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On a cloudy Friday afternoon, mural artist Rudy Herrera slowly lowered himself from his lofty perch on a Genie S-125 construction lift to the asphalt of a parking lot beside the Kress building downtown. Herrera was preparing to add the finishing touches to the largest mural he has yet painted, 50 feet wide and stretching nearly 100 feet high on the nine-story wall.
Herrera’s mural, located on East Houston Street between Navarro and Jefferson streets, is only one of a growing number of ambitious murals orchestrated by the Centro San Antonio downtown advocacy group, which is taking its “Art Everywhere” initiative quite literally.
Since last May, Centro has spearheaded an assortment of murals downtown, with several more in the planning stages: an open call for art to decorate the Alameda Theater during construction, and a soon-to-be-launched call for 10 more large-scale public artworks in partnership with the CAUSA arts advocacy group.
“We were going to postpone till after the pandemic … but it was really just a response to soothe our community heartache by providing some joy and color,” said Andi Rodriguez, Centro’s vice president of cultural placemaking.
A colorful journey
Herrera’s mural The Last Parade certainly fulfills the desire for color, with every hue of the rainbow deployed throughout its abstract and figurative imagery.
Bystanders Gerard Lodico and Kara Paige paused in the parking lot to take it all in. “It’s a myriad of colors, in a big canvas. That in itself makes it powerful,” Lodico said. “It’s
Earlier, a mother-and-son pair of artists stopped across Navarro Street to watch Herrera add black lines for clarity, near the uppermost right-hand part of the image.
“It’s so colorful. … It reminds me of Adventure Time,” said Diana Torres, comparing the imagery to the Cartoon Network fantasy series. Torres and son Gallian read the imagery of a girl with a third eye on a blue stag as a spiritual journey and recognized indigenous imagery. The mural stands out for its abstract qualities, they said, differentiating it from murals highlighting San Antonio-specific symbols.
“I like it, especially for San Antonio, because I feel like we’re moving towards that spectrum of art that doesn’t really have a message,” Torres said. “It really isn’t telling you to think a certain way … it’s not like I’m being told to think this is what it’s supposed to be.”
Gallian added, “You’re thrown into the scene.”
In Herrera’s telling, his imagery tells a personal story while connecting to his indigenous ancestry and the nature of creation. The 35-year-old was once a restaurant worker, but five years ago leapt off the edge – the blue stag is about to step off an earthen ledge toward an uncertain destination – to devote himself to becoming an artist, a precarious move especially for a young husband and father. His wife and child are honored in the mural, with her initials in a circle and their son’s birth year above.
Despite a fear of heights, he has worked on the mural 12 to 14 hours per day, seven days per week, for more than a month, safety-strapped to the metal bars of the lift’s small perch. Fellow muralists Ana Hernandez and Ashley Alvarez and Crystal Tamez of San Anto Cultural Arts have taken over for him, at times to give him a break and other times to relieve him of the stress from painting eight stories off the ground.
“They’re all talented artists themselves, they’re all experienced muralists, they’ve got some big walls under their belt,” Herrera said. “When you’re scared, it helps with giving people as little direction as possible so I can focus on my own internal stream and doing the work.”
Inclement weather and unexpectedly absorptive brickwork have delayed completion of the mural, originally scheduled for March, but the process of installing large-scale, permanent murals is a long and complicated process.
Rodriguez said part of her job has become negotiating with building owners, developers, representatives of city government and agencies, artists, and other stakeholders, to fulfill the vision of Centro’s “Art Everywhere” initiative.
Her efforts to fill downtown with murals will be represented along with San Antonio’s array of public artworks in a new book titled Arte del Pueblo: Public Art in San Antonio, tentatively scheduled for publication in 2022. The author of the book, Frederick Preston, stood by waiting for Herrera to take a break and come down from his lofty perch to answer a few questions.
“The thing that grabbed me about the mural is it incorporates and focuses on Native American culture relevant to the area,” Preston said.
The blue stag is a figure of Coahuiltecan origin stories, creating the peyote button mushrooms used in tribal spiritual quest ceremonies, Herrera said, and he chose to portray a young girl as leading the quest because of the powerful influence of women in his life and in the broader culture.
Preston said the size of the mural also fascinates him, with few other multistory murals in the city. He mentioned the 100-foot-long mural just installed on a first-story wall of the Toltec Apartments near the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, comparable in size for its length, if not for its height.
That mural, titled Living In My Skin by artist and influential community figure Lionel Sosa, portrays 33 painted portraits of local Black men ages 10 to 90 alongside brief stories of their lives in San Antonio. The project also lives online, presenting an in-depth exploration of the Black experience in San Antonio, prompted in part by Sosa’s reaction to the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020.
Rodriguez recognized the importance of the project in the current moment and moved to have Sosa join his wife, Kathy, as Centro muralists.
Responding to San Antonio’s status as Military City U.S.A., Centro invited Ghost, an eight-year veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who started painting while deployed, to create a mural on the side wall of the Back Unturned Brewery downtown.
“We call ourselves a cultural city,” she said. “Well, let’s make it real, let’s make it materialize. Our ‘Art Everywhere’ program is the physical manifestation of that.”
Nearing completion of one of the largest new murals in the city, Herrera said he takes its presence seriously as an inspiration to other potential “creators” like himself, who once only dreamed of making such a permanent mark.
“Somebody, when they’re my age, they’re going to make a mural twice this size, and 10 times better. It’s not unattainable,” he said.