Picture it: San Antonio. 2016.
We had gathered at the San Pedro Playhouse to discuss a recent flub on the part of local contemporary art organizers who had forgotten to include any Latina (for lack of a better word) artists in their perennial all-women art show being held, incidentally, at a historic Chicano organization located in the heart, incidently, of a historically Chicano side of San Anto.
Latinas noticed. Latinas complained. Gatekeepers organized the meeting to quell criticism and discuss the problems, but they also forgot to include any Latinas on the panel.
I was there as a spectator mostly. I nursed my five-month-old daughter, potentially a future Chicana artist, under our nursing cover at the back of the playhouse with a notebook balanced on my knee.
Spoiler: nothing was resolved that evening, though there was some yelling and some major eye rolling.
At the end of the panel, a few community members spoke on the mic, and one woman in particular grabbed my attention.
She was young, she was calm, she told everyone her name was Isabel Ann Castro, and that she was tired of waiting. Her voice didn’t quaver when she announced that she, along with many of her contemporaries, were making things happen around town despite the aforementioned gatekeepers’ shortsightedness and snubs.
She mentioned Kayla Matta, who was opening up a gallery adjacent to her grandparents’ panaderia on the Eastside. I can't remember if she mentioned St. Sucia, but she singlehandedly gave me the bolt of hope that I needed that by the time my daughters were ready to show their work and make things happen, this new crop of thinkers and doers would have built upon the foundation of all those Chicana artists and activists who refused to wait for permission and invitations that would never arrive.
That, my friends, was the first time I glimpsed Isa. I immediately went home and followed her @queenoftacostx on Instagram, and I never looked back.
It’s been a pleasure to work with her, and I truly felt honored when she said YES to this Siempre Verde project. It's a pandemic, and things feel urgent, so I decided to ask her my questions and share her responses because I know some of y'all will feel that same spark I felt at the Playhouse all those years ago.
Isa's stories are overflowing with details, just like her artwork, and within her thoughtful responses she gifts us with backstory and inspo we need to keep making things happen in San Anto and beyond.
(Questions and responses edited lightly for maximum reading pleasure. You're welcome! )
Q: A lot of us struggle with imposter syndrome. Working class backgrounds
and capitalism in general don’t necessarily encourage artistic expression,
much less pursuing art as a way of life that can actually pay the bills. Do you
remember when you knew art was your calling? Can you tell us about your
path from private to public artist?
A: My mom encouraged my creative side since I was a kid. She was very thrifty about it too. When she bought panty hose she would give me the white cardstock rectangles from inside the packaging so I could draw on them. She bought supplies or kits on clearance, found barely used watercolors at the thrift and every once in a while bought something fancy like BlowPens from infomercials for my birthday. By 2nd grade I decided my life choices were A) Become a US Women’s Soccer player (and best friends with Mia Hamm) B) An actress on Saturday Night Live or C) an artist. She always had my sister and I in after school and summer programs to learn things from swimming to math/science academy (HISD) to mariachi to theater. She wanted us exposed as much as we could be on a budget and really built a foundation for my sister and I to be lifelong learners. I’m grateful for everything.
I did film and animation at Harlandale High School then went to Palo Alto College. PAC was great. It gave me time to grow up a bit and get my basic classes out of the way. I had some great teachers who didn’t fuck around just because they taught at a community college. I moved up to San Marcos in the summer of 2011 to attend the Communication Design program at Texas State University. That was where I started to really develop imposter syndrome. I got a lot to say about that whole experience but the main takeaways I had from that were:
I graduated and came back to San Antonio and wasn’t sure what I was gonna do. I felt kinda outta place. I did a little freelance work but we didn’t have wifi at my house and I was working on an old borrowed Macbook so I’d have to go sit for hours at Halcyon and the library.
My dad always supported whatever I was doing but freelance design was something it took him a while to understand. He immigrated from Mexico in the 80’s and worked since he was a kid. He got up early, went to a construction site everyday and got a physical paycheck at the end of two weeks. He built some buildings downtown and hospitals; the Sears at South Park Mall that just closed. I was still in college when he was in a car accident. Some guy ran the stop sign near our house and t-boned his side of the vehicle injuring his leg. He never worked again. Suddenly he was at home alone all the time. I think he just started feeling depressed about his life drastically changing and drinking earlier in the day.
