Most San Antonio artists only dream about the kind of year Ana Fernandez is having after winning a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant in 2017. Past San Antonio winners include Vincent Valdez in 2015, Dario Robleto and Alex Rubio in 2007 and Franco Mondini-Ruiz in 2001. She also landed in last year’s Texas Biennial in Austin.
Not bad for an against-the-grain realist painter devoted to capturing the essence of blue-collar South Texas. True to her working-class Corpus Christi roots, she’s a successful food truck-entrepreneur, revered for her raspas at Chamoy City Limits.
Fernandez’s current show “Still Life,” at Cinnabar Gallery through June 17, will travel to the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, opening June 27. Known for her moody portraits of deserted San Antonio bungalows at dusk, she’s taken a new direction by depicting people in her lively, colorful, richly lit scenes of a quinceanera, a backyard birthday party, kids eating raspas and tire guys waiting for a customer. “These are scenes from my daily life, people and places I see every day,” Fernandez said. “That’s why we called it ‘Still Life,’ because these are frozen slices of time. I’m more interested in figurative work, and showing how people relate to each other. I took a lot of pictures that I used for each painting, but I change things so the painting doesn’t look anything like the photographs. If I wanted realism, I’d show my photographs. But I’m a much better painter than a photographer. You can do more with paint than you can a camera.”
For its May issue, Texas Monthly interviewed Fernandez and Cruz Ortiz about “Why San Antonio Is the Best City in Texas for Artists.” Fernandez noted “There’s no irony in this town,” throwing shade on the supercilious hipster haven to the north.
The Linda Pace Foundation purchased her large-scale oil-on-panel painting of people gathered at a frutería, Los Valles, to be part of forthcoming Ruby City’s permanent collection. Currently, Los Valles is featured in “Right Here, Right Now: San Antonio” on view through August 5 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Fernandez is among 19 San Antonio artists in the show, along with Richard Armendariz, Julia Barbosa Landois, Adriana Corral, John Hernandez, César Martínez, Katie Pell and Chuck Ramirez.
This summer and fall, she’s set to have two prestigious artist residencies back to back. She’ll spend an intensive nine weeks beginning in June at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in central Maine. In November, she’ll join the International Artist-in-Residence program at Artpace.
But she acknowledges her winning streak began with a bout with cancer, which she didn’t really want to dwell on, though she said it helped focus her ambitions.
“I am now okay, but I had to take some time off to deal with the treatments,” she said. “It definitely made me a different person. You get some perspective. It energized me. I was lucky. I lived. I’m not going to waste it.”
She used the unrestricted $25,000 Joan Mitchell grant to spend a year creating 50 paintings, including all the images in “Still Life.” Fernandez mostly used the money to buy supplies. Besides her smaller gouache paintings, she’s also making much larger “museum-size” oil paintings, such as Raspa, kids sitting at a picnic table eating her Chamoy City Limits creations. Dark shadows crisscross the scene in the fading light of day.
“I made the raspas, took the pictures and painted the painting,” Fernandez said. “I think it looks Caravaggesque with the dramatic contrasts of light and dark. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the work of Caravaggio and especially the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. I’ve been using a looser brushstroke so my works look less photorealistic. You can still recognize the people in my paintings, but the figures are a little blurred, a little more impressionistic. I try to make light play as big a role in the paintings as any of the figures.”
She describes the light in Happy Birthday as “like soft butter.” On the cusp of evening, a family armed with cameras takes pictures of someone blowing out candles on a birthday cake framed by the wooden struts of an outdoor trellis. Pink, blue, yellow and red balloons float in the air. She said the backyard is where she took her first steps as a toddler.
Fernandez catered the quinceañera depicted in Quince, couples slow-dancing in a Catholic school hall painted purple. Smaller paintings include kids swimming in Collier Pool, two youngsters sitting on the back of a pickup in Tailgate and a couple sharing a booth at La Gardenia.
Cinnabar’s Susan Heard said despite the changes Fernandez has made in her style and subject matter, collectors are still snapping up her paintings.
“She has achieved the right mix of comfort and sophistication,” Heard said. “I always tell artists that they have to follow their path of destiny. It’s good for artists to work outside of the box and experiment with new things. The fact that people are following Ana shows she’s on the right path.”
Free, Noon-6pm, Wed-Sat through June 17, Cinnabar Gallery, 1420 S. Alamo St. #147, (210) 557-6073, cinnabarart.com
Get our top picks for the best events in San Antonio every Thursday morning. Sign up for our Events Newsletter.