With a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from the University of California at Los Angeles, Corpus Christi-born artist Ana Fernandez could have settled into a secure academic career. She taught at San Antonio College after returning to her adopted hometown in 2009, but then an entrepreneurial urge kicked in and she decided to open a food truck, the Institute of Chili.
“I’ve always been enterprising,” Fernandez told Out In SA in her home studio on the near East Side. “In elementary school, I used to sell gum for a nickel apiece. I would draw pictures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and sell them — good thing Disney never found out. In middle school, I started a zine called Rooomers that I sold. Teaching, I thought, might have made me too comfortable. I like the idea of being my own boss and having my own business, so a food truck seemed natural.”
She had no culinary training, but had grown up helping her mother and female relatives make tamales. She researched the original recipes used by San Antonio’s chili queens at the Institute of Texan Cultures and came up with her own modern version, using better cuts of meat. She sold her car and borrowed money from her mom, aunt and some of her art patrons. She bought an old 1978 fruit truck, painted it herself and started hawking her early Tex-Mex-inspired cuisine at local parks.
In her first year, she appeared on the travel food series Motochefs, with chef Aarón Sánchez, and her chili was rated the best in the country by Food & Wine magazine. But she was working 18-hour days seven days a week.
“At one point, I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing? Why am I working so hard for so little money?’” she said. “I realized I needed to increase my sales; so last spring I decided to add one of my favorite childhood treats to my menu — raspas.”
“Raspa” comes from the Spanish phrase hielo raspado, meaning scraped ice. She bought a high-capacity shaved ice machine that turns 300-pound blocks of ice into fluffy snow. Toppings include tamarindo, mangonada and piccadilly along with handcrafted fruit syrups and chamoy, a Mexican sweet-and-sour condiment that’s become popular with foodies and bartenders. Employing the color theory she learned in art school, Fernandez created fabulous frozen concoctions such as Komodo Dragon, Picadilly Circus and Diablito. When her raspas took off, she extended the name of her truck to include Chamoy City Limits.
“Chamoy is actually Asian in origin and refers to pickled fruit,” Fernandez said. “It’s made with pickled fruit, chili base, sugar and citrus. Pickle juice is surprisingly refreshing served over ice in the summer. The chili base for my chamoy is the same one I used to make chili, so it was easy. I’ve also learned to make my own syrups, starting from scratch, with fresh fruit. But I had no idea how big a hit the raspas would be.”
Chamoy City Limits now has more than 35,000 “likes” on its Facebook page. Instead of seven days a week, she currently operates the truck only two days a week, usually from 1 to 8 p.m. Saturdays at Lions Field Adult Center on Broadway and Sundays at O.P. Schnabel Park in Northwest San Antonio.
She spends two days a week on prep and she’s hired two employees. Raspas from Chamoy City Limits have been named “Best Raspa” in the city by KMOL in 2014 and by the San Antonio Current in 2015 and 2016. During the summer, the wait for one of her raspas can be more than two hours.
“We have people coming in from all over to try our raspas,” Fernandez said. “I have customers driving in from Austin and Houston. I wanted my food truck to be so good that it would become a destination, and I think that’s happened. If you have a good product, it will sell and people will keep coming back. I feel the same way about my art.”
During Contemporary Art Month, Fernandez’s “New Watercolors” show at Silkwörm Studio and Gallery sold out, earning a spot in the online art magazine Glasstire’s “Top Five” and picking up the “Through the Looking Glass Award for Bending Perceptions” at the 2016 CAMMIE Awards. Fernandez has an upcoming show opening August 20 at the artist-run project space Winslow Garage, in Los Angeles. She’s known for her realistic paintings of San Antonio homes, especially inner-city Craftsman-style bungalows from the first half of the 20th century.
“Families in San Antonio tend to live in these houses for a long time, handing them down through the generations,” she said. “What’s inside the house starts to show on the outside. These houses have a lot of character and reveal a lot about the soul of San Antonio.”
She admires another well-known San Antonio artist, Jesse Treviño, who paints hyper-realistic portraits of architectural landmarks. But Treviño tends to paint his houses and buildings in the brightest noonday light, while Fernandez often depicts her homes at dusk, or at night with lights glowing. The nocturnal settings can be unsettling, providing a brooding hint of menace or psychological darkness, or perhaps conjuring the magical and fantastical. Figures sometimes inhabit her paintings, reflecting an existential loneliness associated with the stark realism of Edward Hopper. Fernandez said she especially studied Spanish artist Diego Velazquez, who influenced Hopper.
“I admire the way light can be a character in the paintings of Vermeer,” Fernandez said. “I like the interplay of light and dark. I like history and learning the stories about people and places. But in grad school, everyone thought painting was boring.”
Always interested in art, she received encouragement from her mother, who taught her how to make oil paintings when she was only 6. “My mother took us to the South Texas Museum of Art all the time,” Fernandez said. “She wanted us to be educated about art. My parents never told me not to be an artist.” Fernandez grew up in Corpus Christi and had a tight circle of friends until her junior year in high school, when her father got a job at Fort Sam Houston and moved the family to San Antonio. She attended Roosevelt High School. “In San Antonio, I learned that being smart made you cool,” she said.
Although aware she was a lesbian, she didn’t begin dating until she was in college and came out to the art community in the 1990s. But her sexual identity has never been an issue for her. “I was a big tomboy growing up,” she said. “I liked cars and bicycles. I liked building model cars.”
She started out as a history major at the University of Texas at San Antonio, but had an epiphany one day walking past the art department. “I could smell the linseed oil and oil paint and I thought, that’s what I should be learning in school.” However, she wanted to get away from South Texas and decided to apply to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in part because “My dad’s favorite movie is The Blues Brothers.” She spent three years in Chicago studying and working two part-time jobs. “I’ve always been interested in realism, so I painted a lot of landscapes,” she said. “SAIC is where I learned to draw. I took all the figurative drawing classes.”
Accepted into the graduate program at University of California, Los Angeles, Fernandez headed to the West Coast. “I didn’t care what happened,” she said. “I was going to do what I wanted to do. Los Angeles was great. I found a place in Venice and I worked in the coffee shop at Barnes & Noble. I saw a ton of celebrities there, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Hopkins. But I’m still paying off student loans.” After graduation, she landed a job at Stamps.com. The online company made it possible for individuals to print their own postage stamps using their own photographs. Fernandez’s job was to make sure the images weren’t going to offend the U.S. Postal Service. She was laid off in 2009 after the financial crisis hit.
“Los Angeles was great, but I had a relationship that ended and decided my home was in San Antonio,” Fernandez said. “It’s the place where I’ve always felt the most creative.”