Some of the city’s most respected artists were honored Monday evening at the inaugural Distinction in the Arts event at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, a celebration of achievements in the arts and culture organized by the City of San Antonio’s Department for Culture and Creative Development.
Councilman Roberto Treviño served as host for the celebration held in the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater. Four distinguished artists and H-E-B as a corporate sponsor of the arts were honored at what promises to become a major annual event.
The saint of San Antonio letters, honoree Naomi Shihab Nye, was there with her husband Michael Nye, a photographer known for his documentary work, and her mother, Miriam Shihab. Although Conjunto master Flaco Jimenez couldn’t attend the ceremony in person to accept his medal, his spirit was in attendance as co-conspirator Augie Meyers of the Texas Tornados illuminated the reception in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts Riverwalk Plaza.
The entourage for honoree Teresa Champion, the mother of flamenco in San Antonio, included many friends and several generations of her family. Vincent Valdez, a highly collected painter and arts teacher at the Southwest School of Art, was there to collect his medal with fiancé and local artist Adriana Corral. Hundreds of other poets, performers, patrons, and supporters flocked to the Tobin Center to attend the first-ever celebration.
H-E-B was honored for its singular community commitment to the arts and performing arts, its arts philanthropy, and the use of its store exteriors and interiors as canvasses to showcase some of the city’s most celebrated artists, including fellow honoree Valdez, and his best friend, artist Alex Rubio, who also was in the house.
It was not lost on the crowd that the Tobin’s principle performing arts space is named the H-E-B Performance Hall. Dya Campos, H-E-B’s public affairs director, was on hand to accept the medal. She called it “the people’s hall.” In her remarks, she also lauded the work of San Antonio artist Chuck Ramirez, who died five years ago, and whose artwork will adorn the soon-to-open South Flores Market.
All of the honorees received standing ovations from the audience.
Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1) said recognition of San Antonio artists was long overdue. “We’re doing this because it’s important to us,” he said, “because we love this. It’s our passion.”
He hopes the Distinction in the Arts celebration will become an annual event. “We need to show people that we are taking this seriously,” he said.
Naomi Shihab Nye, Poet
Naomi Shihab Nye has long been loved as a teacher, a poet, an author of many books, a woman of peace, and an inspiration to all who meet her. Her writing was influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickenson, Carl Sandburg, and later, her father. “I didn’t see him as a writer. A storyteller, yes. But I didn’t know of his writing abilities until later.”
As a child of Palestinian-American parents, Nye grew up in Jerusalem and St. Louis before she settled here.
“My parents had the reckless good fortune to move to San Antonio,” Nye said.
She recalled the time the spent during the 1970s with the San Antonio Independent School District. They were the leader of arts in education in the state.
“I would like to bring those days back,” she said. “Arts connect us all by a collective presence.”
Laurie Ann Guerrero, the poet laureate of San Antonio, described Nye as one of our city’s great treasures. She, like many other poets, is indebted to Nye.
“In 2007, she chose my book ‘Babies under the Skin‘ (Panhandler Publishing 2007) for the Panhandler Chapbook Award,” Guerrero said.
Vincent Valdez, Visual Artist
Paula Owen, president of the Southwest School of Art, praised Vincent Valdez as an artist and as a teacher.
“Vincent’s career is only at the beginning but he’s also accomplished a lot,” she said.
Valdez jokingly said he got into art for revenge.
“On what? I don’t know,” he said. “On who? I don’t know. But I’ve been drawing pictures a long time. It was my first form of communication.”
He credits his great-grandfather, Jose Maria Valdez, and Rubio, for his vision as an artist.
“I often tell my students that being an artist is learning to see again,” Valdez said.
Teresa Champion, Flamenco Dancer
The world became aware of Teresa Champion when she appeared in John Wayne’s movie, The Alamo. But her love of flamenco began when she was a child.
“I saw a lady when I was going to catechism,” Champion said. “She was playing those castanets. I missed my first communion because I wanted to be a flamenco dancer.”
Her first recital was next door in the Municipal Auditorium when she was eight years old. Her legacy extends to four generations of her descendants, as evidenced by a performance at the end of the presentation.
Flaco Jimenez, Conjunto Legend
Due to health issues, Flaco Jimenez, 76, couldn’t attend, but his son Leonard received the recognition for his father. The younger Jimenez said his dad doesn’t read music.
“He doesn’t have to,” he said, “he plays by ear.”
Leonard said that his grandfather, Santiago Jimenez Sr., inspired his father.
“He taught himself how to play accordion behind his father’s back. He was afraid he would get in trouble,” Leonard said.
Fellow musician Augie Meyers continued the story.
“When Santiago Jimenez caught him with his accordion, he told him with tears in his eyes how proud he was. Flaco had tears in his eyes as he told me this story,” Meyers said.
H-E-B, Corporate Sponsor
H-E-B, the largest private employer in Texas, was honored for its unmatched contribution to the arts and performing arts. Mary Heathcott, director of the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, listed many of the grocery chain’s millions of dollars in donations to art programming in San Antonio and across Texas. H-E-B received the Texas Medal of the Arts in 2011.
Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, CEO of the DoSeum, praised the corporate giant for using art in its stores. The DoSeum project was the recipient of a $20 million lead gift from H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt.
“The late Chuck Ramirez will have a presence in the South Flores store,” she said.
“To be involved in the arts is ingrained in our culture,” Campos said after receiving the medal on behalf of H-E-B.
She told the story of “having the honor on behalf of the company” to deliver three $100,000 checks to each of the three major performing arts groups at the Tobin Center to celebrate its opening in October 2014. She found Courtney Barker, then-director of the San Antonio Ballet, alone in her office surrounded by costumes and paperwork on the eve of the opening. Barker, she said, burst into tears when she opened the envelope and saw the contribution, telling Campos she had been uncertain how to meet payroll as the company prepared for its opening performance.
Before, during and after the medal presentations, there were artists on stage performing.
Amanda Flores warmed the 150 celebrants in the Carlos Alvarez Theater up with a performance piece of poetry about the labor of creating a piece of art.
Juan Tejeda and Armando Tejeda bridged her words with music by Santiago Jimenez Sr. And a flamenco dance performance by Chayito Champion, Elsa Champion, Annette Flores, and Ciro Munoz encouraged shouts of “olé!”
To the honorees of the Distinction in the Arts celebration, the City shouted “olé” as well.