For Siempre Verde September, I wanted to take it back a bit and work with an artist who definitely isn’t new school, but who isn’t quite old school either.
Like me, San Antonio’s Joe De La Cruz lucked out by being at the right place at the right times: he grew up in 1980s/1990s San Anto, came up during the almost-idyllic transitional period of the early 2000s, and continues to produce, evolve, and level up all the way until…nowadays.
De La Cruz is middle school.
And there is something about being in the middle that gives his work a modern classic, or maybe classic modern, vibe.
He draws with No. 2 pencils, clickable, refillable BICs and ballpoints, but he also paints murals around town such as Summer, Nopal and Tuna, Black Bear (2017) at SE Loop 410 Underpass at Villamain Road, and my personal favorite: the highway overpass pillars under I-35 at N. St. Mary’s Street.
We Are Still Here (2018) is two-sided: on one side, a 19’ red veladora faces out to traffic and passersby, emblazoned with a screaming hand proclaiming a sentiment in De La Cruz’s trademark Davida font that many San Antonians have felt as the years pass and the city changes: todavía estamos aquí.
On the pillar’s flip side, a twin green candle testifies the words “Forever and Ever.” Back to back, the veladoras are perpetually aglow with wisps of flame that never go out…cue that Smiths song, please. That song is part of this story too.
There is something comforting yet confrontational about these prayer candles blazing smack dab in an area of town that has become an epicenter of inner-city undeniable (more applicable adjectives include: annoying, infuriating, heartbreaking, uncool, crass) gentrification.
Yoga, juice, CBD. Pimping good health for those who can afford it.
Pearlification. Regurgitating a Pinteresty version of Chicano culture for profit.
Transplants developing the land they purchase as they please.
Houses flipped. Lofts uplifted. Longtime residents essentially evicted.
I met De La Cruz in passing over a decade ago in galleries, night clubs, and community events, but it wasn’t until I started following @silkwormproject that I really tuned into his artwork.
Technically brilliant, but also sentimental and sometimes snarling or snarky, utterly San Anto and symbolic, De La Cruz immortalizes everyday objects meticulously and therefore makes them sacred. He sums it up succinctly in a caption I found right now when I lurked his IG: “New drawing of old memories.”
Scrolling back I see his drawings: a Mickey Mouse watch, Liquid Paper, a Dooney duck charm, a pair of Red Wings. These isolated objects denote a chapter in time, but when they are placed next to each other, they tell a story with connotations so vivid and specific to San Antonio school culture in the 1990s that I get zapped back and think...
If I could entitle a De La Cruz retrospective, I’d call it You Had To Be There.
But before I succumb to acrimonious (angry and bitter: caustic, biting, rancorous, especially in feeling, language, or manner) nostalgia, I will say that the neighborhood where those veladoras stand was my home for almost 20 years. I loved, I mean lived, there; I taught middle school there; I partied there; most importantly, I found myself there.
Just as De La Cruz is a longtime resident and community member of the 1906 S. Flores Art District sliver of Southtown, I am part of the N. St. Mary’s Strip in the heart of an area that no one ever called Northtown.
Now they call it The Pearl.
I point out We Are Still Here to my kids every time we happen to drive through my old, beloved, yet sometimes unrecognizable little patch of San Anto.
My grandma would have referred to these places that made us as our stomping grounds:
The contemporary American phrase stomping ground, in the meaning of ‘a place where one habitually spends/spent much of one’s time’ is the product of folk etymology in two respects. First, the form of the verb, viz. stomp, is an American dialectal version of the English stamp, which has replaced the original in most meanings. Second, the original meaning of stamping ground(s) referred to a place where animals (esp. cattle) habitually gathered, as in this example from the OED: 1862 Harper’s Mag. June 34/1, I found myself near one of these ‘stamping grounds’, and a simultaneous roar from five hundred infuriated animals gave notice of my danger.
Working with De La Cruz on this poster project was a way for me to reconnect to a version of San Anto that I miss, but also helped me feel hopeful for the future.
