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Strachwitz Frontera Collection

Conjunto Painting
Agustin Gurza | Sunday, March 2, 2014 | 0 comments

The two norteño musicians were strolling down the main street in the border town of Nuevo Progreso when a woman stopped to talk to them. She was an artist from just across the border, in McAllen, Texas, and she wanted permission to paint their portrait. Her name was Reefka and she had an eye for character in the subjects she spotted along the porous border along the Rio Grande Valley. She would snap pictures and ask questions about their lives, the better to capture their essence in her art. Her husband and creative partner, Steven Schneider, would then write poems or short prose paragraphs about the people they met, inspired by the paintings.

Of all the dozens of paintings in their collection, this one jumped out at me. It feels alive and vibrant, like the music itself. The hues in watercolors and pastels are warm, like the men’s expressions. And their strong bicultural identity is symbolized by their gear: white tejano hats on their heads and iconic instruments strapped across their shoulders, the accordion and the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar played primarily by norteño groups.

“I start with the colors that express feelings of the people, warm bright colors,” said Reefka Schneider in a phone interview.

She also tried to capture what she calls “this interaction” between her two subjects, who somehow feel joined, though they’re not looking at each other. It’s simply titled “Conjunto,” which literally means joined in Spanish but which is also refers to the ensembles which play norteño music, the accordion-based style which forms such a major part of the Frontera Collection.

These two anonymous musicians were part of a band that played in restaurants and cantinas around the small town in the state of Tamaulipas, between Brownsville and Reynosa. During the day, the duo wandered the streets playing for tips.

In his companion piece for the painting, Steven Schneider captures the small-town Mexican scene in a slice-of-life paragraph he calls “Playing From the Heart” :

"Tonight you will join the other members of your conjunto ensemble to play at a wedding. Guests will come from as far away as Tampico and Reynosa. It will be a cool and starry night, and the dance floor will be full with couples dancing…. The years you have played together, the labor you have done, the families you have raised, la música that you play from your hearts: here, where the smell of grilled fajita wafts in the air, where tequila is suave, where couples young and old hold each other close, dancing beneath the luceros and colorful balloons in the hall. Your white shirts and white sombreros, your happy faces, so amable, suggest la música has no enemies: your proud, bright music with its long and deep roots."

There are hundreds of anonymous musicians roaming the border towns, trying to make a living, playing the music they love. They would go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world if it were not for visitors who see something soulful in their faces, and something joyful and heartfelt in their music.

The work of Reefka and Steven Schneider reminded me in a way of the early cultural explorations of Chris Strachwitz, the roots music producer who spent half a century amassing the physical Frontera Collection. Originally interested in blues, country, Cajun and other American styles, Strachwitz was drawn to the sounds of Tex-Mex and conjunto music even though he didn’t understand the language. He too would visit border towns in search of the best bands and singers, often with a guide to show him the way. Just like the Schneiders, he rambled the streets with his ears tuned like musical antennae. In fact, that is precisely how he came across the first Mexican conjunto he ever recorded for his label, Arhoolie Records. They were called Los Pinguinos de Norte, and he found them in the tiny town of Piedras Negras, just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. The story – or adventure – behind the making of that 1970 record is a whole separate blog post for another day. For now, suffice to say that Chris also hoped to capture and share the feelings those musicians conveyed in their music.

The Schneiders plan to publish a new collection of their paintings/poems titled “The Magic of Mariachi,” featuring 24 pastel paintings of dancers and musicians. It includes two portraits of members of the famed Mariachi Vargas, in poses captured a few years ago during an annual arts education festival sponsored by the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas, where Steven Schneider is Professor of English and Director of New Programs and Special Projects for the College of Arts and Humanities. The “Conjunto” portrait will be one of the few pieces in the book not directly related to mariachi music. The couple previously published an award-winning volume titled Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives, which features 25 drawings of average people who live and work along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Through their art, the Schneiders hope to “promote creativity and cross-cultural understanding.” A mission certainly shared by the creators and curators of the Frontera Collection.

-AgustÍn Gurza

Title: "Conjunto"
Artist: Reefka
Media: Watercolor and pastel
Dimensions: 34" x 26"


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