Marilyn Lanfear buttons up a collection of family stories

I am a visual storyteller who translates personal family stories into a common mythology of family generational connections.

I use wood, stone, paper, buttons – the concept determines the media. I use objects of material culture – cast iron beds, cook tables, cotton gin weights. I use words – embroidered on towels, burned into chairs, stenciled on window shades. I use whatever is needed to tell my story. Subtle elements like the pattern of wallpaper, the use of traditional milk paint, or folded clothes rendered in stone, load the images with irony and symbolism not repeated in the oral tradition. I am a visual storyteller. Narrative is the moving force of my visual language with the history of my Texas family as the core.

Artist Statement, Marilyn Lanfear

Buttons capture the hemline of Laurelis Bessie Nix Moore’s full skirt in this detail of Marilyn Lanfear’s triptych, “Uncle Clarence’s Three Wives,” on exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art. The artist obviously spent years rummaging through dark corners of antique shops to assemble thousands of vintage mother-of-pearl buttons to portray her uncle’s three wives on eight-foot-tall linen banners.

More than three-dozen volunteers helped Lanfear sort and sew the buttons to create the portraits in an upstairs space in the Southwest School of Art over a two-year period. The fashions worn by her three aunts conveying much about their personalities and the times in which they lived. And, of course, there are stories behind each wife. Aunt Billie on the left is posed in front of a school in New London, Texas, the site of a huge gas explosion that claimed her life and those of close to 300 students and teacher in 1937.

Lanfear is from Waco, was raised in Corpus Christi and received her Master’s of Fine Art from UTSA in 1978. The Mister and I probably were introduced to her art about that time in the gallery space where we encountered most of the artists whose work now resides in our home, Anne Alexander’s Charlton Art Gallery. Lanfear spent some time in New York and Seattle before returning to San Antonio to focus on the inescapable Texas stories to which she was drawn.

The exhibit awakens nostalgia for family stories left untold, remorse for all the questions you failed to ask older relatives before they departed. Incomplete tales with no one left to fill in the mysterious gaps for you.

And it rekindles my yearning for my grandmother’s button box, a magical tin overflowing with an amazing assortment of buttons leftover from seven decades of sewing clothes for herself, her children and grandchildren. When I was six, Nana (Katherine Ann Conway Brennan, 1887-1972) could keep me entertained for hours selecting some of the most unusual and awkwardly stitching them in nontraditional arrangements on scraps of cloth.

Now, I am left wondering button, button, who got the buttons. But, as the Mister might be the first to quickly point out, my domesticity is somewhat lacking in that area. My idea of replacing a button during our marriage has been to find the nearest safety-pin. When I went to briefly observe volunteers working on the triptych in 2007, that is all I did. Stand. Looking. Filled with admiration for Lanfear’s ability to translate the myriad of sizes and colors of thousands of round buttons into striking compositions.

Including mixed-media work from three decades of the artist’s career, “Marilyn Lanfear: Material Memory” will remain on exhibit at SAMA through November 11.

Saints and sinners in Tricentennial exhibition at San Antonio Museum of Art

Given my history of promoting the elevation of the June 13 feast day of San Antonio’s patron saint to a major celebration (for example, here), I feel it a betrayal of Saint Anthony of Padua, originally of Lisbon, that I am not featuring his image at the top of this post. After all, there is a splendid statue of him cradling baby Jesus prominently displayed in the entrance hall of the San Antonio Museum of Art as part of its tricentennial exhibition, “San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico.” 

But I gravitated instead to a detail of “The Mystical City of God,” painted by Cristobal de Villalpando in 1706 and on loan from the Museo de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Depicted in front of the “The Mystical City of God,” envisioned in her 1668 multi-tome work chronicling the life of the Virgin Mary, is Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda (1602-1665), one of my favorite saints capable of bilocation.

Yes, I realize Saint Anthony had mastered that art centuries earlier. He was known for his capability of preaching a sermon at the altar at the same time he was up in the loft singing with the choir. And then there was the rather remarkable occasion he was in Italy while simultaneously appearing in Lisbon to testify on behalf of his father, who was falsely accused of murder.

It is believed this painting was commissioned by Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus (1657-1726), the Franciscan priest who walked barefoot from Zacatecas to San Antonio to found Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo in 1720. The art of bilocation certainly would have come in handy for the Franciscan, as he made that more than a thousand mile roundtrip hike across mountains and the desert twice.

But Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda is particularly significant to the Americas because she bilocated across the ocean to the New World. A favorite advisor to King Philip IV (1605-1665) of Spain, Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda is said to have been transported by angels to parts of what is now West Texas and New Mexico to teach Native Americans about Christianity as many as 500 times between 1620 and 1631. All the while remaining ensconced in the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Spain.

