Every room except the bedroom of Ana Fernandez’s East Side home is set up for painting.
Since the house isn’t equipped with central air and heat, the artist, known for her paintings of modest barrio homes and mom and pop shops, moves from space to space depending on the temperature outdoors. Currently, she is set up in the living room, where she has a space heater in front of a fireplace coated with ghostly gray ash.
On a glass table, there’s a painting in progress — a parking lot view of the now defunct Country Boys Meat Market. Propped up against a wall, there’s a canvas where the artist has deftly outlined the exterior of a convenience store with an oversized “Thank you for your business” sign over its entrance. More paintings in various stages of completion are propped against another wall near the door.
But with her career in high gear, she needs the space to stretch out. Currently, Fernandez’s work is featured in three exhibitions: “Magic Time Machine,” a two-person show with Hiromi Stringer at Cinnabar that takes its title from Fernandez’s painting of the theme restaurant; “Reflections on Landscape and Memory,” the Contemporary Art Month Perennial exhibition at the Southwest School of Art; and “multiples” at Galería Guadalupe.
She also is working on a project for the city’s tricentennial celebration next year, creating a series of paintings of buildings that no longer exist, such as Chapa’s Drug Store, which stood on West Commerce.
In addition to making art, Fernandez is back to work on her food truck Chamoy City Limits. She took a three-month break following a series of surgeries. Last year, Fernandez was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Luckily, it was detected in the early stages, and the artist said she is fully recovered and doing well.
The Express-News talked to Fernandez about her art and why she feels compelled to document neighborhood scenes in her work.
Q. How do you balance your art with your food truck?
A. On a personal level, I’m used to living very modestly. I don’t really spend money on extravagant things. And my house is affordable. It needs work, but I haven’t really done anything to it. So that’s the first step, to make sure my expenses are in check for both this business and my food truck. And then from there I try to kind of budget my time. I’ll spend the first half of the week painting and then I’ll spend the latter half of the week prepping and then the weekend I do Chamoy.
It’s kind of hard. That’s why I needed a break, ’cause it got really hard for a while because I was doing the art and the food truck full time.
Q. Do you think your experience with cancer has had an impact on your artwork?
A. Well, I started painting more people. The show that’s up at Cinnabar right now, there’s some people in it. Painting people is always something I wanted to do, but I never rally kind of got into that. I want to do something new that I was afraid to do before. Not afraid, I just never really thought it was me, like, “Well, I’m not going to do that.” It’s kind of made me push things in another direction a little bit.
Q. When did you know that you were going to be an artist?
A. When we were little, like my mom used to teach us how to paint with oil paints. I probably painted my first oil painting when I was 6. But we used to work in oils because my mom’s a painter.
But the moment I realized I wanted to be an artist was probably - I don’t know if there was a single moment because I’ve always been into art, like all throughout school —middle school, high school — and then when I was in college for a moment, “Oh, I’m going to study history” or get some kind of degree where I can teach, and then I walked past the UTSA art building and this huge rush of oil paint smell hit me. I just realized “Oh, I need to start painting.”
My whole life I’ve just pieced together odd jobs so I can make my art. But this is like the first time in my life that I’ve been completely self-sufficient on my art-slash-food truck. And I feel the more you put art in the center, the more it becomes easier just to live off of that, even if you have an odd job.
Q. What attracts you to a particular subject or scene?
A. Sometimes I’ll just kind of drive around. I almost feel like I’m just going to see where my car leads me. I’ll go, “I’m going to make a right turn here,” and then I’ll see a dog and photograph the dog. At one point I had described it as almost like a planchette on a Ouija board, just kind of go with it wherever it is you’re going. My car is the planchette. But sometimes one house will really call out to me and another house won’t.
Q. Do you think of your paintings of houses as portraits?
A. Yeah, I see those as portraits for sure. Even if there is a person there, I still think it’s a portrait of the house and the person is just there. I feel like they’re portraits because to me, the houses will have a character, and sometimes it’s from all the people that used to live there, because their spirit is in the house in the way they decorate it. So it kind of becomes a character itself.
Sometimes it’s not even the house. It’s the light. I’ll pass by and I’ll see howthe light hits it. I like to paint light. That’s what painting really is.
Q. Why did you choose to paint the Magic Time Machine?
A. One of the reasons was I’m doing this show at Cinnabar and it didn’t have a title yet. (Gallery owner Susan Oliver Heard) was bouncing around ideas, and she explained to me about Hiromi Stringer’s idea. It’s a little complicated, but basically her paintings are supposed to be done by a time traveler. So I thought it would be kind of a funny pun for me to paint the Magic Time Machine because my paintings are so - quote - literal. So let me paint the Magic Time Machine. And then we thought that was a cool title for it.
Q. Have you ever gone to the Magic Time Machine?
A. Yeah, I’ve been there a handful of times. I think it was ’92. I think (the waiter) was like Robin Hood or somebody cheesy. It wasn’t like the character everyone wanted. Everyone wanted Superman.
Q. Why did you start making painting of houses in the first place?
A. Everybody has that first experience, like, let’s say, the first model car they collected and then they want to collect all of them. My first house was my grandmother’s house. My grandmother’s house was always the place that would be our comfort. So this year, they sold it. … And my other grandmother’s house was demolished. This is really sad because my grandfather built this house and our family was there for almost 50 years. Now it’s just a parking lot.
(But) I’m not just interested in my family only. I’m interested in everyone’s, too. I love looking at historical photos and stuff. The way I look at it is I wish that somebody had photographed the store that was across the street from my grandmother’s house when I was a kid. Because if I could find that now that would be so valuable to me. So by painting I feel like what I’m kind of doing is preserving it.
Q. Do you think painting a subject elevates it beyond what a photo can do?
A. I just feel that it preserves it. It honors it in that way, like, “Oh, this is really beautiful. I want to paint it with respect to how you’ve done everything here.” I’m not going to try to change it or make it different. I’m just going to paint it the way it is, like a portrait.
I just try to get little snapshots, little slices of life - what it’s like right now, 2017, 2016. Eventually 2012 will seem old. So it’s not like I’m trying to make them nostalgic. Over time they become that way, but that’s not my intent, really.