First in a two-part series on the new H-E-B South Flores Market.
When the doors open to H-E-B’s South Flores Market on the morning of Dec. 2, the first 500 customers will be given a canvas shopping bag featuring a Chuck Ramirez image from his Euro Bag Series 2009. Such a keepsake remembrance of the much-loved and missed Southtown artist likely will draw a certain neighborhood crowd normally not found at a Wednesday 7 a.m. opening.
Inside the much-anticipated downtown grocery store located at the corner of South Flores Street and César Chávez Boulevard, shoppers will find a more lasting tribute to the artist and his work. Four large prints from Ramirez’s Broom Series 2007 will hang above eye level on a back brick wall visible from most vantage points in the 12,000 sq. ft. building.
Ramirez died five years ago this week on First Friday while riding his bike home along South St. Mary’s and Stieren Streets, suffering severe head trauma after pitching over his handlebars. He was 48 years old.
Many who have admired his work might not know that Ramirez worked for years as a graphics designer at the H-E-B Arsenal headquarters. He worked in the Own Brand department, designing and photographing packaging for Hill Country Fare and other H-E-B manufactured products. Friends say he took pride in how his commercial training informed his artistic work.
Dya Campos, H-E-B’s director of public affairs, said company leaders knew they wanted to make public art done by a local artist part of the store, but it wasn’t until the independent documentary film makers Angela and Mark Walley approached H-E-B about Ramirez’s work there that they realized they could memorialize the neighborhood artist’s work with an installation. The Walleys are producing a deeply researched documentary about Ramirez titled “Tía Chuck” that not only explores his life as an independent artist, but also his earlier years working as a graphics designer at H-E-B.
“We knew we wanted to work with an artist for the opening, but we didn’t know who, and then the Walleys called to talk to us about Chuck’s work here and we knew immediately it would be a perfect fit for the South Flores Market,” Campos said.
This is not the first time H-E-B has made public art part of a store opening. A painted tile mural by landscape painter M’Lou Flato, who now lives in Austin, is installed on the exterior facade of Central Market on Broadway, one of seven Central Market installations she completed between 1997 and 2001.
More recently, artist Vincent Valdez’s “Recuerdo,” an after-dark video projection of images taken from Super 8 films passed down by family members, greeted shoppers at the reincarnated H-E-B on Nogalitos in February. Valdez grew up in the neighborhood, and worked as a sign painter in the area, and for a time, at H-E-B.
“People who know Chuck’s work know how influential his time at H-E-B was, how slick and graphic his work was,” Angela Walley said. “There are a lot of connections. One is Bean and Cheese, a 2002 exhibition he had at ArtPace. At a lecture he gave back then he talked about how he worked in advertising during the day and how he turned that into something that inspired his artmaking.”
The ArtPace website recalls Ramirez’s time as the Texas representative of the International Artist-in-Residence program:
“For his ArtPace residency, Ramirez used a commercial studio to produce 17 large-scale photographs of items referencing food. The first series of 12 images consisted of images of raw meat – a whole chicken, sausage links, a beef steak – laid bare on the artist’s signature sterile white background. Two photographs featured empty candy trays that represented unattainable fulfillment and desire. He also displayed two full-frame images of fruit cocktail and green peas. Taken straight from the can, these fruits and vegetables are magnified to epic proportions; the mixed fruit recalling the complexities of multicultural mixing, and the peas signifying the sameness of humankind. A final image of a plastic cup from a fast food restaurant bears the epitaph, ‘When I am empty, please dispose of me properly,’ a somber parallel between life and consumption.”
Angela Walley: “The documentary is going well. We essentially have our script in place, we have the whole storyline in place, we are just continuing to search for photos and other materials. We found a few things in Chuck’s personal archive, like a photo of him working behind the scenes in H-E-B’s Own Brand design department, developing packaging for the company’s Hill Country Fare products. It’s interesting to hear stories about how Chuck and a friend would go to H-E-B and he’d walk people around the store, discussing all the thought and creativity and design that went into product packaging.”
People interested in getting an advance look at the Ramirez works that will be displayed inside the South Flores Market are invited to attend a Special Reception and Art Preview sponsored by H-E-B at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum on Sunday, Nov. 15, 3-5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Ramirez was a longtime member of the Blue Star’s board of trustees.
“H-E-B approached us about collaborating to provide a preview opportunity for downtown neighbors, but it extends to everyone beyond downtown,” said Mary Heathcott, the Blue Star’s executive director. “H-E-B has been a long time supporter of Blue Star, and given Chuck’s long relationship with the Blue Star as an artist and board member, I jumped at the opportunity to say yes. We will have the four pieces that H-E-B is going to have on permanent display, but this also will be an opportunity for people to learn more about Chuck and his prominence in our community and beyond.”
Heathcott praised the San Antonio-based grocer for its commitments to the arts.
“I love that H-E-B is including art in its stores, and I am hopeful that it becomes a signature element in their stores,” she said. “Charles Butt is an avid supporter of the arts in our community and we’ve been fortunate to have H-E-B support our educational programs throughout our 30-year history. I wish that kind of excellent thinking would be replicated across the community whenever a corporation unveils a new space.”
The continuing sale of Ramirez’s work benefits his surviving family members. His estate is represented by Ruiz-Healy Art. Individuals interested in acquiring a Chuck Ramirez work can click here. All of his editions were small and intentionally limited, and only a finite number of large works remain to be printed.
“It’s been a fantastic experience and honor to represent his work, and when H-E-B contacted me to talk about the company’s ideas for the South Flores Market, it was a very emotional moment knowing he was going to be honored in his own neighborhood,” said Patricia Ruiz-Healy, the company’s founder and director. “We were working with Chuck before he died, and after the unfortunate accident his family asked me to represent his work. I’ve been able to place his work in the collections of the Smithsonian and other museums around the world. The McNay Art Museum is going to organize a major exhibition that most likely will travel to other museums, and they are going to publish a book about Chuck and his work, all in May 2017.”
Ruiz-Healy said Ramirez would be pleased to see a continuing connection between his artistic work and his longtime employer.
“I was especially touched when H-E-B called because this is not just the next H-E-B somewhere, this is the South Flores Market in Southtown, and Chuck was very involved in the development of the artistic community in that part of town,” Ruiz-Healy said. “He would be very happy, and he’d be very happy with the reusable bag H-E-B is giving out.”
Editor’s note: Angela and Mark Walley are self-funded film makers who live and work in San Antonio. Readers interested in making a contribution to the production of Tía Chuck, which should be completed next year, can click here to make an online donation.
*Top image: A rendering of H-E-B’s South Flores Market. Courtesy image.