Bartlett, Texas looks like something straight out of the turn of last century. Fifty miles northeast of Austin, this quiet town, with its old-timey brick buildings and stock-still streets, once buzzed with commerce and activity. In its heyday, Bartlett had three banks, two newspapers, and one booming economy. It straddled two counties, and was connected by four railroad stops: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Church was a community center point. As was cotton.
But by the 1980s, Bartlett’s businesses were disappearing. Buildings had fallen into disrepair — many of which had been purchased by the town’s mayor, while he was mayor. Despite the 1700 residents who still live within a mile-and-a-half radius of its original main thoroughfare, Clark Street, the place has been deemed a veritable ghost town. What remains of downtown are the chalky bricks that built its history.
In 2019, a private developer from New York state bought up a bunch of Bartlett’s buildings. Robert Zalkin hails from Liberty, a small town in the Catskills, about 90 minutes outside of Manhattan. Perhaps not unlike the economically abandoned, yet historically and architecturally rich small cities throughout New York State, Zalkin saw Bartlett’s potential.
His interest in community revitalization through arts and culture caught the attention of Jonas Criscoe, cofounder of East Austin’s ICOSA Collective. Criscoe had been a long-time admirer of Bartlett’s charm; he often drove through the area when taking the backroads to Waco. Zalkin and Criscoe connected, and an introduction was made to Leslie Moody Castro, an independent curator based in Austin and Mexico City.
On June 12, the project officially launched with an inaugural group exhibition, walking tours, and panel discussions that included some of the town’s residents. Members of the community came out for the opening, as well as curious onlookers from around the state.
“We wanted to avoid what I call the Marfa Effect,” says Leslie Moody Castro. “We don’t want a chasm of art access to exist here.” Moody Castro, who is in charge of community outreach, organized the art exhibition which is located at 221 East Clark Street.
Over the course of many months, Moody Castro forged connections with people in Bartlett, including the town librarian (“Miss Alice”), the director of Bartlett Activities Center, Kathy Jones, and the teachers and administrators for the local school district. Bartlett’s 300-plus students attend class year round, she tells me, in order to participate in a program that provides three meals a day, every day of the year.
There is no arts program for Bartlett ISD, and Moody Castro was eager to make a case for bringing it in. “I approached the superintendent, and his response blew me away. Basically he said that artists are creative thinkers, and critical thinkers, who know how to use their hands in many ways — our kids need to learn those skills.”
The Bartlett Project’s inaugural exhibition features four Texas artists: Aimèe Everett, M.E. Laursen, Mark Menjivar and Jade Walker. Each has created site-specific installations which speak to the town’s past, present, and possibility. The building which houses the exhibit has seen many incarnations. Most recently (decades ago) it was a dollar store, and before that, it was a car showroom and an appliance store. A funeral home formerly stored its overflow of embalming supplies in the back area.
On the day I visit, the town is sweltering, and despite the building’s double doors stretched wide open, it feels as if the swelter is coming from within. “These bricks hold a lot of moisture,” Moody Castro points out while we walk inside the structure. There is no electricity or running water at 221 East Clark Street; its chipped checkered floor, soft peeling walls, and exposed brick feel like a living, breathing thing from the past.
Moody Castro leads me into one of two spaces looking out onto the street. The room is most notably occupied with books, all of which have been donated through the project. The town’s public library was a “super center” for social activity prior to COVID, I am told. At the moment, the library is closed (Miss Alice has been working at City Hall since the start of COVID) and the city’s activity center is only open the third Saturday of each month for two hours.
Voices from a low-frequency radio ricochet off barren walls and books, reaching up toward a simple antenna affixed to the bald mezzanine. Menjivar, a San Antonio-based artist who incorporates social work into his practice, conducted hours of interviews with local residents, ranging from school children to seniors at Will-O-Bell Assisted Living. These compiled recordings can be heard round the clock throughout town on the KBART 91.1 FM station.
