Sitting in the front room of Art in Uncommon Place’s (AIUP) building on South Irving Street, its gray cinderblock walls adorned with a plethora of brightly colored canvases, Thomas, AIUP’s CEO, flipped through a project notebook for Paintbrush Alley. “The alley, oh my goodness, the alley,” she said, running a manicured finger over glossy photos from the old Western movie Giant, the theme of the recently revamped alley.
Comprised of the rears of a handful of downtown buildings on Concho Avenue and Twohig, Paintbrush Alley became one of AIUP’s first public outdoor canvases more than a decade ago, shortly after the group started with the goal of bringing art to unexpected areas of town, like parks and spots along the river. “We look for areas that would be conducive to free art,” Thomas said. “We’re never closed; it’s accessible to everyone at no charge. And that’s our whole goal, to make sure everyone in the community has access to free art.”
So far, AIUP has gifted the city with dozens upon dozens of art pieces, including vivid mosaic-tiled benches, tuffets, a firetruck, and a Volkswagen Beetle; larger-than-life-sized wire figures filled with pebbles; metal ants, dogs, snails, and massive birdcages; and a one-mile glow stone trail on Red Arroyo Trail, the first of its kind in the United States. Thomas and co-founder Julie Raymond work without collecting a salary and also utilize the volunteered time and talents of other local artists and San Angelo residents.
“If it’s a great big project, we can do an all-call and publicize it,” Thomas said. She recalled the time, years ago, when AIUP asked for the public’s help tiling a defunct firetruck, which today sits in Firefighter’s Memorial City Park. “We signed up 30 people every two hours,” she said, adding that volunteers stayed even after their shifts were over and as new people arrived to help. “We had allowed three days to complete that fire truck, and we did it in two.”
Local county jail trustees also contribute their time, sometimes as often as every week, Thomas said. In return, AIUP feeds them lunch, which is provided and made by a group of Thomas’s and Raymond’s friends.
“These days it’s just amazing the interest,” Thomas said of the community’s willingness to help. “People in San Angelo are so generous. People are so willing, especially business owners, to help us in kind.”
The city, she added, has become a hub for all kinds of artists. “Our symphony, ballet, civic theatre . . . there is so much going on all the time that’s art-related,” she said.
From Faded to Fabulous
The once vibrant pops of color in AIUP’s first project, Paintbrush Alley, began to fade with time. The plexiglass squares made to look like windows on one building were cracked and broken. Vandals repeatedly marred walls with spray paint.
Del Velasquez, the executive director of Downtown San Angelo, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to promoting historic Downtown San Angelo, contacted a local artist, who then reached out to AIUP about rejuvenating the alley. “A friend of ours went to market and came back talking about how the entire Western clothes market had used the theme Giant,” Thomas said, referencing the 1956 Western drama set in Marfa. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, the movie starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.
“We thought, ‘Let’s just roll with that,’” Thomas said of deciding to re-design the alley to the movie’s theme. “In January (of 2019), we went to Downtown, Inc. and presented what we wanted to do. We put the concept together in two days.”
Flipping through the project notebook, gold bracelets on her wrist tinkling, Thomas stopped on a black-and-white photo of Hudson and Taylor. “Julie knew she wanted to do this in the plastic cowboys and [Native Americans],” she said, referring to a three-dimensional art installation comprised of the tiny plastic toys, each glued in such a way that, with a step back, the outline of Taylor’s and Hudson’s faces are clearly visible.
“Julie knows so many people, and we made a list of twenty artists to invite to contribute to the alley,” Thomas said.
Even though AIUP did not publicize what was being done to Paintbrush Alley, it was not long before local artists began calling and begging for a spot to display their work. “We kept adding and adding and adding” spaces where artists could showcase their talent, Thomas said. “We brought in about six young artists in their 30s or younger. That gave them a place to showcase their art that they normally wouldn’t have.
“We white-washed everything and just got a brand-new beginning. A number of painters had never done murals on walls. We wanted to provide them a clean space, like a canvas.”
The brick of the buildings is historic and cannot be painted on, Thomas said, so artists had to paint much of their work, including a cowboy (dubbed Angelo Slim), a cactus, a jail, and a boot shop, on boards, which were then affixed to the brick.
Approximately 50 local artists designed 50 pieces for the alley. “They provided their time, their art supplies,” Thomas said, adding with a chuckle, “their blood, sweat, and tears. What a generous gift. Some of them could have commissioned $5,000 to $10,000 for their pieces. There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars of art down there.”
The group scheduled the alley’s grand reopening to take place the same day as San Angelo Gives, a day-long online fundraiser for area nonprofits. “It gets people in the community out and about to promote our organization for donations,” Thomas said. “We had over 400 people in the alley that night. People were excited.”
Weeks after the reopening, San Angelo residents like Thomas are still visibly enthusiastic. “I still have to go there every day,” she said. “It’s like a part of my life now; I must go to the alley to drive through. I’m excited every time. It’s just so bright. It speaks volumes of happiness to see people walking down there and taking pictures. It’s a happy place.”