Art Across the Border: An Interview with Hank Lee of San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio

by Jessica Fuentes March 27, 2024

When I visited San Antonio in February, I grabbed tea with Elyse Gonzalez, Director of Ruby City, at Halcyon, a coffee shop within the Blue Star Arts Complex. As we caught up, she suggested that we pop over to San Angel Folk Art Gallery, also located within Blue Star, because I needed to meet Richard Henry (Hank) Lee and see his space.

I didn’t know what to expect, but when I walked into the gallery overflowing with textiles, housewares, and small sculptures, I was intrigued. San Antonio’s Historic Market Square, just two miles away, is filled with similar items made by Mexican artisans, but San Angel was clearly more curated and had a wider range of objects available. Hank Lee greeted us warmly as he simultaneously entertained a client who was trying on coats. Lee’s energy was infectious as he showed me around the shop. We spent maybe ten minutes in the space, as I was rushing between appointments, but our brief encounter made me curious to learn more. 

During that visit, Lee hinted about his work with Mexican artists and crafters through a sustainable project-based approach. It was clear that beyond being a businessman selling objects from across the U.S./Mexico border, Lee had spent a wealth of time in Mexico and had a deep appreciation and respect for arts and culture of the region. I had so many questions that it was imperative that I return and spend more time learning about Lee and his gallery. Below is an edited version of a conversation we had in early March 2024.

A photograph of gallerist Hank Lee standing in front of an array of art objects from Latin America.

Richard Henry (Hank) Lee at San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio. Photo by Raul Rodriguez.

Jessica Fuentes (JF): Let’s start at the beginning. What brought you to San Antonio?

Hank Lee (HL): I grew up in Houston, and you know, we had such a rich mix of everything. Then my parents got divorced. Well, my mom was an anthropologist and archaeologist and went to Rice University (and Margaret Mead was on her committee). So, we grew up going to digs and doing all that kind of stuff that you would do as a child while your mother was doing grad school. 

JF: That’s really interesting. What was your mom specializing in? What kinds of places did you go to with her?

HL: My mother had a grant to work on the Karankawa People sites so we spent much time in the back bays on Galveston Island while she worked. Great times in a canoe.

JF: Tell me more about your family and what it was like growing up.

HL: My dad’s mother was an opera singer that had spent all her time in the 1920s in Spain, and my mother’s mother was an army teacher. So, she was traveling all around Germany and Okinawa and all that kind of stuff. And my mom was a school teacher, also there were five channels on TV, so you grew up learning. 

My parents made everybody have a collection. So, I had stamps, my brothers had coins. I think it was so ingrained… and then, at my boarding school, instead of taking English Lit, which you had to take in high school, I got to take Latin American Lit every semester.

I grew up in the 1970s and 80s and there was so much amazing Latin American Literature in the spotlight, including the magical realism movement, all those amazing novels were ingrained in my soul. Miró and Tamayo were having amazing retrospectives during that same time, and I could not get enough of seeing, reading, and traveling to be a part of those experiences.

JF: Where did you go to boarding school?

HL: Colorado Rocky Mountain School, which is near Aspen. It was a project that all these hippies had done, and then we worked at Anderson Ranch [Art Center]. It would get all muddy, and you’d go on interim term. So we would all go to Mexico… and we also had someone that helped in the house that lived with us forever. And then, when my mom moved to England, it was kind of total deprivation. I was always going to Mexico all the time. 

JF: Where did you attend college and what was that like? 

HL: I studied Marine Sciences at Texas A&M. Then I went back and got art degrees at UT and have degrees in Spanish and Architecture. And, after university, I moved to Los Angeles, but every weekend I put everybody in my car, we drove to Tijuana and Rosarito and everybody was like, “Oh, no, you need to go north!” But every weekend, we all went to Mexico. 

