By Christina Autry

On a sunny, 65° day, spectators meandered around (and into) the blue shipping container, better known as Alief Art House, sitting on the field beside the Alief Spark Park. A wall on the inside of the container was papered with portraits and quotes by local residents, who all responded to the question “Why do you love Alief?” Sipping a cup of hot tea and perusing the display, guests could not help but notice a theme of thankfulness for diversity embedded in these 29 neighbors’ reflections on their community – a foundational element of the International District.

But why has this shipping container made a home on the corner of Beechnut and Dairy View? Alief Art House was created to be a flexible installation made possible through the Houston non-profit DiverseWorks. The organization created Project Freeways, a fellowship that supports local artists in “creating socially-engaged or community-based artistic practices within their own neighborhoods.”

Project Freeways sought out artists who live outside of the city center and the museum district, where most of the thriving Houston art scene has already been established. “We put out an open call for proposals for projects intended to engage the community,” says Jennifer Gardner, Deputy Director of DiverseWorks. “We were particularly interested in Alief because it’s the most diverse community inside of the city limits.”

Matt Manalo became the artist selected by DiverseWorks, with his proposal to create Alief Art House as venue for bringing artists and community members together. “We were able to move quickly with Matt’s project, in part because of the enthusiastic support of the International District, including Barbara Quattro,” says Gardner.

Now, with the support of the Project Freeways, Matt has purchased, painted and installed Alief Art House in its current location. Hands spelling “ALIEF” in American Sign Language were painted by Matt on the side of the container facing Beechnut. “I painted the mural to represent inclusivity,” says Matt. “Alief is very culturally diverse, but we can’t overlook other types of diversity in the community.”

Matt has planned a series of five community-building, interactive events to be held at the Alief Art House, spanning from October to December. From textile-creating with local fashion designer Danny Nguyen, to cyanotype printing with artist Carla Lyles, there is an open invitation for anyone in the area to come and join the fun.

Matt and his family immigrated from Manila, Philippines to Alief in 2004 while Matt was in college for computer engineering. “But I’ve always had a passion for art,” he says. “When I got here, I ended up switching out of computer engineering and enrolling in art school at HCC.” Taking a variety of art classes and becoming Studio Manager allowed Matt to explore painting, drawing, photography, print making, sculpture. “I found myself leaning more toward painting,” he remembers.

Transferring to University of Houston School of Art, collaborating with other artists and starting art shows and coffeeshop showcases, allowed Matt to get his foot in the door of Houston’s art scene, and even meet his wife, another talented University of Houston Art School graduate.

“Over the past ten years as a full-time artist, I’ve had studios inside the loop, but I wanted to bring my studio home. Alief hasn’t seen a strong art movement, galleries, or art stores yet. We’re missing that, and I want to make space for it.” Starting the Alief Art House has begun to connect and uncover talented artists in the community. “There are a lot of creatives in Alief, who are traveling outside of the neighborhood to do art, but they are willing to start investing in Alief.”

“It’s not easy, but we could make Alief into an arts district. If you go to East End, there are murals everywhere. Alief could be like that, with sustainable art across the community. There’s already so much culture and so much content here that needs to be put out on display.” Alief Art House serves as a spark to the artistic flame that is possible in the International District. Attend one of the next events and help accelerate the growth of the Alief art movement by checking out the upcoming dates and details at

Alief Art House
Alief SPARK Park & Nature Center
Beechnut & Dairy View
Houston, TX 77072
Instagram: @aliefarthouse