Early on, I gave him one concept, but then I switched gears on him towards the deadline, which he accepted gracefully, but in the meantime, his grandmother passed away and he chose to draw a blooming Agave americana, or sentry plant, century plant,maguey or American aloe, a species of flowering plant in the family Asparagaceae, native to Mexico and the Southwestern United States.
I look at this poster and am reminded that the majestic agave americana has been here all along, and will continue to thrive:
Near the end of its life, the plant sends up a tall, branched stalk, laden with yellow blossoms, that may reach a total height up to 25–30 feet tall. Its common name derives from its semelparous nature of flowering only once at the end of its long life. The plant dies after flowering, but produces suckers or adventitious shoots from the base, which continue its growth.
When I look at the drawing, I think of our beloved abuelas who have cycled through their earthly incarnations. I think of us, their nietos and bisnietas, as the shoots who spring up and live as a continuation of the grandmas who nurtured us.
Forever and ever.
Questions and responses edited ever-so-lightly for maximum reading pleasure.
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? I watched your McNay talk, but I wonder if anything has happened from then until now, any epiphanies that have sparked since then…plus I always think it’s important to testify how it happened for the people reading this. That you make your living making and handling art is pretty impressive when you think about it.
A: For me it all started with my mom. She would get hired by family and friends to create custom piñatas, clothing, and custom birthday cakes.
Helping her on these projects taught me how to create and problem solve with these materials. My sister and I both knew from preschool age that we would eventually lean toward art in our future careers. In school, I became that kid that is constantly drawing in class, creating gig posters for bands, custom book cover art or painting on backpacks for friends, painting band logos on peoples' jackets, etc.
This actually distracted me from graduating high school on schedule but it also conveniently allowed me to postpone the dreadful next steps to identifying and pursuing a career. I lucked into a grant and some financial aid and went to OLLU in San Antonio for two years and worked in a picture framing shop to feed my art addiction.
Those steps got me into working within the local art community. I took as many studio classes as I could fit in at The Lake and eventually left school and began participating in local group exhibits that were happening at places like Centro Cultural Aztlan, Fl!ght Gallery, and open calls at Blue Star Contemporary.
The transition from private artist to public artist, for me, was mostly about confronting imposter syndrome head on and learning to just be and just create… and trust that what comes out is art, for better or worse.
I had to learn to be unapologetic about what I produced. I painted live in front of audiences at various events in order to overcome that problem and in the process began to just trust myself.
I actually never got any better at producing great results in front of a live audience, but I did learn to tune the world out and focus on and trusting myself and my process.
Q: I learned from the McNay talk that your style has evolved over the years, and you’ve delved into various mediums, but somehow the energy and emotional quality to your work remains steady. How would you describe your mission, not in a high-falutin’ artist statement way, but in a regular Joe (sorry I had to) kind of way? Why do you do what you do, and what is your hope/motivation when you’re neck-deep in a project? Can you tell us about any dream projects for the future?
A: Making a living as a picture framer in the area of contemporary art helped me to see that I was working very differently than many of the artists I was in contact with. Many were super aware of their own visual styles and languages and knew how to use their specific tools to communicate in this larger contemporary conversation.
My own work has always been more traditional and technical, which has very little to do with being a successful contemporary artist. It was hard for me to understand how to write my artist statement until after I had my first solo show. I identified the recurring themes I was drawn to and I was able to distill the overall story I was telling.
My mission is as straight-forward as they come. It is simply to tell people my story by depicting and recreating personal memories. As I’ve created work that does this, I’ve also been able to connect with community and viewers who share these, experiences, places and memories with me.
My intention is to meditate on and study the objects we remember and cherish.
As I work on each artwork I’m also reflecting on my own memories and archiving each, checking it off my list of things I want to take a little time to appreciate and revisit.
Dream projects in the future will see me revisiting the crafting and sculpting projects originally introduced to me by my mom such as sewing and piñata making.
Beyond that, I am interested in telling more immersive versions of my memories through film and sound.
Q: Your style is unmistakably yours. Can you tell us about your influences and maybe tell us 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 style I use is the same as it was when I was when I was a beginning artist and as a child. I render my subject roughly and then work on it obsessively enough to convince the viewer of its existence. I use light and color when appropriate to see the work through to a certain level of completion in a realist tradition.
