Lifelong San Antonio residents might think they’ve seen all the public art the city has to offer. But a recent transplant might wonder at the towering metal sculpture in the midst of downtown, or burgeoning murals beckoning at nearly every turn.
An informative, sumptuously illustrated new coffee table book by two local residents promises surprises for everyone. In 300 pages, Arte del Pueblo: The Outdoor Public Art of San Antonio by photographer Frederick Preston and poet Carmen Tafolla presents a rich tapestry of public artworks by 190 artists stationed throughout the city.
While most of the artworks studiously depicted by Preston are readily accessible, some no longer exist. His images stand as testaments to the fragile nature of outdoor artworks, Preston said.
A primary goal of the book is “to immortalize the art because outdoor public art is so susceptible in a variety of ways to either being damaged, destroyed, removed or replaced. This is a way of preserving history,” he said.
A poetic text by Tafolla woven between, around, and through Preston’s pictures relates the essence of “the people’s art” and ties together a diverse range of artworks from monumental sculptures to corner store murals.
“A Pueblo united by amistad,” she writes to accompany a nighttime image of two downtown icons, the Torch of Friendship (La Torcha de Amistad) by Sebastián and the Tower of the Americas, continuing with “and by a festive and stubborn survival,” accompanying a lively street mural by Gerardo “Ghost” Cazares near the Hays Street Bridge.
From 1768 to today
A piece of mural art that sparked Tafolla’s interest early on is no longer there. Recounting a childhood experience, she said she looked into a Westside building that was being demolished and saw a large, brightly painted mural she had no idea was there.
Soon she took note of many murals dotting her Westside environs, which at first were privately spurred to enliven corner stores and neighborhood spots, such as Cultura y Revolución by Raúl Valdez on the facade of the J&J Ruiz Food Mart on South Trinity Street. Once the Chicano movement took hold in the 1970s, suddenly muralism blossomed, she said.
“Then there was art everywhere,” Tafolla said, echoing the name of the Centro San Antonio public art program that has sponsored dozens of downtown murals and art installations.
Arte del Pueblo charts publicly accessible artworks in San Antonio from the 1700s through today, with an angelito carved into the stone facade of Mission San Jose in 1768 and recent examples from Centro’s Art Everywhere program, such as Martha Martinez Flóres SA Is Amor of 2020 and Rudy Herrera’s The Last Parade of 2021, representing opposite ends of the spectrum.
After admiring and photographing graffiti art, a 2001 mural on West Guadalupe Street — Tradición y Cultura by Alex Rubio, the San Antonio stalwart painter who now simply goes by Rubio — is what first caught Preston’s photographic eye.
“It was just so culturally powerful, it just captures you,” Preston said.
Then a West Commerce Street mural paying tribute to Vietnam prisoners of war, You Are Not Forgotten painted in 2006 by Mike Roman, and the many murals of the Cassiano Homes apartment complex next caught his eye.
Soon, Preston approached the publishers of his first photographic book, a study of ornate doorways in San Antonio, to gauge their interest. They suggested he expand beyond murals to encompass all forms of public art, to which Preston duly responded.
All across town
Even a seasoned San Antonio public art hunter might find some surprises in the pages of Arte del Pueblo, such as the smiling face of the eccentric chrome human/butterfly hybrid located in Greenline Park, Brooks Butterfly by Brad Oldham and Christy Coltrin, or the cut metal Sacred Water / Agua de Vida by Agnes Rodríguez gracing a bus stop at the corner of North Zarzamora Street and Culebra Road.
Old favorites are well represented — the trabajo rústico River Walk grotto by Dionicio Rodriguez protegé Carlos Cortés, F.I.S.H. by Donald Lipski hanging underneath the Camden Street Bridge (coincidentally just announced as being removed for cleaning and repair by the San Antonio River Foundation), as are ephemeral works such as The Saga by Xavier de Richemont, the erstwhile Essex Modern City Art Project along East Essex Street, and artworks in multiple mediums featured in the annual Luminaria contemporary arts festival.
A section near the end of the book spotlights 11 artists, including Cruz Ortiz, a prominent painter, and Shek Vega and Nik Soupe of Los Otros, who together are responsible for many murals around the city. Vega is a co-founder of the San Antonio Street Art Initiative, which maintains what has been billed as the world’s largest outdoor art gallery underneath the I-35 overpass at E. Euclid Street featuring 16 large-scale murals. Ortiz’s monumental sculpture Dream Song Tower overlooks Interstate 35 at South Zarzamora Street.
Several self-guided neighborhood tours of varying lengths are outlined for anyone interested in exploring further (the San Antonio Report will also feature self-guided mural tours, including a downtown walk with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, for its forthcoming Live Like a Local guide).
Of the book’s purpose, Tafolla said, “We’ve tried to make this useful historically so that we have an understanding of how in this community art was created, served a purpose and began to define and influence all who came to visit.”
A free festive book launch party will be held on Friday, from 6:30-10 p.m. in Plaza Juarez at La Villita with music and the debut of a short film about the book. Advance copies of the $39 book will be made available by publisher Shiffer Publishing, specially for the occasion. The official release date for Arte del Pueblo is October 28.