Oscar Alvarado: Latino Master Artist of Tile Mosaic
On most days of the year, Oscar Alvarado steps out of the warehouse at his San Antonio Southtown studio, spaces that he shares with his twin brother Robert, to look over sections of nearly two acres filled with sand, tile, rock, glass, and steel. He treasures the space and the objects that allow him to fulfill his creativity. For the past ten years his studio yard has served him well for the more than 25 public art projects he has designed and created in San Antonio.
Alvarado’s art was recently featured in two books on San Antonio art: Henry Cisneros and Catherine Nixon Cooke’s San Antonio: City on a Mission and Frederick Preston and Carmen Tafolla ‘s El Arte De Mi Pueblo.Hemisfair Playground, which receives an annual four million visitors, is home to his Blue Panther [PanterAzul], one of the most visible tile art objects in the city. The stunning mosaic benches at Elmendorf Lake in the heart of the Westside of San Antonio contribute to Westside efforts to bring beautiful art and raise awareness of Mexican culture in one of the city’s poorest areas.Growing up in San Antonio’s Southside, Oscar Alvarado never thought he would pursue a career in art. At Clark High School he received excellent grades in math and science which earned him a prestigious Texas A&M President’s Achievement Award scholarship to study engineering. After two years studying at the College Station campus, Alvarado made a decision to transfer to the University of Texas San Antonio and switched majors enrolling in the College of Business.
Upon earning a degree, he found a position in computer sales in San Antonio and two years later moved to Los Angeles to continue work in the computer field. In less than a year, he had become one of his company’s top computer salesmen. While in Los Angeles he came upon a batch of discarded tile pieces at a construction site which he later used for several art works.
Meanwhile, the sales routine began to appeal to him less and less, so he quit his job to travel in Europe. Before leaving for Europe, Alvarado had a chance encounter with a New York artist and a Vice President of Christie’s Auction House who provided him a list of museums to visit and artists he should learn about. He witnessed, with intense fascination, an artist complete a remarkable ice painting in Belgium, giving him his first serious thoughts about becoming an artist. Following months of traveling in Europe and then the United States on his own, Alvarado returned to San Antonio where he owned and managed a vintage clothing store called Time Zone for two years before returning to Los Angeles to join his brother Robert. In his clothing business he met David Casas, a local Chicano artist who taught him the artistic processes of scale in art design. In Los Angeles Alvarado dabbled in making small art pieces from found objects.
Alvarado returned to San Antonio in 1993, and he and his brother formed a construction company, Cuate Construction. Alvarado’s studies in engineering at Texas A&M not only helped the construction company, but also his engineering background provided him with basic knowledge to design art works consisting of small objects that required electrical units. While living in what was an old gas station/restaurant on St. Mary’s Street in the early 1990s, he became friends with his neighbor across the street, Carlos Cortez, whose principal creative work revolved around faux wood concrete sculptures similar to those found at Brackenridge Park. Alvarado learned about concrete work from Cortez, and taught himself the art of mosaics, which involves placing small colored glass or porcelain pieces set in concrete to form sculptures and images.
Before becoming a professional artist, Alvarado learned different art forms by observation and thoughtful conversations with established professionals. Mosaic work involves a complex process requiring the right quality and quantity of concrete and thoughtful notions about design. Alvarado credits the highly regarded San Antonio glass artist Manlio Cavallini with useful ideas and instructions regarding working with glass. Successful artists know that mentorship as well as committed patrons make a difference. Art galleries in Texas generally do not exhibit large concrete pieces, thus it is difficult for artists doing that type of work to build a client or patron base. Art collector Linda McCombs had seen several of Alvarado’s small mosaic pieces at Tienda Guadalupe on South Alamo and inquired about how to reach the artist. A collector of Mexican art, Ms McCombs met with Alvarado and asked him to add porcelain tile to her kitchen. Soon they were talking about larger art projects.
Alvardo proposed that he create large mosaic pieces for her spacious backyard. His creations, an umbrella table with chairs, a 2,000 pound turtle, a small statue of a Mexican folkloric dancer, a 12 foot long iguana, and a “Loch Ness sea monster” next to a tennis court greatly enhanced the natural setting of McCombs’s green space.
The McCombs’ commission gave Alvarado his first opportunity to create large-scale concrete mosaic art. Soon after, in the first decade of 2000, Alvarado completed numerous public art works commissioned by Public Art San Antonio including three eleven foot tall two-sided bill-board-like sculptures for the southside sidewalks on Zarzamora Street. Alvarado’s sculptures are of a personal nature: one depicts his parents dancing “Hoy Bailamos” “Today We Dance” where the popular Arturo’s Dance Hall once stood on Zarzamora Street. A second sculpture features a ‘57 Chevy flying off to the moon. The third panel across the street shows a C-5 air cargo airplane [A Los Cielos, “To the Skies”], a tribute to the planes that his father worked on while employed at Kelly Air Force Base.
In 2014 Alvarado completed two stunning nature mosaic wall panels at the Palacio Del Rio Hotel lobby. As guests enter the spacious lobby they encounter the large 14×10 foot mosaic panels on either side of the registration desks. On one of the panels, Alvarado designed a lush green river and its banks with wild birds in flight. On the other panel on the north wall Alvarado featured a bridge that connected the two river banks.
The Palacio Del Rio lobby project caught the eye of Hemisfair administrators and led to one of Alvarado’s most challenging art sculpture projects at Yanaguana Gardens in Hemisfair grounds. In an effort to honor the first inhabitants of the San Antonio River basin, Alvarado met with descendants of the Payaya band of the Tap Pilam Coachuitecan nation. Tribal elders shared with Alvarado several stories of their people’s origins, along with folk tales and mythical stories related to their settlement of Yanaguana, which they call “Land of the Spirit Waters.”
The Indigenous elders asked that the stories, which represent an Indigenous oral tradition, not be written down; Alvarado honored that request by not describing the meaning of his designs and sculptures. Alvarado’s Blue Panther is one of the most popular art pieces in the Yanaguana Gardens Playground, and the beautiful benches tell the creation story.
Today Alvarado continues to seek creative and challenging work, such as that of Hemisfair Park and Elmendorf Lake. He recently completed a large project at the Rim and is working on a commission for three large-scale sculptures for local businessman Henry Munoz’s Santa Fe home situated on a 22 acre mountain estate.
Copyright 2023 by Ricardo Romo. Photo credits as noted above.