Photography and Poetry Are Showcased in San Antonio’s Arte Del Pueblo
Photographer Frederick Preston and poet Carmen Tafolla deliver a tour-de-force overview of San Antonio’s vast reservoir of public art in the beautiful book of photos and poetry Arte Del Pueblo. Preston and Tafolla chose to focus on public art that all residents and visitors have the opportunity to view free of charge. The artists who contribute to this city’s unique artistic phenomenon are often influenced by their interpretation of the city’s history, culture, traditions, demographics, languages, and spatial qualities.
Dr. Preston’s excellent photographs reveal that the public art featured in Arte Del Pueblo is often as rich as that exhibited in a museum or under lock and key in private collections. Tafolla, the former State Poet Laureate of Texas and the first City Poet Laureate of San Antonio provides eloquent commentary and insightful poems on many of the book’s pages.
In the Forward of the Arte Del Pueblo book, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg argues that “Public art is the soul of community” and it reflects “our struggles, our dreams, our losses, and our triumphs.” Arte Del Pueblo provides the opportunity for many to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of San Antonio’s unique culture and art. The authors traveled to dozens of San Antonio’s neighborhoods, parks, and popular spaces to locate creative art. They found it at the famed River Walk, in and around the five renowned San Antonio World Heritage Missions, at Brackenridge Park, and in the center of downtown in plazas and main squares. Public art, loomed everywhere adding to the beauty of the city.
Tafolla introduces water as a major theme in San Antonio’s origin and evolution. She writes that “It’s the water, the water, that essence of life that drew us here once. And always. And Still.” An abundance of water attracted the first Indigenous tribes to the region thousands of years ago. San Antonio’s colonial origins can be traced to the 1690s when Spain sent friars and soldiers from Northern Mexico to East Texas to construct missions and presidios on the border with French Louisiana to prevent French intrusion into Spanish territory. Upon crossing the Rio Grande, the Spanish interlopers found primarily cactus, mesquite trees, and dry streams for nearly 150 miles–until they came upon the San Antonio River fed by a deep aquifer.
Every early description of San Antonio, an oasis in a near-desert environment, emphasizes the presence of water, not just from the San Antonio River, but also from San Pedro Springs and the numerous creeks that the Edwards Plateau generously fed. Murals depicting the area’s Spanish and Mexican Indigenous past can be found on the Hemisfair tile mural by Juan O’Gorman and on murals painted on walls in Latino neighborhoods.
Initially, San Antonio served as a way-station for Spain’s adventurist colonists, friars, and soldiers, but when they failed in their attempts to convert the Indigenous tribes of East Texas, the Royal Crown ordered the relocation of the East Texas missions to San Antonio. This portrayal of Spanish and Mexican colonists in San Antonio is beautifully illustrated by Adriana Garcia on the walls of San Pedro Creek.
San Antonio’s downtown center is rich with Latino art. The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center is home to two very early public art pieces in the city dating back to 1968 when HemisFair came to the Alamo City. The works by Mexican artists Carlos Merida and Juan O’Gorman are exceptional. Next to the Convention Center is the renowned Riverwalk where works of Oscar Alvarado, Sebastian, and Carlos Cortes decorate walls and emphasize Latino heritage. On the downtown streets above the Riverwalk, art lovers are treated to works by Rudy Herrera and Lionel Sosa. Sosa’s “Living in My Skin” mural at Auditorium Circle across from the Tobin Center is a must-see experience.
I grew up in San Antonio and have lived here for the majority of my life. As a historian, photographer, author, and art lover, I have seen much of the art included in Arte Del Pueblo, and public art is an important part of my love for the city. Working on the book project for over six years, the book authors found fine examples of artwork everywhere.
From my old Westside neighborhood, Dr. Preston presents the Veladora on Guadalupe Street by Jesse Trevino. Not far on Zarzamora Street, Dr. Preston photographed the stunning Indigenous metal benches by Mary Agnes Rodriguez. Riders on the public bus on Zarzamora Street will view Adriana Garcia’s mural as the bus passes El Paso Street. In the same 78207 zip code on Laredo Street, the gigantic, bright mural by Ana Hernandez features strong Latina women fighting for justice and equality.
The San Pedro Creek restoration projects represent a new expansion of San Antonio public art funded by the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. Tafolla and Dr. Preston included the murals by Adriana Garcia, Rubio, and Joe Lopez that embellish the walls of the creek. The San Pedro Creek Murals begin on Cameron Street, just half a block north of Martin Street, and extend to Cesar Chavez Blvd.
Adriana Garcia, a former muralist with San Anto Cultural Arts and a talented oil painter, initiated the first mural at Cameron Street across from the former Fox Tech athletic fields. Her mural recognizes both the Indigenous people who inhabited the land for 11,000 years and Spanish friars of the 1700 era interacting with Coahuiltecan mission Indians. The more recent works by Lionel and Kathy Sosa, located on the San Pedro Creek banks just south of Commerce Street, feature trees of life adorned with Latino cultural icons. These murals were completed last year and are not included in the book.
The Joe Lopez and Rubio murals located between the tall glass Frost Bank building and the Alameda Theater on Houston Street give those Latino artists prominent visibility. Lopez includes legendary film stars Pedro Infante, Maria Felix, and Cantiflas in a mural that celebrates the Golden Era of Mexican film. Rubio’s curved patterns in a swirling motion with a blue background symbolize the Blue Hole spring water which early colonizers documented.
Rubio began painting murals at the Cassiano Homes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His painting of a classic purple low-rider Chevy on a wall on Guadalupe Street originates from his days with the San Anto Cultural Arts group. It is considered a significant cultural heritage mural of the Westside.
Several works by Cruz Ortiz are also featured in Arte Del Pueblo. His mural Educacion, painted with Juan Ramos, emphasizes the importance of learning and occupies a prominent space next to Rubio’s Classic Chevy on Guadalupe Street near the San Anto Cultural Center. Ortiz is known for his use of code-switching in titles such as “Por K I Always Want You Mas “ painted on a mural on North St. Marys under IH 35. The authors of Arte Del Pueblo conclude that Cruz sees his work as an “opportunity to come up with a new visual language based on traditions, based on native origin dialects and issues that transcend to the present.”
The Arte Del Pueblo book includes over 500 images, but I focused on the artwork by Latino artists. Mayor Nirenberg reminds us that “exposure to the arts is fundamental to the healthy development of our children’s minds and spirits and is key to unlocking their understanding of our city’s history and dynamic present, thereby freeing their potential in the future.” The book presents dynamic photographic quality and rich literary commentary and expands an appreciation and understanding of San Antonio’s unique Latino culture and art.
Copyright 2023 by Ricardo Romo. All photos courtesy of Dr. Frederick R. Preston and used with his permission.