Their story is often told in the local arts scene, details of it sometimes slipping into the territory of urban legend. It was 20 years ago last week that a 19-year-old Alex Rubio took 10-year-old Vincent Valdez under his wing, after naming Valdez the winner of an
elementary-school poster contest. The prize: an opportunity to participate in an inner-city mural program for the Esperanza Peace and Justice
Center with which Rubio was already involved.
Rubio gave Valdez his first lessons in painting while working on a peace-themed mural that still stands, in vibrant color, to this day. Over the next several years, the two young artists deepened their mentor-student relationship as they worked on other public art projects around town.
Today, the artwork of Rubio and Valdez is not only visible in our city’s murals — it has traveled to Paris, New York, New Zealand, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. It hangs on the walls of prestigious galleries and museums, and in the homes of big-name collectors.
Although they have influenced and inspired one another with their art for most of their lives, until now they have never had an extensive art show together. Presented by the Museo Alameda, the exhibit San Anto: Pride of the Southside / En El Mero Hueso focuses on the working relationship Valdez and Rubio have enjoyed for so long.
The Current caught up with the artists a week before opening night, at their fourth-floor studios above the old Alameda theater downtown.
Tell me more about the day you two met.
Vincent Valdez: I’ll never forget when I first met Alex. He had long hair, a bandana real low, a hanging cigarette, tattoos, and sunglasses even though it was December time. I was a really quiet kid, so I kind of freaked out when I saw him.
I really wanted to impress him, and I showed him this little folder with all my notebook drawings. He said, “OK, I’m willing to give you your own chunk of wall. Let’s see what you can do.”
I had never painted before, and he made it look so easy. He showed me how to do a little bit of blending, and then he left me alone. I whipped it out, and he said, “OK, that’s good.” And then he gave me another piece of wall. That was it. Then I opened up and started talking to him. And the rest is history.
Alex Rubio: After that I would call his mom and ask if Vince could participate in other projects, after school or on weekends. We were always working on something. We would take breaks and go downtown, where we’d sit around and draw from life. We’d draw nature studies at the
Botanical Garden. It was fun.
What made you take interest in a kid like
AR: I started making art at 13, doing tattoo designs in the neighborhood. That led me to large-scale drawings on the housing-project walls with a can of black spray paint. Eventually the Community Cultural Arts program came through, saw the drawings, and started asking around the neighborhood until they finally caught up with me. That opportunity came to me, and I just wanted to pass it on. I knew Vince was naturally talented, and I thought this was a good way for him to get
VV: I would also do dirty work like washing the brushes and mixing colors. Now I look back at all that free child labor (laughs). But I was just so honored to work with this guy. He would show me how to paint and techniques on drawing. It took a while until he let me on the scaffolding, then onto the second level of the scaffolding. I really loved it.
What else can viewers expect to see in the show?
VV: One thing that is going to be super-
evident is this influence that we’ve had on each other, as individuals and as working artists. It’s going to be really interesting to see how this work relates to each other and how it differs.
We’ve included text and historical facts about where we’re from, who we are, and what we’ve done together and on our own. There’s also a visual timeline of photographs, some of them a little embarrassing. You see us growing up, the last 20 years of our life together, working on scaffolds and in the studio.
All of my works are meant to be some sort of self-portrait, always an extension of me. They are my stories. They’re who I am and where I’m from, who my family is, what I’m concerned with in the world.
About 90 percent of my part is new work, fresh off the easel. They’re technically very different, with more experimentation, and the most detailed stuff that I’ve done to date. I think it’s the prime of my painting career so far.
AR: I’m including a lot of early works, but also quite a few new paintings that I did especially for this show. They’re mostly customized views of the West Side – actual events and environments, but stylized and somewhat exaggerated. You’re gonna see a lot of familia, a lot of places that you’ll recognize. It’s all about growing up in San Antonio, so anybody from any side of town can relate to it.
My paintings are hard copies of my memories and experiences growing up, reminding me of the good times, of youth, and being secure where you are. I’m hoping that those feelings are preserved in the works so that people can relate to them. I want them to walk away telling their own stories and re-living their memories growing up in their own neighborhood.
Alex, you’ve always served the local community as an artist-mentor with several non-profit organizations. What is it about the barrio that keeps you coming back?
AR: That’s my life, my memories. The West Side is and always will be my barrio, no matter where I live. I grew up with this old school Chicano slang, hearing, “Hey, you’re from the West Side. You come from deep within the bone, en el mero hueso de San Anto.” I always want to preserve that history in my art, so I thought it would be a great title for my part.
For me, it’s always been about that community, collaborating with people, working with students, being a good teacher and mentor, and a good friend to people who drop in on our mural works. I think that’s what’s kept me honest.
Vince, you’ve been living part-time in LA for two years now. How do you maintain your San Anto roots?
VV: Whenever I leave home, that’s when it becomes most clear to me, when it’s so easy for me to figure out what it means to be from this place. It’s such a strange and unique place, such a small big city. It’ll always be home, no matter how far I go.
It will always be an important element in my work. This is who I am. This is what I know. This is what I love to paint. I can see these faces and these houses and these sunsets in these wide-open Texas skies. I don’t think I’ll ever, ever get tired of it. •
San Anto: Pride of the Southside /
En El Mero Hueso
Through March 23
Wed 10am-8pm (after 4pm free)
101 S. Santa Rosa
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.