A Cultural Hero

Coronado at his drafting table with his black cat

photograph by Kenny Braun

It just kinda happened," says Sam Coronado about his new studio space in the East Austin neighborhood of Montopolis. Sitting among the many boxes and equipment scattered around the freshly painted building, he explains, "There was an opportunity to buy this place. A lot of people helped me out, giving me that opportunity. The resources were put together -- financial support, moral support -- and it all came together at the last minute."

An artistic rendering of a coiled black and red snake
by Benito Huerta

For Coronado, a printer and painter, owning his own building to work out of is a dream come true, a dream he didn't think he would realize quite so soon. But fate smiles on those who give of themselves to others, and it smiled on him recently as he pondered how to consolidate his needs for work and office space, which were split between an office/mini-gallery inside Galeria Sin Fronteras on Guadalupe Street and a studio off East Sixth Street. Just then, a real estate agent happened to walk into the Galeria Sin Fronteras space. That chance meeting led to the purchase of the 1,500 square foot building in late October.

Even though some of his friends and associates have expressed concerns about Montopolis as a site for a studio, Coronado enjoys the location. Situated in the midst of a residential neighborhood, Coronado's new studio takes up one corner of the intersection of Felix and Vargas streets, where a restaurant, a convenience store, and a laundromat -- called, interestingly, Coronado Cleaners -- do lively business. With all the people walking around, it reminds him a little of Mexico.

And for a change, Coronado is able to look out the window and see the people. His old studio in a tiny strip center next to what used to be Mexico Tipico Restaurant faced the back lot and the railyard, essentially isolating him. Now, he has visibility, and already it's drawn him and the neighborhood together. "Kids come by all the time asking, 'What's this?'" smiles Coronado. "'What's this Coronado thing? Is this gonna be a church? Gonna be a restaurant?' It's been a restaurant and a church. I tell them, 'No, gonna be an art studio.' 'Oh wow! Well, I'll bring you some of my artwork so you can see it.' The potential for getting the community involved is there. They're showing a lot of interest. They're all curious."

Then, Coronado starts talking about working with the local elementary school, maybe having some classes visit his shop and do T-shirts or small pieces, thereby getting the kids involved in the creative process. That's just like Sam Coronado; no matter where he is -- off East Sixth, on Guadalupe, at Felix and Vargas -- he's always motivated to inspire others to create art. Although he bought the studio to fulfill his own needs as an artist, he can't help seeing the place as an excellent vehicle for introducing the neighborhood to fine art.

Coronado poses for the Chronicle with some of his artist's tools in handCoronado deep in thought at his drafting table
photograph by Kenny Braun

"Montopolis is, you know, kind of ... it's not deprived culturally, but it is artistically," he says. "There are very few artistic things happening here. I figured that with the studio, perhaps what we could do is help generate a little bit more interest in the arts at least in this barrio. I'm not saying there aren't any artists here or any cultural or artistic things happening, because you can see it all around, but hopefully [we can] bring in more awareness of the [fine art] aspect of it.

"And I want to do something to make the kids aware that art is there for them to take advantage of. They don't need a studio, although it helps to have a place to go. I can't solve the world's problems, but in the community I think there can be some strides made, some help out there. If the kids could just see what can be done, I think they can be encouraged to realize their artistic abilities. Not all kids will become artists, but art is a big part of our community, art is a big part of our culture."

Art is certainly a big part of Coronado's life and always has been. He remembers watching his mother and grandmother embroider and crochet, and credits them with inspiring him to be creative. By the age of nine, Coronado knew that he wanted to be an artist. He started using paint-by-number sets, models, watercolors, and pencils. He kept up with it throughout school and, after a stint in the Army, went to El Centro Junior College in Dallas and earned a Technical Illustration Certification. Then, after returning to Austin, he earned a Fine Arts degree from UT.

