FOTOSEPTIEMBRE USA SAFOTO 2017 runs from August 26 through October 30 across various galleries and other venues in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country. The Founder and Director Michael Mehl is a composer and a musician, a visual artist (photography and photography-based digital imagery), and a writer. With his wife, Ann Kinser, Mehl started FOTOSEPTIEMBRE in 1995 and at 23 years, the festival is still going strong. The couple also developed the City of San Antonio’s Fall Art Festivals, which were operational from 2004 to 2011 and engaged and created international cultural exchanges as part of a Sister Cities initiative by the City of San Antonio.
Mehl is a fan and collector of illustrated novels, adult comics, and pulp-noir. “I am not prompted by photographs. I do not look at photographs and say: I want to do that. But I will look at an illustration and say: I want to do that, with a camera,” he says. Blouin ARTINFO spoke to Mehl about his favorite places for sightseeing, dining and staying in San Antonio, the city with a varied colonial heritage.
What are your recommendations for must-visit places in San Antonio and why?
To clarify my particular point of view on this question and some of your subsequent questions: San Antonio is a tourist city. Lots of tourists. Consequently what drives my choice of activities is a strong desire to stay away from all tourist destinations. Even though there are a number of well-known tourist favorites included in my lists below, you can actually get to enjoy them at very specific times and dates, without having to endure untoward iniquities from the selfie crowds.
• A walk through streets in downtown San Antonio, meandering through some of the less visited sections of the River Walk, which are mostly North and South of the Downtown tourist area.
• To understand what makes San Antonio San Antonio, take a drive along the full length of Commerce Street, from Old Highway 90 straight into downtown. Or check out the car cruising rituals on Southwest Military Drive on weekend nights.
• The Mission San José complex, which is part of the World Heritage Site designation enjoyed by our five missions, is the largest and most visited mission site. Yet, I prefer the smaller scale and intimacy of Mission Espada and Mission San Juan, further to the south.
• Stinson Municipal Airport: Vintage, civil aviation airport on the city’s Southside, adjacent to the missions. It’s the second oldest airport in the US, and is home to the Texas Air Museum.
• San Fernando cemeteries 1, 2 and 3, especially during Día de los Muertos when locals visit to honor their dearly departed.
• Monte Vista and King William neighborhoods: Both historic preservation districts with well-maintained period homes from the late 1800’s (King William), and the early 1900’s (Monte Vista).
• If in San Antonio during Fiesta Week in April, a must-must-do is Cornyation, a theatric production of campy skits that poke fun at social, political and cultural current events. Cornyation is a three-night ticketed event held at the Empire Theater on South Saint Mary’s Street.
• There’s a First Friday Art Walk every month in the South Town-Blue Star area. But I prefer the grass-roots character of Second Saturdays in the South Flores Arts District, which has its own major art walk every Second Saturday of the month. South Flores Street and Lone Star Boulevard form the epicenter.
What restaurants, bars, and cafes would you recommend in San Antonio and why?
I dislike trendy and hip, I don’t like food with narratives or with origin myths, and I don’t care for restaurants with prissy tabletops or cooler than thou waitstaff. My food preferences tend towards Asian and other ethnic foods, and inexpensive, unpretentious local food. San Antonio’s Asian population has seen substantial growth since the mid-aughts. After decades of having to make do with Asian and other ethnic restaurants catering to local, bland palates, we now have some really good opportunities to savor relatively authentic Asian/Ethnic foods. Most of the newer Asian restaurants and businesses have set up shop close to our medical center in the near northwest side, but there are many good options elsewhere. Below are some of my favorites.
• M.Y. Chockdee, on East Lindbergh Boulevard, by Randolph Air Force Base on the far northeast side of town: Not an easy destination for an out of town traveler, but the BEST, the VERY BEST, all you can eat Filipino buffet and bakery in town. I’d wager it’s one of the best Filipino restaurants I’ve ever been to. It’s also an Asian grocery store. Weekday buffets are ample and get pretty expansive on weekends. Communal family style seating available past the grocery aisles.
• Kung Fu Noodle, on Bandera Road, in Leon Vallery: Home-made hearty noodles and noodle soup, dumplings and steamed buns. Short, very specific menu, which I like. Small venue, always crowded.
• Sichuan House, on Wurzbach Road, behind Ingram Mall: Delicious, spicy, authentic Sichuan food. Small venue, always crowded.
• Il Forno on Keller and Nogalitos Streets, in the South Flores area: Wood-fired pizza from scratch.
• The Big Bib Barbecue on Lanark Drive and Austin Highway: Good Texas barbecue, what more can I say? They also have a location at Stinson Airport.
• Moroccan Bites on Evers and Wurzbach Roads, Northwest San Antonio: A favorite of San Antonio’s Middle Eastern communities.
• Rehoboth Eritrean-Ethiopian Cuisine on Babcock and Callaghan Roads, Northwest San Antonio: A recent and tasty addition to a growing list of authentic ethnic eateries in San Antonio.
