Gertrude Barnstone:
The Art and the Woman
By Ana Villaronga-Roman | Photo by Fatima Donaldson


At vibrant 86 years-young, sculptor Houstonian Gertrude Barnstone is still doing what she loves: producing beautiful works of art.

I As an art consultant, I have had the pleasure of working with Gertrude on two commissioned pieces. The first, over ten years ago, a triple hanging light fixture, and most recently, a lit wall installation she titled “Galaxy.” Both times, I have been completely amazed at her energy, inner beauty and talent. The more I know her, the more I love her!

When I suggested to some clients, homeowners and their designer, that I wanted to bring in Gertrude Barnstone to create a sculpture for their project, they could not believe it! They were surprised not only that she was still working, but that I knew her and could go pick her up and bring her over to discuss ideas. Once they met the artist, we immediately sealed the deal. They wanted HER, and they did not even want to consider anyone else for their commission.

But just who is this artist extraordinaire? A Houstonian for most of her life, Gertrude served on the Houston Independent School Board in the early 1960’s, a complicated and contentious time. The president of the board at the time was Bob Eckels. His daughter, Carol Eckels Adams, describes those times when desegregation was put in place. “Back in the 60’s when Gertrude was on the HISD school board, she sometimes disagreed with my dad, who was president at the time. But she was always respectful of his opinion, and he respected her difference,” said Adams. One of the changes that Gertrude was involved in and that she is most proud of was to help start the free school lunch program for children in need.

 


Ana Villaronga-Roman and artist Gertrude Barnstone at a recent installation of Gertrude’s art piece titled “Galaxy.”
Photo by Fatima Donaldson

 

 


But just who is this artist extraordinaire? A Houstonian for most of her life, Gertrude served on the Houston Independent School Board in the early 1960’s, a complicated and contentious time. The president of the board at the time was Bob Eckels. His daughter, Carol Eckels Adams, describes those times when desegregation was put in place. “Back in the 60’s when Gertrude was on the HISD school board, she sometimes disagreed with my dad, who was president at the time. But she was always respectful of his opinion, and he respected her difference,” said Adams. One of the changes that Gertrude was involved in and that she is most proud of was to help start the free school lunch program for children in need.

Art and politics. How does that mix? In her own words, Gertrude said, “In art, in politics, you have to feel something so deeply, you can’t be stopped from trying to share an idea, from trying to share a point of view. Who gives a darn if you succeed? Stand for something. Don’t ever allow the fear of small returns dissuade you from the triumphs of participation.”

Gertrude studied at Rice University during a time when the only art training available was through the school of architecture. This training proved useful later in her sculpting. She divorced in 1969 from the architect Howard Barnstone, who was one of the two architects who designed the Rothko Chapel. She learned how to weld by going to Houston Community College and got a welding job to help her manage being a single mom.

Once out of politics, Gertrude concentrated on her art and has pieces in the permanent collection of The Menil Collection as well as The Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Her sculptures, gates, and light fixtures may be seen throughout the Houston area in private homes and private collections, mine included.

I met her when I was very young and right out of art school at one of her exhibitions. I told her that some day I would have enough money to purchase my very own Gertrude Barnstone. About ten years later, I contacted her art dealer and met with her. She kindly remembered my story and was excited, not just to work with me, but to fulfill my wish. Gertrude made a stunning piece she titled “Dream” and made my dream come true. Now I do own a Gertrude Barnstone!

Gertrude recently recovered from a hip surgery. She can only see out of one eye, she does not drive anymore and now, resides with her son. Her assistant, Castro, helps her with the measuring and installing, as well as the heavy lifting. At 86, she does not slow down; she just gets a little extra help. Her spirit and energy are contagious. After the photo shoot we did for “Galaxy,” I felt happy for three days. I realized that I was happy because Gertrude had re-energized and inspired me. She is truly a Houston icon. She has made a difference in our world, in our surroundings and in our lives. I hope that her ways will be my ways as I continue to age gracefully, just like she has. Yes, Gertrude Barnstone is my hero.