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The Arts > Visual Arts

Rayburn of light

Department of gone far, far too soon

courtesy
A detail of “The Message,” on view at Houston’s Koelsch Gallery.
Jim Nelson

 

Henry Rayburn — artist, architect, activist, volunteer, world traveler, and world-class charmer — died on January 27 from cancer-related complications, leaving San Antonio minus one more Renaissance man. His loss is a shock to the art community, the LGBT community, as well as his many family members (he was one of seven children) and friends. In these meta-modern times, so seemingly cold, news of Henry Rayburn’s death hit the Current’s social net like a lead balloon: “Our heart is in our shoes,” we tweeted, while on Facebook, Rayburn admirers from Del Rio to New York registered profound shock and sadness. We wonder if this everywhere-and-nowhere public grief would have struck the small-town boy (from Alvarado — pronounced AL-vuh-RAY-doe — Texas, up near Ft. Worth) as a strange phenomenon. We hope he knew how beloved he was.

“Henry was kind, loving, dear, considerate, calm, humble, darling,” his friend Bettie Ward, who once shared a studio with him, says. “Gentle, and kind of a quiet person. He didn’t really like for a fuss to be made about him. [His death] reminded me of when Linda Pace passed … both sort of slipped away quietly and quickly.”

John Casey shared “the love of metaphysics” with Rayburn, whom he met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting more than 30 years ago. “He was a wonderful friend,” says Casey.

An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting? Yep, Henry’s life was a complex one, full of surprises and turns: After graduating UT Austin with an architecture degree, Henry worked from 1970-’72 in Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer. After spending a (riotous, we hope) time in San Francisco as an out and proud gay man during the storied Milk era, he came to San Antonio for a job, put down roots, gave up his architecture practice for full-time fine art, and stayed until last Tuesday.

“He loved San Antonio so much. Sometimes when you visit [San Antonians], they’re a little bit apologetic, like ‘We know this isn’t New York or Houston.’ But Henry was never that way. His attitude was, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’” says Franny Koelsch, whose Houston gallery has represented Rayburn for 14 and a half years. “I stumbled on his [collages and paintings] in a little gallery in La Villita, and his work just amazed me.”

“He was of the caliber to be an internationally recognized artist,” Ward says. “His work just grew and grew, and he studied so consistently, always learning. I saw him go from those early watercolor works to collage to complete abstraction … I mean, when he went to abstraction, it was like he’d broken out of a brick building.”

Rayburn attended Ward’s Blue Star opening two Thursdays ago. Ward had been worried about him, but friends had obtained a wheelchair and brought him, and he “smiled and laughed and had a wonderful time; everybody crowded around him … ” she sighs. “I thought he was going to pull through.”

Unfortunately, when Rayburn was diagnosed with cancer, he also found he’d been suffering for years from HIV/AIDS, undiagnosed and untreated. Though he completed a course of chemo, the treatment fatally weakened his already frail body. Rayburn’s passing is doubly tragic in that had he received medical care sooner, he might have defeated cancer and lived, as thousands now do, for many years with HIV.

“But he never had health insurance! That’s Henry’s tragedy, and the tragedy of our whole country,” Ward fumes. Indeed, finances were never secure for Rayburn, who worked a myriad of day jobs, from waiting tables at Cappy’s restaurant to executing architectural renderings of private homes on commission. A stroke of luck came when Linda Pace bought his 2003 installation, “Threads,” for what Ward characterizes as a “very good price. That helped Henry a lot for a while, both financially and his morale.”

The Linda Pace Foundation plans to mount a memorial exhibition of “Threads” and other works, details to come. Meanwhile, you can admire the Rayburn-designed façade of the Maury Maverick Jr. Library at 8700 Mystic Park, peruse Henry’s website at web.mac.com/henryrayburn/, and fight for human rights and universal health care so we don’t suffer more heartbreaking losses like this one. •


MEMORIAL

Henry Rayburn Memorial Service at Say Sí
6pm Sat, Feb 7
Attendees are encouraged to bring either an original artwork by Rayburn, or an object that reminds them of Henry or that “recalls Henry’s kindness,” at 5 p.m., to be placed in an ofrenda for viewing during the service.

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