One thing that strikes you upon walking into Veronica Prida’s studio is the abundance of vivid colors. From the chair that you are invited to take to the blingy dresses in various stages of completion lying on work tables, it’s a place that proclaims the power of bright hues. And almost everything reflects the taste of its owner, who designs those multicolored chairs and chooses the materials for the glittering dresses that will be worn by Fiesta nobility. Prida and her crew of four help make the elaborate outfits for the participants in the Order of the Alamo coronation.
“For many years I’ve been helping other (coronation) dressmakers, so when some of the ladies retired, the organizers asked me to be one of their dressmakers. We make only four dresses,” explains the designer, while giving us a tour of the premises. “It’s seasonal work, September through March, so I have the rest of the year to do my other work.” A big part of the latter involves furniture. Once known as a fashion designer and boutique owner, Prida now refinishes and recreates chairs, ottomans and small couches using unique textiles, paints and hand embroidery. While the furniture pieces come from estate sales and antique shops, the materials she upholsters them with are acquired during travels in Mexico and Latin America, where she looks for regionally authentic handmade fabrics that the local people make for themselves. The final effect is always the product of her imagination.
A striking example of the latter is a settee that looks almost too beautiful to sit on. Prida embellished the black velvet seat with a few brightly embroidered butterflies and covered the back and the sides with an opulent-looking fabric saturated with purple, red, yellow and green flowers against a black background. That was once a vela (town fiesta) skirt from Oaxaca, she notes, pointing to the settee’s back. The skirt was at least 60 years old and probably took 100 hours of work to make. Other items are redone in bright Mexican folk-art designs, but there are also examples of more subdued patterns that could fit into any décor. This past December, her furniture pieces were exhibited at the Kiowa Gallery in Alpine, and a new crop will be shown at the Al Rendon Gallery here in early March. In 2010, the Mexican Cultural Institute included Prida in Remarkable Paradigms, a retrospective of three local artists who were born in Mexico. Besides chairs, the designer also likes to embellish simple market totes by covering them with folksy textiles, rhinestones and other decorations. Canadian pop star Michael Bublé recently commissioned 50 bags at $225 apiece to give out as gifts to his wedding guests. You can buy Prida’s handiwork through her website or in stores such as Pagoda and Adelante Boutique in San Antonio and Leslie Flynt in Santa Fe, N.M.
Her work may be shown in galleries, but Prida emphasizes that it’s also perfectly functional.“I have always been pretty practical,” she observes. “I listen to customers. There is a balance between art and function.” As an example, she indicates a high stool in her studio whose artsy seat was covered — gasp! — in plastic. That’s what the customer wanted because the chair will be in the guest room, where people may use it as a luggage stand. “If that’s what she wants, I am happy to oblige,” says Prida.
Trying her hand at different things
A Mexico City native, Prida came to San Antonio as a young adult with the intention of staying a year to learn English. But life has a way of changing one’s plans. Uncertain about what to do next, Prida was influenced by a new friend who wanted to go into fashion design. “I said, that sounds like fun. I will do that, too,” she recalls. While still a student at Incarnate Word College, the budding designer worked part time at a retail boutique, where she occasionally had to turn away customers who asked for items the store did not have. One day, Prida approached the owner and said, “This lady wants a white blouse; why don’t we make one for her?” The owner agreed, and pretty soon her creations were selling, and her first career was born. In 1993, Prida opened her own store in the King William District right next door to Babylon Grill, a restaurant she co-owned with her first husband. Once the marriage dissolved, however, she moved her operation to Broadway, where she sold both her own and other designers’ apparel for 15 years. Many San Antonians still remember her best in that role. But running a small retail establishment eventually proved too demanding. With financial backing from her second husband, Omar Rodriguez, Prida moved into real estate as the owner of Blanco Studios, a complex that housed 15 artist studios, including her own. “That’s when I started making my furniture,” she says. “I still had all those textiles from the store, and I wanted to put them to good use. My first collection of chairs was shown at a group exhibit that we had for all the artists in the complex, and pretty much all the pieces sold. I thought, OK, that’s my new career.”
But the next turn on life’s highway brought the unpleasant surprise of a breast cancer diagnosis. The silver lining was the outpouring of support she received from her husband as well as friends and acquaintances.“It really was a gift. My husband and friends were amazing,” she says with much feeling. “In retrospect, the cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I wasn’t aware of how many friends I had until then.” To express her gratitude, Prida invested her creative energies into yet another artistic pursuit that is still part of her life. Abandoning functionality, she has been expressing her feelings through a series of small, multimedia wall-mounted collages inspired by the individuals who helped her. One of those, titled In Sickness and in Health, is clearly dedicated to Rodriguez, a health care benefits executive and an accomplished painter in his own right. It’s a charming composition featuring small figures of a man and a woman mounted on a painted panel with a tiny house built from coiled metallic thread sitting just above them. The man sports a crown on his head. “He’s the guy!” quips Prida. Like everything she makes, the collages sold swiftly at the recent Say Sí show.
With cancer treatments behind her, a happy marriage and work she enjoys, what is she looking forward to? She doesn’t have to think for long. “I look forward to time with my husband and my stepson (musician Jacob Rodriguez),” she replies. “This past Christmas was the first Christmas we spent together in 15 years. We went to our house in Oaxaca, both of them painted, we ate meals together … it was wonderful.”
That memory reminds Prida of yet another of her pursuits. As a nature lover, she spends considerable time locating, identifying and photographing Oaxacan butterflies, “just because I love them.” Then, prompted by a related question, she adds, “I take life as it comes. If something comes along that seems interesting, I’ll probably try to do it.”