It was nice to be home more to hang out with him. He’d see me drawing and ask if I was working. Sometimes he’d ask how much I was paid then suggest I go back to school to become a nurse or lawyer. I never took it personally. Sometimes I even considered it. I know those were respected professions that paid well and he knew what those people actually did. He’d show support by cutting up fruit for me, putting it in a container so when I’d leave to use the wifi elsewhere I’d have something to eat so I wouldn’t be buying “mugrero en la calle”. I know to him a job was something where you physically get up and leave the house for 8 hours, not just be on my phone (looking at reference material) and doodling in front of the TV (working on a logo). It’s all funny to me now.
Looking back I figured out his love language was cutting up fruit and giving to me. I’d be sitting in my room and he’d come in to give me pepinos or watermelon. It was his way of supporting me even if he didn’t understand what I was doing. I was looking to apply for design jobs when he got diagnosed with Cirrhosis and a few other health complications.
The doctor said he could live for 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years. It changed things. I needed steadier money. I needed something close to the house and air-conditioned. I got hired through a friend to work at BiblioTech. It’s four minutes from my house. I could go home to each lunch to check on my dad. I worked there about 3 years and ran the most successful youth programming.
In the meantime, started St. Sucia with Natasha Hernandez and started doing freelance again when I could. I put a lot into that job because it served the very community I live in. I liked the people I worked with and was able to get the time I needed to travel to zine fests.
About a year after my dad passed away, I left because the boss of my boss, a white woman, left me a shitty voicemail on my day off at 7:30am. It really burned me. Anytime big donors came to visit BiblioTech, she’d schedule it during my programming so they’d be impressed and donate. I worked really hard and for her to leave that chickenshit voicemail... I realized what I was worth to her and it wasn’t much.
That whole incident happened before I left for Mexico with my sister. We went to join our family there for Día de los Muertos and honor my father. That trip was incredible and healing for me. We grew a deeper relationship with our family, our grandfather and each other. I was laying on the bed while she was getting ready for dinner. I shared how I felt about returning to work. She just said, “Quit.” I wasn’t sure so she said, “Call mom right now. Tell her you wanna quit.” So I did and my mom was like “Yeah, do it.”
I quit with no real plan. About a month in, I was cramped in my room using my college desk to work on small projects for friends. I heard my mom moving furniture around the living room and came outta my room to see what she was doing. She told me to grab the end of the coffee table and as we were moving it outside she said, “Your dad is dead and he’d want me to support you with what we do have. No one even watches TV in the living room. Might as well be your studio.”
I’m so very fortunate to have support from my family and friends from the start. I started doing flyers for people sometimes for money, sometimes for lunch/dinner. I started making stickers, prints, mini zines, buttons. Planned Parenthood South Texas reached out because a friend put my name forward during artist suggestions. I did a flyer for an event, then another, little by little, project loads got a little bigger. That’s how it’s been. It’s been four years.
Imposter syndrome hasn’t left but I’ve learned how to deal with it quicker and get to work. In the beginning it was hard to deal with. I turned down a few contract design jobs that were offering steady income because I didn’t believe in myself to do well. There were a few months that I dreamt my teeth crumbling. Each time I did a project, the clients would tell how much they loved it and that would really fuel me for the next one. They trusted me, loved the work I did and built up my confidence. It still hits me from time to time when I’m doing something a little different.
But shit, the other day I was looking up jobs. Jobs doing whatever. I do that every couple of months even pre-COVID, I guess when things are slow and I panic. I got a friend who sends me jobs with the City of San Antonio he thinks I’m capable of doing. I appreciate people looking out for me like that. He supports my art of course but healthcare would be nice. I just applied to be a poll worker for the election. It’s short term but I know I gotta just refocus my energy back into my work and trust myself.
Covid really fucked things up for me. I relied on events and zine fests to sell my work but everything has been cancelled. I’ve done okay covering my ass with the work that is still coming in that allows me to stay home. I’ve been making it work with what I do have.
Q: You’re consistently booked and busy, aka blessed, with paid artistic
opportunities. How do you navigate your energy between commercial and personal endeavors?
