Latino art gallery opens exhibition honoring prolific artist Nivia González

Rachel Zein

In an intimate, crowded gallery, visitors take in dozens of canvasses depicting a similar subject: the solemn faces of brown-skinned women, adorned by generous pieces of shimmering gold leaf and vivid colors.

This past Sunday, the owners of La Peña, a Latino art gallery in downtown Austin, hosted a tribute celebration for artist Nivia González, who passed away earlier this month. The gallery’s newest exhibition, “Nivia González: Life and Transition,” also opened Sunday, and will be on display for the next two months.

González is probably best known for providing the cover art for books by Sandra Cisneros and Alice Walker, but her art can be found in a wide range of places, from the Smithsonian Latino Center in Washington to small, locally owned restaurants in San Antonio.

“She was an everywhere artist,” said Selena Watson, González’s daughter.

In González’s case, “everywhere” included the penal system. While serving as the Bexar County Jail Arts Program director in 1987, she commissioned inmates to create a mural that reportedly caused Pope John Paul II to cry while visiting during a trip to San Antonio later that year.

At the peak of her career in the late ’80s and early ’90s, González received dozens of commissions in short spans of time. Regina Antelo, Watson's twin, recalled that at times González struggled to keep up with the pace of commissions coming from galleries and patrons across the country.

“She had to work all the time, and she had to create all the time,” Antelo said.

To help with the work load, González often asked her daughters to underpaint, or apply the initial coat of paint to a canvas. Antelo recalls sitting in the living room of their home with her twin, applying shades of blue to canvasses while González watched old movies in her bedroom in rare moments of rest.

González’s impressive flow of art came to an abrupt halt in 1997, when a car accident left the artist in a temporary coma and with significant brain damage. For a brief period of time, González lost mobility on the left side of her body – including her painting hand. Though Gonzalez’s ability to paint returned, Antelo said some of her more technical painting skills did not.

“Even after her brain injury when she lost her memory and she couldn’t paint as well anymore, she continued painting women,” Antelo said.

The artist’s daughter said González never romanticized or idealized the image of a woman.

“She was about empowering women, not reducing them to a stereotype,” Antelo said.

Cynthia Pérez, co-owner of La Peña and longtime friend of González, said González chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Art Education at UT in part because of the legitimacy the degree provided.

“At a time when Latina artists in the U.S. were not being paid attention to, she thought that education was needed,” Pérez said.

Pérez said that González was painting Latina women at a time when “nobody (else) was really doing that.”

Antelo said the lack of representation persisted even after her mother received her degree.

“She was always in this cloud of men having to compete for a spot,” Antelo said.

Pérez said it was important the exhibition include González’s works painted both before and after the accident to show the artist’s consistency.

“Even after her accident, she retained her vision,” Pérez said.

Antelo said before the accident, González painted her subjects with closed eyes, but afterwards there was a significant change.

“Before the accident, she was always looking inwards, so the women were as well. Afterwards, she just wanted to take in everything she saw,” Antelo said.

Across the gallery, a handful of González’s more recent paintings stood out among older works, meeting the viewer with an open, sobering gaze.