Art Blocks
Blues at crossroads recall Houston’s musical past
Photo: Morris Malakoff
Those familiar with the work of Houston-based artist Jamal Cyrus will readily identify with his penchant for the subject of music, the genre often finding a way into his works both literally and metaphorically.
Cyrus’s works — which have been included in exhibitions at the Whitney Biennial, Museum of London Docklands, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Menil Collection, among others —is informed by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, sometimes fusing historical events with fictional plots as a revisionist approach to reinterpret events of yesteryear with a different perspective.
As part of the Main Street Marquee program at Main Street Square, Cyrus’ Lightnin’ Field is a tribute to Houston blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins. The Art Blocks Houston installation was created as an homage to Liberty Hall, a venue that made a name for itself by featuring local and nationally known rock and roll and blues acts.
Q: What do you think about Houston’s transformation in the past 5 years?
Jamal Cyrus: It’s exciting to me. I love the diversity of the city.
Watching this process has really been interesting because I don’t know what direction Houston is going. But I do think that the kind of people who are coming together here are going to make for an interesting environment to live in and also to work in — particularly as an artist.  
Q: What’s the relationship between you, your work and Houston blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins?
Jamal Cyrus: I’m a native Houstonian.
I also grew up in the church, hearing gospel music and soaking up what I would call the creative attitude of the city. It wasn’t until much later in life that I started to associate that with the blues and understand the blues’ contribution to American music, which inspired my visual work.
I’ve started letting those things influence my work in different ways recently. I’m not trying to get away from being from the South or being Southern, but trying to embrace it since that is the thing that raised me, the thing I am most rooted in as an artist. Which is difficult because part of it has a lot do with the fact that I really use music as the inspiration for my work. Trying to transform that into another medium is sometimes challenging.
Blues is a culture. It’s a way of life. It’s a philosophy. Letting those nuances come into the work is what I try to do.
Q: Do you listen to music when you create?
Jamal Cyrus: I do listen to music, but I also read a lot about music. I find music is what usually ends up in the work. Whether it be in a certain history, a certain detail about how or when a piece is made, you see musical references in my work often.
Q: In this case, you chose to bring awareness to Lightnin’ Hopkins. Talk about that creative decision.
Jamal Cyrus: I sometimes take a poster or a front page of a newspaper and translate it into another material. I’m into the process of looking for old, interesting newspapers or posters. The graphic style of blues posters is really attractive to me.
I came across this one just by looking on the internet. The scale is what makes it monumental and takes it out of the area of being just an image. It takes it out of the domain of photography for me because of the size of it.
Also, the location of the marquee is at a crossroad. So thinking about the marquee, the subject of “crossroads” and blues share a lot in common — therefore suitable for the site.
Q: What do you hope people get out of your work? What impact do you want it to have on viewers?
Jamal Cyrus: A little bit of a shock kind of value. Not shock as in being sensational, but being large and being something that’s familiar and foreign at the same time. I want viewers to be interested enough to maybe listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins or find out more about Liberty Hall. A lot of my work falls in this area of consciousness, of having people remember things they may have forgotten.
Q: What about the impact on the city?
Jamal Cyrus: It’s important to remember influential artists and important artistic venues. When, as a city, we acknowledge our creative heritage, we support artistic growth that adds to the vitality of the city.
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