Exhibition at San Antonio's Centro Cultural Aztlan pays homage to healthcare workers

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COURTESY PHOTO / MARIO GARZA
  • Courtesy Photo / Mario Garza
An exhibition titled "SKY 10: The Nurses and Healthcare Workers of University Hospital" by artist Mario Garza opens this week at Centro Cultural Aztlan. Organized by Malena Gonzalez-Cid and Ruth Guajardo, the exhibition gathers nearly 60 graphite on paperboard drawings and mixed media works.

"When the city was reaching its highest COVID numbers and hospitals were at capacity, my wife Zahra and her team were working hard to handle the large number of infected patients," Garza said. "I wanted to do something to help, and the only thing I could think of was to draw these frontline nurses."

A virtual exhibition opening will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, October 9, on Facebook and YouTube. Video of the exhibition will be available throughout the duration of the show until October 23.

As the husband of a healthcare worker, Garza saw firsthand the strain that the novel coronavirus was having on local workers. In July, the number of COVID-19 cases in San Antonio reached a record high and hospitals were at 90% capacity. Sending his wife Zahra off to work at the hospital weighed heavily on Garza's mind.



Zahra began sending photos of her coworkers on her iPhone, and Garza started drawing them. The portraits were meant as a kind gesture to acknowledge the hard work provided by his wife's team on the tenth floor of the Sky Tower at University Hospital. After the closing of this exhibition, Garza plans to give all of the portraits to the nurses and healthcare workers depicted.

COURTESY PHOTO / MARIO GARZA
  • Courtesy Photo / Mario Garza

The drawings in this show are simple: 8-by-10-inch images of faces mostly wearing face masks and other PPE. Despite the masks, each portrait retains its individuality. Some workers wear eyeglasses, others display their long hair or braids. The University Health System emblem is visible on their shirts.

The sheer volume of portraits feels representative of the high number of nameless essential workers performing thankless jobs that keep the country moving forward. In one of the few mixed media works, titled “Nurse Hero being Consoled,” Garza depicts an overwhelmed nurse with her hands covering her face. An anonymous worker places his hand on her shoulder. It's an image that captures the emotionally taxing experience of working in healthcare.

Like much of Garza's work, the portraits point to the subject’s basic humanity and shared space in a turbulent world. In recent years, Garza has become known for his dignified portraits of regular people through group shows at Centro Cultural de Aztlan Gallery and his participation in Freight Gallery's 2018 anti-racism exhibit “Images of Power.” In 2016, Garza, alongside Carolina Flores, presented the two-person show ”Nuestra Gente: Celebrating People Past and Present” at Centro de Artes, which highlighted the plight of everyday people.

Largely self-taught, Garza uses his work to depict sensitive subject matter from Black Lives Matter protesters to healthcare workers, always with a tender approach. He was born and raised on San Antonio's East Side and graduated from St. Gerard's High School.

Garza, 66, has devoted himself to working full time as an artist after holding various positions at USAA and H-E-B. His recent work excels at capturing the essence of uncertain times as the country struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic and as images of racial violence are broadcast on news stations on a nightly basis. While many artists might find today's climate inhospitable, Garza says his creativity is fueled by the urgency of current events. He insists that his work isn't meant to be political and stresses a point to be kind to one another. His message to the community is to “stay home if you can, and wash your hands.”

“The Nurses and Healthcare Workers of Sky 10” is a timely and powerful artistic response to the pandemic. In a year that's seen the death of more than 210,000 Americans, the exhibition may even resonate with viewers who suffer from COVID-19 fatigue. By spotlighting the heroic attributes, selflessness and compassion of frontline workers, the drawings in this show offer a glimmer of hope during a dark passage in history.

"SKY 10: The Nurses and Healthcare Workers of University Hospital," exhibition by Mario Garza, Virtual exhibition opening at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 9, runs thru October 23. Centro Cultural de Aztlan Gallery, 1800 Fredericksburg Road, Ste 103, (210) 432-1896, centroatzlan.org.

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