Life in the studios at South Flores and Lone Star

Founded almost 20 years ago when artists Andy Benavides and Alberto Mijangos bought an old, dilapidated building at 1906 South Flores, just south of what we now call Southtown, the art district that has grown around the original creative outpost has ebbed and flowed over the years. But as talk of dissatisfaction over the increasing gentrification of the Blue Star Arts Complex and the commercialization of First Friday — now focused on the bar scene — grows louder, interest in the collection of artist-run spaces is rising.

A micro-distillery, Dorćol Distilling Company, first attracted to the area by the crowds during Second Saturday last fall, is now finishing off new construction on East Lachapelle Street; owner-distillers Chris Mobley and Boyan Kalušević say they hope to start production in the next few months. This March, the City’s Department of Planning & Community Development published a master plan for the Lone Star Community within which the art district is located, with ambitions to develop the neighborhood into an arts and entertainment district.

Expectations for the area, variously referred to as the South Flores or Lone Star Art District, are high at the moment, and each Second Saturday presents a host of art options. The 1906 building contains five art galleries; Bill FitzGibbons’ sculpture studio at 107 Lone Star becomes a pop-up gallery run by the Lullwood Group, an artist collective, and across the street, a bungalow named the Flop House opens its doors. On the west side of South Flores, Gallista Gallery, the second oldest art space in the area, and site of 10 artists’ studios, is at full capacity, and has added two galleries. Across the train tracks to the north on Lachapelle, Alex Rubio and Roland “Nightrocker” Fuentes stage a new art show every month at R Gallery. Adding to Second Saturday action, the SoFlo Market, a pop-up presenting handmade art and a farmers market, is open during daytime hours at 1344 South Flores prior to the night’s event.

Born and raised in San Antonio, Benavides says it all began when he teamed up with fellow artist Mijangos, who then had his studio at 1906 South Flores, to buy the building. Benavides’ frame shop, now in the 1906 building where he lives with his wife Yvette and son Augusto, was located on South Alamo for several years during the 1990s.

During that time, Benavides, along with the owners of other art-focused businesses that once populated South Alamo Street, was instrumental in starting the First Friday art walk. But, he told the Current, as the King William neighborhood saw a surge of revitalization, rents went up. Mijangos discovered that there was an opportunity to purchase the 1906 building, and suggested the move to Benavides, who, as the owner of two businesses, had access to bank loans. “We signed the agreement, literally, with a handshake in the parking lot,”he said, “and decided that somehow, we’d get our checks in every month.”

Benavides recalled, “This was a very dilapidated property, all overgrown with trees, and a homeless guy, Felix. It was his home prior to ours.”

He continuesd, “It’s funny, it’s been a very organic process... There never was any business plan, or model, to base what we were doing on. Just a day at a time, utilizing what we had for space.” His frame shop, Benavides Picture Framing, had a nice storefront and his design company had space to do projects. Mijangos had his studio, where he taught classes. “We built it a room at a time — now it’s a climate-controlled building. Back then, it wasn’t. Up until two years ago, we had a roof that was constantly in need of repair. It’s interesting — now I can reflect on 20 years, and identify the stepping-stones that led us here, and how it was meant to be. It’s crazy.”

After Mijangos passed away in 2007, Benavides purchased the rest of the building from Mijangos’ wife, Benavides relates, “In the interest of keeping his legacy alive, and keeping this an art compound.” Business continued, more or less, as usual.

Not all trends have been for growth. Once a source of employment for the neighborhood, the design shop downsized a few years ago. The One9Zero6 Gallery, for 16 years the hub of the complex, is now cluttered storage space, though Benavides has plans to revive it, possibly by year’s end. “We already have a model built,” he says. But 1906 isn’t just Benavides and family. On Second Saturday, five other studios open to the public.

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Justin Parr and Ed Saavedra co-own Fl!ght Gallery, at 10 years old, the oldest art space in 1906. He first visited the complex when he was 11-years-old. Benavides remembers that Parr told him then, “Someday I’ll have an art show here.” When, at age 21, Parr exhibited at 1906 as their first off-site artist, Benavides recalls Parr telling him, “I was the kid who said I would have an art show here.”

Known for taking chances, Parr and Saavedra operate Fl!ght Gallery loosely, choosing artists rather than curating shows directly. One month, an artist may transform the space into an installation, followed the next month by a collection of photographs or paintings. On occasion, they turn over curation duties; Tommy Gregory, project coordinator at Houston Arts Alliance, has chosen artists for four shows, including one opening May 11. Parr and Saavedra are both established artists; Parr is known for his conceptual art-based photography and sumptuous glasswork, while Saavedra, who has exhibited internationally, focuses on paintings, and is preparing for an upcoming show in Detroit. Along with works by alumni of the gallery, Parr’s blown glass pieces can be purchased from a topsy-turvy collection that fills Fl!ght’s back room walls.

