Oak Cliff, A Legacy of Art and Cheap Rent

Oak Cliff Artists Bishop Arts District

If any Dallas neighborhood is most associated with being a place where artists live, it’s probably Oak Cliff.

Sure, the area around White Rock Lake has a large number of artists living there. Oak Lawn was once known as the center for art galleries, a role that’s been taken on by the Design District and the Arts District itself is where the bulk of the museums are. And dare we forget to mention Deep Ellum, home to the city’s longest-running artist space (500X) and many other galleries.

But it’s not a hard argument to make that the Dallas neighborhood with real legacy is Oak Cliff.

Oak Cliff artist Brian Scott called the “Williamsburg of Dallas.” And less you be mistaken, he means the one in Brooklyn, not the one in Virginia.

Let’s start more than 100 years ago- quite a while in Texas time. The only artist from Texas to be represented at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition was Frank Reaugh. He lived in Oak Cliff (which was formed in 1896 and became part of Dallas in 1903). If you’re unfamiliar with his work, there’s a beautiful painting hanging in the Dallas Public Library downtown.

Known as the “Dean of Texas Painters,” Reaugh used pastel and paint, portraying the vast, still unsettled regions of the Great Plains and the American Southwest. Like most art that pops into our minds when we hear “Texas,” he painted a lot of sunsets and cattle.

A few year’s before that big fair in Chicago, the Reaugh’s moved from Terrell, Texas to Oak Cliff. Reaugh’s father built the young artist a studio in the back yard. Frank Reaugh taught several members of the most notable Dallas artists to date, the Dallas Nine, including Olin Travis and Alexander Hogue. He also championed the founding of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Four More
For some reason, artists in Dallas come in numbered batches. The second well-known group is known as the Oak Cliff Four. Although there were sometimes five included, you won’t find an exact nine in the earlier group. If you count Reaugh, we’d be up to 14, but don’t try to do that.

The Oak Cliff Four include Jack Mims, Bob Wade, George Green, Jim Roche and sometimes Mac Whitney. Whitney is less often included because his style was different- more international. The core group was known for their “Texas Funk,” which some might call Pop Art — that may or may not please the artists. There was a big show in the early 1970s at the Dallas Museum of Art featuring them, plus the art from three Minneapolis artists. The show traveled on to the Walker Art Center.

This caught the attention of Newsweek, which mentioned the show and artists in the August 7, 1972, issue. The timing was good, especially for Bob Wade, who would go on to see a giant Iguana he created to sit atop a cafe in New York City and receive a commission for a large pair of boots in Washington DC (now located outside a San Antonio shopping mall). It wouldn’t be long before boots and hats were all the rage, and the city was on television with the launch of Dallas (1978).

That’s not to say a visitor to Oak Cliff during that time would find anything like Andy Warhol’s factory or the cafe’s, bars and fashionistas surrounding it.

“We lived in Oak Cliff because it was cheap, recalls artist Mac Whitney. “My studio rent was about $65 a month.” It wasn’t the best neighborhood. In fact, Whitney says Lee Harvey Oswald shot a cop named J. D. Tippit on the very corner.

“It was just kind of a benign and suburban, nothing too special,” George Green recalls of Oak Cliff. “You could always go down to the Texas Theater where Oswald was captured. That was just a few blocks away.

“There was nothing going on in Oak Cliff particularly, just a lot of weirdoes that lived over there,” Green says.

 

Newsweek ran a photo with the article shot in Bob Wade‘s Oak Cliff loft. He suspects he may have had the first artist loft in the city. The rent– $75 a month.

While remembered fondly, the period didn’t last very long. Within three years Wade remembers everyone being gone.

“I got to Oak Cliff in ’70, maybe ’71,” Wade says. “As of ’73, everybody kind of dispersed. Jim went to Tallahassee, and then Jack followed.” George Green stayed a little longer until he relocated to a building in Deep Ellum.

Curiously the term “Oak Cliff Four” wasn’t likely used until a 1973 show in Tyler, Texas.

Forty Years On
Now, forty years later, Oak Cliff may be again emerging as a center for artists in Dallas. And again rather than artistic legacy, cheap(er) housing is the often cited reason.

Oak Cliff Artist Stuart Kraft Created this steel Pegasus that stand in Downtown DallasThe artists we spoke to moved to Oak Cliff because of the cost, rather than any artistic legacy. Ray-Mel Cornelius says he didn’t know about the Oak Cliff Four when he moved to the neighborhood in 1990. And while the cost was the consideration he says he was familiar with some “second-generation” artists such as Greg Metz and the late Stuart Kraft (who did the Pegasus in front of the Booker T. Washington High School in Downtown Dallas).

Cornelius says rather than the Oak Cliff Four, the artists in 1980s like Metz and Kraft sort of pioneered the resurgence of Oak Cliff as a place for artists today. Still, he says artists are attracted to Oak Cliff for the same reasons they are attracted other neighborhoods– low rents and house prices.

“I think that is more of a factor for Oak Cliff again becoming or remaining a haven for artists than any individual or group of artists having worked and lived here,” Cornelius says.

Scott also says he moved to Oak Cliff because of the cost and then learned about the Oak Cliff Four. Unlike the early 1970s, today there are some galleries there, and other places to hang out.

Some are observing. However, there are fewer of the cool places all the time, and the attraction of cheap rent may dissipate. Cornelius says that currently the art galleries and other low-rent businesses are being supplanted by boutique shops and restaurants. As an immediate example, he points to a bookstore scheduled to close at the end of March because of a rent hike.

“There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of businesses,” he says “but it does belie the idea of it being an ‘arts district.'”

Scott says despite all this Oak Cliff is still the best place to live in Dallas, with the Cedars coming in second, as a rising center for artists followed by established “art facilities.”

If costs rise, neither the Cedars nor Oak Cliff may have much staying power.

“Artists may wake up soon to find great art centers and high rent,” Scott says.

About Eric Miller

Eric Miller is co-founder and contributor to Urban Art & Antiques. His website is ericmiller.me

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