I thought, okay, well, I really don’t want to be in this town [LA]. It’s impossible to get ahead. I want to be back in a place that’s kind of close to the border where I can come and go and it’s isolated and doesn’t have a lot of growth… San Antonio was [that place]. So I opened this shop in 1989 just by doing it…I would take sheets and coolers and sell them on the side of the freeway in Veracruz and Mexico City. Insane. I don’t even know how I did it. I was just young and dumb. In college we used to go to Tampico — I made everybody go to Tampico all the time — and we would buy those frog purses. We would take them back and sell them at the nightclubs. That was our college drinking money. I think we were just trying to do things to be in Mexico all the time.

JF: Going back to your schooling — UT has a great Latin American Studies program.

HL: Yeah, it was Jacinto Quirarte back then and he was phenomenal. He made all his own textbooks. I took Colonial Architecture and during spring break we had to write something, so I drove to Central Mexico, and it was like the whole fucking textbook.

JF: So, you’ve traveled extensively to Mexico for decades?

HL: Yeah, and over time we just became more involved, and more involved, and we were constantly going every six weeks. I’d go for two weeks and explore and explore and just totally fall in love. Over the years, we started doing projects where we helped artists, and we would do three, five, and seven-year commitments so that they can make entire bodies of work. Everything kind of started changing, because we were getting all these big pieces and they couldn’t make any more, because there’s just not enough market, or it’s too much risk. 

Over the years, it’s kind of developed into more projects. Southtown was such an isolated area, when we opened in ‘89, that we started First Friday, we started Contemporary Art Month, we were founding members of the Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, and things like that. We’ve gone and done little projects on the side but we always came back to our core.

A photograph of the interior of the San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio.

San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio. Photo by Raul Rodriguez.

JF: So, you’ve always been in this space in the Blue Star complex?

HL: Always been in this space, I had three spaces downtown, but that was because they were geared more to bringing in tourists. The spaces were so beautiful, but everybody would buy something and want us to bring it over here, or everybody who worked for us there were artists. All the artists wanted to be at Blue Star, especially back then because it was all galleries in here.

JF: Tell me more about the three spaces you had.

HL: They were different. One was more commercial, and one was all household stuff. Not so much folk art, but handmade house stuff. And it was beautiful, but that area (downtown) started dying. The city started trying to keep everybody down on the river, where before it was all people working downtown who were on the streets. But over time the people that had all the restaurants aged out of having a downtown restaurant. And, of course, you didn’t need to be [downtown] because it was all these attorneys, with all their law offices, and now they’ve moved out to everybody buying a little building on the side of the freeway instead of being downtown. There were shops downtown all over that have all kind of gone. 

A photograph of the interior of the San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio.

San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio. Photo by Raul Rodriguez.

JF: I’m really interested in the projects that you do with artists. How do you identify the artists you work with? Where do you start to cultivate those relationships and how did that begin? 

HL: One of the tools I’ve always used is I go to the museums in every town and I study everything there and absorb as much as I can. I meet the people and I ask if I can walk through the stacks. I say, “Can I walk through the stacks?!,” and they’re like, “Nobody asks that!” But they usually take me. Then I build a relationship and they help me find people or show me people that I might be interested in. We usually keep a list of two or three people we want for the next three or four years that we would add in and start with, and see how that relationship builds. 

I’ve done it for so long. We get emails, letters, I’ve been on boards, so you get so much information. But I think that when I first opened, we sold mostly Texas and Mexican folk art, outsider, or self-taught stuff. Mexico was just constant — you go around the corner, and there’d be an Indigenous person selling some amazing textile or utilitarian bowl or something, just on the street sitting there in the shade. Over the decades, the Mexican government somehow decided that that wasn’t good. They used to let people set up in the zocalos, in the plazas, and they’ve kind of stopped that without regulation. 

Now they want it to be a project that they have their name on… but in the old days in Mexico City, there’d be all these people in zocalos, plumbers and shoe repairs, dress makers, and car mechanics. You’d go to like the shoe repair guy and he would have an amazing pair of clown shoes that he had made with extra stuff or something. You can just find all this stuff… or you’d find a tire repairman that had made stirrups out of old tires that he was selling on the side. I still always am peeking in windows or looking [through] the cracks of a door. Or, if I see something, I just knock. And I’m constantly going to villages. Brazil has been, kind of behind Mexico, in that you can still go and find lots of people in villages making stuff.