Gravelmouth, first runner-up in this year’s Current award for Best Gallery, is run by David “Shek” Vega at 1906, and is also the artist’s studio and home. Vega started off as a street artist, and though he now works primarily on canvas or commissioned walls, still imbues his work with urban grit. Many of the artists he presents do the same. “The street artwork, I tend to put that in the forefront, because for me, it was so hard to be taken seriously with that title and the bad taboo that goes along with it,” Vega told the Current. But some collectors are attracted to notoriety. “I would look through Andy’s frame shop and see a lot of work that was getting framed here in San Antonio was by LA artists, New York artists. [Collectors] were going somewhere else to look for this type of work, and bringing it back home here. I thought, ‘why isn’t it happening here?’” While he presented local artists in the beginning, Vega now exhibits work by out of town artists, too, such as Carlos Donjuan, a Dallas painter who received his MFA at University of Texas at San Antonio, recently featured in the pages of Juxtapoz magazine, the urban art bible. Though he lives and works at the 1906 building, spending so much time there that, says Vega, “I feel like a ghost sometimes, because I’m always haunting this building,” he still retains a day job working with his family at Tex Cap Wholesale. Located on the South Side, the firm sells, says Vega, “toys and novelties, all the light-up stuff at Fiesta.” It doesn’t hurt his cred. “Being a heavy part of street culture here in SA, from street vendors to street art,” Vega has a life that is “street everything, it seems.”

Vega started off in the space now occupied by Silkwörm Studio and Gallery, run by Joe de la Cruz. While Vega has branched out, Silkwörm concentrates on local artists. Sometimes there’s a heavy urban vibe; the long, narrow room has seen tattoo-based shows and body painting. If there is any continuity, it’s that the art is by younger artists with a hunger to put their work out there.

In the back of 1906 is a new gallery, AP Projects, run by Amanda Poplawsky. Perhaps showing the work least likely to sell of all the galleries, the project space recently featured a tribute to scientist Carl Sagan.

Located on the right as you enter the 1906 is another new gallery, SoPac Studio, a collaborative work and exhibition space run by artists Jessica Ramirez and Jonathan Sims that opened in March. Specializing in works on paper and canvas, SoPac recently featured abstract paintings by Timothy Lai.

* * *

Across the street from the 1906 building at 1913 South Flores, Joe Lopez has been running Gallista Gallery, second runner-up for Best Art Gallery in this year’s Current readers’ poll, since 2000. Gallista is a haven for Latino art, with a reputation that goes well beyond city limits. “We mainly feature Chicano and Chicana artists,” Lopez explains. “My goal, when I started, was to show people that we had class, and by we I mean Mexican Americans. I grew up in simpler times, we were looked down on, and I just wanted to show people we had class, too. I think we’ve done that.”

With collectors like Cheech Marin keeping track of the gallery, Lopez has more than proved that local Latino artists have validity. But when he started off, Lopez, an artist in his own right, wasn’t sure how he would get by, which led him to setting up studios for rent in his sprawling building. A café was added, open on and off over the years under different management. With the ups and downs of the economy, just two years ago Lopez was looking to unload the building so he could devote himself fulltime to his art. The latest incarnation, managed by Yolanda Arevalo, seems to be succeeding, though.

“Now we have a little restaurant, we’ve had others, but this one seems to work — the prices are reasonable,” said Lopez. His wife, Mary Francis, has helped over the years, and Lopez also has help from Jose Cosme, a young Chicano artist who has exhibited at Gallista and says that only Lopez could run the honored gallery. Referring to the time when he it was for sale, Cosme said, “Gallista with out Joe wouldn’t be Gallista.”

Now, the studio rentals are at full capacity, and Lopez is looking to expand the café to a full kitchen and stay awhile. Part of the new changes at Gallista includes two new galleries, Lady Base Gallery and Third Space.

When Luis Valderas, an artist who now teaches art at Northside ISD’s Clark high school first left his home in the Rio Grande Valley for San Antonio in 2000, he set up his studio space at Gallista, and stayed till 2005. He returned to the complex in 2011, and opened Third Space Gallery with his wife, Kim Bishop; also an artist and art teacher, she heads the art program at Brackenridge high school.

“We’re at Gallista in the complex,” says Valderas, “so we try to make sure our exhibits reach to what’s happening at Gallista Gallery and Lady Base. There is a huge amount of energy happening at Gallista now. It’s gone through these phases, but I think we are at a point where it will continue to grow, and be an integral part of the Lone Star Arts District.” During last month’s opening of work by Seguin artist Howard Crunk, “We had practicing artists coming by to see what’s happening,” says Valderas. “We get to see our peers.” The fourth artist to exhibit in Third Space’s ongoing series, Valderas will present new work this Second Saturday, May 11.

Sarah Castillo moved her studio to Gallista in November, and staged her inaugural show at Lady Base Gallery in March. A narrow space, she partitions her studio for exhibitions, which are focused uniquely on women artists and creatives of the LGBT community. “There are no restrictions on the kind of work shown,” Castillo told the Current. She found the local and Texas-based artists in an open call in the beginning of the year. A member of the Chicana arts collective Más Rudas, Castillo said she wanted to create an opportunity that might not be there otherwise. “The bonds, what I have learned and created in that environment working with these women, is very important to me as an artist,” Castillo said. “I don’t identify with the LGBT community, but I have a lot of friends that do. Particularly, there was one artist that I was interested in having him show his work here, and that was the basis for opening up only to these artists.” Of the artists scheduled to show this year at Lady Base, many have had difficulties exhibiting elsewhere; one has not shown in public for 10 years.

