In 2018 Jenelle Esparza experienced an artistic transformational moment when she set aside her training as a photographer, painter, printer, and digital artist to take weaving classes at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio. Learning to weave came naturally to her. She told Lauren Moya Ford of the online Texas visual arts magazine Glasstire: “It was familiar in a way, like I used to know how to do it, and was just relearning it.” The classes paid off. In her 2018 ArtPace Residency, Esparza initiated her first major conceptual woven artwork. Esparza so enjoyed making the large, wall-sized cotton tapestries for the Artpace exhibit that she has now focused completely on weaving as her art practice.
Jenelle Esparza’s inclusion in “Artists Looking at Art,” a recent exhibit at the McNay Museum of Art, demonstrated an ability to link woven patterns to her Mexican American past. She traced three generations of ancestors on her maternal grandmother’s side to cotton farming. Their work as cotton pickers inspired her to weave textiles and reconstruct found objects to tell her
ancestral story of hard work, isolation, and exploitation. This artistic narrative resonates with me personally since my parents and four grandparents also worked in the cotton fields of South Texas in their youth.
Esparza grew up in the South Texas community of Corpus Christi. Her artistic father encouraged creative development, and early in her childhood, he gave his daughter a 35mm camera. Upon graduation from high school, she attended Del Mar Community College. Esparza took part-time jobs as a cook to pay for her tuition. Her main focus at Del Mar College lay in the art classes, and when she moved to San Antonio in 2008 to attend the University of Texas-San Antonio she continued to major in art.
Esparza based her decision to remain in San Antonio after finishing her art degree partly because the Alamo city has been cultivating a reputation of being highly receptive to Latino artists. During my years as President of UTSA, I had the opportunity to add more than 2,000 art pieces to UTSA’s libraries and office walls, the majority by Latino artists. The City of San Antonio Cultural Arts Program and the University Health System acquired thousands of artworks over the past ten years, including several of her recent weaving pieces. Esparza has also found support for her work from Blue Star and the McNay Contemporary
Art Museum, and early in her career she received Grants from the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture [NALAC] as well as a summer Residency from ArtPace.
Young artists like Esparza often have to take many different paths to achieve success in their fields of endeavor. There are demands associated with
participating in exhibits and the constant worries of selling one’s art. Many graduates of university art programs or art schools start as interns and few encounter well-paying work in the early years. Esparza was fortunate to find an
internship and a full-time job with Chuck Mauer, a well-respected photographer in San Antonio. She worked for Mauer’s Alternative Ink shop from 2010-2012, then left to pursue freelance work. In 2016 she took a position as Museum Educator, Family Experiences as part of the public education outreach initiative of the McNay Art Museum.
Esparza’s weaving is not traditional. She often refers to her creative process as experimental and conceptual. Although she is an admirer of the Navajo and Oaxacan
weavers, her style is unique; she designs and weaves her own version of a blanket or rug. At times the work does not even resemble a blanket or rug. She gives deep thought to the narrative she wishes to tell. Her mind is filled with stories connected to her family history and the family’s relationships with cotton. Thus, each of her weavings has a narrative behind it. She draws on the stories her father and grandparents told her when she was a young girl.
Esparza has preserved numerous tools related to her family’s farming and their ordeals as cotton pickers. She keeps a small plow and several other farming tools that
belonged to her grandfather in the small studio behind her home. She has drawings of the notorious short hoe called “el cortito” by cotton workers. The cotton workers hated the short hoe because it required that they bend low to the ground to weed or harvest crops growing only inches from the soil. She has studied the history of “el cortito.” She knows that through the efforts of the United Farmworkers Union and farm labor leader, Cesar Chavez, California passed a law banning the short hoe’s use in the fields. In her new exhibit at the Kinfolk House in Fort Worth, Esparza connects some of the farm tools with her weavings.
Esparza’s role as co-owner of Presa House, an art gallery in Southtown that she operates with her partner, Rigoberto Luna, enables her to promote the artwork of other emerging artists from the region. She is generous in acknowledging Luna’s connections with artists and his major role in preparing the Presa House exhibits. In a recent exhibit I attended at Presa House, the Luna-Esparza team showcased the artwork of Latino artists from Albuquerque, New Mexico and San Diego, California.
Glasstire online magazine author, Lauren Moya Ford, commended Esparza for her commitment to finding the “hidden histories of Mexican American, Tejano, and Indigenous narratives in her home region of South Texas.” South Texas is full of rich stories of conquest, settlement, and development. Jenelle Esparza’s ability to use art to convey some of these narratives makes the observer reflect on the diverse social and economic contributions to Borderlands history.