Riverside town. Campus community. Historic springs. Mermaids and music.

If you thought San Marcos, you thought correctly.

A 45-minute drive south from Austin or north from San Antonio will land you at one of North America’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements.

San Marcos, where the city’s namesake river has drawn people for millennia, has been tagged with various superlatives over the years—the nation’s “fastest-growing” city, a “best place” to raise kids, and a “most exciting” small town.

San Marcos means many different things to many different people. But in recent years, this college town is becoming known for the surprising artworks that can be found in unexpected places and the creatively inclined community behind such efforts.

Art culture thrives in San Marcos, and it’s apparent to any person passing through. Off the downtown square, the Greetings from San Marcos (78666) mural decorates an alley off Hopkins Street nicknamed “Kissing Alley.” The postcard-style image is one of the city’s most popular stops for a social-media snap.

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The popularity of such creative displays—including the colorful collections in “Imagine Alley” located at 151 South LBJ Drive—helped to focus the city’s attention on the local arts community, says Charlotte Wattigny, innovation manager with the San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau.

In 2014, then-San Marcos City Council member John Thomaides, now the city’s mayor, pushed for the establishment of the San Marcos Mural Arts Program, Wattigny says. The program allocates money annually from the city’s hotel occupancy tax collections to commission works and provide grants and design assistance to artists in an effort to place murals on private property throughout the city. The city allocated $35,000 for the program in 2017. Interested artists submit applications, and then a Mural Arts Committee selects projects to help pay for up to half the cost of materials and a final clear coat on the mural. Artist honorariums, or compensation for the artist producing the mural, are also available based on the size of the project.

One local artist who has participated in the Mural Arts Program is Rene Perez, who recently painted a series of 10 mini-murals scattered around downtown. Originally from Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, Perez spent 10 years in California before moving back to Texas and finding his way to the wonderful world of “San Marvelous.”

Perez says he hadn’t been an artist, nor did he intend to ever be one. That changed while preparing for the birth of his son in the summer of 2007. “My sister was painting a mural in my son’s nursery, and I kind of rushed her. So, she was like, ‘You do it,’” Perez says.

He surprised himself with the outcome of the nursery mural and was eager to show his wife the next morning. “In the middle of the night, she wakes me up and goes, ‘My water broke!’ I became a father and an artist in the same day.”

Since that fateful day, Perez’s works have been popping up around town. Recently, his subjects have reflected an environmental messages with an emphasis on river conservation and protecting native wildlife.

At the intersection of University Drive and North LBJ Drive, Perez’s mural on a retaining wall depicts a great blue heron piling up cigarette butts, not knowing any better. On a walking path at Rio Vista Park—a 13-acre riverfront recreational area that includes the historic Rio Vista Falls Dam—Perez’s painting of a yellow crowned night heron adorns the cement base of a light post, its beak trapped in a plastic water bottle.

Works by Perez and other artists contribute to an artistic community anchored in part by various galleries at Texas State University, including The Wittliff Collections and the Texas State Galleries.

Austin screenwriter and photographer Bill Wittliff, perhaps best known as the writer of the screenplay for the Lonesome Dove TV mini-series, founded The Wittliff Collections with a mission “to collect, preserve, and share the artistic process that springs from the Southwestern imagination.” Its exhibits include collections related to Texas music, regional authors, and a rotating gallery of artworks and artifacts.

On the other side of campus within the Joan Cole Mitte Art Building, the Texas State Galleries hosts an annual juried competition that celebrates the distinguished works of students enrolled in the School of Art and Design. The Galleries also has a space for showing works from faculty, staff, and alumni.

Beyond campus galleries and the murals around town, to really get the feel of the San Marcos culture, visitors should check out walls of the bars and restaurants, many of which display local artworks. Eateries like Jo’s Café, Tantra, and Wake The Dead work in collaboration with local artists to showcase art from the community. Bars such as Zelick’s Icehouse and The Buzz Mill host regular art and culture events. And restaurants like The Root Cellar and Palmer’s Restaurant display magnificent murals on their outer walls while also hosting exhibitions of local artists inside their establishments.

In 2018, the San Marcos Arts Commission plans to embellish the town with at least 13 public sculptures that draw from the city’s lore and history. Keep watch for a series of mermaid sculptures, a piece inspired by the native flora known as Texas wild rice, and a moving, kinetic statue dedicated to the cave-dwelling Texas blind salamander that can only be found in its native San Marcos River within the Edwards Aquifer.

No matter what brings you to San Marcos, these colorful public artworks will add a dash of color to your day.

From the April 2018 issue
The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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