San Antonio artist Gilbert Duran in his Studio 911
How would you introduce yourself to Current readers that may have seen your work out and about in San Antonio?
I have been painting for a very long time here in the city. I did take a hiatus to El Paso for 10 years and returned back September 11, 2001, when I opened up my studio, where Studio 911, Rosario’s and Fisher Heck Architects are in the same building. And the Rosario’s restaurant is like a gallery to me, and also a kitchen to me. Since I don’t have a kitchen in my studio, I have an Italian kitchen across the street, and a Mexican kitchen, and so on and so forth, you know. A lot of my art is in restaurants; a lot of restaurants request my work, but it takes an enormous expense in time, you know, to say yes to my friends that own restaurants. And they do buy my work and display [it] ... and I do have favorite places ... like Rosario’s, SoLuna, Bohanans, Boudro’s, Zinc—and of course there’s Mi Tierra where they included me in their tremendous portrait they have ... in the corner where they have all the artists in the bar in the back.
[From our May 28 cover story: Meet the Artists Behind SA’s Most Iconic Restaurant Interiors]
It’s a photograph or a painting?
It’s a painting by an extremely fine artist. But I enjoy being in restaurants. I like to go to restaurants and look at my paintings, and look at people looking at my work ... pointing to it ... and you wish you could hear what they’re saying.
Can you describe what the theme or style is and how it’s different in each of those places?
I can paint in many different directions: abstract, modern art, wildlife, landscape ... and I sculpt, do mosaics—everything. ... I enjoy it and it’s a challenge. I do read the biography of all the artists that I’m trying to interpret. ... There’s Botero, Picasso, Gauguin or Porfirio Salinas; that’s what I do. I do the full thing: the biography, and their techniques. And you know I have a tremendous collection in my studio that [has] been there for years, because I don’t necessarily care to sell them, from time to time I do, and people wait for a painting to become available for years. You know I just enjoy looking at my work. I’m a hoarder.
At SoLuna you have a lot of [paintings of] women...
They have been disappearing ... One of the owners kind of buys them and takes them home. But it’s a mixture of things: I do have portraits of Sarah Lucero [and] one that’s an interpretation of Farrah Fawcett that Andy Warhol did.
What about the Alameda print?
It’s from the late-‘90s. ... It is based [on] a Mexican calendar by Jesus Guerra; he passed away a few years ago, but ever since I was little I remembered his work, even as a young child. And my father was fascinated by all the colors and everything. That’s where I get a lot of my research is from the Mexican calendar and [its] bright colors. ... I interpret: I like to take a lot of paintings that are famous, and I like them because they’re my favorite but it also turns out that they’re the favorite paintings of the artists themselves, which I didn’t know. ... So I reinterpret them.
Could you pinpoint a signature piece and give us the story behind it?
Well I do like the Frida Margarita. You know that painting is really popular. When Diego Rivera’s daughter was here in San Antonio years back for a book signing at La Mansion del Rio, she was presented one of the prints of Frida Margarita ... Frida Kahlo was her stepmother at one time.
What can you tell us about the legacy of the Stone Oak Fork?
Well, I was commissioned to do it by Damien [Watel] from Bistro Vatel. And so we did it; we accomplished it. It took a long time to do it, because it was my first public art. It was just heartbreaking to put a wall around it, for a piece of public art, it felt like it was a little Berlin Wall going up around it. It really was not a sign like they said it was. A sign would be by the curb ... this was between two courtyards, two buildings. ... But the fork suffered and my publicity was cut in half.
What’s your take on how Southtown has developed? What’s better and what’s worse from an artist’s perspective?
Well you know I saw it when it first started ... And I did loan my space [out] to have, I think, one of the very first shows for Southtown. And of course it was just starting and there was not the traffic that there is now.
So it would’ve been the ’80s?
Southtown rents are getting so high and artists are vacating. Is that playing a part in what you do at all?
That’s part of the growth and evolution that goes [on] everywhere—like in New York, SoHo. Artists come in and clean up the place, or they paint over the dirty places and make it look artsy and it creates an ambience, an art destination. And it’s just business; that’s the way it goes.
You used to open for First Friday pretty routinely and now just on occasion?
I do go out and go check on my other locations where I have my art and the crowds have changed. They’re younger and the art is not as plentiful as I would like for it to be. There used to be more galleries. There’s plenty of studios but galleries is really what Southtown needs.
So in terms of venues where you have your work, have you sought any out or do they find you?
No; it just happens by chance ... I’ll be getting information that there’s a place that’s going to open up ... and it turns out to be one of my friends and, “Hey, if you need anything let me know” and “Oh yeah, we do.” But they do come look for me.
Because you paint on top of the giclées?
Exactly. I get carried away when I do a giclée and it’s almost 90 percent painted over.
Can you give a price range for a giclée print?
No, because you have small paper-size giclées and then you have your jumbo giclées on canvas, and it depends on the degree of work.
So for like a young fan of your work?
Well we start at like $350 for a small one, unframed, and then all the way to like $9,200.