• SA Pops on North Saint Mary’s Street and Mulberry Avenue: Not a restaurant, but they have the best handcrafted paletas (popsicles) in San Antonio, which are a lifesaver for anyone visiting the Brackenridge Park area on a hot summer afternoon.
I don’t drink, but I do entertain visiting artists during Fotoseptiembre and other guests year-round. There’s a very wide selection of thirst-whetting options in San Antonio, from the very upscale and expensive, to a multiplicity of specialty bars and craft breweries, to neighborhood ice houses with buckets of beer on a table or bench. Something for every taste and budget.
• Dorcól Distilling and Brewing Co. on South Flores just South of downtown is probably my first choice, since it’s located smack in the South Flores Arts District, where gallery openings and events are scheduled every second Saturday of each month. They also happen to host Fotoseptiembre exhibits almost every year. Very convenient. Mostly local clientele from all over the city, not touristy.
• The Esquire Tavern on Commerce Street downtown is a must if you are in the area. Refurbished historic bar frequented by locals and tourists alike.
• The Pearl District on Broadway just north of downtown is home to several well-regarded drinking and eating establishments. A sure bet for the trendy set and tourists. I stay away.
• Thanks to the Pearl District, which is just a few blocks away, there’s been a resurgence of nightlife activities on North St. Mary’s Street (The Strip), between Josephine Street and Highway 281. Bars, restaurants, nightclubs, open late at night, especially on weekends. Young local crowds.
• Blue Star Brewing Company in the Blue Star Arts Complex: Craft beer and food at San Antonio’s oldest microbrewery. The Blue Star area is obnoxiously trendy and hip, but the Blue Star Brewing Company keeps it real.
• La Tuna Ice House, on Probandt Street, behind Blue Star: It was cool before it became cool. It has kept its original rustic vibe. Locals and some tourists who have local connections.
• Press Coffee on French Place and San Pedro Avenue, close to San Antonio College, just North of Downtown. Local clientele.
• Local Coffee: Various locations. Local clientele with varying degrees of hipness depending on location.
• La Panadería at its North Broadway location, close to the Airport: Mexican bakery, sandwiches, and outstanding coffee. They recently opened a Houston Street location downtown to capitalize on tourist traffic. I hope it goes well for them, but I’m not going.
• Sip Brew Bar & Eatery, on the corner of Houston and St. Mary’s Street. It’s the only decent independent coffee shop downtown and it’s just across the street from a Starbucks…go figure.
Where would you go and what would you do if you had a free morning or afternoon in San Antonio?
I’m a die-hard Texas Hill Country fan, and for my money, a Hill Country Drive is a must for any visitor to San Antonio worth his/her/it’s salt. The towns of Boerne, Comfort, Fredericksburg, Johnson City and places in between are all within daytime striking distance. You can take a drive to any one of these places for an early lunch, and return to San Antonio in time for a nap and a coffee shop visit before going out for drinks and dinner.
I highly recommend:
• Luckenbach, Texas, on Highway 1376 just South of Highway 290 (which is the Fredericksburg Wine Country’s main thoroughfare). Luckenbach is a Texas music fan’s destination of choice. Outdoor daytime music on weekends next to the bar, major acts performing evenings in the old-style German Dance Hall. Bikers of all stripes congregate on weekends, adding a roguish, outlawish feel to the ambience.
• The Airport Diner and the Hangar Hotel in Fredericksburg, Texas, just off Highway 16, past the Gillespie County Fairgrounds. Fredericksburg is a major tourist destination for shopping, wineries, wildflowers, and German-ish eats and culture. Texas Deutsch is the overriding theme. The Airport Diner and Hangar Hotel are fortunately still beyond the tourism fray. Located right at the edge of the Gillespie County Airport runway (civil aviation) private pilots and their families from around the state fly in for lunch or a weekend stay, parking their airplanes just outside the diner and hotel.
• Pecan Street Brewing in Johnson City, Texas, on the Western edge of the Highway 290 Winery Row, at the intersection of Highway 281. Craft brews, burgers and other tasty fare. Johnson City’s Nugent Avenue Art Walk takes place the last Saturday of every month, with several local galleries participating; one of them being A Smith Gallery, one of the best photography galleries in the region and a long time FOTOSEPTIEMBRE stalwart.
• Weekend brunches at Welfare Cafe in Welfare, Texas, on the Waring Welfare road from I-10 West to Waring. Or a hamburger in Waring, Texas, just up the road from Welfare, at either the Waring Country Store or the Waring General Store.
• High’s Cafe and Comfort Pizza both on High Street in Comfort, Texas.
• Camp Verde General Store at the intersection of Camp Verde Road and Highway 173, a short drive from Bandera, Comfort, and Kerrville, Texas. The folksy name belies the well renovated and built up restaurant and specialty shops. It’s a great cookware shop too.
Where would you head to in San Antonio for the best shopping and what would you buy?
