The first day of autumn officially falls in September each year, but to me, the final days of October really herald the changing season. With the sun’s rays striking the earth at a shallower angle, the light softens and dapples the landscape with a honeyed glow. And for some reason, I think of new beginnings, friends and family members who have passed on, and the mysterious quickening of time.
Is it a coincidence that this pensive yet peaceful mood reveals itself as October morphs into November? Hank Lee, owner and curator of San Antonio’s 25-year-old San Angel Folk Art Gallery, assures me it’s not. “It’s the way the stars fall, the way the moon pulls on our brains,” says Hank.
Every year, Hank’s gallery and shop pays whimsical homage to those who have left this mortal coil as part of San Antonio’s citywide celebration of El Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a traditional holiday (November 1-2) that celebrates and honors the dead.
Descended from Aztec traditions and celebrated today throughout Mexico and Latin America, the holiday not only involves the lavish decoration of cemeteries, but also the building of colorful displays called ofrendas, which often feature photographs of deceased loved ones and examples of their favorite foods, music, and pastimes—all in an effort to entice them to cross the gossamer boundary between the heavens and earth and pay us a visit. At San Angel several decades ago, swept up in the romance of somehow chatting with my late father, I purchased a skeleton-shaped, trumpet-playing candleholder from the Mexican city of Metepec. Today, when I surround it with photos and things he enjoyed—candied peanuts, golf balls, a Ray Charles record, and a worn copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the figurine certainly reminds me of my dad, but above all, I’m reminded of the inevitability of change.
For the past quarter-century, from the catbird seat at his gallery at the Blue Star Arts Complex, Hank has witnessed the neighborhood morph from a hodgepodge of deserted industrial warehouses just south of downtown into an arts community that is once again on the cusp of new development. The complex’s anchor, the recently renamed Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, emerged in 1986 to host an exhibition of works by local artists. Over time, the warehouses evolved to incorporate galleries and artists’ studios, theater spaces, a brewery, and eventually, residences and a few shops.
But on a midday visit early this summer, the complex seemed sleepier than I had remembered. Yes, a few people picnicked at tables overlooking the tidied-up stretch of the San Antonio River that wends south to the missions. Curators were setting up a new show inside the museum, and the popular Blue Star Brewing Company was turning out craft beers and pulled-pork sandwiches for the lunch crowd. A new coffee shop and cocktail bar, Halcyon, had opened up, and across an alley from San Angel Folk Art, a wood-fired pizzeria called Stella Public House prepared to open for the evening. Bars such as Joe Blues and the speakeasy-style (no sign!) Bar 1919 seemed promising for later in the evening. But many of my favorite galleries had disappeared, and other longtime arts entities appeared shuttered. What was going on?
It turns out that the whole Southtown area—a neighborhood straddling the San Antonio River between downtown and the German-settled King William Historic District—may sport a whole new personality by the time fall 2014 rolls around. That’s because Blue Star owner James Lifshutz has set his sights on bringing new energy to the complex his father co-founded in 1986. And, in another move guaranteed to further re-imagine the area, Lifshutz recently broke ground on a new project called Big Tex, which will transform the nearby 7.5-acre Big Tex Grain site into a mixed-use development with apartments, shops, restaurants, and all the trimmings.
Within the vividly painted walls of San Angel Folk Art Gallery, surrounded by the imaginative works of more
than 35 national and international artists, I try to get a handle on this complicated and ever-evolving arts scene. Here are textiles from Guatemala, a “yardwood” crocodile from Dallas-area woodcarver Isaac Smith, ceramic dioramas by Oaxacan artist Demetrio Aguilar, geometric tin creatures by British metal artist Peter Grieve, and New Mexico artist Nicholas Herrera’s curious yet thought-provoking sculpture of Jesus being arrested for not carrying a Green Card. It’s an invigorating dive into sensory overload, much like the stories I’m hearing about Blue Star.
Time will tell; it always does. So when October rolls into November, I’ll pull out my trusty Mexican candleholder and light a flame in honor of embracing life’s twists and turns.