John and Laurie Lowery, the husband and wife team who co-own Humble Donkey Studio in Round Top, never intended to work together.
“Of the two of us, I’m the artist—and I had always wanted a gallery,” said John, who also founded and owns Design at Work, a Houston-based ad agency. “I’m used to being an entrepreneur and when we started Humble Donkey, I envisioned it as an extension of my other business.”
Laurie, always supportive of the agency, had her own career as an event planner for the Women’s Energy Network, a national networking group for female oil and gas professionals. She arranged more than 100 events a year.
“We never worked together before the gallery—and were pretty convinced we couldn’t,” said Laurie, who also worked in management for Marshall Fields in Chicago before returning to her native Houston. “Professionally we had very separate lives in Houston.”
Two disparate circumstances put the couple, who have been married 27 years, on the path to co-owning a small business in a small town. Laurie longed for the simplicity of the country. John survived a serious motorcycle accident.
Although they met in high school, it wasn’t til after they’d pursued degrees and embarked on careers when their paths crossed again. By this time, John was an art director at a Houston ad agency. Laurie had returned from Chicago to work in her family’s manufactured housing business.
They began dating. John got downsized. Laurie got a phone call in which John reported, “The bad news is I got laid off. The good news is I started my own business.”
Design at Work was born. As the pace of their lives escalated, friendship blossomed into romance. They married in 1992. Their daughter, Hope, was born seven years later.
Shortly after, John moved the agency from Clear Lake to the Upper Kirby area in Houston. For 10 years they lived life in the fast lane, periodically slowing down to explore the countryside with their Airstream in tow.
“I loved the city—and still do—but we loved to camp and get away,” said Laurie, noting they were camping every month. “All the time we were spending outdoors gave me a nagging desire to own land in the country. It was my Scarlett O’Hara moment.”
They had a friend with a weekend farm in Burton.
While Laurie craved a bucolic life where the family could recharge, John, a self-described “go-go-go type” was less enthusiastic about the prospect.
“He agreed to go look at properties under the condition he wouldn’t have to do anything on the place,” Laurie said.
John recharged his battery by riding big Harleys with a motorcycle club. For him, adrenaline trumped quiet.
Initially, the Lowerys were looking for a five-acre home site. As the search continued, the Roundtopolis™ began to cast its spell.
John opined, “We need something bigger.”
Bigger was better for them. In April 2014, they purchased almost 60 acres near Burton. That June, John crashed his motorcycle on a Houston freeway. The wreck was a serious, life-changing near-miss.
“The wreck made the transition easy because John was ready to give up motorcycles,” Laurie said. “He traded his bike for a tractor—and never looked back. These days he probably loves the country even more than I do.”
The countryside also spoke to John’s creative spirit, providing him, a lifelong city dweller, with a whole new world to paint.
“Life in the country gave me a chance to chill out and notice the smaller things like tiny plants and animal tracks,” John said. “It’s as if I got new eyes and could see old things in a fresh way.”
The wealth of subject matter inspired him to paint and express his own style and vision.
“For the first time in my life, I created for me instead of a client,” said John, whose bold style showcases farm animals and the rural countryside using a bright acrylic palette.
John, a lifelong artist, always wanted to own and operate an art gallery. One Saturday, the couple was strolling around Round Top’s Henkel Square when John spotted a small vacant building.
Gerald Tobola, the property manager, walked up about the same time. When John inquired about the rent, Tobola’s quote struck the artistic entrepreneur as “just right.” It was Laurie’s turn to be less than enthusiastic.
“I said, ‘We can’t do this. We live in Houston. We have two jobs, and a junior in high school,’” Laurie remembered.
To which John replied, “I’m doing the math. The firm [Design at Work] will handle this. We can do it.”
“Before the accident, it was my job to say no to all of his crazy ideas,” Laurie said. “After he survived that near-miss and gave up his motorcycles, I couldn’t say no to this.”
John, true to his word, enlisted the help of his creative team. Within three weeks from signing the lease, the Humble Donkey Studio was open.
