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American Craft Magazine June/July 2009

San Antonio, Texas: Remember the Arts!

Artists and tourists alike are drawn to the city’s rich mix of cultural influences.

<p>Franco Mondini-Ruiz, flap jacks</p>
<p>The San Antonio River Walk will soon be expanded another 13 miles.</p>
<p>Whether reflecting on history at the Alamo or absorbing the culture, curiousity seekers have much to see and do in San Antonio.</p>

Franco Mondini-Ruiz, flap jacks

Photo gallery (34 images)

“I have a theory that ranchers’ daughters have art in their blood from looking at the Texas horizon line for so many years,” says Bettie Ward, a fiber artist and the “cowgirl daughter of an old-world rancher.” That may be true of ranchers’ sons as well, or simply native Texans across the board. And if you’re looking to find these artists in the Lone Star State, your best bet may be to head to San Antonio, where Ward lives in an eclectic house that is an art showcase in itself. Like her embroidered work, Ward’s home in the Irish Flats section of the city is both sensual and intense, filled with bright colors and soft fabrics. As if to confirm how San Antonians’ lives and art intermingle, the home and studio of Franco Mondini-Ruiz, a mixed-media artist (and former lawyer who gave up his career to pursue his true passion) are another sensory experience filled with his bold paintings, storytelling paper “cakes” and ironically kitschy pieces created with found objects. “There’s a tradition here called ‘rasquache,’ which has to do with working with what you have,” explains Mondini-Ruiz. “This attitude permeates the local aesthetic.”

But it is not just those born and raised in the city who find San Antonio such a good place for artists. Some discovered the appeal much later in life, such as Lucia LaVilla-Havelin, a fiber artist originally from Rochester, New York. She found San Antonio to be the perfect place to pursue her craft—needlepoint, embroidery and beading that explores science and nature. “Moving to San Antonio and having access to amazingly beautiful places has given me a relationship to nature that I never felt before,” LaVilla-Havelin says. Compounding this thrill was the thriving fiber community she discovered. “I told all my friends still in the northeast that I had died and gone to fiber heaven!”

“San Antonio has attracted people from all over the world,” observes Ovidio Giberga, a ceramist and assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who moved to the city from Miami after spending her childhood in Madrid, Spain, and Bogota, Colombia. “It provides a rich mix of cultural influences. Unlike many newer large cities, San Antonio has preserved many of its older buildings and capitalizes on its cultural heritage.”

It’s not surprising that so many artists are drawn to the city. There have been major happenings in the art scene the past few decades, one of the first being the development of the Blue Star Arts Complex in the mid-1980s. This former warehouse is home to a few dozen galleries, retail spaces and studios, including San Angel Folk Art, Joan Grona Gallery, and Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, which also offers youth education such as the Mosaic Art program run by local artist Alex Rubio.

Continuing this movement was the founding, in 1995, of Artpace a contemporary art institution started by Linda Pace, a collector and businesswoman, in an effort to educate the public on contemporary art and the artistic process, and provide opportunities for artists. Widely recognized for its international artist-in-residence program, it has become a cornerstone of the San Antonio art scene.

Andy Benavides, an artist, designer, gallery owner and arts advocate, can also be credited with some of the recent advancements. He pioneered the First Fridays and Second Saturdays art walks in Southtown, San Antonio’s art district. He is also founder and president of s.m.a.r.t. (Supporting Multiple Arts Resources Together), a foundation dedicated to raising awareness of the arts through youth education programs, contests and the s.m.a.r.t. Fair, which provides a day of free workshops. Benavides is passionate about promoting art in San Antonio. He grew up in the city but left temporarily for school and work. Upon his return he began to explore the city’s many possibilities. “After experiencing this pool of creative opportunities, I wanted to share San Antonio’s creative potential with the youth in the city,” Benavides says.

Now there is even more of an opportunity to experience this pulse of creativity with Luminaria, an annual arts festival that began in 2008. For this celebration of art, music, dance, literature and theater, the city closes off the streets downtown and residents and tourists alike pour in. Even on this year’s March night, when the temperature dropped to the 40s, weather the locals are definitely not used to, a crowd of 150,000 filled the streets.

While these fantastic events are part of what keeps art in San Antonio up-to-the minute, there is also a strong cultural history. One of the most famous examples, of course, is the River Walk. The two-and-a-half mile stretch of landscaped waterfront along the San Antonio River, created to be reminiscent of Venice, Italy, is lined with galleries, restaurants and shops. The River Walk was first built in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became a major attraction. The River Walk is now becoming even more important as the San Antonio River Foundation proceeds to expand another 13 miles, an extension that will provide an abundance of public art.

San Antonio has also always had fervent arts supporters. The McNay Art Museum, which was built in the 1920s and opened as a museum in 1954, is the former home of Marion Koogler McNay, one of San Antonio’s most well-known modern art collectors. Another important advocate, Margaret Pace Wilson, was part of a group of women who founded the Southwest School of Art & Craft. “San Antonio’s current artistic vibrancy is, at least in part, the result of the Southwest School and the thousands of people who have studied, honed, learned to appreciate or celebrated the arts here over the past 44 years,” observes Paula Owen, the president of the school. “It was one of the things that drew me to San Antonio,” adds Giberga. “The Southwest School is a great asset.”

Put together this history with the current redevelopment and the increasingly supportive community, and it becomes quite obvious that this Southwestern city seems to be skyrocketing toward becoming a major cultural center. “San Antonio is unlike any other city in its unbridled enthusiasm for art,” says Ward. “It is just about to blossom into one of the most beautiful cities in the United States.”

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