Bekah S. McNeel

On Saturday morning, August 31, from 10:30 a.m. to noon, the Nolan Street underpass was the place to be.

The street was closed to traffic as elected officials, community members, and art supporters from around the city joined in a blessing ceremony for “Vortex,” the latest and largest of the murals put in place by San Anto Cultural Arts. At 218 feet, artist Alex Rubio has designed a work that creates a sense of place in a once neglected passageway.

Speaking at the event were Steven Evans, consulting manager of Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum; Harvey Mireles, executive director of San Anto Cultural Arts; Alex Rubio, MOSAIC studio manager and lead designer for the mural; Lloyd Doggett, Texas District 35 US Congressmen; Tommy Adkisson, Bexar County Commissioner for Precinct 4; and Ivy Taylor, District 2 City Councilwoman.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett speaks at the mural blessing in District 2.
Congressman Lloyd Doggett speaks at the mural blessing in District 2.

San Anto Cultural Arts believes that the Nolan Street underpass can be a place that speaks to people as they move between the Eastside and downtown.

“It’s a location with a purpose. It’s bridging communities,” said Harvey Mireles, Executive Director of San Anto Cultural Arts.

That’s what San Anto Cultural Arts is after when they place a mural in a neighborhood: connecting people. Their patch of the near westside is peppered with works of varying style, medium, and message all aimed at enhancing pride and identity in the community. On the mural tour 38 separate murals are featured within easy walking distance.

Hard at work installing Vortex on the Nolan Street Underpass.
Hard at work installing Vortex on the Nolan Street Underpass.

Now they aim to increase their footprint, and branch out to other communities in the city, sharing the gift of public art. For this project they set their sights on District 2 and began looking for a neighborhood who would be their partner. Dignowity Hill was there, raising their hands and saying, “Pick us!”

As a resident, I remember thinking, “Heck yes we want a San Anto mural!” Many of us felt the same, only to realize that we’d be getting more than a work of art dropped into our neighborhood.

The murals themselves, though vibrant and powerful, are not ends unto themselves. San Anto Cultural Arts has a bigger vision in mind. They realize that art is a vital part of placemaking – turning a spot on a map into a story of people coming together.

In order for that story to be true, people actually do have to start coming together, which is the goal of San Anto Cultural Arts. Not just finding big blank walls to paint.

John Medina (far left) and Harvey Mireles (second from right) with volunteers working on Vortex.
John Medina (far left), Michelle Jacob (second from left) and Harvey Mireles (second from right) with volunteers working on Vortex.

“The mural has become the artifact – what’s left from the process,” said John Medina, Public Art Program Manager for San Anto Cultural Arts.

That process began for “Vortex” in Dignowity Hill with a series of meetings, wherein San Anto Cultural Arts opened up dialogue with the residents of Dignowity Hill. They asked for their values, what they loved about the neighborhood, and what they wanted to see change. They asked for feedback on location and design.

At a later community meeting, Rubio and some of his students from MOSAIC  program at Blue Star unveiled their design for the mural. The modern, dynamic, non-representative motif uses colors that seem to pulsate like electrical currents.

The intense colors took a tiny bit of winning over, but the community almost immediately saw the spirit of the work. They saw the changes, growth, and innovation in their neighborhood reflected in the lines and movement.

Juan Garcia, President of Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, keeps tabs on changes in the neighborhood. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Juan Garcia, President of Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Alex Rubio did a great job of conceptualizing a wonderful piece of public art. The mural is another step forward in the continuing renaissance of Dignowity Hill and the Eastside,” said Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Juan Garcia.

From there the process only grew in its capacity to bring people together. From the Westside, St. Vincent de Paul provided lunches for the student muralists. In Southtown, Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum served as host to the mural team as they painted the mural that would be mounted piece by piece to the wall of the underpass.

“They focused their program on (Vortex) and contributed quite a bit,” Mireles said.

Another team effort was the funding portion. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded San Anto a $10,000 matching grant. That meant that another $10,000 had to come from somewhere else. District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, Public Art San Antonio, and the Department for Culture and Creative Development all pitched in to meet the goal.

Finally, it came to installation. City of San Antonio Public Works and Graffiti Abatement supported the team from San Anto Cultural Arts, and groups came from around the city to help paint and install the mural. Haven for Hope, Martinez Street Women’s Center, Bexar Country Juvenile Probation Center, Texas Juvenile Justice Department, and the San Antonio Library Teen Services Department all came out in the heat of August to help.

One member of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association was particularly involved.  From the moment artist Michele Jacob heard that San Anto Cultural Arts had their eye on District 2, she’s been thinking big.

“Walkability is important to our neighborhood and public art improves our experience. This beautiful piece of art deters graffiti, ameliorates the public sidewalk and encourages more pedestrians to utilize this walk while creating a sense of place,” Jacob said.

Jacob has been active in every phase of the project, all the while thinking about how to keep the momentum.

Alex Rubio and mural contributors lay hands on the mural to bless it's future in the community.
Alex Rubio and mural contributors lay hands on the mural to bless it’s future in the community.

“The response from neighbors, cyclists, children and motorists driving by has been incredibly positive… Next step would be to get a bike lane and B-cycle station near the Hays street bridge creating safer routes for children, commuters and visitors,” said Jacob.

The blessing ceremony reflected those hopes, as Rev. Kevin P. Fausz, who blessed the mural, encouraged those in attendance to place their hands on the mural as a sign of blessing on it’s future in the community.

Just like San Anto Cultural Arts believes in the importance of what comes before the finished project, Jacob and her neighbors have high hopes in what will come after.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.