Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Eight talented, artistic, and intelligent people took the stage at PechaKucha San Antonio Vol. 27 and talked about how much they love San Antonio. They all have lived in other cities and other countries, had jobs there, and formed relationships there. Why did they all decide to come back?
The answers couldn't have been more different, but all the responses proved satisfying Tuesday night at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.
Spoiler alert: the answer is good people. They exist everywhere, and San Antonio happens to be full of them. The presenters spoke about the people who inspired them and guided them on their successful paths.
The latest installation of PechaKucha, the rapid-fire presentation series that has branches in more than 900 cities worldwide, began with a show of solidarity for Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey, as emcee and News 4 San Antonio anchor Randy Beamer announced that the evening's net proceeds would go to the San Antonio Food Bank's relief efforts for victims and evacuees. “So don’t feel guilty about drinking tonight,” Beamer quipped.
Katie Kinder DeBauche, director of individual giving at the Food Bank, told the audience that earlier in the day a woman and her daughter had come up to her asking if they could help. The two had evacuated from Rockport and didn't know what might be left of their home. Despite their own uncertain fate, they wanted to help.
"We must rise to the challenge and make sure that everyone is taken care of," DeBauche said. "Let's show everyone that we are a compassionate city."
And thus was born the theme that carried through the night's presentations.
When she was young, artist Patty Ortiz's father worked at Kelly Air Force Base and would often point out airplanes “flying like birds." That inspiration, coupled with his assertion that “work won't kill you, laziness will,” led to Ortiz creating a permanent exhibition of paper airplanes at the Denver International Airport and her 28-year career in the arts.
More involved installations, the ones in which she would "hire workers for pay, giving them narrow directives to complete non-significant tasks" yielded some of the most fascinating results, she said.
"The relationships built were the true art, not so much the piece itself," she said.
The presentation that followed involved "smellevision." Prior to taking the stage, artist Kellen Walker had distributed small bags with scented paper to a handful of attendees. Born in Lubbock and raised outside of Forth Worth, Walker eventually moved to Chicago to pursue her artistic dreams. But she missed Texas nature, her family, and her connection to both.
"I always wanted to feel like I was on a hike when I lived in Chicago, so I created a scent that reminded me of home," Walker explained as audience members sniffed the Texas cedar scent applied to paper she had made out of the land she grew up on.
"Our gathering spaces should be surrounded by nature and loved ones, where we can be and breathe together," she said.
"I'm part of the Austin exodus, so I'm new to San Antonio," said self-taught composer Nathan Felix. "But I'm feeling the love here."
Felix's search for his musical identity took him all over the United States and on tours across Europe, Japan, and China.
You have to "do it now, or else later becomes never,” he said. "I tend to say yes to everything and then figure things out along the way."
That mantra led Felix to compose his first symphony at age 25, recorded in New York City. Back in Texas, Felix launched From Those Who Follow The Echoes, a street choir that reimagines spaces in the city.
"How can we see San Antonio in different way?" he asked as a member of his choir sang softly from one of the Empire's balcony seats.
William Jack "Bill" Sibley, the versatile writer who once served as contributing editor at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, had resisted speaking at PechaKucha for years, for one simple reason: "I only wanted to talk about one topic – funeral music."
Open-heart surgery taught him that life is short and happiness is fleeting, Sibley said, and he became obsessed with musically arranging his own funeral. He also became obsessed with bringing like-minded people together – Texas writers, to be exact.
"If you can't find something to write about in Texas, you’re not a writer," he said, putting on full display his pride in his South Texas heritage and passion for local literature.
Lilly Gonzalez shares that passion, and made a few confessions. "I've hugged a book, I've cheated on books with other books, I discriminate against paperbacks, and I have a bumper sticker that says 'Read a f---ing book,'” she said.
Books guarantee upward mobility, she explained, and she would know. Having grown up in a colonia in the Rio Grande Valley, with no running hot water and parents whose main concern was putting food on the table for their children, Gonzalez said books "saved her."
"I was raised largely by books, because library books were free, and we were always big fans of things that were free," she said.
The more she read, the more life lessons she acquired. She forged a "stubborn streak of independence," eventually earning two degrees from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., "the whitest place in the world. But thanks to my books, I was fluent in 'whiteness.'"
Authors like Sandra Cisneros made her realize that literature reflects personal experiences, and that books serve as recognition of people's existence – in any culture. That's why diversity in literature is so important, she said. "Kids should see themselves reflected in children's books and women should relate to spunky heroines."
Spunk is a quality neither Gonzalez nor Sweb Development founder Magaly Chocano lacks.
A tricultural and bilingual citizen of the world, Chocano said she always felt like she fit in everywhere and nowhere. With only $450 in her pocket, she moved from Madrid, Spain, to San Antonio on a whim in 1995.
She opened Sweb in July 2008. "I had no clue about web development, but I built my business based on how I want people to treat one another," she said.
Recognized as one of the "10 most fun and fearless Latinas" by Cosmopolitan magazine, Chocano said she owes much of her success to profound, yet often challenging personal relationships with friends and family members. Don’t let others define who you should be, she said. Each and every person has talent and potential, it's simply a matter of spotting those hidden goldmines.
PechaKucha's customary "beer break" would have better been dubbed a "baked goods break" Tuesday. Long tables lined with croissants, pain au chocolat, and Black Forest cakes spoke to the professional success Charlie Biedenharn has built with his multi-location concept Bakery Lorraine.
"The bakery business is kinda boring, so I decided to tell you all about my grandmother," Biedenharn said.
Born in Texas but raised largely in Phoenix, Biedenharn's grandmother came to San Antonio thanks to her husband's position in the U.S. Air Force.
When his mother died, Biedenharn grew even closer to his grandma. "We hang out a lot, we've adopted several dogs, and she is the best taste tester. Her feedback is always honest, so she's great for R&D."
The name of Biedenharn's latest endeavor, Maybelle's Donuts and Fried Pies at the Pearl's Bottling Department, pays tribute to of one of their canine companions. A tattoo on his leg pays homage to the woman who made him who he is today.
"The world would be a better place if everyone had a person like my grandma in their life," Biedenharn said, as several audience members dabbed at their eyes with tissues.
The roaring round of applause when Biedenharn introduced his grandmother, who sat front and center to hear her grandson speak, was only topped by the cheers that followed Biedenharn telling the audience that his business partners, Jeremy Mandrell and Anne Ng, were in Rockport cooking for people affected by Hurricane Harvey.
The night's final speaker, visual artist and professional roller skater Vincent Quaranto, moonwalk-skated across the stage.
Quaranto's grandparents came to San Antonio as roller-skating instructors, and from there built a family business that now spans several rinks and 58 years of local skating history.
Skating holds many teachable moments, Quaranto said. "You may fall, you may hurt yourself, and you may cry – but you get back up, and tears become a second choice to the celebration of movement and connection."
By creating a world of joy for others, his family has contributed to the small-town vibe that makes San Antonio so special.
"I was raised in a way that values connection and family first," said Quaranto, whose 88-year-old grandmother sat in the front row and then leaned over to shake hands with Biedenharn's grandmother.
"Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value," Quaranto said, quoting Albert Einstein and concluding a night that spoke to the great hearts and good people that reside in our city.
PechaKucha San Antonio Vol. 28 will take place on Dec. 5 at Trinity University's Laurie Auditorium.