It's Just Time

Every issue is the last one I’ll ever write. It’s been that way since I started writing them, pretty much.

When I was hired by the Southeast Texas Arts Council in October of 2009, the Executive Director, Sue Bard, judged my application with a sterner eye for our previous acquaintance. She didn’t want to appear she was giving handouts to friends, though I would not have described us as such at the time (I considered myself almost salaciously hermitic, by which you should understand that I was a chore to be around).

Nevertheless, I was an okay designer and an okay writer and as it turns out, being okay at everything is its own asset, so I was an okay fit for this job.

Fit or not, neither of us expected I would stay long. We both saw me using my experience at SETAC to move on to “bigger and better things.” Problem is, none of the jobs I’ve looked at since listed, “boss you like,” and “board that treats you generously,” and when I ask them to financially compensate for the lack, they balk. They obviously don’t appreciate what an okay job I’d do for them.

So I settle in and wait for the mythological Bigger Better Job and fire up the computer and tap out my final issue of Off Ramp (again). The company is good and the coffee’s okay and I’m in a mood to remember.

Off Ramp is about Southeast Texas; its people, its history and culture, its art. While I’ve written quite a few stories over the last fourteen years, the ones I mention here are those that captured best the oddity, the beauty, the expressiveness and fascination of Southeast Texas.

Blake Bertrand
Creative Director
The Southeast Texas Arts Council

The American Indian Museum of Plants and Healing
Spring/Summer 2010

One of my first stops while writing my first magazine remains one my most unusual. Founded by husband and wife Marta Zetina and Dr. David Morris, the American Indian Museum of Plants & Healing represented Marta’s desire to unite ancestral knowledge with modern science. Born in the Amazon, Marta was trained from birth as a shaman and did not begin a formal education until she was 44. The museum had acres and acres of unusual plants, each with a story Marta was uniquely equipped to tell.

The Morisses themselves were open, inviting people. If I remember correctly, they served me tea and cake and we sat and chatted for a very long time. This was to be the first of many warm and dream-like interactions with the people of Southeast Texas in my role as interviewer. The hazy place they occupy in memory is sharpened when I look at these pictures, and I am briefly and imperfectly transported back to those moments.

The Eye of the World
Spring/Summer 2011

Roadside diversions are a staple of Americana and the long stretches of lonely roads in Texas provide fertile grounds for such unusual delights.

The Lone Star Cafe in Beaumont once housed such a delight, but unlike most backroad oddities this one was more than merely an impressive collection of navel lint or curiously mummified squirrels from the historic attic of a wealthy cattle baron, it was a stunning example of true outsider art.

John Gavrelos was a Greek immigrant who founded the Lone Star Cafe and Steakhouse and used a side room in the restaurant to show the result of an artistic compulsion: a visual history of the world carved from shipping crates and cigar boxes he called “The Eye of the World.”

From the Tower of Babel to the Temple of England, Gavrelos chronicled the history of the world in polished wood pried from packing crates. Unfortunately, the Lone Star Cafe has since closed, Gavrelos has passed away, and the collection’s current whereabouts are unknown.

Linnis Blanton
Fall/Winter 2011

One of the truly rewarding opportunities of the job is the chance to meet active fine artists and observe them at their craft. On more than one occasion, this has led to getting some hands on experience with a new medium.

Linnis Blanton has taught the art of “throwing” pots for over 40 years (it was 30 when I met him). In the middle of the interview as we were talking about the process, he said, “You want to learn?”

I did, so he taught me.

It really was that easy. Blanton is a natural teacher with a quiet patience that suspends anxiety and hesitation and allows the student to focus on learning to turn motion into form in their hands.

Blanton will be taking part in the Beaumont Art League’s exhibition, “Mike Cacioppo & Lamar Legends,” in December.

Shawn Bruno
Spring/Summer 2012

I heard about Bruno & George Winery from my friend. “Shawn Bruno’s a great guy. Great guy. He’s got a good story too.”

He does have a good story. It’s an American immigrant story; one of hard work, dedication, love of family and tradition. A descendent of Sicilian immigrants, Bruno fought the Texas legislature to repeal a Prohibition-era law so he could brew his grandfather’s raisin wine.

At his Sour Lake, Texas brewery, Bruno has over a dozen different wines including unusual servings like cranberry and raspberry. My friend said he once had a banana wine that was awesome, but I never got to try it. Over the years we’ve celebrated a number of milestone events with tastings there, and you can too.

You can visit the website at

Stephan Briscoe
Fall/Winter 2012

A year after I met Linnis Blanton and learned how to throw a pot, I interviewed Stephan Briscoe and learned how to make stained glass.

I spent more than eight hours in Briscoe’s Port Arthur studio, talking about art and travel and soldering together a dinky little stained glass design out of scrap glass. Surrounded by dust and sharp, twinkling fragments of glass and rainbow sunbeams through the multicolored windows, it would have been surreal if not for Briscoe’s firmly grounded personality.

A refinery worker by trade, Briscoe’s true passion is his glass and his students. As often as possible he makes trips to Africa to teach his art to children there. His love of teaching was obvious as he showed me how to cut glass and spoke of the next trip he was planning.

“If you’ve got some art in you, it’s gonna come out. It’s gonna find you one day and it’s gonna be on.”

