Southtown - San Antonio Arts District - First Friday

By Mamie Carter

First Friday is like a huge block party with contemporary art as its centerpiece. On the first Friday evening of every month, several hundred mostly college-age people and a few families swarm the Blue Star Arts Complex for a free evening of gallery hopping. Located on the corner of South Alamo Street and Probandt in San Antonio, Texas, It's an occasion to see and be seen at exhibits of contemporary and beyond-funky art.

Grab a pale ale at the Blue Star Brewing Company, lean against one of the cars parked on the six-acre campus and watch the passing scene. A three-piece band on the brewing company's deck includes a xylophonist who loves a good riff. See that guy with the dreadlocks below his shoulders? Wonder where he works? Maybe he's one of the artists. Maybe he created that coffee table with meat-shaped neon under glass. It's entitled "Neon Porkchop," and it sells for $1,200. In the same space you can score a photo of a tropical flower for $10.

Speaking of flowers, what about the brunette in her LBD (little black dress), zebra patent handbag and black patent heels? Maybe she attended her sorority sister's rehearsal dinner earlier this evening. And those wicked tattoos on that guy's arm...

Years ago the site housed the downtown warehouse terminal of the MKT Railroad. The warehouses were purchased and renovated to house contemporary and non-traditional art workshops and galleries. Some artists are well-known, while others are lesser-known locals and students.

Outside the galleries sits a one-story-tall expression of an artist's devotion to painted bricks and terracotta drainage tiles precariously banded together by black wire. You wouldn't want to lean against it.

Inside one gallery are wall-sized paintings of cubes in chaotic formations. Another gallery features colorful paintings of swoops, swirls and darts. If it was in your living room above the sofa, it probably would grow on you. Galleries holding opening receptions serve wine and nibbles to assist your envisioning their art in your home.

The Bike Shop attracts attention by showing an outdoor film of a bicyclist riding through an urban area and encountering mishaps when he doesn't watch where he's going. Inside are bicycles designed to look like the originals from the 1950s. The bikes are painted bright pastel colors and decorated with flowers or stripes. Those on display cost $500 to $700. A young man with a lightning bolt shaved in his hair sits on a bike and nods with approval.

Nearby, glasses tinkle over conversation from Joe Blue's Contemporary Cocktail Lounge. A man driving a River City Pedi cab jingles a bell to attract passengers to his empty seat. A Southern Pacific train passes behind Blue Star on its way west. Folks who live in rented studio apartments above the complex are sitting in chairs on their balconies and crowd-watching for entertainment. The smell of beer wafts through the air.

The breeze, still sweltering in the night, reminds you of your need to try a Blue Star amber beer. There's a nearby bench. Your memory drifts to an exhibit you saw here some time ago. The artist placed hundreds of individual slices of Velveeta cheese on the hardwood floor of a gallery. Some art never changes its form. The cheese, however, first developed small, white pools of sweat on top of its slices. Next, some slices grew hard, crusty edges that curled upward. Others resembled crumbled-up pieces of yellow paper. You could actually witness art responding to its environment!

A number of galleries are closed this evening. A middle-aged woman in a black and white polka dot dress cups her hands around her eyes to look through the glass door of the Joan Grona Gallery. Inside, an artist displayed random objects on an oriental rug, but the woman can't quite see what they are. "I don't get down here very often," she says to a stranger, "and now that I'm here, some spaces aren't open."

Policemen are noticeably present at the complex and on south Alamo Street throughout the event. At 9:50 p.m. they start shooing the crowd out of the Cactus Bra Space and other galleries. People file past the Jump Start Theater, which stages avant-garde or alternate-style performances. Showing August 20-30, 2009 is Uncle Vanya, a theatre comedy by Anton Chekhov, but tonight the theater was dark. (Performances Thursday - Sunday)

Across the street, blue light from the Pioneer Flour Mill Tower guides the departing crowd. They migrate on foot north toward Southtown, where the party stretches along several blocks. Lighted tents house vendors selling clothing, political buttons, jewelry, canvas art and more cold libations.