A: I think the biggest project I’ve done has been with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Someone dropped my name and suddenly I was sending work over to people in Switzerland. Pretty rad. They never used the work I did but I still got paid for it.
Otherwise, everything else has been local. Local non-profits have kept me afloat these past couple years. Friends organizing events, markets, shows have me do posters. Some logo design here and there for grassroots stuff.
Everything I’ve done was really because someone put my name in the hat and I’m so appreciative. Because of the spectrum of clients asking for something, my design rate is a spectrum. Tell me your budget and I can do something for something, ya know. I’ve accepted meeting up at Luby’s as a form of payment.
On the flipside, I’ve started to ask for pay transparency with some larger clients. I’ll ask what they paid another artist for a similar project and the few times I’ve done it, they’re happy to tell me. I’m not great at advocating for myself but I’m really proud of steps like that.
My personal work tends to take a backseat. I do a mini zine or sticker from time to time but sometimes it’s difficult to front that money for the production of an item. If I get a really bad ear infection, I get wiped out of money. Last one, I just pushed through it with pain killers cause I didn’t wanna give Texas MedClinic $130 to tell me something I already knew. Flea market antibiotics don’t always hit but it’s the $6 gamble I’ll take.
I think I’ve done some of my best work for other people. I put a lot of energy into them cause I don’t wanna give them anything chaf. I’m trying to work on actualizing bigger projects for myself. I’ve been saying I want to do a children’s book and a graphic novel for a while and now I just gotta sit down and do it. I spend a lot of time researching.
I think people think artists are constantly producing but the reality is that I make notes for things I don’t get to for months. I got the idea but maybe don’t have the time to flesh it out to completion. I just made a new sticker. I drew the image a year and a half ago and taped it to my wall. I finally got around to coloring it three weeks ago and sent it off to be made into a sticker.
Time management is something I’ve been trying to get better at. In the beginning I would work overnights a lot and run myself ragged because I said YES to any project that came my way. I developed bad habits in college of not eating or going to the bathroom until something was done. First year working for myself made those bad habits worse. My body and mind was really out of sync. I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t working. I learned some hard lessons. Now I give myself time to work and time to rest. I know my limits and can turn down work and know they won’t take it personally and never ask me to do something ever again.
Q: When we started talking about this project, I mentioned how much I admire your flyers, especially what you’ve created in the past for Cristina Martinez of Very That , such as her 5 year anniversary poster, a spin on Kahlo’s What the Water Gave Me / Lo que el agua me dio / 1938).
For the final Very That showcase before lockdown, Prima- Vera at Brick, you created an image that totally reminded me of a Carmen Lomas Garza painting. When I approached you for the Siempre Verde series, I had this vision for you to re-imagine my favorite painting of hers, Las Pachucas razor blade ‘do (1989), and you replied, sure, but that Prima-Vera was based on memories at your grandma’s house.
You wrote: “I appreciate that my work can be associated in the realm of Lomas Garza because I love her work but... more slice of life stuff. I'm sure there's gonna be overlaps given we're both Mexican Americans living in South Texas no matter what year it is.”
All of that is to ask you about the line between admiring and studying art, being influenced by particular artists or movements, but then forging your own path/style/aesthetic.
How can artists cite their sources while still making something their own?
A: The VeryThat/Kahlo reimaging was a really easy match because Cristina always posts pictures from the view of her bathtub. My mom always says to take a shower when I feel shitty because water is healing. Cristina worked really hard for her business to thrive and remodeled her home to create a safe, loving, and healing space for herself.
Using What the Water Gave Me as a blueprint was intentional and I just needed to personalize it to Cristina’s bathtub and fill the bathwater with different things but keep some of the original elements like the volcano.
The Prima-Vera poster was not a Carmen Lomas Garza reimagining. Sometimes Cristina gives me objects and/or a general vibe for the poster and I go from there. Those are the tougher ones to really put together. It takes time to put those elements together in a cohesive illustration.
Sometimes when I don’t know what to do exactly, I look inward and reflect. At the time I was working on that poster, relatives (on my mom’s side) were in the process of moving into my grandmother’s house. We lived at that house when my parents moved us from D.C. to Texas to be closer to family. Even when we moved to our home here on the Southside, we’d visit often.
