by G G Yellen
We talk in May, when the heat is not yet
awful. Out on the patio, beside and beneath an oak tree, we are drinking cold
cinnamon tea. A light breeze and a wandering cat disturb little in our quiet
conversation. Inside the house, a man is
fixing a snack.
Mary Ellen leans over and smiles,
fingering her white cotton cap-sleeved
"This isn't art. I love it. I've worn it
three times this week, but, you see, it
follows a pattern, and it really was made
to be worn. Of course, that doesn't detract from its beauty, but in answer to
your question, no, it's not something
I'd show in the gallery."
The home of Mary Ellen and Tom
Whitworth, at 1408 Michigan (in the
Montrose area), is also the home of
M.E. 's Gallery.
early on to succeed in academic and professional life, manages to hold four festive
openings a year, rotate artists frequently,
search out new media, hire a gallery-
keeper during busy seasons, keep books,
and work full time as a senior research
assistant in environmental biology. She
studies the curves in DNA.
She pours me another glass of cinnamon tea.
"Women were my teachers through
high school—nuns, at a Catholic girl's
school." Then college at LSU, and a
master's degree in biology. "My whole
background is in science. I like the financial security of my job at M.D. Anderson.
But it wasn't strange for me to go into
business, too. I kind of feel I have it in
my blood. The men in my family had
businesses—ice, grocery, dairy—so I've
heard business talk all my life. I took a
"The difference between craft and art is the
element of surprise. Art surprises, or moves
you in some way. Frequently it unnerves
"The best thing about having the
gallery here is, we're ready for the energy
crunch. We live here. Tom's law office
is walking distance. So is the Tower
Theatre, and several new restaurants. I
expect Montrose to grow into a neighborhood where there's less driving, more
The gallery shows crafts media-"cer-
amic, glass, fabric, wood, fiber, soft
sculpture, jewelry,"—as used by artists
"who surprise me." That's what makes
the difference between craft and art-the
element of surprise. The artist, in addition to showing you that they can manipulate the medium well, has something to
say that nobody else has said before.
"Sure, a complicated procedure done
well is a joy to look at—like this blouse,"
We both smile.
"But art surprises, or moves you in
some way. Frequently it unnerves you"—
just as the tiny Satans do that giggle
together on the rim of Bill Wilhelmi's
vases and plates. Wilhelmi, a Corpus
Christi-based ceramicist, has shown twice
at M.E. 's, "and I hadn't intended to show
in Texas at all." But a mutual friend from
Corpus, M.E.'s and Tom's hometown
as well, introduced them, and Wilhelmi's
work sold well. Wilhelmi remarked,
"I like doing business with her. Mary Ellen is very considerate of the people she
shows. Some places, an artist comes in
and gets ignored; with her it's not a high
Not a high pressure thing, and yet
M.E., whose mother encouraged her from
couple of Small Business Administration
courses when I started. It didn't seem
frightening to try it myself.
"I went into business when other
crafts galleries were closing. Got loans
from some people I knew. There was a
void to fill, and I was filling it.
"I like craftspeople. That's why I do
this. I buy things I enjoy having in the
house. I don't have any formal art background, although I plan to do some
catching up in art history. I look at a lot
of things, and stay in touch through
journals and personal contact."
M.E. 's began three years ago as a
small jewelry shop in the old Gypsy
Market near Rice University. Now it
fills half the house on Michigan and
jewelry is only a small part of the collection.
"I met some people who made jewelry
and they introduced me to African
crafts, which is what I sold at the Gypsy
Market. Through the same people I joined
Houston Designer Craftsmen, and eventually became president of it. It's a group of
craftspeople in the Houston area, but not
confined to this area. Anyone can join.
There's a monthly newsletter, and an
exhibit every year or two. They'll have
one this August, in fact."
M.E. routinely seeks to show artists
from other parts of the country in an
effort to expose Houston craftspeople
and their patrons to fine work otherwise
unavailable. She's just acquired the works
of the members of Nine Fine Artisans, as
they divest themselves of their gallery.
Included is a collection of wry soft sculp-
MARY ELLEN WHITWORTH of M.E.'s GALLERY
ture by a woman who lives in the Hill
Country, and whom the gallery owner
looks forward to meeting.
Somebody's holding on the phone so
we go inside for M.E. to take the call.
Past the bedroom, among the framed
drawings on the hallway wall, M.E. points
out one pencil sketch of an enormous
flower, the only work of hers on display
in the house.
"I like the simplicity of just the pencil
and paper. Every now and then I do a
We pass through the office alcove, the
phone call is completed, and we peek into
the kitchen to say hello to Tom and to
Oso, an enormous black German Shepherd who apparently knows how to act
in a house full of breakables. Then we're
in the sunny gallery, wrapping up the
"It's tough for craftspeople, because
you've got to stay with it for 10 years
to make a good living, and your stuff has
to be exceptional. If it's just okay, you'll
never make it," says M.E.
Is M.E. one of those people of whom
artists ask, "Should I continue this
She laughs. "I hope nobody would
put that big a responsibility on me. But
(and here the laugh is gone) there are
plenty of people who ask me, and I try to
be honest without just devastating someone. Because I think you can do a craft
without being outstanding and, though
you won't make much money, get a lot
of fulfillment and enjoyment out of it.
"Now and then I get calls from people
wanting to show me their Aunt Fanny's
needlepoint, or something, and those
usually turn out not to be things I want
for the gallery. But I enjoy talking to the
"I keep an eye on other crafts galleries
and work with them, send them people
who want what I don't have, let them
know what I've got. I don't consider it
competition at all. The more crafts places
there are, the better off everybody is."
G G Yellen is a news reporter at KLOL