Postcard from San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico: Former factory rehabilitated as center for the arts

As someone who grew up going to school in one of those flat-roofed, aqua-paneled elementary schools built in an aesthetically-impaired period of the 1950s, bumping into architectural gems in rural Mexico is always amazing to me. Isolated from its surrounding landscape and thrown into the midst of photographs from around the world, the photo above would be difficult to place. But not only was this handsome structure built in 1883 in rural Oaxaca, its functional purpose was not to serve as a palatial retreat. It housed a spinning and weaving factory – Hilados y Tejidos La Soledad Vista-Hermosa.

In 2000, the shuttered factory in San Agustin Etla was reclaimed by artist Francisco Toledo, who had founded Arte Papel Vista Hermosa nearby two years earlier. The artist purchased the property to serve as an ecologically based arts center. With public and private funding underwriting its adaptive reuse, the property opened to the public in 2006 as the Centro de las Artes de San Agustin, or CASA.

A retrospective exhibit of photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, who died this past year, is currently on exhibit in the lime green Galeria del Chalet perched above the former factory.

In 1991, film director Louis Malle described Mark’s work in Rolling Stone:

Because she is so intensely involved with her subjects, because she gets to know them intimately, because she loves them, she often reveals in one single shot their history, their emotions, their souls. When she photographed runaway boys and girls in the streets of Seattle, she spent so much time with them that her portraits project a disturbing intimacy, a powerful bond between the camera and the children. Strangely, some of the photographs seem like self-portraits…. she knows how to find the perfect angle, the exact fraction of a second that will tell the story in one shot.

Not only did Mark leave behind a legacy of remarkable photographs, but she left her imprint on the work of the hundreds of photographers she taught through the years. She led workshops in Oaxaca for more than 20 years, and we were fortunate to catch an exhibition of some of her students’ works at the Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo in Oaxaca as well.

Richard Nitschke: Seeing Agave in a Different Light

When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not….

I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.

Georgia O’Keeffe

The striking beauty of the agave is not as hard to overlook as a petite flower, but four-foot by four-foot photos do command attention.

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Long-prized in Mexico for both medicinal uses and for producing Tequila, the plant has earned great respect in South Texas for its ability to withstand droughts.

Although not opposed to Tequila consumption, Richard Nitschke views the agave differently. He photographs the ones on his Hill Country ranch over and over under varying conditions, pushing the limits of light by shooting into the sun, overexposing and underexposing in order to release compositions hidden within. His focus on light and design at times makes his images border on the abstract.

Two of his agaves won awards in the Paris International Fine Art Photo Competition, and two of his works are included in the permanent collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

“Agave” opens for a three-day run at the 110 West Olmos Gallery from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, December 12. The photos also can be viewed from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, December 13, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, December 15.

Prior to making his living in commercial construction during his child-rearing years, Richard studied ceramics with Steve Reynolds at UTSA and worked in the silkscreen studio at the Guadalupe River Ranch. He also is a bluesman, singing lead vocals and playing rhythm guitar and the harp with the Mister in the After Midnight Blues Band.

Catch the art, and then make time the following weekend to catch the band playing at Gustav’s Bier Garten behind Magnolia Pancake Haus on Huebner from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. on Friday, December 20. The doctor temporarily has grounded Claytie’s warbling, but Ginger Pickett will be filling in with the kind of holiday blues you want to catch.

Rick Hunter lives here. And many other places.

Rick Hunter lives with us.

He is present when our whole family sits down for Thanksgiving dinner.

He greets us “Devine”-ly every time we walk in the door.

We are not special; he lives with many people.

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The store-window-size tribute by photographer Al Rendon conveys how much respect Rick commanded from his fellow artists.

The walk-by cellphone photo of Rick’s photo in Al’s window should be a throw-away. But the layers quickly enveloped us.

Some of Rick’s last Facebook posts were of Day of the Dead, and particularly poignant was one of an aged woman.

The woman you can barely make out in this photo, the one hovering above my head as though reflecting our inevitable future, is seated by a grave. The Mister noted the death date carved in stone. Our birth year.

And then there are the reflections of the buildings across the street.

No one wandered this neighborhood more than Rick. We rarely set foot in Southtown without bumping into him. He loved his hood.

The streets seemed particularly empty this afternoon.