My background in picture framing and hanging art shows for galleries informs how I then present the work. It is through this presentation that my “style” has been formed. Framing contemporary works for exhibiting artists working in completely different mediums than I do gave me unique insight on how I wanted to present my own work.
I’m not directly influenced by any movements in any visual way. I am definitely influenced by the concepts, ideas, and contexts of many movements but my techniques and my process have somehow stayed grounded in realism and staying in my comfort zone as my process so far largely functions as a huge security blanket.
The act of making art, for me, is more escapist and reflective and less explorative and adventurous. As for influences, I believe that artists should just create on impulse and then decide on how to deal with citing sources of inspiration. We are all just interpreting and creating based on the same ideas and imagery. An artist’s unique essence and style will eventually seep into the work if they allow it to. Many are able to emulate existing styles and ideas and incorporate it into their work but I prefer to allow my own weirdness and mistakes come through.
Those nuances serve as the basis of my style and technique and are unique or specific to each artist and are inherently significant because of that.
Q: For this commission, I knew I wanted you build the poster around an illustration of a solitary object in pencil, obviously one of the styles you’re best known for, so after a moment of panic that I had chosen the wrong object (oops, sorry), I gave you a bunch of images of common South Texas cacti and succulents. Can you describe the process of how you came up with the design? Lots of us wonder how an artist goes from commission to idea to brainstorm/inspiration to creation. What was your process like?
A: It varies from project to project. This one was largely informed by the layout of the paper. It had to work as an 11x17 flyer which is a more oblong shape than I’m used to. The reference material was sorted with this scale and format in mind. I long to create my sketches digitally but my process is both currently and historically very analog. Sometimes I will struggle to work digitally and then realize that I am much quicker and more sincere with just a number two pencil and a paper.
The flyer was hand drawn and then imported into Adobe Illustrator for the text. From there, the copy and event info was added.
Q: In my opinion, you’re a quintessential contemporary San Antonio artist. You’re from here, you draw (no pun) inspiration from here, and though you’re not quite old school (yet), you’re definitely middle school, meaning you’ve been around long enough to catch glimpses of old San Anto, be part of the burgeoning artistic heyday of the late 1990s/early 2000s, and as a longtime resident of Southtown, you’ve been privy to the intense gentrification of the neighborhoods and shift towards transplants setting the tone as cultural tastemakers. How do you navigate the changes and mourn the loss of what was while still holding your own and not giving up? How does your upbringing and your homeland influence your art? What mark do you hope to leave upon the city? What is your advice for those of us who love our city and are old to remember the past, but who also live in the reality of the present, and want to create and work towards a future where local culture and history are honored, preserved, and never whitewashed to extinction?
A: This is interesting. I’m not sure that I am navigating through these changes in any positive way. My work has become increasingly more directed to an audience that is sympathetic to the “old” San Antonio and is thereby seen as more confrontational by the incoming audience.
The cultural symbols and cues that these new audiences are drawn to are not in line with my subject matter and my target demographic is shrinking. Ironically, opportunities for public art are also informed by these trends instead of by our own unique and rich history in mural arts and activism.
Honoring the past is just part of what my art has always done, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the future. I think we need to continue to occupy our spaces for as long as is financially and mentally possible.
But the neighborhood I’m based in doesn’t feed my artist brain as much as it did in the past. I find no inspiration in cheap new construction, gray paint, clever yet expensive uses of industrial materials and fleets of leased Audis and Subarus.
But my roots are here and I will continue to claim the space that I know is mine for as long as possible. The mission that drives my art is just that. It isn’t a paragraph I’ve written for inclusion in art shows, it is literally the engine that drives my habit of creating art.
So it will continue to do just that.
Joe De La Cruz currently works in the field of gallery exhibitions, and is known as a facilitator and consultant in the areas of art presentation and exhibit fabrication. He also exhibits his own work locally and is currently focused on graphite drawing and large-scale mural painting.
You can learn more about his work at instagram.com/silkwormproject
Self-Portrait, De La Cruz style.
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