For most of his artistic career, Coronado has been a painter, using bright acrylics and familiar icons to subtly address universal social and political themes. A trip to Los Angeles in 1990 changed his focus in mediums, however. At the nationally known Self Help Graphics studio, begun many years ago by a nun seeking to offer free materials and studio space to artists to create fine art prints, Coronado spent a week learning the silkscreening process and fell in love with it.

Once back in Texas, he knew he wanted to continue printing and, as always, he found a way to offer the same service to inspire other artists. At the nudging of Cynthia Perez, founder of La Peña arts organization, Coronado wrote a grant to do a workshop based on the Self Help Graphics model. It was funded and so began one of the artist's greatest successes, the Serie Project.

Coronado describes the purpose of the project as giving everyone who wants to create a piece the opportunity to do so. To that end, he offers the workshops for free and doesn't limit the project to professional artists; a few high school and college students have participated in it. He looks for artists whose style would be conducive to the printing process and recruits new participants through word of mouth and referrals from artists who have gone through the project. Even though Coronado seeks out other Latino artists to take part, he includes artists from different backgrounds as well. It makes for an eclectic mixture of artists who come not only from throughout Texas but from various parts of the U.S. and Mexico.

A portrait of an African woman in profile
Senegalese Woman
by Carla Nickerson

The Serie Project has been so successful that it is now in its sixth year and has gained support from other organizations and museums around the state and nation. Coronado has already started working on Serie Six with some of the artists printing this summer when they were available. Ordinarily, the project begins at the first of the year, with each artist scheduled to use the studio for a week at at time. As the project is open to anyone who wants to print, in the past the workshops have been crowded, which resulted in artists printing back-to-back at a hectic pace as the project came to a close. This year, though, Coronado plans to work with only a dozen or so artists in order to concentrate on offering the artists more quality studio time and more color runs. (In making an original print, each color needs its own screen or stencil, which is then placed by hand on the paper and ink manually run over the image, leaving an imprint. So, for a very colorful piece, eight or 10 or more screens are made with the layers of ink building up the image. It's a tedious and time-consuming process, as each screen has to be lined up to produce the desired and perfect result.)

Many of the artists that go through the project have had some printing experience, usually in lithography, a traditional method of printing using treated stone and oil-based ink. However, silkscreen or serigraphy is a medium that a lot of artists haven't yet tried. They welcome the opportunity to learn a new medium and analyze their work differently. Moreover, the artists get to keep half of the prints they make of their image. Coronado sees it as a way to encourage artists to sell their work. The rest are kept by the studio for touring purposes and to sell to help cover project costs. By touring the prints, Coronado brings attention not only to the medium but the art scene of Austin and, when it tours out of state, Texas artists.

Bruce Willenzik, producer of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar and board member of the Austin Arts Commission, which provides some funding for the Serie Project, sees it and Coronado as vital to the art scene of Austin. "Sam has been an inspiration to a lot of people because he represents the idea that artists could be successful," says Willenzik. "A lot of artists believe that artists need to starve. A lot of artists believe they can't do it. And the ones who believe that they need to starve, they're right, they will, and the ones that believe they can't do it, they're right, they won't. But Sam teaches people you can, and that's what I like so much about the influence he has on the community. He's a cultural hero."

There are many printing shops around town that do silkscreening, but the majority of them do it for commercial purposes; few deal in original fine art prints and none offers the service the Coronado Studios does with the Serie Project. Besides the project, other artists come on an individual and independent basis to use the facilities for creating work. "We need more like him," continues Willenzik. "I've always pushed the idea that there is such a thing as cultural prosperity. It doesn't just mean money -- it's quality of life, enhancement of one's own values from the experience of having culture in your life, having art in your life. Cultural prosperity for the city on an individual, community, and collective level. And I see Sam as one of those artists out there who are doing a great job of enhancing that spirit of cultural prosperity for Austin."