* * *

Until last year, the exhibition space at 107 Lone Star was called LoneStar Gallery, and was run by Sean FitzGibbons, son of Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum executive director Bill FitzGibbons, whose cavernous sculpture studio carved out a once-a-month niche in front for show space. Sean left town for graduate school, and took the name with him. Now named 107 Gallery, the pop-up space is managed by the Lullwood Group, comprised of Emily Baker, Chris Castillo, Esteban Delgado, Joseph Duarte, Joe Harjo, Julie Ledet, Clay McClure, Willie Sanchez, and Connie Swann. Dedicated to “encouraging participation,” the group staged a rare exhibition of their own work during this year’s Luminaria where, to the delight of visitors, they filled a room of the Instituto Cultural de México with balloons and lights. Though several of the shows they have staged since taking over the 107 space last June have been rather traditional, at least in the media presented — paintings and sculpture — their last show, featuring Austin performance artist Katelina Hernandez singing lullabies while wrapped in a pillow-filled dress that cascaded to offer comfort to nestled visitors, was exceptional. Next up, on May 11, is “The Devil’s Triangle,” presented by the Lullwood Group and Outlaw Printmakers.

Next door to 107 is Comminos Art Studio Gallery, managed since May 2012 by Alex and Ann Marie Comminos. A recent MFA art grad at UTSA, Alex Comminos curates the gallery, which often presents group shows, ranging from drawings and paintings to sculpture, and craft-based work. Like 107 Gallery, UTSA students and grads have exhibited here.

Across the street is the Flop House, run by Marc Smith at 118 Lone Star, the single house-based gallery in the district. Last Second Saturday, the house filled with paintings and drawings by local artists, while out front, a few vendors offered jewelry, beadwork, and assorted personal adornment. Most fetching were feathered headdresses made by Clare Garcia, “for your Fiesta sweetheart,” she said. Fiesta is over, but we think they would be appropriate wear for any festive event. If you need to get away from the Second Saturday crowds, this is the place. The inhabitants are gracious, willing to chat, and might even offer you a bite to eat, as they did us last month.

* * *

On the other side of the tracks on Lachapelle Street is R Gallery, winner of the Current’s Best Art Gallery this year, held by Alex Rubio and Roland “Nightrocker” Fuentes. The space also houses the living quarters of Rubio, named Best Art Curator by Current readers, a much-respected local artist and director of the MOSAIC art education programs at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum. Fuentes, owner of the San Pedro club Nightrocker Live, also makes his home there. Opened during Contemporary Art Month 2011 with the annual “Nuevo Generatión” exhibition that Rubio pioneered at the defunct LoneStar Gallery, Rubio has been slamming it out, mounting new shows every month since at R Gallery. Asked how he makes his choices for exhibition, he responded, “Being a working artist helped. But keeping an eye out for emerging artists is important. We need artist-run alternative spaces for the introduction of these artists, so they can get a foot in the door.” “Print It Up,” R Gallery’s upcoming show opening May 11, will feature up and coming artists curated by master printmaker Juan de Dios Mora.*

The two friends arrived in the art district by chance, and with some help from Andy Benavides, who referred them to the property, which had sat empty for two years.

“Nightrocker was looking for a place to live, and I was living at the Blue Star, already thinking of moving out because of the rent increases,” Rubio explained to the Current. “We pretty much stumbled across this little gem in the neighborhood, and were able to find affordable rent in an arts district.” The spacious quarters also house a studio, in addition to living space, and R Gallery.

Asked how they could afford such a commodious space, Rubio responded, “The landlord’s a businessman. But he appreciates artists moving into his neighborhood. He’s seen what Andy, and all the galleries in the neighborhood, has done for the neighborhood. He’s helping out by keeping the rent low, and supporting emerging art and working artists. That was his explanation to us.”

* * *

Back at 1906, Yvette Benavides works in their garden next to the train tracks, while her son Augusto plays with one of their five dogs. Andy spoke about his work with S.M.A.R.T., a nonprofit dedicated to raising consciousness in the city about the importance of art in building community. The organization, which has sponsored art shows during Contemporary Art Month, utilizes the 1906 building as a sort of campus, inviting students to visit to get a close-up view of the artist’s life, and hosts art competitions in local schools. “Maybe,” he says, “the interest in the competitions will convince the school districts to hire more art teachers again.” He’s happy with his family’s life, but muses on his next move. It won’t be out of the building.

“Beyond being a visual artist, I think now I am interested in how I can use a city and people as my palette,” Benavides says. “How can I use energy that creates things like this? Now there’s all this energy, and it’s all because 20 years ago I staked my claim, put my flag here. For an artist, to work where I live, live where I work — this is heaven.”

*The original text incorrectly stated that work by Brackenridge High School students will be featured next at R Gallery. The student show, curated by Kim Bishop, will open May 11 at Gallista Gallery.

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