“The gallery was typical of John’s m.o.—no plan, just an urgency to move forward,” Laurie said.
Although it was small, the gallery was well-received. John’s work began flying off the walls. Drawing inspiration from Harley Davidson dealerships, John began ringing a bell and announcing, “A donkey gets its wings,” every time a painting or print sold.
“When you buy a Harley, the dealership rings a bell and makes a big deal of it,” John said. “I’m a little bit like P.T. Barnum. I like to deliver a good show and a good time for our customers. My art isn’t changing the world, but it can change people’s moods.”
John hired an employee, but he often worked in the gallery and Laurie pitched in periodically. The Lowerys noticed when they were in the shop sales increased.
Still they didn’t contemplate working together until John set his sights on more square footage. As luck would have it, a bigger location on Henkel Square (which they have since expanded) was coming available, opening the opportunity to include antiques and vintage items in the mix as part of Lower 40 Found Objects.
“When we got more floor space, we got more opportunities,” John said. “Antiques made sense—and involving Laurie, who has great taste and experience with antiques, made even more sense.”
Winged Donkeys and Antiques
Although the Lowerys successfully transformed the Humble Donkey Studio from a solo show to a joint exhibition, the transformation wasn’t without a few challenges.
“In the beginning, there was a little power struggle over arranging the shop,” Laurie said. “It was his and then all of the sudden it was ours.”
They’ve come to recognize and value one another’s strengths.
“Initially, it was a battle of wills over whose opinion would win,” John said. “Now, if disagreements occur, they’re productive and they all lead to what’s best for the store.”
John is the artist and the entrepreneurial visionary.
“As an artist, I create,” John said. “Of the two of us, I’m more go-go-go and get it done now, while she’s more cautious. Our differences work to our advantage because she’s pickier, choosier and curates in the truest sense of the word.”
Laurie is in charge of merchandising as well as all things antique. She also acquires complementary products such as jewelry and ponchos from Carmine’s Mallory et Cie and Ecuadorian imports from Houston’s Moochilla, as well as handling the nuts and bolts details.
“John is going to keep painting and I’m going to keep finding cool things at good price points, so that people can comfortably buy what they love,” Laurie said.
Pairing people with things they love is the Lowerys’ ultimate goal. Although the gallery has sold 92 of the 109 originals John has painted since its opening, he insists that his art be available in many different forms.
“I have a commercial background, so it’s very important to me that my work is available in a variety of reproductions,” John said. “Just because people may not be able to afford originals, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to enjoy art.”
He receives photos from clients around the country showing off his work in their homes.
“We get pictures of my art in people’s homes,” John said. “Sometimes it’s an original and sometimes it’s a set of coasters, but regardless they’re proud to display it. That thrills me.”
Laurie scours antiques auctions and estate sales to find her one-of-a-kind pieces. Many times, she elevates the old by adding a fresh twist. Case in point, a Biedermeier sofa from the mid-1800s she had reupholstered in vintage ticking and backed with vintage feed sacks. While the sofa’s scale is far from massive, it commands the attention due a focal piece.
“Giving old things new life means the pieces continue to be part of people’s lives and eventually their family’s memories,” Laurie said. “To me, that’s a big part of the beauty of this.”
While the Lowerys estimate about 80 percent of the people who enter the gallery are first-time visitors, the couple continuously arranges and rearranges their offerings to show them off to their best advantage. They curate the gallery so it is as unexpected as their country life has been.
“It’s amazing that we came to the property, to the gallery and to the community without a plan,” John said. “We were drawn to the magic of this place and the power of relationships built within a community.”
They describe their journey to the country and small business ownership as a process of discovery, an experience they try to replicate for customers in the gallery.
“Discovery takes time, so our goal is to help people slow down and be in the moment, so they can find the beauty in the unexpected of what we’ve put together,” John said. “Humble Donkey is a mix of art and artistry. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.”
By Lorie A. Woodward
Photos by Bernard Mendoza