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Part 4: What's going on at the Guadalupe Center? Mary Jessie Garza, former Arts Education Director and a Cancer patient , tells her story

Mary Jessie Garza is too sencilla and too dedicated for her own good. Under her direction, the Arts Education team raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for arts education at the Guadalupe Cultural Center. But she made a mistake. She became the Interim Executive Director last summer while the Board continued its national search. The new director, with the title of President, R. Bret Ruiz, fired her on January 11th, 2006.

Mary Jessie, a respected photographer, has cancer, and is now scrambling for medicine and good medical care.

I got locked up in a closet and couldn’t get out. They got me good. Mary Jessie’s first teaching job, after receiving her BFA from UTSA in 1982, was unforgettable.

Now a middle-aged woman with two teenagers, she remembers. Her voice is deceptively mild, her body recuperating from chemotherapy, her hair a graying, curly cap that adds fire to her light skin and modesty. She's one of those people you know who's quiet and a little mysterious. Now I know why.

Her voice rises with her cuento, laughing at the memories, proud of what she's done. Worried, always preocupada. About the children who are missing their art classes.

When Mary Jessie graduated from college, the Texas Commission on the Arts (TCA), offered her a chance to share her professional life experience with youth in school. She ended up receiving ten of those contracts back to back. The school she was visiting would generally give her a closet and she would transform it into a darkroom. But that first school she went to, Irving Middle School - she had no idea what to expect.

So there she was, in the closet. Literally. She almost panicked, stopped herself, remembering that they were only kids. After what seemed a long time, she felt a hand turn the doorknob. She got out, pretended nothing had happened. They’re ten years old, she thought.

Aperture. I picked up and started where I left. That was a most wonderful time in my life. I was never the same again.

Mary Jessie is from the southside of San Antonio, and graduated from Jefferson High School. When she was in college at UTSA, she decided to see the art she was studying firsthand. She saved the money so that she could live in Europe for a year, got an apartment in Switzerland, and traveled through Paris, Berlin, Venice, Athens. She wanted to see the Parthenon, had to see Michaelangelo’s David. Smell it.

I’ve always believed that art is in your heart and home, but wanted to see what others were doing. The art I saw there was in relation to their life and home, and when I came back, knew that I as a chicana artist my theme would be what was around and close to me.

At Irving Middle School, where the students had locked her in the closet, a counselor came by to see how she was doing, saying she was sorry, but that the teachers had sent her the worst students! The teachers had sent the students they didn’t want.

Three weeks the students who locked her in the closet were creating art. During that time, those students filled three hundred busses with their photography and poems. The kids never forgot this, she says. They must be in their thirties now, sometimes she recognizes a voice. I had a great time. Kids have anatural ability to create art, she says, smiling at the memory. You never tell them what to shoot. You give them a problem to figure out. It’s too amazing. I was there for three years.

For the next eight years, she taught the spectrum of art from elementary through high school students all over the city. I had kids who were deaf. How do you communicate with kids in another way? When a teacher goes to teach, she also goes to learn. If you can’t reach them, it’s simple, it’s because you can reach them. I became a teacher’s teacher. I can tell in one visit if they can do it or not. I spent 5 years at Healy Murphy (on the Eastside, at Nolan and 37). That was an exciting time. Those kids were mostly adjudicated, the girls were pregnant, last chance. No school wanted them anymore. I gotta tell you. I loved that place. A lot of those youth still call me and still want to know what I’m doing. Some of those kids have become professionals. One is an electrician, another is in film production. One is a math teacher.

Mary Jessie knew that these students had suffered a great deal, who felt defeated. When you walk through my door, you have an automatic A, she told her students. It’s up to you. The truth is that we’re born artists. Some of it dies off because of neglect, and the kid will hang onto it. The gifted one cannot let it go and will not let it go. It’s a gentle way of reaching the child. It’s the arts. Music dance, even stepping up to the mike and tell a joke.

At Healy Murphy, Mary Jessie’s students got noticed. Grants from the city, exhibitions. There’s nothing like a student getting paid for their photography, she said. Then she got a call from Rita Starpattern at the TCA. The NEA and the TCA were starting a pilot project, taking the artists out of the institution, into the community. It was called Project Bridge, and Mary Jessie was the artist chosen for San Antonio.

Along with her teaching, Mary Jessie was exhibiting her work in shows across the state, the country, Mexico, and even Europe. She’s been in shows at the prestigious McNay Museum in San Antonio. She’s been at the Witte Museum, and at the University of North Texas in Denton with Franco Mondini.

In Project Bridge, Mary Jessie was assigned to the housing projects. It was tough because of drivebyes, puddles of blood. Ninety percent of the residents were single women with four children. The kids were hungry, they had piojos, pinworms,.and the lice would sometimes drop from their heads onto their books. She would just brush them off. Sometimes she would go outside, take a breath and go back in. I stuck it out. Five years. Published a book, and the Housing Authority picked me up and worked with the Community Arts program. Worked with kids, using the mediums of clay, paint, photography. The mothers got so much into it. Had to run them off in the afternoon, when the children arrived from school, they had such a desire to create of their own. She spent ten years at the Housing Authority.

Then she went to the Guadalupe Cultural Center. And got fired.


Photo: The old Arts Education Building, photograph by Barbara Renaud Gonzalez

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