A Franciscan friar arriving in  New Mexico in 1629 found members of the Jumano tribes waiting, eager to be baptized. The Native Americans told him and other friars repeatedly they had been visited by a lady in blue who advised them too seek out the friars to complete their conversion to Christianity. The tales of the mysterious visitations of the lady in blue to the Jumanos were reciprocated by the descriptions of the outward appearance of the Native Americans to whom she had visions of teaching provided by the lady in blue whilst in Spain.

Aside from the statue of Saint Anthony, the other images above are plucked somewhat arbitrarily from the more than 100 works in SAMA’s exhibition.

Monumental in size, “The Martyrdom of Franciscans at Mission San Saba” was painted in 1765 by Jose de Paez, recording an event that occurred only seven years earlier. Founded near present-day Menard in 1757, Mission Santa Cruz de San Saba was attacked by 2,000 warriors – an alliance of Comanche, Apache and other tribes who obviously had not benefited from any of the visitations of the Lady in Blue – on March 16, 1758. Eight people were massacred, and the mission was burned to the ground.

Love the white rabbit peeking out the sleeve in the 1789 portrait of “Friar Joseph Arriaga” by Manuel Montes. Saint Francis often is depicted surrounded by fluttering brown sparrows, and, in that tradition, this Franciscan has a sparrow or two peeking out from under his robe as well.

In sharp contrast to that gentle side of the church’s teachings, I offer a horrifying detail of “Allegory of the Confession of the Soul.” Makes one awfully happy for the opportunity the church extends to say three “Hail Marys” and two “Our Fathers” to have all your confessed sins forgiven. And then there are the cherubs in great need of watching their step balancing atop monstrous creatures from hell in a detail of “The Hernandezes Honoring Their Devotion to Saint Michael the Archangel,” 1818.

The lives of everyday people are featured in some of the assembled paintings as well. The body language of the Gutierrez family in their 1814 portrait conveys much about their roles. The daughter is learning the art of lacemaking from her mother, while the captain instructs his son in geometry. The father is posed in a way to block the access of the womenfolk to the mathematical problems. The future roles of the daughter and son are dictated by the lessons they are offered.

“San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico” remains on exhibit until May 13.

Quinze’s “Wind” to blow on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River

A month in the searing desert sun building a huge wooden structure.

A mere four days to enjoy it. Then setting it ablaze.

“It is not that easy to burn your own installation down,” said artist Arne Quinze during a June 2013 lecture sponsored by the San Antonio River Foundation at the San Antonio Museum of Art. “I still have goosebumps from it.” While an estimated 50,000 people witnessed the conflagration at the 2006 Burning Man Festival in Nevada, “The day after, nothing was left over.”

The Belgian artist’s first public art took the form of graffiti, but his work evolved into large-scale three-dimensional structures, often installed in urban settings, including Nice, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels, Rouen and Beirut. Quinze views cities as “open-air museums,” with art teaching “you to look at the world in a different way.”

Many of his installations are temporal, although not as fleeting as the one in Nevada. His installations sometimes spark controversy, but, by the time they are removed, there are public protests. “When we take it down, the space is more empty than before,” he said. “It makes them realize the importance of art in their lives.”

wind

example of a “pillar” of wind

The artist is drawn to strong hues of red and orange because they are “full of contradictions – a fire burns or warms; blood means life or death.” His series of “Wind” sculptures seem to follow that predilection. On his website, he describes the elements he installs in the landscape as representing “the frozen movement of wind going through a grass field, a sculpture waving like leaves in the sun.”

berg's-mill

Berg’s Mill

san-juan-today-2

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Perhaps that is what makes “Wind” most fitting for the rural river setting chosen by the River Foundation for his installation. His monumental blades of wind will serve as a gateway transitioning and leading people up from the river to the area where the ruins of the historic Berg’s Mill community are perched on the left and Mission San Juan Capistrano lies ahead on the right.

“Wind,” according to Quinze’s website, is designed to: “evoke emotion, spark conversation and make people stop in their tracks. They will be attracted to explore this surreal experience of the shadow and sunlight shining through the fixed pillars….”

To contribute to public art projects along the Mission Reach and the development of Confluence Park, visit the website of the San Antonio River Foundation.

Looking forward to being stopped in my tracks in 2015.

April 20, 2015, Update: Noticed that Arne has more site-specific renderings for his “Wind” installation posted online now.

And this is from the April 2015 River Reach, published by the San Antonio River Authority:

arne-at-san-juan

October 20, 2015, Update:

Artist Lecture: Arne Quinze will talk about “Wind” installation, his first permanent public art piece in the United States, at Blue Star at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 22.

Sculpture Unveiling: Mission San Juan Portal will be unveiled at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, October 28.