Inside the Intensively Humming Nest of Artist Nestor Topchy

Catherine D. Anspon peers into a most extraordinary environment in Houston’s near Northside — a facsimile of the elegant metal-and-glass mid-19th-century marvel, the Crystal Palace in London.

You could say developers have taken over the town and that there are no artist enclaves left — but you would be wrong. Here’s how the story unfolds. In 2001, I was there on a sultry summer night for the final performance at TemplO, originally Zocalo, an impossible to concisely describe performance studio/community architectural complex where the bizarre, the arcane, the communal, the authentic, the compelling and the brilliant existed in equal measure. But gentrification won over in the West End on Feagan Street, and the bulldozers swept in.

While few TemplO structures survived the march of townhouse development, the most important element eluded destruction: the mad, unorthodox genius of its inventor, Nestor Topchy. This University of Houston MFA grad from the raucous ‘80s is a striking figure whose ancestry mixes the patrician (the Frick family on his mother’s side) and the peasant (his father’s heritage is hardy Ukrainian stock). The artist’s memorable demeanor is charismatic to the nth degree: tall and erect as a lightning bolt, his eyebrows resembling bird wings, his nose a knife blade, anchored by intensely focused green eyes. With a quick, mobile energy, the physical ability to build almost anything, martial arts degrees that have been used to great effect in performance art and an intelligence perfumed with world religions, history and sociopolitical ideals about the primacy of communal societies, he might just be one of the most unique — and inspiring —presences in the Texas art world. 

Flash forward a decade, and Topchy has brought forth yet another acre-plus immersive environment. We’re sworn to secrecy as to location, but can broadly reveal that it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Houston’s near Northside. This artist’s practice encompasses contemporary icons reflective of his paternal background, pysanky egg-painting (another Ukrainian cultural staple) and mammoth sculpture (you can’t miss the big blue orb dangling from a tree in the side yard), but it’s his 10-years-in-the-making architectural scheme that’s being hatched here that possesses the most significance. And it has the power to be the ultimate game-changer. At the heart of the incubation process and idea making has been a lacy structure mirroring sacred geometry and evoking the opulent elegance of the mid-19th-century marvel, the Crystal Palace in London. Topchy began this airy glass-and-steel structure in 2009, with the help of just two assistants. Formed from repurposed casement windows and doors gleaned from an Art Nouveau-era building in Argentina and Houston mid-century industrial buildings, the Crescent, representing the  intersection of sculpture and architecture, functions as the nonofficial HQ for Hive. More on that in a moment. Of the name, he says, “Hive? The idea came when I was stacking blocks.” 

“I came here in 2000 when TemplO cratered,” he says of the reborn enclave he shares with Argentine-born wife and fellow creative Mariana Lemesoff. They form an unlikely pairing, which is perhaps why this union works. The beautiful, slightly mystical yet practical Lemesoff of the unearthly blue eyes and earth-mother demeanor contrasts with the craggy Topchy, whose catalytic, sincere energy can galvanize followers. The couple and their teenage daughter, Minerva, live in a turn-of-the-century cottage on the property that adjoins the studios. Lemesoff, who also serves as cultural and arts advisor for Hive, owns Montrose watering hole and events space AvantGarden, housed in a charming Arts & Crafts bungalow.

Until now, Topchy’s complex has been largely private, and few even in the art world have been invited in; it’s been reserved for meetings with a handful of board members and true believers in the artist’s aforementioned utopian, grandest vision yet — Hive. But, with this article, change is in the air. “It takes a village to raise a village,” he says. He now has a dozen-plus years invested in this art enclave, which birthed the DNA for Hive, a $25 million nonprofit project involving 44 shipping containers at its perimeter, surrounding an inner stacked beehive of 148 containers, as well as an alfresco amphitheater sited on the side. The entire encampment will serve as live-work spaces, community gardens, crafts markets and more. Plans call for a three-phase roll out once the ideal near-downtown 10-acre lot is identified and acquired. Si Dang, principal of Andria Design, and Hive board member, serves as architect. “People have done a lot less with $25 million,” Topchy says of his ambitious dream.

For more buzz on Hive, to donate or participate, visit Nestor Topchy's work is available through Hiram Butler Gallery.