“I love art.”
The passion that Ana Lilia Salinas feels is evident when she says those three words, unprompted, at the beginning of our conversation. Fresh from a staff meeting that ran late at the elementary school where she teaches studio art in South Austin, Salinas radiates warmth on a chilly night in Austin. Over hot chocolate at the downtown coffeehouse Halcyon, she’s telling me about the constant give and take between her artwork – her paintings and drawings have shown at Mexic-Arte, where she now sits on the board – and her love of teaching.
Salinas serves on the education committee of Mexic-Arte’s board. The official Mexican and Mexican- American Fine Art Museum of Texas, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is one of only a handful of institutions in the country dedicated to presenting Mexican and Mexican-American artwork.
An Austinite since 1989, Salinas graduated with her BFA in painting, drawing and clay, from Texas A&M University in Kingsville, Texas. Her first job teaching art came at the age of 22; she taught for the next eight years, doing her own art, as well, in her spare time. In 1995, when she was teaching at Travis High School, she had an opportunity to go into the restaurant business. For a few years, she juggled teaching, working at the restaurant and her artwork. “Eventually I quit teaching to do just the restaurant and also be an artist,” Salinas, whose work has also been shown in San Antonio and Los Angeles, says. “It gave me more time to be an artist, but I missed teaching, so I went back.”
Her work on the board of Mexic-Arte, where she’s been a member since October, is an intriguing way to bridge her diverse interests. Currently, the education committee is putting together a technology grant to bring web design into the four 5th grade classrooms this spring. Every child would design and create one web page, the school would get Photoshop and the art teachers would get a laptop.
Currently, Salinas sees 400 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, three days per week. “Even though I find myself wanting to leave teaching to do the restaurant and be an artist, that teaching desire is still inside of me,” says Salinas. “I see this work [with the board] as a way of continuing to teach – at a less demanding level.”
Her work with the restaurant, El Sol y La Luna – a fixture on South Congress for 14 years until it closed in December – has been occupying a lot of her time lately. “It’s kind of like a rebirth, for all of us – for my business partner with the music and for me with the art.” Her partner, in business and in life, the artist Deborah Vazquez, is a former president of Mexic-Arte’s board and a professor of ceramics at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. Vazquez is also the visual arts program coordinator at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio.
Since she hasn’t been making as much art since she began teaching again, her work for the restaurant is very gratifying. Initially she was only in charge of the visuals: colors, decor, art exhibits and menu design. As time went on, she became a manager, and ended up expanding the menu as well. Now that the restaurant is moving to a larger space on Sixth Street, with more room for a dance floor and live music, there’s tons of work to be done.
Salinas is working on an 8-by12-foot mosaic, composed of handmade clay tiles, depicting the Aztec moon goddess Kyoxyuki. It’s a collaborative effort with Vazquez, her partner of five years, and it’s their first public artwork together. Different symbols will be stamped on the tiles, such as Ozomatli, the Aztec god of dance or Coatl, which is the serpent (shedding of the skin represents new beginnings). There will be a fountain running down the mosaic, along with little boxes on the ends to hold candles. “It’s an installation piece,” she says, with a confident smile.
The restaurant, which serves a mixture of interior Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, is set to reopen in its new location at Sixth Street and Red River, across from Ester’s Follies this spring.
For Salinas, the artistic journey began before she was old enough for school. “My mother says that at 2 years old I painted her couch red with her lipstick,” she says. “And then at 3, I took once of my dad’s carpenter pencils and drew all over the hallway.”
Despite having to squeeze all of it – teaching, making art and serving Mexic-Arte – into her schedule, it’s clear that her passion for teaching has not waned. “The younger kids have freedom of self-expression, they’re not inhibited.”
Salinas can tell which students have natural talent. “Some just stand out. I wish that I could handpick these kids and create a school just for them, because they’re different,” Salinas says. “It’s important for kids to have different expressive outlets.”
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