Editor’s note: One big map. One dart. Ten enterprising journalists. The result is Bexar’s Eye, a weekly series aimed – literally – at uncovering previously untold stories about people, places, and practices in San Antonio and surrounding areas. We asked each of our journalists to throw a dart at a map of Bexar County and find a story wherever the dart lands. What you’ll read in this series are just some of the many stories San Antonio holds.
Dennis Schramek leaned over a framing table on a recent weekday afternoon, contemplating the silver-toned painted wooden frame around the charcoal portrait of his wife, Barbara. Schramek drew the portrait at age 22, when he was in school studying art at what was then called Texas A&I University in Kingsville. He is now 71 and Barbara is 70.
Schramek seemed pleased with the frame selected by Kevin Sekula, who has owned Harold’s Art and Framing on the corner of East Southcross and Roosevelt Avenue since founder Harold Kempfer died in 2017. Sekula said the frame draws out the highlights in Schramek’s fine-lined, perfectly preserved drawing and offsets the darker tones in the pattern of Barbara’s blouse.
As Sekula drew up an invoice, he and Schramek talked over the finer points of painting in acrylic. Names of vaunted Hill Country artists came up, oil painter Dalhart Windberg and Vie Dunn-Harr, who switched from oil to acrylic because of a chemical allergy. At that, Schramek doffed his Buc-ee’s cap revealing a bald pate, and joked about losing his hair from teaching art to middle schoolers for 16 years at Cooper Middle School.
As the two chatted, other customers came into the shop to pick up their recently framed work. Jesse Mata, recently named King Anchovy for the 2020 Fiesta Cornyation festivities (you read it here first), popped in to retrieve a political poster now ensconced in a thin matte black metal frame. A gentle, slow-moving, diminutive mutt named Mabel greeted everyone, nosing past an ornately framed quinceañera portrait and a gold-framed vintage poster commemorating the Oct. 16, 1992, grand opening of the Space Center Houston, then ambled back into the back room.
Sekula inherited Mabel along with the frame shop. He started 40 years ago working part-time for Kempfer even as he maintained a full-time job as an inventory control specialist at United Stationers. The art supply side of business eventually faded due to lack of demand, but Sekula kept on as an assistant plasterer and framer, which became his main jobs. After United Stationers relocated outside of San Antonio, Harold’s became his career, and now the store belongs to him.
The Harold’s exterior, recently updated with a fresh coat of paint and five custom poked-tin sconces depicting the five San Antonio missions, has been a neighborhood institution since Kempfer opened in 1958. The store maintains customer bases in Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills, largely due to the connections Kempfer made over the years as a popular cultural figure, a chorus member in local opera productions and member of the San Antonio Symphony Society.
The diverse customer base has included country star Barbara Mandrell, in town one year with husband Ken Dudney for the World Skeet Championships. The Mandrells were staying at the RV Park just up the road, and while browsing the watercolors selection, “she carried Mabel around for about a half hour,” Sekula said. Mandrell wanted to take Mabel with her, he claimed, but needless to say the mutt remains Harold’s elder dog-in-residence. The same day Kempfer went into hospice, Sekula found a stray chihuahua mix in a convenience store parking lot nearby on Roosevelt, and “Baby” joined the family. He called Baby “a little tyrant,” but the dog seemed meek in a tiny dog sweater. A cat named Shadow also haunted the shop, but remained unseen.
A South Side Entrepreneur
Sekula explained that his entrepreneurial former boss taught art classes, then realizing his fellow students needed art supplies, opened a small shop to sell them. He then observed that they needed frames for finished works, and opened the frame shop.
Meanwhile, he kept up his business as a skilled plasterer, trained in Milwaukee and Chicago by old-school European masters still practicing the lost art. Kempfer plied his trade in multiple restoration efforts around the city, including the old Municipal Auditorium (since burned down and replaced with the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts), the Majestic Theatre, the San Pedro Playhouse, and hundreds of rosette lighting fixtures in Sunset Station.
Each of these proprietary forms is still kept in a warehouse behind the frame shop, in the sprawling, 40,000 square foot complex that fills a one-acre lot at the busy South side intersection that was once the heart of the Riverside neighborhood. A large backroom in the labyrinthine complex retains all of Kempfer’s original plaster molds, some of which are still in use. They range from an elaborate miniature of the famous rose window of Mission San José, sold as a souvenir in the mission’s gift shop, to a Harley Davidson spread wings logo. In a far back room, Sekula keeps one of Kempfer’s signature pieces, a kitschy Texas wonder: an armadillo on its back cradling a bottle of Lone Star beer. The company even lent its official labels to the project, which Sekula recalls meticulously cutting out with an X-Acto knife to fit to the armadillo’s grasping paws.
Looking over the array of molds and plaster pieces piled in the warehouse, Sekula recalled his early days working for Kempfer, sometimes working past midnight despite needing to get up for his full-time job the next day.
“We would go down to Captain Jim’s afterward,” Sekula said of a 24-hour restaurant that once stood at the corner of Roosevelt and South Military Drive. He recalled the sight of his boss’s limousine – Kempfer favored limos, though he drove them himself – parked next to the much smaller, sporty GT owned by famed architect O’Neill Ford, a Captain Jim’s regular and onetime Riverside resident.
Second Saturdays on Southcross?
Another customer arrived. Emily Arriaga picked up her daughter Celeste’s quinceañera portrait, and dropped off an invitation to the big event. She found Harold’s after unsatisfactory visits to big box craft stores in the area.
“I was looking for frames all over the city … and they were just not nice,” or the prices were too expensive for what they sold, Arriaga said. She had heard of Harold’s but thought it just sold art supplies or was an architecture store, until her mother corrected her impression.
As to the future of the shop, Sekula is circumspect. At 60, he has not trained a protégé such as himself to take over when he retires, but he envisions making use of the many buildings he manages by turning the whole property into an artists’ complex. The Second Saturday art walks of the 1906 building on South Flores, which Andy and Yvette Benavides filled with studios, galleries, and a frame shop, serve as an example for him.
Recent signs of nearby gentrification, the bane of neighborhood advocates like Sekula, could bring back customers in search of art supplies, with artists often at the forefront of changing neighborhoods. Witness the newly developed South Side Living and Maker Spaces of Blue Star Arts Complex developer James Lifshutz, with an art gallery run by recent San Antonio transplant Jeff Wheeler at its core. For now, Sekula has kept the faded pink Harold’s sign intact, standing as it has for six decades on the gravelly corner lot facing the busy intersection of Roosevelt and Southcross.
“People still remember the kiddie park across the way,” Sekula said, pointing to an overgrown, empty lot across from Harold’s. He thinks it was called Sunny Side, but the memory is fading.