Navasota, Texas | 224 miles round trip from Waco
When visitors stroll down Washington Avenue in downtown Navasota, they’ll encounter a number of shops selling all manner of goods. One specializes in glassware. Another sells guitars and collectible coins. Another sells home furnishings with a “great castle/French feel.”
And while each of those stores has its own specialty, visitors will see, again and again, colorful paintings all in the same folk art style, many depicting the lives of rural black Americans from decades ago. Most of those paintings are by Leon Collins, a self-taught artist and one of Navasota’s favorite sons. Other paintings in the same genre are by Molly Bee, Collins’ daughter.
Duane Garner, owner of Tejas Antiques at 207 East Washington, was one of the first dealers in Navasota to feature the art. In fact, Garner’s business card even reads, “Home of Molly Bee & Leon Collins Folk Artist.”
Collins worked as one of Garner’s “pickers,” finding antiques and other objects to fill the shelves of the store. Collins kept talking about the painting ability of his daughter, but, as Garner said, “Talk is cheap.” One morning Collins brought in three of his daughter’s paintings. One sold immediately after the store opened, then Garner bought one, and the other was gone by 11 a.m. Not too long after that, Collins, seeing the success his daughter was achieving, began painting — again — and selling his work in Garner’s store.
Collins had begun painting in the 1970s, but gave it up. In 2005 he developed a form of brain cancer and lost his sight and the ability to speak. Molly Bee became his caretaker and repeated back to her father the stories he had told her when she was a little girl. The stories sparked a creative fire in Collins, and he promised God that if he were able to see again, he would return to his painting. And that he did.
Collins is a prolific painter, Garner said. At one point, Collins had a studio in a downstairs space of Garner’s store, and he would produce a painting a day, sometimes more. On many days Collins will spend time in the downtown stores that sell his art, acting as his own best salesman. Or if a visitor so chooses, a painting can be procured directly from the artist, as he often sells direct to collectors, either on the sidewalk in front of stores or in an open, airy alleyway that features a mural of musicians who have a Navasota connection. Collins, of course, contributed to the mural, along with three other artists. Some recent health issues have cut into Collins’ physical presence downtown, Garner said, although his work is still easy to find.
The mural in the alley pays tribute to more than a dozen musicians with ties to Navasota, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, who is often called the King of the Texas Blues; Blind Willie Jefferson, who was born near Waco but spent part of his life playing on the streets of Navasota; and Johnny Bush, who wrote “Whiskey River,” which Willie Nelson has adopted as his signature song. But the first a visitor sees on the mural is that of Mance Lipscomb, another one of Navasota’s favorite sons.
Lipscomb was born on April 9, 1895, near Navasota and grew up in the area. He worked as a tenant farmer for most of his life, and it wasn’t until 1960 that his music was discovered by musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick and record producer Chris Strachwitz, who recorded Lipscomb for the first time. Lipscomb quickly became a favorite of the folk festivals of the ‘60s, and his music eventually influenced performers such as Eric Clapton, Leon Russell and Steve Miller. One story says that Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan made treks to Navasota to sit on Lipscomb’s porch and play guitar with the man.
Lipscomb died in 1976, but his story and the stories of other blues musicians from the area are preserved at Navasota Blues Alley, a museum and store located at 129 East Washington Avenue. (The mural in the alley is next door to the museum.)
Blues Alley features an eclectic mix of items, including many records — among them, a 78 rpm by B.B. (Blues Boy) King, for $30 — guitars, music accessories, antiques, rare and collectable coins and, of course, paintings by Leon Collins. A beautiful painting depicting a blues musician with Collins’ distinctive block signature in several bright colors was available for $400 during a recent visit.
The store/museum also occasionally serves as a live music venue and plays an integral role in the annual Navasota Blues Festival, which is held the second weekend of August each year. Ruthie Foster, who graduated from the commercial music program at McLennan Community College, was the headliner for the 2015 festival.
A few doors down, at 101 East Washington Avenue, is Circle P Antiques & Collectables, a two-story emporium selling a variety of items displayed in a sometimes jumbled mess. A couple of highlights of a recent visit were a Molly Bee painting of a dog, cat and rabbit, priced at $75; and a Leon Collins piece of a woman in a black-and-white checkered dress on a black background, for just under $200.
Granny’s Corner Antiques, at 219 East Washington, specializes in glassware and dishes and decorative items. It’s not a suitable destination for an active 9-year-old boy, like my son, Brazos. (I’m just sayin’.)
At 108 West Washington Avenue, across the railroad tracks, is the French Market, which has the “great castle/French feel” mentioned earlier. While the store and its numerous vendors currently occupies two large side-by-side spaces, it’s going to be transformed into an event space over the next several months, though at least part of it will remain a retail shop for a while yet. Shoppers are greeted by a pair of large, friendly dogs — Poppy and Eli — and wares at French Market include furniture, old doors, vintage dishes and, of course, art by Leon Collins (and others). Here, large pieces by Collins are priced from about $650 to $1,250.
Also available at French Market are several items crafted from alpaca fiber: socks, yarn, stocking caps and miniature alpacas. The vendor that provides those items is Mountain Dream Alpacas, a 50-acre working ranch that is home to anywhere from 60 to 100 alpacas, owner Larry Wingo said. On the ranch is a one-bedroom bed-and-breakfast that will sleep four. Rental starts at $168 a night with breakfast included, and it’s $30 less without breakfast. And for the ultimate souvenir, a visitor can take home a pet male alpaca for as little as $500. Mountain Dream Alpacas is located at 11366 FM 362 Road.
Martha’s Bloomers, at 8101 Texas Highway 6, on the bypass, is equal parts gift shop, tea room and nursery. It has a large selection of pottery, holiday ornaments, fountains and pretty much anything that can be displayed in a yard or garden. Its nursery is enormous, stocking hundreds of varieties of trees, shrubs, flowers and plants, including many hard-to-find species. And the cafe serves surprisingly hearty lunches for a place that calls itself a tea room.
A few blocks away from downtown is the lovely Horlock Art Gallery and History Museum. Available for purchase there is black-and-white photography of Navasota by Seattle photographer Andrea Edwards, neon sculpture art from Scotty Gorham and oil paintings by Steve Knotts that focus on small-town scenes.
Navasota, with a population of 7,262, is only about a two-hour drive from Waco, a straight shot down Highway 6, about half an hour past Bryan-College Station. Information on other places to stay, eat and shop can be found at NavasotaGrimesChamber.com.