Folkloric artists tend to strictly follow the traditions they’ve learned.
San Antonio artist Verónica Castillo Hernández started out learning the craft of árboles de la vida — tree of life sculptures — from her traditionalist parents in her native state of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City.
But Castillo showed an independent streak early on, incorporating the world around her in her art, injustices and inequalities included.
In bringing contemporary life into her learned tradition since migrating to the U.S. three decades ago, Castillo has won many fans throughout the country, including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Departure from tradition
A traditional árbol de la vida will feature a treelike form with central trunk and curving branches, decorated with flowers, birds and human figures representing peace and prosperity.
Castillo’s trees of life include traditional butterflies, marigolds, and hummingbirds to represent the life-giving sun and the spirits of the living and the dead, but might also incorporate symbols of capitalist consumption, figures of the murderous minions of drug lords and elements of climate change and Mother Earth in pain.
One early commission, for a 2003 University of California Los Angeles symposium on the murdered women of Juarez, resulted in El Árbol de la Muerte (Maquilando Mujeres), a haunting tree of life with bloody female corpses stalked by “El Diablo” in the form of cartel lieutenants amidst a brilliant crown of orange and yellow marigolds.
Her father, Don Alfonso Castillo Orta, who won Mexico’s El Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes (The National Prize of Sciences & Arts) for his own árboles, initially disapproved of Castillo’s departure from the family’s traditional craft.
Even at the age of 12, his precocious daughter showed her independence by including farmworkers and neighboring townsfolk in her first árbol. “Her dad was actually really impressed,” said Rosie Torres, Castillo’s assistant and translator.
Castillo said she is most comfortable speaking in Spanish, and asked Torres to translate her comments during the San Antonio Report’s visit to her studio.
Through high school and college, Castillo’s ideas only “became bigger,” Torres said, “and she had more questions” as she learned more about the complexity of the world around her. An árbol she made as a gift for a singer she admired quickly sold, as did similar pieces with her handmade mariachi costumes and instruments.
Ultimately, Castillo credits her father for giving her the confidence to express her ideas as she saw them.
“He taught her not to be afraid. He taught her to dare herself to make big pieces because she was capable of it,” Torres said.
Commitment to community
Cindy Wilmore was familiar with the family’s artwork, and in her role as a board member of the nonprofit Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, suggested bringing Castillo to San Antonio.
“That was our first exchange with international artists,” said Esperanza’s director Graciela Sanchez, and the relationship soon blossomed.
Castillo would go on to help lead the nonprofit’s MujerArtes Women’s Clay Cooperative for 15 years, instilling her idea of women telling their personal stories in their work and melding her vision with the Esperanza’s social justice mission.
In addition to artistic excellence, Castillo’s dedication to teaching at MujerArtes helped her win a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award in 2013. “I was really impressed by her commitment to the community,” said humanities scholar, folklorist and Trinity University professor Norma Cantú, who nominated Castillo for the award.
Cantú considers the immigrant artist an exemplar of U.S. national heritage, in part because American culture is “thousands of cultural expressions from different traditions coming together to create who we are, a really rich tapestry of cultures.”
Echoes and Voices of Art
None of the awards and accolades she has earned are anywhere to be seen at Galeria E.V.A., Castillo’s gallery, workshop and home in Southtown. The abbreviation in the gallery name stands for Ecos y Voces del Arte (Echoes and Voices of Art), reflecting Castillo’s respect for history and the voices of individual artists.
The space is often abuzz with students learning traditional crafts including painting, sculpture and ceramics. At a recent workshop where students learned to make sculptural nativity scenes, a table held a bottle of wine, reposado tequila and festive holiday-themed cups and napkins.
“What you see around you is a gallery space that’s also used not just for exhibitions,” Torres said, but for community pláticas and gatherings, parties, weddings, business meetings and workshops of all sorts from dancing to new age therapies.
During the COVID-19 pandemic and since, Castillo has used the space as a weekly community kitchen to feed ailing and hungry members of her community, Torres said.
Family friend Ramiro Sanchez volunteered in the kitchen, and now occasionally helps assemble decorations for Castillo’s near constant stream of commissioned trees of life.
Despite growing demand for her work, Castillo will only let a piece go when it finds its proper home.
Pueblo Protejiendo stands on a table in her studio, depicting the maíz, herbal plants and monarch butterflies of her home state along with its teachers, miners and curanderas.
“This tree will leave when it needs to leave. It will meet its person when the person and the tree connect with each other,” Castillo said through Torres.
More work to be done
Castillo’s El Árbol de la Muerte (Maquilando Mujeres) was acquired by the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and a newer work anchors the “Shaping the Nation” section of ¡Presente!, the inaugural exhibition of the Molina Family Latino Gallery in the National Museum of the American Latino.
Former San Antonian Eduardo Diaz, now the acting deputy director of the museum in Washington D.C., called the commissioned piece “very powerful” and said it has been popular with visitors to the gallery since the show opened in June.
“Dependent on the visitor, [Castillo’s árbol] kind of steals the show,” Diaz said. “It’s a fascinating piece.”
¡Presente! will remain on view through 2025, he said.
Closer to home, the City of San Antonio commissioned three árboles from Castillo for the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center, each depicting the deep cultural mix and history of her adopted city.
Roadrunner Ceramics on the North side of San Antonio recently held an árbol de la vida workshop led by Castillo, though owner Ron Wilson said arranging the workshop took “a couple of years,” given the artist’s busy schedule.
Meanwhile, Castillo continues work on several árbol projects, most of which take up to one year to complete.
She was recently awarded a 2022 San Antonio Arts & Culture Individual Artist Grant and a 2022 Texas Folklore Mentor & Apprenticeship Grant, but Castillo is seeking two to five years of funding to complete a major sculpture project, a six-foot clay árbol de vida that currently stands in progress in her backyard.
“It’s a strong piece, it’s a very powerful piece. It’s meant to educate, it’s a form of education, a form of opening consciousness,” Torres said.
The three-part piece will address three phases of human civilization, when we were once in balance with nature, when we began to lose respect for Mother Earth, and most damningly, a view of the destruction of Mother Earth through climate collapse, Castillo said.
“She wants this tree to travel all around the United States,” Torres said, to creatively impact hearts and minds. “She would like to show how we will survive.”
This article has been updated to correctly reflect Eduardo Diaz’s role at the National Museum of the American Latino.