But even way before that, my grandparents moved all their children outta the courts to this plot of land on the Westside in the '60s. There wasn’t shit out there. Like nothing. They lived in an army tent while they built a long cinder block house. It’s just one big long room with a kitchen at one end that they called “The Gym”. Seven kids and two adults lived there.
Eventually they bought a house and had it moved to their plot. The house was broken into pieces and had to be put back together and added to. Like you see double wide mobile homes on the highway but this wasn’t like that. It’s a Spanish style stucco house with wood floors and shit from the Monte Vista neighborhood. My mom is pretty sure it’s from the corner of where the original Taco Cabana is. I don’t think it was meant to come apart and they dragged down what I guess is now Hwy 90.
They documented a lot of that process. It took years to piece it back together and work to get it how they wanted. My grandpa always took pictures in front of the house because he was very proud of the home they built. He took care of their home up until his body couldn’t. He passed a few years ago.
I have such fond memories of that home and my family being all together there. Things just feel so fucked up now. For years, it’s been...violated. I felt anger. The house is falling apart now and I don’t like the majority of my relatives on my mom’s side. Going there isn’t what it used to be. I don’t know what will eventually happen to the house and the land but I’ve removed my grandparent’s record collection and photographs just in case it collapses, things get tossed in the trash or “go missing."
I used Cristina’s flyer as a way for my own healing. Only thing that isn’t correct about that illustration is the color of the house and I took some liberty when drawing the people. But that’s my grandmother watering plants on her porch. That’s the window unit that comes out the east kitchen window.
We’d sit on that porch eating watermelon, drink Country Time Lemonade and listen to the radio. It’s based on my memories. I thought of my life as the “Source” but I absolutely can credit Carmen Lomas Garza when it comes to validating it as art. She laid a path to create work around personal narrative Mexican-American South Texas life. For sure there’s going to be overlap with her life and I don’t mind it.
Carmen Lomas Garza created the most beautiful paintings of her recollections but it’s still so familiar to a lot of us. I’ve lived through many of those paintings. Her work takes us to a memory and ignites our senses. I think seeing her work framed or in her books made our lives a bit more magical.
It's a very different experience looking at a Norman Rockwell painting. I can’t smell the turkey in Four Freedoms the way I can smell the moist corn husks, masa, and spices in Tamalada.
I’d always look at her paintings to find the person that’d I most relate to or start making my own backstories for the other characters.
This Siempre Verde flyer for you was a direct reimaging. There was direct source material that I could pull from and change. The dresser was something I saw on an estate sale site. I saw it and wished I could go by it but I’m broke so I just illustrated it instead. All the furniture in our house is too modern and I've got way too much pop culture stuff in my room so I ended up calling Natasha to send me pictures of her home for some more inspiration. She’s got lots of stuff on the walls and around.
It’s not just replicating an image but capturing the feeling and creating something that people find familiar and warm. Yeah, I can draw a bedroom with people in it but if I didn’t try to capture how the original painting made you feel then what was the point?
I’m very fortunate that people like my style of illustration. I say that because I can’t really draw any other way. I got Cs in a few of my classes and I never took Color Theory. Tall white dude professors said my work was “too cartoony." It was shitty to hear one guy tell the class to “find our own style” but privately tell me to “consider another career."
It’s tough trying to forge your own path. I’m inspired by so many things, I collect stuff, write notes and take photos of things constantly. It’s not really about copying work but taking elements of things you do like to create something new that is your vision. I don’t really get a chance to cite sources unless someone asks me about something in particular. If it’s not something I’ve seen in real life, it’s something I wish to be real.
Q: You’re known for your meticulous attention to detail. When I posted the Siempre Verde poster, I asked my IG community to comment their favorite details. They noted the teeny Steve Jordan record, the delicate incense burning on the window sill, and the classic rectangular Garfield comic book in the little girl's hands.
The window unit, a symbol of luxury and relief in working class homes, in particular struck a lot of chords for us. Can you tell us about your relationship to objects and symbolism? And what is the process like when you choose what gets included and what there might not be space for?