I don’t shop. San Antonio is a shopping destination though, and the various malls and outlet malls are on must-do lists from folks all over Texas and Mexico. Even visiting Asians want in on the San Antonio shopping action. I collect graphic novels (Manara and Crepax, Hergé, and Goscinny & Uderzo are some of the better known authors whose books I have), and I can’t find these in San Antonio.
Where would you recommend people stay (hotels etc.) when they visit San Antonio?
Downtown San Antonio, or close by; no contest. One of my favorite hotels is the Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk on the corner of Market and St. Mary’s streets. An old bank building with a wonderfully renovated/refurbished lobby that includes the building’s original art-deco glass murals. Yes, it’s a chain hotel, but it’s a wonderful building in an impeccable location. Of course, there are countless traditional Bed & Breakfast and Airbnb listings in San Antonio. Many are in some of our most charming neighborhoods: King William, Lavaca, Monte Vista, Alamo Heights and Olmos Park are the most centrally located.
What are the best places to see and buy art in San Antonio?
I’m not a museum person. I prefer less formal venues and private galleries. My preferences below:
• My favorite non-profit galleries of contemporary art are located in the Southwest School of Art on the corner of Augusta and Navarro Streets, just across from the San Antonio Central Library (an iconic building designed by Mexican Architect Ricardo Legorreta). The Southwest School of Art occupies what once was an Ursuline Convent that includes a striking chapel and beautiful grounds from where you can take a few steps down to the San Antonio River Walk. The artwork is always fresh, inventive and well presented. The main galleries are located at the adjacent campus on Navarro Street.
• The South Flores District galleries at South Flores Street and Lone Star Boulevard: A true grass roots arts community with more than 20 small galleries showing original works by up-and-coming local artists. Most are open throughout the week by appointment, and all are open every Second Saturday of the month, when it becomes a major art walk event.
• Rendon Photography & Fine Art, on South Alamo: The only dedicated photography gallery in San Antonio, it also features a large selection of Al Rendon’s photographs of San Antonio and San Antonio traditions.
• Ruiz-Healy Art on Olmos Drive: A private gallery in the Olmos Park area, north of downtown.
• AnArte Gallery on Broadway and Sunset: Another private gallery in the northern Alamo Heights area.
What are the best places to see live bands or musicians in San Antonio and why?
Being a composer and musician, I rarely venture out to watch others perform, but I stay informed on venues and performances. My choices below:
• Sam’s Burger Joint on Grayson and Broadway is one of San Antonio’s most reliable presenters of interesting, eclectic music in an informal outdoor setting.
• The Carver Community Cultural Center, at the corner of Hackberry and Center Streets: The best subscription program in town for quality performances by national and international artists.
• Tobin Center For The Performing Arts and Auditorium Circle: State of the art performance center with three stages and mostly traveling shows of well-established performers of a certain age.
• Paper Tiger on North S. Mary’s Street: Indie, punk, noise, hardcore, hip hop, electronic, country, and, really everything.
• Jazz, TX on Pearl Parkway: Upscale venue for live jazz with mostly South Texas talent.
Please tell us about FOTOSEPTIEMBRE USA SAFOTO. What can we look forward to this year?
FOTOSEPTIEMBRE USA SAFOTO is an inclusive, eclectic, diverse community-based festival of the photographic arts. All levels of photography-based artists, from amateurs to established professionals, join us every year in September. Our local geographic community encompasses the San Antonio metro area, the Texas Hill Country, and Austin; a regional agglomeration of distinct cultural entities, each one defined by their particular constituencies. We project our geographic community’s efforts to a world-wide audience of photography enthusiasts; a global community that has become a significant part of our outreach and interaction. Engaging electronically with a global community as we do daily, forces us to consider a much broader set of particular constituencies that are closely defined by nationalities and regional cultural traditions, yet more global in their mindsets.
Some of the most interesting FOTOSEPTIEMBRE USA 2017 exhibitions are Pedro Valtierra’s “Imágenes En Conflicto” at Mexican Cultural Institute; Laura Wilson’s “That Day – Pictures In The American West” at Briscoe Western Art Museum; E. Dan Klepper’s “Why The Raven Calls The Canyon” at The Twig Book Shop; Julysa Sosa’s “Trizas” at AP Art Lab; Jennifer Garza-Cuen’s “Wandering In Place – Eden, VT” at Palmetto Center For The Arts; Scott Martin‘s “Lunar” at Dorćol Distilling + Brewing Co.; “Animalia” by various photographic artists and “Hands Around The World”, an installation of cyanotype peace flags created by photographers from around the world, in celebration of World Cyanotype Day at A Smith Gallery, and “Desert – Flora” by Richard Nitschke and Christina Nouveau at Intermezzo Gallery.
What other projects are you currently working on/involved in?
Last November, I published my latest album of guitar music, Blue Sky Blacktop, on my personal web site. All the music (and music from my prior albums) are free downloads. I am currently composing music for my next album, yet untitled, and am at the beginning stage of a new series of images.
Click here to view a slideshow of San Antonio.