I know that you use live models for some of your pieces, but what is your process? Typically working with a model or is some of it coming from imagination? A lot of it comes from imagination or photographs that I have ... from photo sessions and all that. Live models really don’t have the time like they used to and I can work just as well from a photograph.
A vintage postcard of the bygone restaurant Christie's
Do you remember what your first show was in San Antonio?
One of my very first exhibitions of my art was at Christie’s restaurant on Broadway, the fish place. I was painting at the time and I think I had just done one or two starving artists’ shows.
How did that happen, the Christie’s show?
They had other paintings on exhibit and had prices on them. So I just asked them if they had room for any more art, and they said they did. I took them one and they called me the next day and it sold. And I took them another one and it sold. I mean it was like maybe like $40, $60, which was pretty good money back then.
And when was that do you think?
I would say the early ’70s.
But I remember the first person that bought one was an executive at Frost Bank.
I guess that might have opened the doors for you to approach other restaurants?
Exactly. Well, the way I see it, back in the turn of the century, there was Gauguin and Van Gogh; they were being refused left and right from galleries and museum shows. So they would hang wherever they would let them. And they would trade for food, for drinks and they’d sell something and they would just spend it all there. And the restaurant owners knew that.
So is there trade involved in your relationships?
Work for food kind of things? When I was first getting started but not anymore.
Did you make a conscious decision to move away from galleries to show in non-galleries?
At the time I had a home studio in Whispering Oaks ... I didn’t really need to be in galleries because I also did weekend shows all over the state—the Laguna Gloria show in Austin, the River Show here, the Art League show here, the Rodeo and the Kiwanis Club ... I used to sell out.
Duran's Día de los Muertos-inspired remix of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party at Bistro Vatel
What is your favorite thing to eat at some of the places that do show your work?
Well, at SoLuna, I like their chicken chipotle fettuccini, or the shrimp, that’s got the hearts of palm but [their] fish tacos are excellent. At Rosario’s I like the lengua, it’s very good. At Bite, I like their lamb cigar. I like the Chilean sea bass at Bistro Vatel [and] of course Zinc’s wines and Champagnes.
Were you always into food growing up or has your palette expanded as San Antonio’s has?
Well it has expanded, you know, especially now [that] we have all these types of restaurants and they’re really good. You know, every week there’s one opening up. And they could really try to outdo each other in quality, service, atmosphere, all the good stuff.
You said they should try or that they do try?
Well they do try and the ones that don’t should try. Because you know I see everything that goes right; and I see what’s not running smoothly. I’m always out; I’m always checking on my work and when I’m out eating, I’m actually working.
From that perspective you do seem like an insider. You seem to have your eyes open to helping people find a location and stuff like that.
Right; you know, I have requests from a lot of people from out of town (“We need this, we need this many [square feet]”) ... and I really don’t charge them anything. Hopefully they’ll say, “You know what? We need some artwork.”
But it’s not that you work in real estate in any capacity?
You’re just out and about a lot.
Yeah. And there’s places that are for lease, or for sale, that are not listed but I know the owners.
An homage to Julian Onderdonk in the Bar Room at Bohanans
Is there any place where you would like to see your work?
My work? I’d like to be in museums.
Like the San Antonio Museum of Art?
Yeah. I think basically they’re all good museums here in town. I like the McNay. I like the Witte because they show a lot of traditional art, like the older artists.
Julian Onderdonk, Porfirio Salinas ... which are very important to people visiting the city.
So where would you say you fit in between a contemporary artist and a commercial artist?
Your drawings, your sketches and everything starts out the same way as a commercial artist. It’s just the end result. Illustrations are, to me, some of the better paintings there are. Like Norman Rockwell; he’s “just an illustrator.” A lot of artists can’t paint as good as that. But still, the golden rule is, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. No matter how much time you spend on a piece of art, how little time you spend, some people are going to like it and some are not.
Are there any local artists that you do collect?
I used to collect a lot when I was starting painting. I had one by Raul Gutierrez, he was a an illustrator for the San Antonio Light and he is still painting. And Porfirio Salinas; I did own one of his at one time.
So if you invest in something it’s probably going to be something classic?
Yeah. I have an etching by Rembrandt and three Modiglianis; they’re lithographs.
Where did you find those?
I found them in different places, one in El Paso. There you get a lot of people from the military who come from Europe and they bring all their art with them and you run across them at estate sales ... And I have another lithograph [by] Toulouse-Lautrec.
Can you tell us about the project that you’re going to do in Paris?
I am going up there for a photoshoot. ... I’ve never been anywhere in Europe and it’ll be the first time so it’s just going to be like an adventure. I’m going to seek out popular locations and I want people in there but I also want the the buildings.
And can you tell us about the photoshoot?
I’ve never been anywhere in Europe and it’ll be the first time so it’s just going to be like an adventure. I’m going to seek out popular locations and I want people in there but I also want the the buildings.
Will you be in the photos?
In some ... I’m gonna do one specifically when I’m painting in front of a street scene in front of the Moulin Rouge.
Is that the Chicano in Paradise?
Yeah, with his muse.
So do you sometimes name your paintings before they exist?
Yeah, most of them.