Coronado looks up from a red-on-black stylized rendering of the Madona

photograph by Kenny Braun

Since 1986, Coronado has been teaching in the Continuing Education Department at Austin Community College, and since 1990, he's been teaching drawing, design, and painting in the Art and Commercial Art Department. It's work that he finds rewarding: "It inspires me somewhat to be a teacher in that I see a lot of things happen. I see folks going into these classes that are not confident of their skills and when they leave at least they have more confidence. People who do have talent develop and refine their talent a little more and get a clearer direction in areas they want."

A surreal rendering of a three-faced being done to resemble gothic architecture

Morphic Renaissance
by Marc Silva

But at the same time, teaching brings up a lot of concerns for Coronado. Throughout the years, his classes have averaged only about 5% Latino students. It has him wondering where the young Latino artists of the future are, who will keep their visually rich culture alive.

Of course, he's sympathetic to the challenges faced by young Latinos. "I've taught kids in different programs, juvenile facility, in Houston I taught at an alternative school," says Coronado. "I know what they are going through because I came from the same background and I can relate to them. I know what their struggles are and I feel for these kids. They're torn between so many things going on around them, especially in the Latino community where we're struggling to make a living, just trying to put a tortilla on the table."

Coronado sees many Latinos losing their connection to their past because of apathy and mass media. Even though many Latinos are getting higher educations and making it in the professional arena, they need a way to grasp their past while looking to the future, and that is something that he feels art has an important part in. "The days of the huelga sign and the icons of the Sixties that were so familiar, those things are starting to change and we have to change with them. I'm not saying, 'Do away with those symbols,' because they are very important, but we have to find new symbols that represent who we are now. It's good to know where we come from and know the struggles we've been involved with, but I think it's important to have a focus in the future and where we're going. It doesn't mean that we have to disassociate ourselves from the past but use our past to focus on the future and that's where I'd like my art to go and that's what we're doing in the studio. We don't lose where we came from but at the same time we've got to look forward."

Marketing art to Latinos is also something that Coronado is working on. "I have to start thinking more in terms of what's appealing to them. What do they like to see? What do they like to buy? So maybe in that way, rather than introducing them directly to the whole idea of fine arts, have them appreciate imagery that's taken from our cultural background and kind of diversified into mainstream art. Straddle both sides trying to get images that are relevant that everyone can identify with, like Pan Dulce (a popular print of his) that they can understand and then gradually build their interest and get their acceptance. A lot of Latinos are still very reluctant or maybe not informed about all the Latino artists that are doing fine art."

"He's not only promoting Latino artists," says Willenzik, "but he's promoting the concept of success and prosperity to the Latino artists, and I think it's something that's been needed for years." Unfortunately, between the Serie Project and teaching, Coronado is left with precious little time to develop his own artwork, a situation that he hopes will change in the near future. He plans to get organized enough so that the studio will take care of itself and ease his time crunch. Then he wants to become more familiar with printing techniques and develop them for his own benefit as well as the studio.

Coronado continues his work on the red and black Madonna

photograph by Kenny Braun

At this time of year, reaching out to others to make a positive difference in their lives and giving of oneself to the community is foremost in the mass consciousness. For Sam Coronado, though, that's an everyday way of life. Last week at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar (where he was, of course, sharing a booth with two other artists), he was asked why he bothered constantly reaching out to inspire and help others. Coronado replied he didn't quite know the answer. "I keep wondering that myself. I could just go teach, come home and paint, do my own thing. It's something I've kinda gravitated to, that's just kinda happened. It's not so much that I have to do it, it just comes naturally. It wasn't something that I went out of my way to do, I feel that it is something that I'm supposed to be doing. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be doing it. There's something in there that makes it gratifying. Working with all these artists and seeing them create something in front of me, that makes it gratifying. Also being a part of this whole art scene and in my own way contributing to this whole idea of Latino art, the emergence of it and importance of it. The whole idea of educating people that we are true artists, that we're not just folk artists. We are mainstream artists as well. That in itself gives me a little more inspiration to keep going and doing it."

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