows, and sculptures with lively color-blocked textures that reward attentive observation. Often her art is designed to interact specifically with architecture, transforming spaces, sometimes, into livable abstract dreamlands and, at other times, into sanctuaries for reflection.
It has always been her interest to bring new artists to town, and she recalls when many of the current residents arrived. It goes to show that as highly as she may be regarded in her professional sphere, she is just as much of an Elginite as any of the rest.
A transplant from Sacramento, California, Travis Seeger spent a few years in Austin proper before realizing that the city, cool as it was, came with a hefty price tag. Packing his studio into his trusty U-Haul trailer (which he owns to this day), he and his wife trekked just down the road to Elgin, where Seeger discovered that he could buy a house and build a shop while remaining in possession of both arms and legs.
In this workspace, Seeger works primarily with steel, exploiting its lack of regard for gravity, the strength of its welds, and its ability to oxidize just so. His signature series of sculptures consists of like pieces of material composed into intricate three-foot spheres. Despite their medium and scale, they manage to be anything but imposing. By contrast, they are approachable and invite engagement with their precise yet organic geometry. Many of his works are done as commissions, including a collaborative Seussian installation at the Montopolis Neighborhood Center, but others make it into galleries; his work can currently be found at Artworks here in Austin.
Seeger is outspoken about his enthusiasm for the town he’s made his home and is a proponent of more artists making the move. In the modern age, he says, “more and more people don’t need access to the brick-and-mortar galleries,” with social media and online storefronts helping to disseminate artists’ portfolios — many of his own works are sold on his Etsy store, ModernistMetalworks. What Seeger finds so exciting about the location is the opportunity for artists to own the space where they work. But for him, what has made it truly worth staying around for has been the community that he has found. He is a believer in the identity unique to Elgin but knows that “if culturally you’re still tied to what Austin is, it’s right down the road.”
Before she ever became associated with Elgin, Sydney Yeager had made herself known in the Austin scene. After pursuing a degree in English and nearly passing up art entirely, she returned to UT to develop the craft that has guided her since. Making a solo debut soon after graduating at Women & Their Work in 1989, followed by the receipt of the City of Austin Cultural Arts Grant, she was well on her way to making a name for herself.
Out of school, she painted scenes with an expressionist influence. Over the years, though, her paintings have pushed away from representation and toward abstraction, but she’s stuck with the medium. “I’ve always been involved with the physicality of paint,” she says, something that is magnified by the large scale of her work. But big art needs a big room, and this demand — along with Margo Sawyer’s encouragement — brought her work to Elgin, where she now rents a studio in a building that at one point served as an opera house. Encircling the room are tall canvases with long, broad marks that wind around one another and fold back in on themselves. She describes the recent development in her work as moving from a heavily layered method of composition to a figure-ground approach, with her convoluted forms lying exposed in a solid and unforgiving field of linen.
Though she works in Elgin, Yeager still calls Austin home, and her art is represented not just in town at Gallery Shoal Creek, but also by Laura Rathe Fine Art in Houston and Dallas. She agrees that a place like Elgin provides a good solution for individual artists but is careful to note that this movement is reflective of Austin’s growing inaccessibility, not just for artists but for the galleries that help them to share. Several venues have been uprooted already, and with the imminent relocation of Flatbed Press and Gallery, many more collections are soon to be without a home. It’s a trend that Austin should take seriously if it wants to preserve what makes it so special.
Bill Montgomery & Margie Crisp
Husband and wife Bill Montgomery and Margie Crisp both recall a time when downtown Elgin was sleepy and its buildings half-empty, much as you might expect a small Texas town to be. Crisp says that when they arrived 25 years ago, there wasn’t much of a sense of an art community at all. They’ve been part of the change since then but still appreciate Elgin for what it has always been — a charming and grounded oasis that moves at its own pace.
One could probably gather from their art that the two were never meant to be city dwellers. Images of landscapes and wildlife are depicted vividly and faithfully in their respective oeuvres, though their personal styles are each the result of a unique path.
Crisp recalls her time in school, when she was “doing printmaking at UT and didn’t have any conceptual direction,” until she encountered the work of the Dallas Nine, a group of early to mid-20th-century artists whose engagement with the landscape of the Southwest served as inspiration for Crisp’s own art. “That work gave me a vocabulary that I had been missing,” she says, a vocabulary that she has applied not just to prints but to lovingly detailed paintings and drawings as well.
When Montgomery began painting he depicted humans and wildlife side by side. “I used to be a figurative painter,” he says. “I gradually started picking out the people.”
Plants and animals have continued to be the source of his inspiration, though lately he says he has been exploring how these creatures interact with man-made environments.
Though similar in subject matter, the two’s distinct styles are represented not only in their work but in their workspaces. His downtown space is in an old building full of curiosities and collected items, from accordions to animal skulls, not to mention the original hand-pulley freight elevator. By comparison, she works in a tidy studio by their home on the outskirts of town, where the most important feature is easy access to the nearby woods.
Together, their dedication to representing Texas and its landscapes is a distinguishing factor of their artistic career and as such the two are represented by William Reaves Sarah Foltz Fine Art in Houston as a part of its Contemporary Texas Regionalists. But it goes beyond just art. Crisp wrote and illustrated “River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado,” honored as the best book of nonfiction in 2012 by the Texas Institute of Letters. The two also collaborated on another, titled “The Nueces River: Río Escondido,” featuring her words and his art.