In South Texas Blended Culture

Artbeat

When Kathy Sosa was still a budding artist, she remembers being introduced to some people as simply Kathy Sosa. One of the women in the group promptly asked: “Kathy Sosa, the artist?” That little phrase made her day. The longtime marketing and advertising professional who first picked up a paint brush at 48, was thrilled to be so matter-of-factly recognized as an artist. Since then, Sosa has built a successful second career as a painter and printmaker whose colorful style draws inspiration from the people she meets and the Mestizo culture of South Texas borderlands.

When we met to talk about her newest pursuits back in late January, she was working hard to complete a body of work for her March exhibit at AnArte Gallery, titled simply “52.” The idea was to create 52 new paintings in 2018, completing one every week and posting each image on Facebook as she went along. A nasty bout with pneumonia, however, disrupted those plans for several weeks, but she nevertheless finished the project on Dec. 31 and continued producing more images to give gallerist Ana Montoya additional choices. Sosa is known for painting women, and this series is no exception. She brought a number of her new pieces to show us.  Each 8×10 work was a female face rendered in bold strokes and colors, ready to be fitted in a large “gold” frame. Though inspired by real women, she insists they are not portraits. 

“There are several sources for my faces,” she explained. “Some have been inspired by people who commissioned the paintings; some by women I never met before they asked Ana to be included in this series; and some I met on the street and asked to photograph them because they looked interesting. I take a lot of pictures of people and a lot of pictures of paintings. Not one of my faces is completely imaginary, but I don’t want them to be literally the faces of the real women. I go at it with colors and a feeling and see what happens. I tell people, ‘Don’t be mad if it doesn’t look like you.’” 

In addition to faces, the show will also include her other signature motif — the Tree of Life. This is her two-dimensional interpretation of the traditional Mexican ceramic Trees of Life, which originally depicted the story of creation but are now crafted to tell other stories as well. In fact, Sosa was working on one particular Tree of Life painting representing a pivotal moment in the life of the woman who commissioned it. This lady had been bitten by a rattlesnake one day while admiring the ocean from a grassy dune and almost died. Once recovered, she changed her entire life. Sosa was planning to incorporate symbols that relate to this existential change — a snake, dunes, etc. — in the painting.

Bloomed Where Planted

Sosa and her husband Lionel Sosa, a retired marketing consultant and a very talented artist himself, work out of a couple of studios, including their home studios in downtown San Antonio. Their property is fronted by an old house which they have transformed into an eye-popping, folk-artsy gallery/living space where your eye wants to roam around for a long while, trying to take it all in. Lionel’s true-to-life portraits mingle with Kathy’s more interpretative creations, hand-crafted sofa cushions, bright upholstery and dozens of interesting objects.

Though a nationally prominent consultant who worked on a couple of presidential campaigns, Lionel has always pursued his art career as well, painting regularly with his brother and children every Sunday. Kathy felt kind of excluded. So, one day, after Lionel had abandoned a painting of their dog, she just picked up the brush and finished it off. What followed was her first series of dog-related pieces that were “visual puns” on various dog sayings, such as “top dog” and “dog eat dog.” Before long, Lionel insisted that she accompany him to Philadelphia to study with famed portraitist Nelson Shanks, which she did despite misgivings about her own qualifications. Eventually, she developed her own subject matter and style embodied in multimedia “portraits” of women that combined painting with textiles and wallpaper and quickly attracted a great deal of attention. Since 2006, Sosa has had many solo and group exhibitions, including the well-received Huipiles: A Celebration, at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. through a collaboration with the capital’s Mexican Cultural Institute. 

Between them, the Sosas have eight children from previous marriages, 25 grandchildren, “and almost as many great-grandchildren,” many of whom are artistically inclined. Kathy has engaged one granddaughter, Liliana Sosa, to travel with her down to the U.S. Mexico border to spread the word about Kathy’s newest project: “Keep Calm Y Dream On,” a public-art-meets-public-service undertaking that “aims to express pride and build awareness of our blended culture.” The artist plans to produce signs, stickers, screen prints and other items that will spread that message. “That’s my cause, to send a message that there is no reason to fear cultural change,” said Kathy. “We here live in a blended culture already.”

She has certainly embraced that culture and made it her own. Describing herself as “a flower that blooms where planted,” she shares a bit of advice that a lot of people could use. 

“You may not have total control of your circumstances, but you have the power to do what you want to do from whatever platform you have.”

By Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photography by Janet Rogers

Jasmina Wellinghoff

Arts Editor