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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Sala Diaz, one of the best art galleries in San Antonio, doesn’t look like much from the outside. It takes up one half of a dilapidated white house that sits slouched on a shady street about a mile south of the sprawling downtown. Northwards, tourist attractions like the Alamo and the Riverwalk bring noisy busloads of school children and families snapping pictures, but here the streets are torn by construction and hard to navigate. A leafy tree hides the sign in the window; if you didn’t know better, you’d think this house was the same as any other in the neighborhood. But inside, instead of furniture, neat rows of fuzzy, rainbow-colored wool balls lie carefully arranged on the hardwood floors of the front rooma piece by San Antonio artist Michele Monseau. Hills Snyder, the director of Sala Diaz and himself a recognized artist, is a soft-spoken man with long graying hair who moved down from Austin nine years ago, looking for a less hectic place to live. “The culture is pretty diverse, and it is fairly inexpensive to live here,” Snyder said. Cheap living, along with the art program at UT-San Antonio and a proliferation of galleries, have made San Antonio a flourishing place for artists. Studios are easy to find, the traffic is light, and artist-run “alternative spaces” seem to be everywhere. Sala Diaz was created by another artist, Alejandro Diaz, who decided to withdraw his living quarters to the kitchen and use the front space of his house as a gallery. When Diaz left to attend the Curatorial Studies program at Bard College in New York, Snyder took over the space. Frances Colpitt, a critic and independent curator who writes for Art in America, stopped by to view Monseau’s work while I was visiting Sala Diaz. She’d heard from the graduate students she teaches at UT-San Antonio about one of Monseau’s pieces, a sculpture made from cat whiskers the artist collected from her own pet and those of her friends. “That’s not all that many cat whiskers,” she reported after touring the house. “I’m not all that shocked.” Colpitt relocated to San Antonio from Los Angeles in 1990 and started teaching contemporary art at UTSA. “For a fairly small townSan Antonio has a million plus people, but it acts like a small townthere’s a huge art scene,” she said. “It’s as vital and as interesting and there’s as much going on as there is in any other city this size. More than any other city this size.” Art is blooming here, and there are several reasons for all this creative activity. For one thing, the graduate studio program at UT-San Antonio regu larly produces artists, and many of them stay in town after graduating. For another, the BlueStar Arts Complex, a compound of galleries located on South Alamo, has established itself as a strong presence in San Antonio over the past 15 years. The complex also holds a large restaurant and stores selling folk art, jewelry, and other trinkets, as well as Say Si, a non-profit program that gives high school students a place to make art. Interspersed among these are studios rented by artists, some of which have been partially cleaned out and turned into galleries. Not far from BlueStar, in a converted factory now painted deep purple, is Finesilver, a serious commercial gallery representing artists from San Antonio and elsewhere. The Finesilver building is warehousesized, large enough to hold a two-story gallery as well as office space rented to local companies. Finesilver’s owner, Chris Eick, envisions a restaurant there too one day. When I visited, Finesilver was showing work made out of coffee filters and tea bags by Ana Prado, photographs by Olga Adelantado, and “Tentacus,” by Stacey Neff, a row of pale plastic phalluses twisting at eye level on the wall. Besides BlueStar and Finesilver, ArtPace, a foundation for con temporary art that opened in 1995, is frequently mentioned as a landmark in the history of the art community here. Linda Pace, an artist and San Antonio native whose father invented Pace picante salsa, started the foun dation as a way to put the city in touch with the larger art world. Located in a renovated 1920s car showroom, the foundation has the slick post-industrial architecture and hushed, formal San Antonio Art: Down-Home and World Famous BY ALIX OHLIN 7/20/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11