Image Courtesy Kevin Foote
Do you remember Birdhouse Gallery?
Every so often someone will ask me or I’ll even ask someone else, “Whatever happened to Kevin? Birdhouse Kevin? Whatever happened to him?” A major force in the Austin art scene from about 2007 to 2010, Kevin Foote and two friends started Birdhouse Gallery out of a duplex on Cesar Chavez. Foote moved into the left half of the duplex upon his arrival from Chicago, and when the family on the right side vacated, he thought to take advantage of what was at the time very affordable East Austin rent and turn that space into a gallery.
“I just had a light bulb moment. The rent was super cheap back then, and I had always had the idea of running some kind of exhibition space in the back of my mind,” said Foote.
The house was really something special. A live-in poet and a loft bed in the bathroom set the gallery apart from the rest. Birdhouse was one of the first home galleries I can recall visiting, and it was at a time when all the heavy hitters in the art community were on one street and within walking distance of one another. Please cue “Those Were the Days.” There were so many things to adore about Birdhouse Gallery: firm believers in the handbill, the killer porch, the Sunday evening opening receptions—and that’s not even mentioning the killer line-up of artists that were included on their roster. Joshua Saunders had his first real exhibition there. Lane Hagood received the Hunting Art Prize for a piece from his solo show at Birdhouse titled The Things That Own Me. Cherie Weaver, Debra Broz, Lance McMahan all showed there, just to name a few.
Wait, did I mention Thax? If you were around for Birdhouse Gallery, chances are you were around for the giant beard and giant heart that walked around calling himself Thax Douglas. Douglas is a vagabond actually-kind-of-famous poet who has read for bands including The Flaming Lips and the Buzzcocks and your favorite local underdogs. Douglas and Foote met in Chicago and when Douglas ended up in Austin, Foote offered him a home in the gallery. Douglas slept on the gallery floor among the art and opened the doors when Foote was busy working.
At a certain point, Foote had to move out of the duplex. An artist himself and a full-time employee at a café, it all became too much.
“There were so many people coming and going all the time, dropping this off, picking this up,” said Foote. “I never had a moment to myself. It’s like, when are you working and when are you home? That separation and not knowing—that was really tough.”
So in 2009, Birdhouse Gallery kept its momentum and remained a home gallery putting out bi-monthly exhibitions but with Foote at a comfortable distance in his own living space.
But Foote was still working sixty-hour weeks, not only to support himself but also the gallery, which was being paid for completely out of pocket. Austin galleries were scattering and changing, prices on the East side were rising, and the friends he had started the gallery with had tapered off.
“There were a lot of reasons,” said Foote, “but because I was working so hard to support everything I was doing artistically, I just so desperately needed that place to shut down and just not have to think about the gallery or any of it and that’s what prompted the move away from it—which is something I regretted later.” Foote moved back to Birdhouse but solely to live there, which he did for about a year.
By 2011 the gallery space had become Foote’s living space, but its soul migrated down the street. “I really had no intention of starting the gallery again,” said Foote, “but then I was walking by Agave Print and saw that little empty side space and started talking with the owner who wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it, and I just had another light bulb moment.”
So Foote tried again and re-opened Birdhouse Gallery in the little nook adjacent to Agave. It was short-lived. “It was what it was, it just wasn’t the same vibe or energy as before,” said Foote. “After that, my heart just wasn’t in it anymore; I didn’t have that same drive.” Birdhouse Gallery had a few exhibitions in the space, vacating shortly thereafter.
Birdhouse Gallery, Round 2
But Kevin Foote is still in Austin. In fact, he’s been here all along, just off the art grid.
“I kind of went through an all work, no play period; I wasn’t creating artwork, and I wasn’t active in the art community anymore,” he said. “I was partly disheartened with the gallery not working out, and I was just burnt out. I was socially burnt out, artistically burnt out, and my way of coping with it was just working constantly.”
So he took a step back and focused on his own personal endeavors: buying a house, finding a career outside the service industry, etc. As we approach 2016, Foote is finishing up massage school and starting to create artwork again.
Many of you reading this likely don’t know Kevin. So why rehash the past? A need to wax poetic about what was? After commiserating with Kevin about where he’s been, what he’s been through, and why, I understood: Who hasn’t considered disappearing? Starting over completely? The passion and drive many of us in the community have is real and powerful and it has the ability to take over you: your will, your money, your health. It’s important to remember that it’s OK to take a step back sometimes, to take care of yourself.
“I feel great now, said Foote, “My brain hasn’t shut off this whole time, you know? I just haven’t been active with it. I have a million ideas and now that I have that time on my hands and that cushion I was working for, I can just do it.”
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. She also works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX. Her work was exhibited at Birdhouse Gallery in 2009 in the group exhibitions I Think I Look Like Me and The Teeny Tiny Show. Kevin Foote now rents a studio at pump project where she is currently employed.