eekabeeka: Billy & Mary Kirkland
Austin Art History Lesson II
by Rachel Koper
Fronts of two eekabeeka postcards announcing Majdi Hadidi and Paul Beck exhibitions, both 1997
Courtesy archives of Steve Brudniak
This piece is part of a series documenting the independent venues, artists and mentors who have contributed memorably over the years to DIY and the growth of the visual arts in Austin.
Billy and Mary Kirkland have been living artfully in Austin since their arrival here in 1992. They are both primarily self taught artists, and they ran the radical gallery eekabeeka on South First Street from 1996 to 1999.
...might be good: When you were a kid, what did you want to be?
Billy Kirkland: I don't remember anything specific. I just remember being free. That's what I still want to be. Free.
...mbg: How did you get your first art show in Austin?
BK: I first showed at Alternate Current Artspace, which was located on South First. In 1992, South First was colorful, to say the least. The tenant in the space next to Alternate Current was a small engine repair shop, whose owner also ran a prostitution ring out of it. I remember one morning a man was found dead in the dumpster at the car wash across the street near Fletcher.
David Pratt, who looks like a hardscrabble character out of a Cormack McCarthy novel, was one of the proprietors of Alternate Current Artspace. At our first meeting, he invited me to submit work for "Post-Apocalyptic Pagan De-Constructivism", a group show that he was organizing with Susan Maynard, his partner in crime. He didn't know me from Adam, but there he was, enthusiastically encouraging me to participate. Alternate Current attracted an eccentric, carnivalesque mélange of aging hippies, social outcasts, punks, poets, cowboys, straights and artists. It truly felt like home.
...mbg: What other Austin artists did you look at when you were new to town?
That list quickly expanded to include Jasun Huerta, Paul Beck, QuaQuaVersal, Robert Mace, Roy Tompkins, Mack White, Graham Reynolds, Marc Silva, Tony Romano, Steve Brudniak, Scott Rolfe, Mike Krone, Sharon Smith, Sydney Yeager, Donna Bruton, The Amazing Hancock Brothers, Tina Jaillet, Lust for Jadies, Michael Sieben, Grady Roper, George Zupp, Chris Williams and many, many more.
...mbg: Sometimes I think you guys should open another gallery. What were some of the challenges of running your space? Can you describe some now closed art venues?
Mary Kirkland: For me, the fun outweighed the hard work of having a gallery. Opening another gallery in the future is not completely out of the question for me. Alternate Current was a very unique and eclectic art space that can never be duplicated. They inspired us to open eekabeeka. I think it was the best gallery in town and created an art community in South Austin that I haven’t seen since. The Artplex (located next to D Berman on Guadalupe) was another great place where artists could rent space and connect with other artists. It is unfortunate that it burned and is still sitting vacant. It was/is a three story building that was broken up into studios and galleries on the first two floors. The smell of oil paint was heavy in the air when you walked in. You would find all types of artists holed up in those studios doing what they do. When we had eekabeeka there, it started as one small studio space, but we later expanded it into the studio next door. One of our favorite group shows we did, “Liquor, Drugs and Jesus”, was done there. We coordinated our openings with other studios and galleries in the building and those nights were always exciting.
...mbg: Why did you open eekabeeka Gallery?
BK: We opened eekabeeka because we didn't know any better. We wanted to participate in the cultural life of Austin and make a contribution to it. Our first venue was the cheapest, centrally located, commercial space that we could find. It was a small, one room office space. We had a restroom down the hall that was shared with the rest of the building. It was co-ed and it had no doors. One of our neighbors, who lived in his office, had removed the doors to discourage people from using it as a place to get high. Since we were just off the drag, we thought we would attract an audience from the university. That never happened and that kind of soured me on the university. Our audience was mostly friends of the artists we were showing. We soon tired of the location and found a place on South First that, in retrospect, was our favorite spot. It was a small house, next door to the building which housed Alternate Current Artspace. We all shared the same landlord, a wonderfully idiosyncratic businessman by the name of Mike Poulson. He once ran for mayor of Austin. Mike is still a great supporter of oddballs and artists.
The last location where we were open was on East 7th Street, in Bruce Dye’s old Holy 8 Ball space. At that time, it was a very sketchy area; drunks and druggies hanging out at all hours, up and down the block. We didn’t have a well thought out arrangement with Bruce, who lived in a small office in the gallery. We sublet the use of the main gallery space from him and he got to use it on our off hours, for his own photography work. He partied a lot in it and would sometimes pull his motorcycle apart in the middle of the gallery to work on it. Tension between us quickly ensued. That situation, coupled with the continuous drain on our finances and new, higher priority demands on our time, convinced us to halt gallery operations. We had intended to open it again in the future, but the hiatus has stretched out to the present.
...mbg: What do you miss the most about eekabeeka being closed?
BK: It's like quitting smoking, it's been over ten years since we closed the gallery and I don't miss anything about it. When we closed, the withdrawal was hard, thoughts about starting it up again lingered on. Now, I enjoy making my own art. It's obvious to me that there is room for new voices, for more gallerists, in Austin. The latest space to spring up that I like is Domy Books. Russell is very enthusiastic about what he does and it is infectious.
MK: I really miss the excitement of running a venue that offered artists an opportunity to show their work with no commercial pressure. We gave Paul Beck the keys to the gallery and said to him “have at it,” not knowing what he intended to do. It seemed like there was an electricity in the air. I remember one artist asking me “What is the budget for my show?” and all I could think was “Budget? What budget?” Ah, the little things. To me eekabeeka was more about getting the art out there for people to see and experience than anything else. We put a lot of elbow grease into it.
Rachel Koper is an artist, curator and writer in Austin.