A Woman of Many Talents: Kathy Sosa

Artists and former advertising executives Lionel and Kathy Sosa might have invented a new concept. The house they renovated downtown at 126 Lavaca St. is a little gem, where art, living quarters and a business showroom coexist in perfect functional and aesthetic harmony.

To be sure, people have often run businesses out of their homes, and artists have sometimes slept in their studios, but in the Sosas’ new place, you don’t know where one function stops and the other begins. Even the bedroom serves all three purposes, showcasing Kathy Sosa’s interior design and the Sosas’ paintings while also being used for sleeping when the couple doesn’t feel like driving back home to Floresville.

“We just had a show called Have a Seat,” explains Kathy Sosa as she invites her visitor to do just that. “It was all chairs by four artists — Cristina Sosa Noriega, Veronica Prida, Carolyn Dublin and myself.”

She motions to indicate several art chairs that are still casually scattered about the premises, but it’s OK to sit in them, she says, as we make ourselves comfortable in a colorful armchair that Prida covered with folk designs in blazing red tones. “My philosophy is, use your good stuff. Don’t lock up your nice napkins or jewelry, and don’t stop people from sitting on your furniture. You may be hit by a bus tomorrow and never have the chance to enjoy your pretty things,” says the mistress of the house.

Examples of Sosa’s own style are also featured throughout the house. More traditionally elegant than Prida’s eye-popping creations, they are also indulgently comfortable. A brown-and-sage striped chair and ottoman in the bedroom, for instance, seem perfect for an hour of solitary reading, while a similar one upstairs invites you to sit and visit with friends. This is clearly furniture meant for actual use and not just to look at. It is manufactured, based on her designs, by a Hickory, North Carolina, outfit called Redmond Design, says Sosa. Of course, she decorated the rest of the house as well, with that same concern for both comfort and beauty. It’s no wonder that the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects selected the home for its 2006 Town & Country Home Tour.

Sosa got into home decorating in 2001 after close friends asked her to set up their new Austin home. When word of her skills spread and potential clients started calling, she formed a partnership with architect Charles Schubert and a contractor and launched a business. But that is only one of the hats she wears nowadays.

Known for years as an advertising executive, Sosa is one of the growing number of women — and men — who have changed course in their middle years despite the considerable achievements of their original careers. For the last six years, she has been developing a new reputation as an artist. Although her first tentative painting was of a dog, she now paints stylized portraits, mostly of women, which may or may not be inspired by real people. Examples of her new passion share wall space in the Lavaca Street house — officially known as SosaGalleries — with the more realistic portraits of her husband and works by several other Sosa family artists.

“Lionel’s entire family is exceedingly talented. It can be intimidating,” says Sosa, who for years watched her husband get together with his brother and a friend to paint on Sundays. Now she is one of them. Her husband recognized that she had a style of her own and encouraged her to explore it. She also has her own way of dealing with the creative process.

“I like to do a series of paintings on a theme,” she explains. “I never think of a single painting. I think of them as telling a story, and I keep doing them until I exhaust the concept. I always have four or five paintings going on at the same time.”

Her new series, Women at Play, should be on display at SosaGalleries by the time you read this. “Play” in this context may refer to a musical instrument or to playing with a pet or a toy. Since we are having this conversation in July, however, only a few pieces are ready. One titled L’Acordeonista, showing a dark-haired woman playing the accordion against a flowery background, sits on the couch next to us. It has already been claimed by UTSA president Ricardo Romo for the university’s new Mexico Center.

Upon closer inspection, this and other Sosa images reveal themselves to be really collages consisting of the painted figure juxtaposed on a fabric or wallpaper background. Sometimes the painted part is also done directly on fabric. When the fledgling artist showed her early efforts to long-time gallery owner NanEtte Richardson, the latter startled her by asking, “Kathy Sosa, whatever possessed you to do such a thing?” But in the next moment, Richardson restored the new artist’s shaken confidence by adding, “It’s an amazingly creative thing to do.”

“I sit all day with fabric samples and swatches and wallpaper, so I thought, why not combine the two?” says

Sosa, shrugging.

For the Women at Play series, she actually hired a model, which is something serious artists do, she says, pleased to have crossed that threshold. But clearly she is serious about her new occupation. To improve their craft both Lionel and Kathy spend some time in the summer studying with Philadelphia-based Nelson Shanks, a well-known portraitist of presidents and dignitaries. And like a professional, she spends at least a few hours every day in her studio.

