I went to the latest reincarnation of the H-E-B on Nogalitos to see a special, temporary installation of Vincent Valdez’s art, but I didn’t find it right away. I parked my car and walked through the historic façade of the building. This is the relic of H-E-B’s first store in San Antonio, a 1945 art deco-style building that was 26,000 square feet. The new 62,000 square foot building is two stories, to accommodate for parking on the first level.
A small courtyard leads inside, where H-E-B employees stand at the base of the travelator, an innovative track that transports both people and shopping carts while recalling zany, space-age contraptions dreamed up on the Jetsons. I caught my first, very quick glimpse of Valdez’s art as I was riding up this magnetic escalator with other shoppers and our carts.
Our moving reflections danced in the glass of the two-story foyer, but, looking through the glass, I saw other moving pictures. Stolen moments from decades ago flashed along the back of the façade. It was still daylight, so the images were faded. But by the time I finished shopping, it was dusk, show time for Valdez’s collection of Super 8 films that he inherited from his grandfather and other family members.
Standing back outside in the courtyard, I watched the three different film loops play concurrently on the back of the façade, which features the original, curved entrance and pylon sign. Valdez’s installation, “Recuerdo,” is a poignant fit for this juxtaposition of nostalgia and futuristic shopping. The films, which date from 1947-1983, feature backyard parties, weddings, tamaladas, dressed-up babies and holidays.
“What’s really funny to point out is that each one of those Super 8 film reels is about 35 feet in length in film and each one equates to 3 minutes….that’s how archaic these things are,” said Valdez. “Aside from my own personal connection to this store and neighborhood, this is a really nice chance for the younger generation, like my younger niece and nephew, to get a glimpse of life was like before iPads and iPhones. It’s important history.”
“Recueurdos” revives both an obsolete technology and old memories.
“There are all these snippets of old San Antonio,” said Valdez. “I love the silent footage and the muted colors … they’re really beautiful antique films – just in terms of visual, the Super 8 mm (film format) has almost entirely disappeared now.”
While these archaic forms of media have been replaced with new technology, the old store has been replaced with company’s first multi-level store in Texas.
“I remember going there when I was 4 or 5 years old and it (H-E-B was) still connected to Winn’s, it was really the only store in the neighborhood, other than Handy Andy, and so my parents shopped there, all four of my grandparents shopped there, and my aunt and cousin still work there,” said Valdez. “I was really appreciative that H-E-B and the store’s architects and designers made the choice to keep the façade. It really is in many ways the way I sum up San Antonio, and especially that community, the Southside has always been this collision of the old and the new … they somehow coexist. I think that store relates and communicates that really well.”
Valdez uses his grandfather’s films as the anchor of the installation. Flanking his grandfather’s footage are Valdez’s mother’s family films, the Santanas, on the left side; and the right side belongs to his brother-in-law’s family, the Reinas.
“One of the things that struck me was … how much traditions haven’t changed in that community, it’s still very family-oriented,” Valdez said.
Valdez has also worked for H-E-B, long ago when he was 16. He got his first job there as a sign painter.
“My mom would drop me off … and I would go into my little office in the back freezer room where they had all the meats and produce and I had a little drafting table and I would sit there and draw all the signs out for the week like, ‘99 cents a Pound’ or ‘Buy One, Get One Free.’ It was a great job, I got to make my own schedule, I’d get paid well for it and it was like a really competitive thing, back in the day, between every store; every location had its own store sign artist,” Valdez recalled. “I would ask my mom if she could shop at the Military Drive store because that was like the king of all sign painters. I would study the signs while she would shop and try to figure out his font. It was a great craft to learn and practice your skills at and then I was replaced by a digital printer.”
Twenty years later, he has returned to the store as a well-renowned artist.
“We were so enamored with his history with the store and the community, that we thought collaborating with him to highlight his artwork at the store again would be a natural choice. In order to make it happen, we partnered with Blue Star to help carry out his vision,” said H-E-B’s Kimberly Harle.
Talks are in progress for a possible Phase II, permanent installation of Valdez’s work.
Valdez, who is now chair of Drawing and Painting at the Southwest School of Art, received his bachelor’s of fine arts from Rhode Island School of Design on a full scholarship. He is known for his haunting, hyper-real figurative drawings and paintings. But his first inspiration came from the older generations. He always loved to visit his grandfather, 92-year-old Arthur Valdez.
“He was at Kelly Air Force Base his entire life,” Valdez said. “He learned aircraft mechanics when he was in WWII. … When I’d go to his house it was like my first real gallery. Their tiny little casita was like an exhibition space because they still had all the paintings from my great grandfather, who was a really great painter who I never met. I was obsessed about walking through these little dark hallways … it was always like a treasure hunt.
“He was very strict with this stuff, like this archivist, extensive documenting his own life and the life of his family. So anytime he wasn’t looking, I’d try to open up his drawers and go through his closets. There were these amazing old photo books from when he was in WWII, photos of my great grandfather in his studio, and his actual paintings.”
Eventually, around ten years ago, his grandfather shared the films with Valdez, who got them transferred onto newer technology. His grandfather filmed from 1947-1960.
“They’re really amazing because you see the entire neighborhood, the clothes, the fashion, the cars, the houses, the way of life, these grand backyard parties for Easter or Christmas,” he said.
Valdez got to see his great uncle Ernest, at his wedding in 1950.
“He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, and he made it out, three years later. I’d always heard these stories about him, and to see him returning home, and get married, was a pretty nice thing to watch.”
Other “golden moments” in the films include summer vacations at the beach, backyard BBQ parties, and his grandmother, who passed away shortly before the films were first screened. “She makes so many appearances (in the films),” said Valdez. “The majority were in her home, where we always spent every holiday and Christmas and Mother’s day. So it was beautiful timing for my immediate family to see her.”
“Recuerdos” will be screened at the renovated H-E-B at 1601 Nogalitos St. for 30 days, until Feb. 15.
*Featured/top image: An art installation by Vincent Valdez lights up the interior of Nogalitos H-E-B facade. Photo by Wendy Weil Atwell.