Reminiscent of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, an oil-on-canvas painting of a Hispanic couple standing in front of their antiques shop in San Antonio adorns a wall at Centro de Artes. The expressions on their faces are dignified, solemn, and humble, but convey the pride of realizing their American Dream.
Part of VOZ: Selections from the UTSA Art Collection, an exhibition of works by Latino/a artists, the painting is by local artist Claudio Aguillón, who has forged his own version of the American Dream here in San Antonio.
Best known for murals and artwork at chef Johnny Hernandez’s restaurants, Aguillón is a firm believer that the relationships he’s built through his work have shaped his success and will continue to do so.
His friendship with the renowned restaurateur will soon yield a new collaboration of epic proportions, one that aims to reimagine one of San Antonio’s most revered spaces.
Born in San Luis Potosí, Aguillón was the last of 10 siblings to follow in what he calls the “coming-of-age tradition” of venturing out of Central Mexico and into the United States. Several of his siblings already lived in Dallas and San Antonio, and frequent visits had a young Claudio fascinated with cars, expressways, and skyscrapers.
“It was such an immense contrast to Mexico,” Aguillón said. “I loved everything about it. I’m very visual, so everything seemed shinier, and the quality of everything was outstanding.”
At age 14, Aguillón and his oldest brother convinced their mother to let him stay in San Antonio to learn English.
“Two weeks turned into 30 years,” Aguillón said.
He picked up English by spending time with the children at the daycare center where his sister-in-law worked, and later enrolled in eighth grade at Southwest High School. By then he had overstayed his tourist visa and was living in the country illegally. Nonetheless, the family decided he should stay in San Antonio.
“My mom wanted a better life for me,” Aguillón said. “She always said, ‘What if something happens to me?’ She passed away three years later, and I’ve always wondered if she foresaw that … if it was meant to be.”
Then 16, Aguillón couldn’t return to Mexico for his mother’s burial because he lacked travel documents.
An avid sketch artist back in Mexico, Aguillón’s talent became his calling card at Southwest High School, where he made connections by decorating classrooms and making banners the football teams would break through at game time. But upon graduating, his legal status created another roadblock, this time threatening his goal of obtaining a college education.
Using his high school identification number in place of a social security number, Aguillón applied to and was accepted at Palo Alto College, where word of his artistic talent quickly spread among faculty.
“I paid almost all my tuition through commissioned art,” he said. “My teachers would have me paint their children or wedding picture, or they would purchase some of the art I did for myself.”
Alba DeLeon, an arts professor at Palo Alto, commissioned Aguillón to paint a portrait of her parents. More than 20 years later, Aguillón and DeLeon remain friends, and that portrait, titled Antiques, now hangs at Centro de Artes.
“Claudio has a way of touching the canvas that you can’t teach,” DeLeon said. “[VOZ curator] Arturo Almeida asked to include the painting in the exhibit because Claudio captured a time and space [in San Antonio] that no longer exists. My parents were part of a group of people who immigrated and lived the American Dream. I think my father would be honored.”
During his time at Palo Alto, Aguillón landed his first commercial job, painting a mural at Taqueria México near the Southside campus and establishing a friendship with owner Juan Flores. Flores has opened numerous restaurants since, and all but one have featured Aguillón’s work. The one that didn’t never caught on and eventually closed.
“After that, he’s called me every time, and all the restaurants are successful,” Aguillón said.
His friendship with Flores still flourishes today.
“More than anything, I love the relationships that I have made,” Aguillón said. “There have been a few cases where I do a job and don’t establish a relationship with the client, and that’s fine. I can do that. But I’d much rather establish a relationship, because that’s what creates a future. It moves us along, all of us, together as a group.”
Perhaps the most important relationship of them all began in 1986, when Aguillón met Stacie Orsagh in an art class at Southwest High School. They didn’t begin dating until years later, when they repeatedly bumped into each other in restaurants and H-E-B parking lots. The two married in 2000, allowing Aguillón to become a permanent U.S. resident. They have two sons, Joshua and Abraham, who are now 23 and 14.