Jivin’ Gene
Fall/Winter 2012

When Jivin’ Gene Borgeois and his buddies picked up instruments and started jamming in whichever garage was available they just called it plain ol’ rock & roll. In truth, it was an eclectic fusion of styles that could not have happened anywhere else but southern Texas and Louisiana. Eventually dubbed “Swamp Pop,” the music combines New Orleans–style rhythm and blues, country and western, and traditional French Louisiana musical influences.

Though Swamp Pop got off to a strong start, it was eclipsed by other musical trends with sweeping appeal and fell into obscurity. Despite that, Gene’s relatively small body of work produced a number of hits that made it into the Top 100.

When I met him in 2012, he was as swell as a guy could be. He gave me a copy of his new album and even offered to drive me to a few music museums and Halls of Fame to help my research. At the Cajun Heritage Fest in 2023 he got on stage with Travis Matte to sing his hit, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” Matte looked every bit like a kid sharing the stage with his hero, and Gene proved that age has not dimmed his clear, lovelorn vocals.

Tom Windham
Fall/Winter 2015

Tom Windham was the very image of the old, peace-loving hippie. From the silver-gray pony tail and white goatee to the floral shirts, he made me think of Shaggy all grown up and, having lost Scooby somewhere along the way, had become very quiet and introspective. He spoke very slowly and softly, and could shut down all the frenetic cares of the modern world with chill vibes alone.

I hung out with him for a day at his house. Sitting on his porch we talked about things that had little to do with my article, like his brother’s love of motorcycles and all the half-assembled Harleys he had sitting in his shop across the driveway. There were other topics too, innocuous things that I have struggled to remember but can’t.

We spent some time in his studio, he talking about his paintings, me looking at his comics he drew in college in the 60s. They were in that trippy underground comics style and were great. I don’t think I took any pictures of them. I think he asked me not to, but I’ve forgotten.

I felt like I got to know him pretty well, and liked him immensely. He gave me a standing invitation to come visit again, but my intense introversion got the better of me and I never took him up. So it came as a great blow that while writing this I discovered that Tom passed away in 2022. Thankfully, some of his work is in the Stark Museum of Art’s permanent collection, and prints can be purchased at, which is still run by his son.

P.S. Now that I’m posting this online, I realize I said nothing at all about Tom’s paintings. That doesn’t bother me overmuch, since I think his work speaks for itself. I just find it hilarious that my first (and apparently only) concern when writing this was telling you how cool he was.

Elliott Rain Abbey
Spring/Summer 2016

Elliott Rain Abbey is right about my age, give or take a few years. That makes his painstaking dedication and love of tradition a bit unusual; such things seem in short supply among millennials. Maybe I’m just projecting?

Regardless, Abbey, a member of the Kawaknasi (Wildcat) clan of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, first observed the traditional art of coil weaving baskets by watching his aunts when he was a child. As a young man, he realized that it was a dying art. The elders of the tribe lamented the difficulty of passing on their language, arts, and practices to youth who didn’t see the value. So Abbey decided to learn weaving.

He got laughed at the first time he walked into a class because he was the only male in a room full of older females. It must have felt like being in a room full of his aunts. The humor was good-natured, and Abbey devoted himself to perfecting his craft. By the time I met him, he could weave a basket tight enough to hold water.

Rob Flurry
Spring/Summer 2018

Is there any image more quintessentially manly than the blacksmith? Rob Flurry has it all: the thick beard, wild hair and barrel chest. Standing in the firelight of the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum’s traditional forge completes the picture. With the thin blue smoke drifting out into the square to curl around the feet of the oil derrick, it’s almost possible to imagine you’ve stepped back in time. It’s ruined a bit by the noise of the nearby highway, but what can you do?

Flurry is a guy who is all laughs and cheeriness. Patient and easy to talk to, he coaches students at the museum in the ancient art of blacksmithing. He’s a good teacher, and I’m sure if I had asked he would have let me join the class. Watching the others try to swing those five pound hammers for half an hour made me perfectly happy to sit back and snap shots with my camera. There’s a reason that all experienced blacksmiths are uniformly shaped like a stack of bricks.

In 2018, filmmaker Frank DiCesare released a short documentary starring Flurry titled “Blacksmith.” The film immediately began winning awards and continues to do so into 2023.

As of publishing, Flurry has commitments that have put his classes at the Boomtown Museum on hiatus. Follow the museum on to find out when classes resume.


Mark Nesmith
Fall/Winter 2018

Mark Nesmith is kind of all over the place in Southeast Texas if you start looking for him. He’s a teacher (there’s a lot of that type on this list, isn’t there?), a musician, and a fine artist. His band, Melon Jelly ( is worth an article all its own, but I met him to talk about painting.

Nesmith has a command over color, composition and light that is a real pleasure to behold. He paints what he knows, so his imagery is Southeast Texas landscapes and animals sometimes infused with social commentary and things he’s picked up from his students. It makes for entertaining viewing, because right beside a brilliant painting of a burning golden sunset is an equally well-rendered and technically polished squirrel playing with a fidget spinner. I mean, c’mon man, that had to take HOURS. The dedication to the punchline has my respect.

Nesmith recently had multiple surgeries that affected his dominant hand. While recovering, he began a series of grid-based abstract paintings that are just fantastic. Deprived of his deft brushwork, Nesmith really displays his command of light and color in these works. You can see all his work, including daily paintings, at