Houston, through the eyes of children

Exhibition featuring photos, prints of Pozos Art Project to be on view March 7-31

By David Medina
Special to Rice News

Nearly half a century ago, Geoff Winningham ’65 found his place in the world by focusing on photography. Since 1969, he’s been imparting his artistic passion to his students at Rice, where he is the Lynette S. Autrey Professor of Humanities and teaches photography.

Pozos Art Project

Wilson Montessori School fifth-grader Reilley Jones created the monoprint “The Houston Ship Channel” as a participant in the Pozos Art Project.

Over the last six years, he expanded his reach to include elementary and middle school students from Houston through a nonprofit organization, the Pozos Art Project, that he and his wife, artist Janice Freeman, created. The project offers free workshops in the visual arts to children.

“I don’t view this as charity,” he said. “I view it as a very interesting artistic experience to work with kids and see how they instinctively photograph.”

Rice’s Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts, in conjunction with the Pozos Art Project, is presenting an exhibition, “In the Eyes of Our Children: Houston, An American City,” that will feature photos and monoprints. The exhibition will be on view March 7-31 at the Rice Media Center. A 296-page book that includes many of the works on display will accompany the exhibition.

The exhibition will showcase hundreds of pieces of art that reflect the history and diversity of Houston.

“What we sense in these photographs and prints is the archetypal innocence, curiosity and authenticity of the child,” wrote Winningham in the book’s preface. “There is a total lack of ego, artistic posturing or striving for ‘self expression.’ Instead, the city, in all its rich diversity, is pictured here with a sense of wonder.”

Some of the pieces were created this past summer at Rice, where 132 students, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade and representing various ethnic groups, attended photography and printmaking workshops. Winningham and Rice undergraduate students guided the students and took them on field trips to photograph the city with $100 point-and-shoot cameras. They went to Chinatown, the East Side, Third Ward and other historic places. “We covered the city, and some real good photographs came out,” Winningham said.

Sophia Vu, a sixth-grader at Baines Middle School, has taken classes from the Pozos Art Project since she was in kindergarten. “I learned how to hold the camera and find the perfect angle,” she said. “I had lots of fun. I liked going on field trips. My favorite trip was when we went to the zoo.”

Most of the pieces in the show were selected from works done in various schools over a period of six years. Rice senior Abbi Gutierrez was in charge of the Pozos Project at Mark Twain Elementary, where she taught photography one hour a week on Fridays and accompanied the children on trips to photograph the city.

“The children themselves were challenged to really take a look at the world around them,” Gutierrez said. “By photographing their families and their city, many of them began to look at things differently, I think. They taught me that if you photograph with your heart as much as your eyes, you take a chance at dancing with life, and it may dance back.”

Pozos Art Project

“In the Eyes of Our Children” is a 296-page book that includes many of the works on display and will accompany the exhibition.

Winningham views the exhibition and the book as a culmination of his many years of work with the project. He and his wife came up with the idea of creating the nonprofit after they built a house with a darkroom and art studio in Mineral de Pozos, a former mining town of 3,000 in northwest Mexico. Freeman helped a local orphanage there by teaching some of the boys the art of printmaking. Her efforts were so successful that Winningham decided to do something similar with photography.

In 2007 Winningham was invited to have a show at the Jung Center as part of Houston’s FotoFest. Winningham knew that his photos would not be ready in time, so he recruited eight Rice students to help him arrange a series of photography workshops with children from Mineral de Pozos. Over the course of three visits to Mexico, the students taught the children photography, and the creations from those sessions were exhibited at FotoFest. “For me, this was the most rewarding and satisfying project I had ever done,” Winningham said.

Winningham and Freeman were so encouraged by what the kids from Mineral de Pozos had accomplished that they established the Pozos Art Project in 2011 as a way to continue offering free workshops to local children. Since then, the project has worked with the Houston Grand Opera Community Outreach in presenting a major show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and now offers workshops at five Houston-area elementary and middle schools, including Love and Mark Twain, throughout the academic year.

Linda McNeil, co-director of Rice’s Center for Education, helped connect Winningham with schools in the Houston Independent School District. She said that Winningham has created a condition in which children can have wonderful ideas. “Geoff is not teaching children to be creative. He is teaching them ways to discover their own creativity.”

Winningham found his own creativity in 1961 when he was a freshman at Rice. As he walked across campus one day, he happened to read a notice that said the Campanile, the school’s yearbook, was looking for a photographer. It was a paid position and offered training in the use of a darkroom. Winningham already knew the basics of photography and darkroom use, so he jumped at the opportunity.

“All of a sudden I had a place,” he said. “All of a sudden I was on a football field photographing, taking a portrait of the president, taking pictures at parties. Whatever happened at the university, I had a reason to be there,” he said. “A very trying, stressful, unhappy freshman year suddenly turned happy.”

In his many years as a photographer, Winningham has learned that the archenemy of all art is pretense, and the greatest friend is authenticity. That’s why he loves working with children.

“Kids are almost incapable of being pretentious, and authenticity is their stock and trade,” he said. “That is what they are. The ego has not developed and they love to look at the world with wonder.”

— David Medina is director of Multicutural Community Relations in the Office of Public Affairs.

About Special to Rice News

The Rice News is produced weekly by the Office of Public Affairs at Rice University.