Ana Fernandez, Main Plaza, 2018, oil on panel, 24 x 12 inches. Image courtesy the artist.
Ana Fernandez planned to major in history before the smells emanating from art classes at the University of Texas at San Antonio drew her in a different direction. Alongside her painting practice documenting the city’s urban landscapes, she now operates a historically rooted food truck, doling out recipes from San Antonio’s 19th century “chili queens.” The truck also offers the Mexican shaved ice concoction known as chamoyada, its origins in Chinese culture.
With her interest in the past, Fernandez seems like the perfect choice for an art show celebrating San Antonio’s tricentennial. The sweeping Common Currents exhibition, on view across six institutions on various dates through May 7, includes her oil painting representing 1849. It’s a study of present-day Main Plaza, inspired by William G.M. Samuel’s depiction of the plaza that year. Like Fernandez, the other 299 artists were assigned a year to build a new work around. But the most ingenious part of Common Currents is how the participants were selected: by each other. “It’s a very organic way to put the show together,” Fernandez says.
To get the ball rolling, Artpace, Carver Community Art Center, the Mexican Cultural Institute, Blue Star Contemporary, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the Southwest School of Art picked two “anchor artists” apiece. Those artists then each picked two others who picked two others and so forth, creating an exponential spiral. “It was just one of those big, audacious ‘let’s try this’ things,” says Mark Williams, communications director at the Southwest School of Art, where the concept was conceived. “There’s a certain amount of healthy discomfort to it. Our exhibitions are usually planned out months and years in advance, and they’re curated. A lot of the folks selected we don’t know. It’s kind of groundbreaking.”
The idea was developed by Mary Mikel Stump, the Southwest School of Art’s former exhibitions director, and Blue Star Contemporary executive director Mary Heathcott, according to Williams. They decided to give each organization a 50-year period of San Antonio history to cover. The artists were distributed to achieve a balance of mediums at every location, so many who were selected through the process at one place wound up at another. The openings began in January at Artpace (1718-1767), followed in February by Blue Star Contemporary (1768-1817) and the Southwest School of Art (1818-1867). The last three exhibits open in March, but there’s still time to see the whole thing as all but one will remain up through at least late April. “You could do a chronological walk through history over a weekend,” Williams says.
All of the openings so far have drawn record crowds, including more than 800 attendees at Blue Star Contemporary. Williams and Fernandez credit the cross-pollination of audiences who are following their favorite artists to spaces where they’re normally not seen. Fernandez’s painting ended up at the Southwest School of Art, where she used to teach and one of the places she has parked her food truck. The school itself is a piece of San Antonio history, the downtown grounds and original buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site opened in 1851 as the Ursuline Convent and Academy, the first girls school in San Antonio. “People would say the classrooms were haunted,” Fernandez recalls. “It feels very isolated, like you’re in the country, but you’re not. It’s perfect because you’re downtown and close to everything.”
In 1971, Southwest School of Art moved in, saving it from the threat of developers. Initially offering community art classes, the school grew into the only independent art college in the state when it started an accredited BFA program in 2013. It offers ceramics, drawing and painting, metals, photography, printmaking, and sculpture and integrated media. The first class graduates this year. “We have been instrumental in helping grow the arts here in the city,” Williams says. Fernandez adds, “It provides another option for people in this region and at the same time brings in people from other places to have that exchange that enriches the art community here.”
Her research on 1849 turned up the first photograph of the Alamo, but it wasn’t a subject that interested her, she says. She didn’t know about the cholera epidemic that killed 500 and settled on updating Samuel’s painting, “West Side Main Plaza, San Antonio, Texas 1849,” which was on display for decades at the Witte Museum and depicts a Wild West array of people, animals and conveyances in a square adjacent to San Fernando Cathedral. Her painting shows Main Plaza in its current form as a bustling business center, complete with food trucks, her nod to the chili queens who invented Tex-Mex back in the day. “A slice of life,” she says.
The native of Corpus Christi relocated to San Antonio with her family as a teenager. With degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of California at Los Angeles, she’s become known for her duskily lit watercolors of San Antonio homes and businesses, their occupants’ sentiments often displayed on the outside of the buildings. “There is a darkness, but it’s not something that I try to do,” she says. “It comes out like handwriting. The painters that I really like are El Greco and Velasquez. There’s a cinematic quality to my work because I feel like I’m painting the background of things. There are dramas that take place in people’s lives, simple things like picking up the mail. But then there’s the backdrop of the city.”
The artists that Fernandez picked for the Common Currents exhibition reflect the scope of the project, which she calls a challenge because the pieces had to be about San Antonio and cover a particular year. “I tried to pick people who I thought were strong conceptually, that could put their own spin on it,” she says.
Kristin @browngirlpop is a multimedia installation artist who belonged to the now defunct Chicana art collective Más Rudas. Fernandez knew her work from performances centered around identity politics and body image (her video piece for Common Currents is titled #DancingDevil #LadiesNight). She remembers collective members costumed like altars to comment on the commodification of Mexican culture. She started her food truck for similar reasons: to combat claims that the phenomenon was something new and different and “gourmet,” as if the Mexican food that had been sold on the streets for generations didn’t measure up. “I feel like I’m reclaiming my cultural and culinary heritage,” she says.
Her other selection was Linda Arredondo, a Yale graduate who paints colorful multimedia portraits with dark undertones. “They came to mind immediately,” Fernandez says. “The art community in San Antonio is very tight, so most of my friends are artists. These two women in particular happen to be friends of mine. We stick together, hang out. All the painters stick together.”