When San Antonio lost Jesse Treviño, it might also have lost at least two new major public art projects by the city’s most famous artist.

Without significant investment, a new wall mural and new public sculpture by the famed artist might not be realized, according to Treviño’s former caretaker and assistant, Gabriel Velasquez, who described himself as “the right-hand man of a Vietnam veteran who lost his right hand.”

Notably, Treviño suffered catastrophic injuries while serving in the Vietnam War, resulting in the loss of his dominant right forearm and hand. Part of the artist’s heroic story is that he taught himself to continue painting with his left hand, eventually rising to become San Antonio’s most prominent, nationally recognized artist.

He kept on working

Those who knew Treviño personally say he was working up to the point of his death in February at age 76. Velasquez had been working with Treviño on a new 80-foot-long tile wall mural for the side wall of the Alameda Theater downtown and a massive steel Hispanic veteran’s memorial set upon an island in Elmendorf Lake.

The tile mural, honoring 1930s-era San Antonio singer and actress Rosita Fernández, would rival in size Treviño’s most recognizable artwork, the nine-story Spirit of Healing tile mural on the side of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio nearby. 

Velasquez said the project was conceived as possible to continue after Treviño’s death, ideally as a workforce development project to hire city artists’ apprentices who would execute the plan based on sketches prepared by the artist.

Former Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo was a strong believer in the project, Velasquez said, and essentially reserved the wall for Treviño as a centerpiece of the theater and the San Pedro Creek renovation project.

Gabriel Velasquez says that this mural designed for the side of the Alameda Theater would feature actress Rosita Fernandez.
Gabriel Velasquez says that a mural designed for the side of the Alameda Theater would feature singer and actress Rosita Fernandez. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

But Elizondo’s death in late 2018, the subsequent coronavirus pandemic, and Treviño’s advancing infirmity slowed progress. Elizondo’s successor, Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2), said he fully supports the mural project and will work to garner the support of his fellow commissioners should the project reach the funding stage.

Considering the theater as a Mexican American cultural icon, Rodriguez said having an iconic Treviño mural would be “the ideal marriage.”

“I was 100% supportive, and I still am, if there’s a way we can make that happen,” Rodriguez said. I think it’d be a great way to top off that rehabilitation and breathe new life into the building.”

At least one skeptic

The Hispanic veterans memorial for Elmendorf Lake has been in the works for at least a decade, Velasquez said, garnering strong support from City Council with a resolution of support passed in 2013 under then-Mayor Julián Castro.

Treviño and Velasquez conceived the memorial, to be titled La Ofrenda, as a monumental, multi-story metal sculpture featuring military symbols including eagles and dogtags, with symbols honoring Hispanic heritage including a marigold and a rendering of the Virgen de Guadalupe atop the structure.

The towering sculpture “would have dominated the skyline of the West Side over by Our Lady of the Lake University,” said Henry Cisneros, former mayor and friend of Treviño. 

Cisneros is working in support of several Treviño projects, including a planned mural for Sacred Heart Church on the West Side and mosaic portraits of notable West Siders to be placed in niches along Plaza Guadalupe.

However, Cisneros said that without the force of Treviño’s personality, the long-awaited Elmendorf memorial is unlikely to be realized.

“That was several years ago and time has passed, and I haven’t heard anyone talking about resurrecting that. And I don’t know that it would go forward without Jesse at all,” Cisneros said.

Velasquez concurred that Treviño’s drive and ambition were a key feature of his achievements, but said it’s now up to others to ensure his legacy projects will move forward.

“Where there’s the political will, it is possible,” Velasquez said. “And most definitely, in Jesse’s world, nothing is impossible.”

Mayoral support

In 2013 the young District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg voted in favor of the Elmendorf project. Now as mayor, Nirenberg said he supports both the veterans memorial and the Alameda mural.

“I can’t think of a more appropriate way to recognize both the reemergence of Alameda, the importance of it as a cultural landmark, but also the passing of an artistic icon for our community like Jesse, than to honor him with the work that will endure on that site,” Nirenberg said.

A document shows a resolution from 2013 stating that City Council supports the efforts of "La Ofrenda" veterans monument designed by Jesse Treviño.
A document shows a resolution from 2013 stating that the San Antonio City Council supports the efforts of “La Ofrenda” veterans monument designed by Jesse Treviño. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Regarding the idea that both projects could serve as workforce development projects for the city, Nirenberg said the aim of the Ready to Work program is to connect workers with permanent jobs rather than temporary work, but that multiple city funding streams could be explored, including funding for public art.

“We have a lot of different ways to fund worthwhile public projects,” Nirenberg said. “Those will also be explored, provided that we can get some momentum behind this effort.”

Asked what it would mean if San Antonio were to forsake pursuing two potential new iconic Treviño public artworks, Nirenberg said, “it would be tragic for our community to simply turn the page. I don’t think it’s possible for us to simply turn the page from Jesse and his impact on our community and the importance of his art to not only our community but the rest of the country. … We have an obligation and an opportunity to ensure that Jessie is remembered.” 

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...