Several handheld radios are positioned on a shelf, as the one in the center emits an interview with Barbara, who grew up in nearby Granger. (She’s recalling the grocery store her parents once owned before reciting her recipe for cracklins.) The rudimentary acoustics of Menjivar’s interviews fit perfectly into the throwback era of the building; fragile, far away, yet familiar.
Moody Castro takes me into the other exhibition space, which also looks out onto Clark Street. Its windows and doors frame the buildings across the way like an old postcard. Walker’s installation is physically tied to these frames, strands of taut yellow string serve as pinpoints, anchored by bricks on the floor. There are approximately 100 bricks in “Threshold,” some stacked, others strategically placed side by side. Many are upholstered in vintage fabric and others remain in their natural state.
Walker, along with the other participating artists, had an opportunity to scavenge the Clark Street buildings for materials. She noticed bricks being used as door stops early on, which brought up issues of access. Miss Kathy, the director of the Bartlett Activities Center, offered a small stockpile of unused fabrics to Walker, which she then sewed around many of the bricks. The result is this sort of antique critique on access points and what stays anchored in the past. What moves forward.
Off to one side, a pile of objects, hand-painted in a grey-and-white checkered pattern, not unlike the flooring in the library space. “A New Layer” is by M.E. Laursen, who also collected items from Bartlett’s buildings in an earlier phase of the project. Like Walker’s cloth-covered bricks, each hand-painted piece is a relic of the town’s history. Laursen’s installation aims to address economic revitalization as a series of layers — as in this very building — what happens when new layers distort the original intention.
Laursen’s hand-painted gridded pattern is a reference to Photoshop (think pixel resolution), and the notion of applying another layer to an image. It is a formal conceptual gesture for the space, altering objects which are no longer being used in their initial capacity. At a distance, the pattern has a clear uniformity, but up close, each painted surface reveals itself to be distorted. These added layers are evidence of hidden narratives, some of which have been erased.
Aimèe Everett, a New Orleans native who now lives in Austin, conducted research on Bartlett’s largely forgotten Black history for her installation. “Seeing Ghosts” includes a collage-based work as well as a curtain of newspapers and sheer blue drapes partitioning the space. Bartlett’s cotton history points to a strong African-American lineage within the town, but as Everett began to look into these families from the not too distant past, she came up with very little written record of their existence. Her installation is a physicalization of their forgotten stories and a way of calling attention to the inaccurate assessment of Bartlett being a ghost town. As Everett points out, its Black community is very much alive.
The collage-based work initially hung in the center of the space, populated with cyanotypes printed on paper-thin wood, run through a sewing machine, and placed on haint blue fabric. The collage includes news clippings and portraits of local Black residents, many of whom Everett spoke with firsthand, their images adorned by iridescent halos. (It should be noted that Everett has since removed her work from the exhibition, after it sustained damage from an ongoing mural excavation in the building.)
Haint blue, almost a robin egg hue, is often used to paint porch ceilings in the South, an old tradition with African-American origins meant to ward off evil. Unable to tell if it’s sky or water, the spirit gets stuck in some in-between space. Everett’s partition of newspapers recalls a similar type of deterrent, one she saw in homes while growing up: newspapers plastered on walls, forcing evil spirits to read each and every last word before inflicting any harm.
Each of these four artists have contributed work that highlights both the challenges and potential for such a project. The exhibition is open by appointment only until August 21. A closing reception geared toward the residents of Bartlett is planned for then.
As Moody Castro and I walk down East Clark Street, there are more signs of life. A liquor store is open on the corner. Across the street, the Bartlett National Bank Guest House. And plans for a creative coworking space with artist studios for rent are underway down the block.
Things are changing. While scanning the main drag, I spot a couple curiously looking through the window of an empty storefront. “Sorry We’re Closed” hangs on its door, possibly for years.
“The growth is coming, whether they want it or not,” says Moody Castro. “The community needs to be proactive about how to sustain that — the new generation wants to revitalize their downtown.”
The Bartlett Project remains by appointment through Aug. 21; reservations at icosacollective.com/bartlett