An Arts Writer Offers a Moving Tribute to the Late Gallerist Anya Tish

An Arts Writer Offers a Moving Tribute to the Late Gallerist Anya Tish

The gallerist's beloved dog Tuta, Anya Tish, and artist Adela Andea with Anya

LAST THURSDAY, DAWN Ohmer, gallery director of Anya Tish Gallery, called to tell me Anya died on June 12 in her hometown of Kraków, Poland. It was a tearful call, the kind of call I am resigned to receiving more often as I get older. For many of us in Houston’s art community — gallery owners, artists, collectors, and arts writers — the news was sudden and unexpected. Death is a look away from rationality, and it is hard to imagine someone you cared for and who cared about you no longer being present physically, in the flesh, in the here and now.


In retrospect, it seems serendipitous and yet makes total sense that Anya would settle in Houston, a world away from her native country of Poland, and go on to make such an indelible contribution to the city’s cultural life. After earning a master’s degree in psychology from Jagiellonian University, Anya relocated to our construction-laden, unzoned city to study art history at the University of Houston and take studio courses at the Glassell School of Art.

She opened her eponymously named gallery on Sunset Boulevard in 1996, and less than a decade later, established herself in an upstairs gallery at 4411 Montrose, one space among six in a concrete gray, Brutalist-style building erected by ex-Enron trader Jeff Shankman. Anya’s neighbors included fellow pioneer and original tenant Barbara Davis, and a diverse, rotating cast of quirky, yet formidable gallerists.

As the city grew, Anya quickly gained a reputation for showing challenging, contemporary work by both established and emerging artists who experimented with and pushed the limits of their materials to produce something truly new and, for an arts writer, hard to describe with words! In an interview for Art Houston magazine, Anya said: “The work of the artist I choose to represent needs to demand my attention. … It needs to show me something that I didn’t know before. … I must be able to connect to the work with both excitement and respect.”

I connected with Anya in December 2016, and from the very beginning of our friendship, she was incredibly supportive of my endeavors as a writer. Anya introduced me to the work of, and coordinated interviews with, several talented artists, and I used these opportunities to ask questions, listen and learn. When writing about art, looking at the work is just one step of a process; it’s when I’m at my desk, after transcribing my conversation with the artist and recalling their work in my mind’s eye, that I’m able to articulate on the page what I’ve seen and how it made me feel. Anya provided me with a way to learn more about what I was writing.

HJ “Harvey” Bott, a legend in the Houston art scene but underappreciated outside of Texas, was the first of Anya’s artists I wrote about. Researching Bott’s crazy, colorful life and figuring out how to articulate, in plain language, his Displacement of Volume Concepts (DoV), which inform the lines, shapes, and textures of his complex and beautiful paintings and sculptures, pushed my writing to another level. My article appeared in the Spring 2017 print issue of Houston CityBook, and both Anya and Harvey loved it.

Another artist I met through Anya is Houston-based painter and video artist Lillian Warren, who joined the gallery in 2013. I appeared in one of Warren’s paintings (“Tale of Secrets”) and in 2019, provided original music for two performances of Who You Once Were, Warren’s moving tribute to her mother, which combined multiple projection video-imagery with an extended, solo dance performance by choreographer Annie Arnoult. “Anya encouraged me to evolve and try new things,” says Warren. “She was honest if she felt like something wasn’t ready for prime time, but she never pressured me to stick to the tried and true.”

Former Houstonian Cindy Lisica opened her gallery at 4411 Montrose in 2016, directly across from Anya’s. Lisica, a motorcycle-riding academic and rock and roll drummer, quickly bonded with fellow internationalist Anya through their mutual love of art and dogs. “The glass doors that divided our galleries were like revolving passageways for our dogs,” says Lisica, whose rescue pup, Leeloo, became buddies with Anya’s black pit bull, Tuta. “Anya delighted in making the dogs happy, and it was something that I loved about her,” says Lisica. “I'll always remember the generous revolving doors at 4411 Montrose.”

It would be a mistake to write about Anya Tish Gallery in the past tense. In July, Ohmer, who began her tenure with Anya in 2019, and appears on Houston CityBook’s 2024 Cool 100 list, will present an exhibition by Colombian-Houstonian Tatiana Escallón, followed by an August pop-up of art by past Anya Tish interns. “I am committed to preserving Anya’s legacy for as long as I can,” said Ohmer in a heartfelt tribute to her mentor and friend on Instagram. In the same post, Ohmer graciously shared a few of Anya’s favorite things: peonies, marbles, and anything super soft; food, including dark, bittersweet chocolate, anything lemon flavored, marzipan, and sourdough bread; and, tellingly, “manners, helping others, and kind, honest people.”

While working on this article, I went through my Gmail correspondence and found this email from Anya:

Chris,

You are truly a magician with words!

Thank you,

Anya

A tearful call and sad news. But also, a reminder that words, like art, have the power to connect and move people in ways you may never fully know.

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