JF: So where all do you travel to purchase art?

HL: I have projects with the women who make my shirts, so that’s a lot of traveling back and forth to the South Eastern coast of Mexico. And then we do Mexico City, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Oaxaca, pretty much that’s kind of a standard for us. And then Brazil… and we used to do Europe all the time. We had a home in Switzerland, but my parents got rid of that. So I don’t do that.

A photograph of gallerist Hank Lee displaying two guayaberas at San Angel Folk Art Gallery.

Hank Lee shows two guayaberas at San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio. Photo by Raul Rodriguez.

JF: Can you tell me more about the shirt project? How did it start and how does it work?

HL: So I had this old piece of bark cloth from my childhood that was a circus. And it was like a curtain for my little bedroom as a little boy. I’d saved it because it was graphically great. It was like The Jetsons or that kind of graphics. I found it at my father’s house, when we were cleaning it out, after he died. I thought, “Oh, I’ll make a guayabera out of this. This will be great!” And it took me like two and a half years to find somebody that was still sewing guayaberas. When I finally had it done, every time I wore it, everyone was like, “Oh my god, I love that guayabera, that’s a great shirt!” 

Then I thought well, it was so impossible to find somebody, why don’t I just keep searching and try to do it. Finally, we found people that were still sewing them, but they had been so displaced by large factories in South Korea and China making guayaberas without any tucks, pleats, or pockets; every cost had been removed so there was nothing. We went back and found the original patterns that they all sewed in the 1940s and ‘50s and we just started using vintage fabric. 

Then, from the vintage fabric, we started using old kimonos and Japanese fabric, and reproduction fabric, and finding artists. For example, there’s an artist from Mexico City that lives in Chicago and that prints in Japan. We started doing the guayaberas, and La Jornada started writing about it, because it was keeping them going. 

JF: So this is one of your sustainability projects? Can you talk about that aspect a little more?

HL: I know how hard it is for everybody to make a living as an artist. People will always think that there’s no value. One of my pet peeves was always that everybody wanted artists to donate a piece of work to a hospital that’s going to do an auction, or a private school doing an auction, or a museum doing an auction, but we’re the poorest on the totem pole. It’s gonna go to an auction, be sold undervalued to someone that’s making a ton of money. 

Fair trade is a lie, because if you make 11 pesos a day in Mexico, fair trade is 11 pesos a day… $10 an hour is what we do. That’s so much different. So, for the sustainability [projects], we wanted everyone to always have money in the bank. We wanted people to have libraries and to have all the information so that if I get hit by a car, they would be prepared to go on without me. Artists would need money to pay a bill, somebody would get sick, and what would happen is that some dealer do-gooder would say to an artist selling something for $5, “Oh, I can give you 50 cents for each one.” And [the artist] is like, “God, I need the money.”

If they have money in the bank on a regular basis, it prevents them from having to sell their work for the wrong value. It protects them and teaches them that “Yeah, no way, I shouldn’t sell that.” Because it was a constant back then. There were all these people always thinking that someone else’s labor didn’t matter. And it’s our labor, it does [matter]. It made me so angry that people were constantly doing that. It wanted to find a way to stop that because I just think it’s so obscene. 

A photograph of the interior of the San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio.

San Angel Folk Art Gallery in San Antonio. Photo by Raul Rodriguez.

JF: What are some of the other impacts of the sustainability project?

HL: Hilario Hernandez Sanchez has had two solo shows with the Vatican. Before, he was making little trees of life — it’s what everybody did in his community. We went in and started helping him have books and [we began] talking — constant dialogue and studio visits — that doesn’t exist. I just thought, that’s what I want, I want dialogue.