Besides SosaGalleries, Sosa has also shown her work at the Galleria Ortiz, Espuma Coffee House, Art, Inc., the Wurzbach Estate and the Madhatters Tea Room. In 2005, she was discovered by Austin-based New Era Publishing, which subsequently issued limited-edition giclee prints of her work, describing them on its Web site as evoking “nostalgia for the beholder as one might be reminded of an uncle, sister, friend or intriguing acquaintance from the past.” Apparently, a number of prominent San Antonians who have purchased her art — including former mayor Lila Cockrell — must have experienced that nostalgic pull. Though the prices vary, most pieces sell for about $2,000.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sell a painting,” admits Sosa, “I had great success while I was in advertising, and that was a satisfying thing. But paintings are so much more personal — more of your heart and soul is invested in each painting. It’s more personally rewarding when someone says, “I want this one.'”

A woman of many talents

Sosa describes herself as “a flower that blooms where planted,” and her multifaceted career testifies to that. Born Katherine Chapman in Troy, Alabama, a quiet college town that she has fond memories of, Sosa moved to San Antonio at 14 and eventually attended St. Mary’s University, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science.

Following a seven-year-stint as a teacher, she started her advertising career in 1983 as a copywriter for Sosa & Associates only to see herself thrust into a role of PR project manager in charge of organizing a major exhibition of Hispanic art. She had never done anything like that before, but she learned by doing. The show became big enough news to be reviewed by the New York Times. This ability to learn and a natural penchant for developing PR and advertising concepts served her well in subsequent years. It was also at Sosa & Associates that she met her future husband, who was the company’s founder.

The firm later added additional partners and changed names a couple of times, but when Sosa joined, it was still a small company where she could learn all aspects of the business. Unfortunately, after marrying Lionel in 1987, she had to leave her job because the agency had a policy against nepotism.

In person, Sosa comes across as friendly and low-key. She didn’t mind leaving, she explains sincerely, because it would not have been right to change the rules because she married the boss. Anyway, it was only a temporary setback. A year later she founded her own marketing business, KJN (later Garcia LKS), out of her King William home and saw it grow to 35 employees within several years. In 1994, she was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.

Meanwhile, her husband had sold his share of the agency he had started and gone on to head DMB&B Americas, a network of 23 ad agencies specializing in Latin American markets. But after retiring from that position, he joined his wife’s firm as did another partner, Luis Garcia, who ultimately inherited the business. It’s now called Garcia 360.

Thanks to their expertise in marketing to the Hispanic population, the Sosas’ advice has repeatedly been sought by Republican political candidates, including George W. Bush when he ran for governor the second time. His victory was at least partially due to the fact that 49 percent of Hispanic voters in Texas voted for him, the highest percentage ever for a Texas Republican. Kathy Sosa was the only woman on the campaign’s media consulting team, and she again took part in Bush’s two presidential campaigns.

The Sosas sold their second business at the close of the 2000 presidential campaign and left for Harvard University, where Lionel had been invited to be a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government for the spring 2001 semester.

Why couldn’t she have stayed behind to run the agency? we ask.

“Oh, that’s not how we do things. We always stay together,” says Sosa. One thing they were not doing together, however, was painting.

“I never picked up the brush in all those years. I felt it was too late for me to start,” she says. “One day I was in the studio just watching Lionel and his brother paint. Lionel had started a painting but had lost interest in it. I suddenly wanted to finish that painting. It was a picture of our dog, Rosalind. So I started painting on it, and it was so exciting. Then I got the idea to paint a series of them.”

She wrote down as many dog-related sayings as she could think of, such as “Dog Eat Dog” and “Top Dog,” and proceeded to paint her first series of “mischievous” dog pictures. And here’s the best part — she sold most of them.

Today, the Sosas live on a sprawling 10-acre farm near Floresville, where they share space in a sunlit studio on the premises. The main house, built new to look old, was, of course, decorated by Sosa. Paintings are everywhere, including a large canvas by San Antonio lawyer/artist Lewis Tarver above the fireplace. It’s a wonderfully peaceful place where she can immediately “decompress” after returning home from wherever her still-busy life may take her. It’s also an ideal setting for large family gatherings. Lionel has six children from previous marriages, and she has two from her own first union. Between them, they have 12 grandchildren.

But marketing and strategizing is still in her blood. Again in tandem with her husband, she has recently become part of MATT.org, or Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together, a binational online think tank financed by businessmen on both sides of the border. Launched in May, the site is dedicated to seeking solutions to problems facing both countries.

Sosa thrives on this kind of professional and personal diversity.

“I think we’ll see more people change goals in midlife,” she says. “Women of this age, having accomplished certain things, whether raising a family or in business, may feel now is the time to explore new areas. For me, having such different things to do is what’s fulfilling. When I am in the studio, I am perfectly happy; when I am choosing fabric, I am perfectly happy; when I play with my grandson, the same thing …”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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