Artist … Educator … Arts Advocate. These words embody the spirit of local San Antonio artist Mari Hernandez. This month, we highlight Mari as she discusses the inspiration and motivation behind her creations, art as a powerful means of expression, and how her upbringing helped inspire her to form the powerful images on exhibit now at the Plaza de Armas building in downtown San Antonio.
How do you feel about art as a means of expressing important issues?
I feel like art saves. Art has affected me on multiple levels. I learned later in life that I was a visual learner. If I had known this early on, I could have used it to my advantage and would probably have been a better student in high school and in college. It wasn’t until I started making art that I understood how to learn. It was a very powerful realization. I’m able to articulate myself through art in a way that makes me comfortable. Sometimes it’s hard for me to find words to express ideas, conflicts, and emotions. Expressing myself through art provides me with a sense of resolution and peace, and it’s how I prefer to communicate complicated matters. It also offers the audience a creative way of seeing and approaching a subject. Making art is an outlet I use to improve the world around me.
Can you tell us about the concept behind these images?
These images were originally created in 2009 for a show called Canis familiaris at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. At the time, I was working with an art collective that I co-founded called Más Rudas and we created a show in order to address the issue of stray animals on the Westside. In my experience, people sometimes get pets for protection. Pets act as an alarm system or burglary bars and are seen as objects. I wanted to convey the idea that while our pets may act as our protectors, it is our responsibility to protect them as well.
What inspired you to create these images?
Religion plays a big role in my family. I grew up looking at images of saints on the walls and going to church. I now know that exposure to religious iconography was my first encounter with art. Combining my concern for stray animals with religious saints is inspired by my culture and speaks to the culture of the Westside; where my family is from and where I worked for a long time. Instead of shaming a community into change, which often happens, I wanted to present an alternative way to address a sensitive issue within an area that lacks resources.
Do you have a favorite piece or a favorite Saint?
I naturally gravitate towards La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Virgen de San Juan because statues and images of them were frequently present during my childhood. While I’m not a religious person, religion is a deep part of my culture and I appreciate it. Religious iconography, atmosphere, and the smell of copal take me back and provide me with a sense of nostalgia and comfort.
What is your experience with animals, stray or owned?
I picked up my first stray animal when I was 19. She was a little black and white scrawny cat in a parking lot and I named her Mecca. It’s been 18 years since then, and she is still alive! After Mecca I was on a roll. Our household grew to include another cat and a few dogs. My mom has since become very involved with the animal rescue community in San Antonio and fosters many animals. She’s very caring and has come to my rescue every time I’ve found a stray animal and couldn’t take it home. My husband and I currently live with 3 cats, all of them rescues and each with a unique story. I’m an advocate for animal rights. I try to make choices that promote animal welfare, I eat mostly a plant-based diet, I don’t like to purchase leather goods, and when I can afford it, I try to purchase items that don’t test on animals. I try to do my part as best I can.
Can you tell us about your work as an activist?
My sense as an activist has changed and evolved over the years and is rooted in advocating for equality for minorities. I started volunteering for a community-based non-profit arts organization in 2001 and, through that organization, learned about grass-roots activism. I have participated and graduated from 3 community-based leadership institutes. Through leadership training, I have formed a personal mission that guides the work that I do. I check myself frequently to make sure that my work is in alignment with my personal mission and that I contribute to positive community development.
How important is it to follow your passion and why?
Following my passion in the pursuit of happiness has gotten me to where I am today. On a few instances, I’ve taken what I refer to as a leap of faith. Usually, those moments have come during times in my life where I was unhappy with the work I was doing and when I was feeling as if I wasn’t growing in a positive direction. When I realized that cultivating a life around the arts really made me happy, I made the decision to focus on art. I have left good paying jobs and comfortable places in pursuit of happy and healthy environments. It’s scary to make big changes in your life in order to follow your gut, but I’ve never regretted following my dreams. I also realize that I am privileged and not everyone has the ability and resources to act on their wishes. Because of this, I try to live my life to it’s fullest potential and I’m thankful for the opportunities that come my way. My parents didn’t have much growing up, and they worked very hard to make sure my sister and I had better opportunities than they did. My family’s resiliency pushes me forward.
An artist, educator, and arts advocate based in San Antonio, Texas, Mari Hernandez is a graduate of The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is a founding member of the Chicana artist collective Más Rudas, who between 2009-2015, created installations together. Working mostly in the medium of photography, Mari explores issues of identity, personal narrative, and social circumstance through a Chicana Feminist lens. She has shown locally and nationally, and is a graduate of the Community Leadership Institute, the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures Leadership Institute and Arts Advocacy Institute.
Mari is currently showing at the Centro de Artes Gallery in Market Square, the Plaza de Armas Gallery, at Parman Public Library, and at Galeria 237.