To some, pandemic-stricken 2020 may not seem like the ideal time for vibrant colors, artistic creativity and remembering the Tejano culture that rose from the complexities of the Spanish empire.
However, to Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and Mission Heritage Partners, there has never been a better time to co-sponsor a project commissioning artist Sandra Gonzalez to add a colorful mural to an exterior wall at Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo’s modern visitor center.
The artwork, to be revealed in October, commemorates the tricentennial of the colonial religious outpost’s establishment by Friar Antonio Margil de Jesús.
“Mission San José was established in 1720, so for all of 2020, we are recognizing and reflecting on 300 years since its founding, which to us and to our community means reflecting on complex and difficult changes, as well as the beautiful San Antonio culture that arose from that,” said Justine Hanrahan, visual-information specialist for the national park. “The main goal of this mural is to connect the South Side community and its legacy with the over 300 years of history that we have in this neighborhood.”
The undertaking also helps foster local creativity, officials said.
“We really want to make sure that we nourish and help the artists of San Antonio thrive,” said Pam De La Mora, Luminaria’s digital-media manager. “We are dedicated to the innovative interpretation of our city’s culture, so what that means is that we are wanting to take local artists and interpret what the city’s culture, history and environment is through their art and through what they can create.”
Gonzalez, who recently moved to San Antonio from Corpus Christi and began teaching art at Roosevelt High School this fall, was chosen from more than a dozen candidates through Luminaria’s call to produce citywide murals.
“I think that my style reflects the colorful Mexican American culture,” said Gonzalez, who began as a muralist with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program after receiving her master’s in 2013 from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “I like to include figures, Mexican textiles, and bright colors … so hopefully I can combine what I love to do in this upcoming year for the San José Mission.”
Gonzalez, a Tamaulipas, Mexico, native, relocated to Laredo as a teenager. She’ll receive a $2,000 stipend to create an 8-foot by 20-foot work consisting of five wooden panels attached to a high wall on the mission’s exterior at Napier and Roosevelt avenues.
Still under discussion at press time, mural depictions could include the mission’s iconic elements, such as the “Rose Window” on the Catholic sacristy’s south wall, through which a priest could deliver services to unbaptized mission residents disallowed entry. It will also illustrate the lives and contributions of people of Indigenous heritage at the mission, Hanrahan said.
“We hope that residents of the South Side will be able to see themselves in this mural,” she said. “It will be a reminder of what makes this neighborhood great that they’ll be able to see their own identity represented in this mural, and that it will be a sense of pride during a time that has been difficult for many.”
Hanrahan said Gonzalez was selected because of her previous Laredo and Corpus Christi murals, which feature bright colors and tile motifs, which echo the mission’s original quatrefoil designs. These clearly can be seen at the “Restored by Light” celebrations, a communitywide light display of the original frescoes once visible across the facades of the mission churches.
The artist’s patterns also are reminiscent of tiles from the post-mission era by Ethel Wilson Harris, the first female park ranger in Texas, who ran a tile shop inside the mission and employed neighbors — including some mission descendants — and used in iconic areas of the city, such as La Villita.
“Gonzalez’s style connects the colorful culture of San Antonio with Mexican American culture, and her style is very conducive to connecting the past with the present in that way,” Hanrahan said.
A key aspect of Gonzalez’s process normally involves the community contributing to her mural work, which is routinely done remotely on a fabric substrate and later attached like wallpaper with special protective glue.
“It’s very easy. You just set up tables, and then you put the fabric on top, and then it’s more like ‘paint by color,’ and I give them a picture,” Gonzalez said. “Then, once they see it up on the wall, they can identify where they helped me, and it’s really nice because it gives them that sense of ownership and pride that they help with something.”
While COVID-19 safety protocols might limit participation this time, she hopes this project will still resonate with neighbors.
“I feel like people really appreciate public art,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t have to go to a museum. They don’t have to go into a gallery. It’s out there in their neighborhoods or in the city, and I think that’s the beauty of it — people can appreciate it, and they can appreciate the area where they live more.”
De La Mora said Luminaria is brainstorming additional ways of linking folks in the area to the project and generate excitement.
“We are looking at a couple of options,” De La Mora said. “Whether it is the artist herself shooting a time-lapse video of herself working, or her going live on a social-media account to talk through her process to show what she is doing, or basically shooting a video, or having a Q&A with the artist through social media. That way, it’s completely safe, but there’s still community involvement.”
Nevertheless, project organizers said now is a perfect time to support the arts in San Antonio.
“(During hard times), monetarily the arts are usually the last thing we think about, but if you think about it, in the dead of quarantine, art is all we are consuming,” De La Mora said. “If you’re at home, what are you doing? You’re watching TV, you’re listening to the radio, you’re listening to podcasts, you’re listening to people creating, and to me, it’s a little mind-boggling that even though art is such an afterthought, it’s so important and relevant to us in our current state.”
For more, visit https://luminariasa.org/.