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Artist With a Vistion: After 20 years, passion to revitalize area continues

By Tony Freemantle
Houston Chronicle 5/1/03

Kirk Farris' brown eyes light up, his hands dart around in front of him and words tumble in a torrent from his mouth as he tries to explain why he has devoted the last 20 years of his life to transforming a derelict, trash-strewn corner of downtown Houston.

Why he fell in love with and volunteered to paint a long-forgotten little bridge in colorful pastel shades. Why he spent countless hours, by himself on his tractor, clearing hundreds of tons of old tires, discarded furniture and other garbage from the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Why he pounded on the doors of donors and stalked the corridors of power and moved mountains of dirt to create a public park .

"Why do I do it?" he asks. "I don't have the slightest idea. I wish I knew. I don't get anything out of it and my wife is sick of it. At some level I guess it's a sickness. I've tried to analyze it, but I guess it boils down to the fact that I made a decision years ago that I would take this seriously and it's not finished yet."

Farris' obsession, for that is what it is, began in 1983 when he talked City Hall into allowing him to paint and renovate the McKee Street bridge just northeast of downtown, which he did with donated paint.

Twenty years later, the bridge is a relatively important Houston architectural landmark with a pleasant, shaded park at its southern foot, just blocks away from the urban renewal occurring around Minute Maid Park .

The McKee Street bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It would be wrong to suggest that Farris, an artist and a musician with a degree in environmental science, did all this completely by himself. He has had help from friends and volunteers, from the city and Harris County. And the relatively small amount he has spent on the project came from donations and grants to his nonprofit Art and Environmental Architecture Inc.

But one can say without fear of contradiction that without Farris and his relentless drive, the area would most likely still be the blighted spot that it was 20 years ago.

The vision was eclectic and simple and has not changed over the years: Restore the bridge, which enjoyed a brief moment of fame as the longest unreinforced concrete span in the country when it was built in 1932; create the park , which ultimately will feature luscious gardens; and reveal and preserve the footprint of Frost Town, an extinct settlement on the banks of Buffalo Bayou.

Despite obvious, visible progress, only the bridge is complete. The park , which was named for James Bute, a friend of Farris' who donated the paint for the bridge, is functional and pleasant.

But it is not "finished" to Farris' expectations, and will only be so when the garden is complete and he has acquired more land on the north side of the bayou, if possible, and finished clearing what he has already acquired.

The Frost Town historic site plan still is only a plan, and that doesn't sit well with Farris.

"I'm disappointed with my performance in this entire activity," he said on a recent afternoon while planting a heliconia, a flowering tropical plant, in a flower bed at the park . "I don't think I've done enough, fast enough. That's just how it works, I guess.

"But the mistake I made was I waited for the authorities to take responsibility and do their part. It took me awhile to realize their interests lie elsewhere. I shouldn't have waited."

It has been, by Farris' own admission, a hard and frustrating quest. He acknowledges the support he received from Harris County, particularly Commissioner El Franco Lee and Jim Fonteno when he was a commissioner. Former Mayor Kathy Whitmire gave him permission to paint the bridge.

But ultimately, Farris is an outsider. Really, he does not wish to be part of the established power structure, which possibly accounts for his ambivalence toward organizations, like the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, and their glossy, multimillion-dollar plans to beautify Buffalo Bayou. It's not that he objects to what they plan on doing; there is something about how they do it that turns him off.

"Their model is all about money, power and prestige," he said.

"Mine is all about the lack of money, power and prestige. What drives my model? I guess it's a kind of childlike delight in seeing real results. See that palm over there? See that pretty little garden over there? See those plants about to bloom? See those people getting a break in life? See that green space? That's what drives me."

It's a question he keeps coming back to, a question he tries to answer as many times as it is posed, and in truth it probably boils down to this: In 1983, Kirk Farris started painting a bridge and building a park and a garden, just because he wanted to, and he's not yet finished.

"I am an artist," he said, "and I started this project and I have an interest in seeing it done."

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