Latina and Chicano Art Sightings at Witte Museum and McNay Art Museum
The Witte’s collection of Texan Art:Kinship and Culture is extensive, beautiful, and impressive. For this year’s 2023 “Trailblazer,” event, Witte curators selected the works of several Tejanos, including Porfirio Salinas, Boyer Gonzalez, Jr., Xavier Gonzalez, Fidencio Duran, and Mission art craftsman Fernando Ramos. The works of Duran and Ramos were shown for the first time.
Fidencio Duran, one of the featured artists in the exhibit at the Witte Museum, is best known for his murals in Austin and South Texas. The opportunity to view some of his oil paintings recently collected by the Witte is a treat for San Antonians giving us an opportunity to become familiar with Latino artists outside the city. Duran lives in Austin, but grew up in Lockhart, an old ranching community 30 miles south of Austin. The pastoral characteristics of the region and the people living there are captured in Duran’s murals and paintings. Duran wrote in his Artist Statement that he seeks to “honor the history of his family and community in visual stories.”
Few Latino artists have captured the daily and ordinary routines of rural life as colorfully and accurately
as Duran. The everyday activities of his family, tenant farmers in Lockhart and Maxwell, are masterfully painted in his art works. Duran shows how families came together to assist in the slaughter and processing of a hog. A mid-size hog could feed numerous families, and shredded pork often became the main ingredient for tamales.
Duran commented, “As tenant farmers, our family normally slaughtered a hog during the cold of winter. These events usually served as family gatherings with work for everyone. At the end of the day the proceeds
were sampled and shared.”
Perhaps the most unusual artistic work on display in the Witte exhibit is that of Porfirio Salinas. His work is a large landscape painting of bluebonnets and cacti in the South Texas county meadow. In 1968, San Antonio businessman Dan Rheiner commissioned Salinas to paint a mural for his home office. When the house was sold, Witte art curators removed the mural painting by peeling the thick canvas off the walls. For the Witte Kinship and Culture exhibit, the curators reconstructed an exact home office-like replica to present Salinas’ Texas landscape work.
Born in Bastrop, Texas in 1910, Salinas moved to San Antonio as a child. At age fifteen, while Salinas was
employed at an art supply store near the San Antonio Riverwalk, he met the English-born painter, Robert W.
Wood. Wood was taking art classes from famed Spanish-born artist José Arpa, famous for his Texas
landscapes and likely introduced Salinas to him and other artists with similar interests. Salinas worked as an
apprentice to Wood and Arpa and accompanied the two artists as they painted plein-air ( the open air) in the Texas hill country.
Salinas learned enough from these two artists to open his own art shop in 1930. In 1939 Salinas began a lifelong business relationship with Dewey Bradford, an art supply store owner in Austin who sold the works of Texas artists. Bradford helped Salinas enter art shows and in the late 1940s introduced his work to newly elected United States Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson.
In a 1964 article titled “L.B.J. ‘s Favorite Painter” a New York Times reporter wrote that a “Salinas canvas is a chunk of Texas instantly recognized by anyone who has plodded across the sparse countryside of yucca and huisache.” The report added that “for 30 years [Salinas’s] work has been marked by faithful color, elaborate detail, and a keen eye for the vastness of the Texas plains.”
Another of San Antonio’s prominent museums is introducing San Antonians to contemporary art by women artists in the McNay Art Museum permanent collection. The McNay’s superb exhibit, “Womanish: Audacious, Courageous, Willful Art,” opened on March 3. The exhibit includes works by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide and works on paper by Chicana artists Judy Baca, Sonia Romero, Melanie Cervantes, Barbara Carrarsco, Patssi Valdez, and Shizu Saldamando. In addition, six radiant “Pan Dulce” oil canvases by Eva Marengo Sanchez complete the Latina representation in the exhibit.
Judy Baca, perhaps the most widely known Chicana artist in the McNay show, was born in Central Los Angeles and as a young child moved to Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley.
In 1975 Baca founded SPARC, a creative arts organization with headquarters in the former jailhouse of Venice, California. As one of the leading muralists in the nation, Baca’s expertise has taken her to many cities and foreign countries. For the past 45 years Baca and her SPARC team have also painted a series of historical murals extending more than 800 meters on the Los Angeles concrete walls of the Tujunga Wash. Baca is one of the nation’s leading artists, but what she valued most was the opportunity to teach young artists and conduct artistic research. As a Full Professor of Chicano/a Studies and World Arts and Cultures for the past 29 years, she has taught and conducted artistic projects at UCLA that have won international acclaim.
Another well-established Chicana artist from Los Angeles is also included in the McNay exhibit. Sonia Romero’s black and white print with red roses in the heart of a woman lying down meets the exhibition criteria of work that is courageous and willful. At age 43, Romero is one of the youngest artists in the exhibit.
Romero was born in Los Angeles and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design where she studied printmaking. We first met Sonia Romero in 2013 when her work was included in the McNay exhibit Estampas De La Raza: The Romo Collection. At the time she shared a studio with her Chicano artist father, Frank Romero, making her a second-generation artist portraying Chicano/Chicana life and culture.
Sonia Romero. [Mujer] Harriett and Ricardo Romo gift to the
McNay Museum. Photo by Ricardo Romo
Since finishing her training in Rhode Island, Romero has devoted her creative time to painting murals and to
print making in Los Angeles. Her studio work includes mixed media lino-cut prints. She has her own studio, She Rides The Lion, in the Highland Park community of Northeast Los Angeles. Los Angeles KCET television cultural reporter, Shana Nys Dambrot described Romero’s art work as “deeply personal, deliberately accessible modern traditionalism, expressing itself in the romantic, thorny, fabulist urban storytelling that has made her one of the brightest rising stars in the local visual-culture firmament.”
The McNay exhibit incorporates the work of Latina and Chicana artists into themes representing identity, the environment, home and family life, and demonstrates how their work relates to similar themes addressed by women of different ages and ethnicities. These two exciting exhibits and several others that recently opened at Blue Star, San Antonio Museum of Art, Ruby City, and Centro Cultural Aztlan are examples of the rich artistic ambience of our city that has made national commenters declare San Antonio as the “cultural capital of Texas.”
Copyright 2023 by Ricardo Romo. All photos courtesy of Ricardo Romo.