Aguillón transferred to the University of Texas at Austin and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2000. Along the way he painted murals in “just about every restaurant I worked,” he said. “The requests just kept coming.”
After graduating, Aguillón began teaching in the arts program at SAY Sí, which Abraham would later attend. There he met designer Martha Martinez-Flores, who was collaborating with a local chef working to get his first restaurant concept off the ground.
That chef was Hernandez, owner of Grupo La Gloria, which now has 12 restaurants in three cities: San Antonio, Houston, and Las Vegas. The two met, clicked, and their budding partnership yielded the 30-foot mural at Hernandez’s first restaurant, La Gloria at the Pearl, one of Aguillón’s most famous pieces in town and the first of many collaborations with Hernandez.
“In one way or another, he has worked on every restaurant I have locally and even the one in Las Vegas,” Hernandez told the Rivard Report. “I like working with him because he pays attention, he listens well, and as an artist has the skill and craft to think of the outcome that I need or want, which is usually part of a bigger project.”
Some have described their next collaboration as transformative – not just for Aguillón and Hernandez, but for the city of San Antonio.
A $12.6 million overhaul of La Villita, one of the city’s first neighborhoods, is on the books for 2019 and will include three new restaurants and significant updates to the plaza’s current structures and surrounding areas.
Hernandez is at the helm of the undertaking, but had a little help from his friend in bringing his vision to life.
“We went out there and talked through how we envisioned the plaza and how it could come to life. Claudio started sketching, we went back and forth and refined a few times. [His designs] helped me conceptualize ideas I needed to share with the City and private equity groups,” Hernandez said.
“Intellectually, we are on the same wavelength, so when he talks to me [and shares] a vision of what could be transformed, I can put it on paper,” Aguillón agreed. “I don’t consider myself artistic, I consider myself observational. Creative people make things out of nothing, [whereas] I think I’m good at observing something and then transferring it to paper.
“Twenty years from now, La Villita will be a completely different thing. My kids might say, ‘My dad came up with the concept that Johnny Hernandez had in mind and put it on paper.’”
Aguillón has a hard time recalling exactly how many murals he has painted, but some of the ones he detailed had a personal connection: There’s the mural in the art department at Southwest High School, his alma mater; another at Taquitos Y Panaderia West Avenue’s location on Nacogdoches Road, in which he included Abraham, Orsagh, and her late father; the aquarium-style mural at El Marinero that depicts the owner’s daughter as a mermaid; and a forthcoming project at the Peripheral Vascular Associates downtown, the facility at which Orsagh’s father received treatment for years.
But the most “personal and valuable” mural of them all is in the Aguillóns’ kitchen, Orsagh said. It depicts a view from atop a mountain in San Luis Potosí.
“Because he couldn’t go back to Mexico for so long, he put a piece of his home in our home,” she said. “He’s told me so many stories, so now when we visit [San Luis Potosí], we always climb that mountain. It’s like he’s come full circle.”
Like many of Aguillón’s murals, the one at La Gloria at the Pearl bears no signature.
“My husband is so humble,” Orsagh said. “He won’t even sign his work unless specifically asked.”
“I made him sign the one at the Dominion,” Hernandez said. “He’s that quiet, understated, and genuine guy. … That’s why I think he is such a great friend.”
Whether he’s covering the entire facade of a building in geometric patterns or painting a corporation’s logo on the walls of each of its locations, Aguillón wants his art to serve a greater purpose.
“For me, it’s always been family and education first, art second,” he said. “[Whatever] I need to do to provide for my family in terms of art, I’ll do. I’m not ever going to say a project is below me. I’ll paint anywhere. One day I’m painting a mural at the [South Texas] Blood and Tissue Center, the next day I’m at a taqueria. That’s never going to change.”