We started doing these big pots with all these butterflies, because [simpler tree of life sculptures were] something that everybody could do. But, we saw his talent, so we started making these pots. Then he became the artist for the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional or the Institutional Revolutionary Party] in Mexico, because he was making something new, and had more time, and was always getting paid. He could take so much more risk. 

He became the official artist for the PRI, and we kind of had to step back and let him just do that work. Everything went into these foundations and private collections. It was very good for him, and it wasn’t good for us, but in a sense it was great for us, because then he opened up a space to help [other people]. The Pope came and [Hilario] made a chalice and things like that. We’ve had so many kinds of wonderful little successes.

JF: I know we talked about growing up and your early exposure to Latin American Literature, but tell me more about what draws you to Latin American folk art.

HL: I saw all the Spanish folk art that Miró had in his studio, read about the little fishes that Aurelio Buendía was making… and when I saw all the freedom in the clay works from Michoacán, I got into my car and drove down to find it. I was in love with everything I found. San Angel does not exclusively show just Latin American folk art, but we do love it, along with all other forms of art. I do not choose artists or objects due to their labels or categories; I want everything to be able to stand on its own merits and to have a unique and timeless quality, regardless of its category.

JF: Who is your audience at San Angel and how has that changed over time?

HL: Everyone is welcome, and everyone is a customer. We try so hard to let people know that art is a part of daily life and does not need to be unattainable. There are great things for forty dollars in San Angel, alongside huge masterworks from great masters that you can purchase or look at and learn about.

When we opened in ‘89, the clientele were people that had gone to the World’s Fair [Hemisfair]. They had grown up going back and forth to that, and that was Alexander Girard’s collection, that type of work. [For San Antonio’s World’s Fair, HemisFair ‘68, Girard installed 5,000 pieces from his folk art collection in an exhibition titled The Magic of a People – Encanto de un Pueblo.] We had everybody that was still interested in that, and that was also kind of the era of García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, and all these really amazing novelists that were South American and all the South American magical realism movements, and Frida and Diego who had just died and had kind of been rediscovered by the next generation. We had that entire group of people coming and going all the time and loving it.

Then we started [also purchasing and selling American art] and it became a lot of Southern people loved all the American folk art. It’s just those journeys you go on, like, you want Western shirts, then you want guayaberas, then you want Hawaiian shirts. We constantly are looking and doing stuff, but the customer base has changed so much because so many of those people have downsized, moved, sold their ranch,… taxes, and things like that. 

And then 9/11 was difficult because Bush closed the border, acting like the Muslim world came across Nuevo Laredo. One of the problems is that the politicians have always demonized the border. It should be so open… we all would drive back and forth, everybody constantly crossed, all the time. Everybody here on the weekends would go and get dried chilies, Molina coffee, and tortillas, and have a big Saturday or Sunday brunch and come back. It was the culture, and that has been demonized and removed. When they quit letting people come and go so easily, then the gangs took over… And then they blocked it for 9/11 forever. The Trump administration was pitiful about it.

JF: Did that make it difficult for you to travel back and forth?

HL: It makes it impossible. Often the border patrol people act like you’re a criminal when you’re coming back… It’s not the way that I see the world in any way. I see it… open arms and everybody being fluid and crossing. I have no problems with anybody in Nuevo Laredo or Piedras Negras, or anywhere there. It’s where I want to be. Why wouldn’t they want to be here like we want to be there? Why not let people come and go?


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Haydée Suescum March 29, 2024 - 10:09

Thank you Hank for so clearly stating the many issues that plague artist… The only good artist is a starving artist… Thank you for the good you generate and for existing.

Doris Murdock March 30, 2024 - 15:36

Thank you for this terrific article about Hank Lee and the San Angel Folk Art Gallery. It’s been years since I’ve been there, and I think it’s time for another visit to Blue Star and San Angel. I still have and treasure a Bill Miller landscape and an Isaac Smith Woodpecker.

Tami Kegley March 31, 2024 - 18:23

So glad you did this interview. Hank has one of the best existing folk art galleries ANYWHERE.


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