A: It’s all a part of world building for the viewer. Even though the work is two-dimensional, I hope adding all those small details to build out their environments make the people in them become dimensional characters.
In college, a friend mentioned how he used to fall asleep to the sound of a drippy window unit but now he’s in an apartment with central air and the silence is so loud he can’t sleep.
Imagine this poster but instead of a window unit, it was just a window with curtains. Doesn’t hit the same. You lose sensory details that really fill it out in your imagination.
Q: During this process of creation, your family experienced the loss of your grandfather. As you were drawing, there must have been that feeling of relief one feels when re-focusing energy after heartbreak. Of the scene you drew, you told me “I feel like it's the adult version of me curling hair and also the child version of me trying to hang out with my older sister's room and read her collection of Garfield books.”
Yet everyone I’ve shown (my kids in particular) insist that the illustration is actually a representation of themselves! Can you tell us about the magical way autobiographical work (visual art in particular) can be so personal yet universal?
A: Yeah, if it wasn’t for Covid, my sister and I would have gone with my Tio Boco down to Jalisco for my grandfather's funeral and joined our family. He didn’t pass from Covid, I guess just being old. He was really tired the days before he died. He passed in his sleep in his home like my dad.
Getting my tío to Mexico that morning was a whirl. We booked the next flight out of San Antonio to Guadalajara which left at 1pm. I had time to run to CVS print photos I had taken on the last trip for them to use or handout. We gave him all the pesos we had, extra masks, and got him on a plane.
Once he left, we built a small altar here at home for my grandfather. Having work where I get to draw plants, fluffy cloud/moon pillows, tiny Steve Jordan/New Order records while there was so much still unknown about my grandfather’s death and funeral plans was good for me.
I don’t think I’d feel the same way if I had a regular design job with an agency doing corporate work.
And a lot of my characters have general features so people can easily see themselves in my work. But I draw versions of myself into a lot of my work, commissions or not. Most of the time, I’m the little girl. I guess it’s like a way to recognize that I am living my childhood dream and that all the cartoons, music, and books I loved still stayed with me.
I also draw variations of people I know or have seen at H-E-B or the pulga. I’m always sad that I don’t get to just sit there with a sketchbook and draw folks. I don’t wanna take creepy pictures of them so I just try to remember them.
Right now, I got a vision of an older man with a cane, jeans with a Dallas Cowboys hat, a Dallas Cowboys facemask and a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt (tucked in). I saw him at the Quiktrip near my house buying four 24 oz cans of Bud Ice.
Q: Last night I thought about my surprise when you showed me an early draft of the poster. I didn't know you sketched by hand while drafting! It might be cool if you could tell us a little about your process. Lots of us have no idea how a vision manifests from thought to paper to digital, so we'd love to hear a little about your process.
A: Oh yeah, I sketch by hand on regular white copy paper and a regular clicky pencil. Normally, I work out the background on one sheet then sketch people and other objects on another. I got a little light table like two years ago.
Before that I made do with sunlight and windows until my sister brought home a clear plexiglass box display from her job at Coach. I’d stuff it with Christmas lights to give me enough light to work.
Anyway, I’ll turn on the light table and I’ll trace the penciling on a new sheet of paper with a medium tip Sharpie or a Staedtler pigment liner. I’ll scan the inked sheets and put them into Illustrator to manipulate, move around and color.
The program works in layers so I can piece things together and start placing them where they go in front of one another. It’s harder illustrating and inking everything as one whole piece because it limits placement options.
I took theater my senior year of high school so I kinda imagine it like how a scene is set up. There is a flat background but movable elements in the foreground that can be arranged as I see fit.
I’ve been trying to practice using Procreate on my partner’s iPad. I thought that switching to digital drawing would speed up my production time but transitioning my style over has been difficult. How I work takes a lot of time cause the first two-thirds is analog, but I prefer it because I have a better sense of control. I’ll just fuck around on the iPad.
Isabel Ann Castro is an illustrator and zine maker from the Southside of San Antonio.
You can learn more about her at:
& her legendary IG @queenoftacostx
foto by Javier Gonzalez
Copyright © 2020 Bonnie Ilza Cisneros - All Rights Reserved.