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From COVID-19 to La Zona: Centro San Antonio and Art Everywhere's ambitious agenda

Looking down into La Zona's courtyard
Jack Morgan
Looking down into La Zona's courtyard

It was over 90 degrees and sweltering on Tuesday evening when Centro San Antonio threw itself a party, turning La Zona into an art gallery.

To do so, they hung 170 photos or paintings of the public art the Art Everywhere project has sponsored downtown over the last four years.

The evening began with drinks and snacks and a heartfelt poem written for the occasion by the city’s former poet laureate Andrea Vocab Sanderson:

Andrea Vocab Sanderson
Courtesy photo
Alejandra Sol Casas
Andrea Vocab Sanderson

Thank you and happy birthday to Centro San Antonio Art Everywhere project.

Your vision for our home...is a true manifestation of your generosity

and a blessing indeed.

You give voice to our colors. As far as the eye can see!

crowd gathers in the La Zona courtyard
Jack Morgan
A crowd gathers in the La Zona courtyard

La Zona is at 337 West Commerce. It's an old storefront with brick and stone walls, 12-foot ceilings and concrete floors. On Monday night, Centro San Antonio’s VP of Cultural Placemaking Andi Rodriguez reminded us of Centro’s purpose.

“So much of our downtown is so vibrant, but there's still pockets of need. And if there's a way to celebrate artists and tell our stories, that's what we're out to do. Art Everywhere makes art happen,” Rodriguez added.

In the last four years, 170 pieces of public art have been conceived by artists and produced downtown through the program, which paid the artists for their creations. And they did so at a critical time.

“We began this program during the pandemic, and we put a mural out and we had such a positive response, we thought, 'we need to do this again,'” she said. “It was a way that our art community could tell their stories, express their grief and joy, sadness, hope.”

Four years ago, downtown streets were nearly vacant. It was a pre-vaccine time, and most everyone was hunkering down at home, afraid to go out. Trish DeBerry is Centro San Antonio’s CEO.

“It was created during COVID as a way to be able to inspire some energy and some beauty within the urban core. And so four years ago when we started the program, it took like three or four conversations to talk a building owner into putting art of this scale onto the side of their building,” DeBerry said. “Now we have people clamoring to try to get art on the side of their building, so that tells you how far we've come in four years.”

DeBerry said that even though public art is there for all to see, each person sees it with different eyes.

“What it means to me and may not mean the same thing to the person I'm standing next to, but that storytelling opportunity associated with whether it touches me in a very powerful way that makes me cry, or it lights up my face and makes me smile. That is the beauty of public art,” she said.

Artist Raisa Melendez Tardi was given the responsibility of doing a mural on the side of Travis Park Church.

“I was given the opportunity to paint this 30-by- 20-foot-tall mural, something I'd never done before in my life, and to be trusted with a historical church and its wall, and to interpret my idea of what equality is, was a miracle.” Melendez Tardi said.

She had just graduated college when given the mural.

“It's one of my proudest achievements. And I look back to remind myself because of that mural, I can achieve anything, even things I haven't even thought of yet,” she said.

After her success with the mural, she’s made the transition to being a full-time artist. Rudy Herrera was one of this first wave of muralists as well, and he created a huge mural on the back of the Kress Building.

“It's about 72-by-90 feet. Four or five stories, I believe,” Herrera said. “To date, it's the biggest mural I've ever painted.”

Painting any mural is tough work but creating this mural at the full extent of a hydraulic lift for this particular artist was tougher still.

“I'm afraid of heights! And that was a labor, you know what I mean? That was a labor!” he said.

Andi Rodriguez said the program put artists to work at a time when their income was zeroed out by the pandemic. But it also may have helped downtown recover over time as well.

“Art Everywhere exists to give artists opportunity to get paid commission because there's great dignity when you're paid for your work,” Rodriguez said. “And art is valuable. You start to see value when you're surrounded by something, you start to understand it and embrace it.”

Andi Rodriguez
Jack Morgan
Andi Rodriguez

Sanderson was one of the first Art Everywhere artists, doing a massive on-asphalt poem encircling the entire Travis Park downtown.

“People need to ask themselves ‘What would society look like without art? What would it be?’ It is a reflection of us, and we are a reflection of it, and like in my poem I read, it's more than a cause for conversation. It should make pride well up in our heart because this speaks to who we are, and it's something that everyone can take pride in when they walk down the street and see the art on the walls, on the buildings, on the storefronts,” she said.

Sanderson said Art Everywhere stepped up when no one else could.

“Economically it empowers artists, because from 2020 to now was a rough season of artists trying to figure out how they were going to pay their bills, how they were going to put food on the table,” Sanderson said. “And Centro San Antonio was writing the checks, giving the resources so that artists could do that.”

Rodriguez notes their fourth year in operation doesn’t mean Art Everywhere is done.

“There's the artist-run exhibition every month. This particular exhibition is focusing on our four-year anniversary,” she said. “But next month there will be an artist-run exhibition. It's going to be in support of Pride Month.”

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii