It was different back then.
Southtown felt much more isolated, and gentrification wouldn’t begin to settle in for another few decades. The Blue Star Arts Complex was brand new, and not yet anything like the arts and culture hub it is today.
Robert Tatum, a longtime artist and graphic designer, who’s been a fixture of the Southtown arts scene for more than 25 years, remembers those early years in San Antonio fondly. It was there, in 1992, that Tatum—who owns Choice Goods Gallery in Blue Star and has designed logos for a sizable number of the city’s top restaurants—says he was “born again.”
“I lived simply: I wore thrift-store clothes, traded paintings for an old truck, and the rest is history,” says Tatum, who’s called San Antonio home ever since for many reasons, one being that it’s still an affordable place to live, even for an artist. It’s slower than other cities, and he likes that. “If I had to describe it in a color,” he says, “it’d be one that’s warm—not too bright, not too dull, just warm ... like the color of an enchilada. The color of comfort food.”
Of course, being a “starving artist” can only sustain one for so long. Tatum could draw and had graphic-design experience, and he quickly began selling T-shirts and prints at local art shows. An established local artist recognized Tatum’s potential, and he invited him to his studio.
“ ‘Here’s a canvas,’ he told me, ‘Now, paint!’ ” says Tatum. Without any technical or formal training in the medium, Tatum learned how to paint.
“That’s when I was finally able to pursue my dream of being a painter,” Tatum remembers. “With all that love and teaching … how could I ever leave this city?”
Just three years prior to Tatum’s arrival from Los Angeles, a man named Hank Lee had also moved from Los Angeles. Rent wasn’t cheap on the West Coast, even back then. “I was always working,” Lee recalls, so he decided to return to Texas and put down roots in San Antonio.
Lee’s father suggested he turn his passion for traveling and art collecting into a business. At the time, no other galleries were doing it, as the treasures Lee collected weren’t the easiest to track down.
Thus, in 1989, San Angel Folk Art Gallery was born, occupying a small space in Blue Star. It was a natural fit, considering Lee’s insatiable curiosity and sense of wanderlust had been instilled at an early age. Lee began collecting mementos from his travels as a boy; he had always been fascinated by the stories behind them. The second-youngest of four children, Lee and his three brothers grew up traveling abroad and throughout Mexico. One summer, his mother gave Lee and his siblings $500 and a EuroRail pass; they decided to have a contest to see who could be gone the longest.
“Folk art speaks about a place, the people, different cultures,” says Lee. To this day, he’ll tell shoppers about who made the treasures on display in his gallery, how they were made and where they’re from.
The gallery’s eclectic blend of folk art hails from regions all over Mexico, in addition to pieces from exotic places and countries around the world. There are Day of the Dead figurines, beaded knickknacks, folk paintings and jewelry. It also stocks a custom line of guayaberas (men’s shirts), handmade with vintage fabrics that Lee has sourced himself.
Although San Angel Folk Art Gallery and Choice Goods Gallery couldn’t be more different, Tatum and Lee both convey a similar spirit: equally genuine, laid-back and a bit bohemian. Their passion and support for the community—and its younger generation of artists in particular—is impossible to ignore.
Understanding San Antonio's Art Scene
Both business owners were also part of the core group of locals who created the city's largest local art market more than 20 years ago.
The first few organized art walks had little structure, if any at all, Tatum says of the early local art events on South Alamo Street that would eventually become the sprawling First Friday event that takes place each month. “It really did take on a life of its own,” he explains. On a recent First Friday, Tatum's gallery is quiet for much of the afternoon. By 8 pm, music pours out of the doorway as passersby pour in to flip through prints. A DJ will arrive soon to keep the party going—not that it had planned on stopping anytime soon on South Alamo Street.
Like the artists who guided Tatum along, today he has become the one to nurture and inspire.
“The kids call me ‘Grandpa’ now,” says Tatum, whose tenure at Blue Star is only surpassed by Lee, who wouldn’t describe himself as a mentor, either. He simply calls himself “a patron of the arts.”
Through San Angel’s three-, five- and seven-year grant programs, local artists receive the opportunity to create a cohesive body of work to potentially show at galleries and exhibitions. Now, tucked into a corner of the Blue Star Arts Complex, San Angel Folk Art Gallery remains a cabinet of worldly curiosities, where hidden gems and one-of-a-kind treasures are waiting to be discovered.
“You have the real stuff,” guests will tell Lee as they browse the inventory at San Angel.
It’s an accurate observation: Lee has always taken pride in hunting down the most authentic and unique items—after all, that’s part of the fun. “We’d drive across Mexico in an old Fleetwood van, all the way down to Guatemala,” says Lee.
While his trips have become less frequent over the years due to multiple circumstances, Lee travels roughly every other month, and he remains fond of Mexican states like Oaxaca.
At first glance, Tatum’s surrealist-inspired figures and Lee’s custom-made guayaberas may not seem like they have a lot in common. But both, in their own way, remind us to not take life, or work, too seriously.
Tatum says San Antonio’s always been more of a “Sleepytown” compared to other cities, but many professional artists, himself included, prefer to stay under the radar. He calls it “a city of soul.”
“Gallery owners and visiting artists are always very impressed by the talent here,” says Tatum, including those from nearby cities like Austin. “They’ll tell us, ‘We have music, but you guys have the art.’ And we’re OK with that.”
Gallery: First Friday in Southtown
All photos ©Isaac Aronilla