When San Antonio artist Michael Esparza opened his Etsy store in late May, he’d already done a bit of market research. He planned to focus on his paintings that sold best at art markets in his hometown: a series that features beloved Texas chains in romantic, pastoral landscapes. In the online store, Esparza sold maybe one a month, at $15 per print. That is, until this week, when Jezebel senior staff writer Maria Sherman discovered his work.
the bad news is i want all of it pic.twitter.com/MJonNkXX4l— maria cristina sherman (@mariasherm) December 11, 2018
Texans often display their enthusiasm for homegrown chains without a hint of irony, but placing a Whataburger or Buc-ee’s or Bill Miller’s Bar-B-Q in the middle of a Thomas Kinkade-esque landscape invites the kind of sardonic appreciation that makes these prints stylish and cost-efficient living room conversation starters. Or at least that must have been what Sherman was thinking when she tweeted it out on Monday. Esparza, who spent that evening hanging pieces for an exhibit at San Antonio’s FLIGHT Gallery, checked his phone to find that he’d suddenly moved dozens of prints, and people kept shopping for the five-painting series.
The idea for the series, which Esparza describes as “a little bit Bob Ross and a little bit Thomas Kinkade,” came to him 2012, just after he came back to Texas from a year of studying art in Italy. In Italy, nothing was built taller than a church, so it was a shock when Esparza returned to San Antonio. The size of roadside signs were particularly jarring. “I was just seeing how iconic they are, but also from the Italian perspective, how ridiculous they are. From that point of view, it’s like, ‘What are you doing, Texas? What’s going on with these big signs that you have on the side of the road?’ ” he says. “But the first thing I did when I got back from Italy was I went to Whataburger, and then right after that, I went to Bill Miller’s. I just needed a burger, and I needed a po’ boy. I was already full after Whataburger, but I didn’t care.” Esparza says he wants the paintings to evoke the sense of homecoming you feel when you see those signs after spending time in a place where they don’t exist—be it Italy or elsewhere. “They become your own little beacons for where you live,” he explains.
There is something sheerly Texan about using a Whataburger to bring more beauty into an already bucolic scene, which Esparza recognizes. “I wanted to make something that was super Texas, a landscape that was even more Texas than the landscape that we have,” he says. “A lot of people I would talk to in Europe, they would tell me what they thought Texas looked like. So I wanted to make those landscapes like what they thought, but also, as a person from here, I wanted to make them even more Texas. It’s like Texas squared.”
What, after all, is the majesty of the Hill Country compared to the majesty of the orange-and-white Whataburger logo? The peace of the beaches of the Gulf Coast compared to the peace one finds at Taco Cabana? The beauty of the East Texas pine curtain (we’ll allow artistic license on the Western white pines Esparza painted) without the grinning face of Buc-ee, looking ever upward toward a brighter tomorrow? These may not be the questions Esparza asked while painting, but art is a two-way conversation.
While selling his work at an art market in San Antonio, he met a man who asked him a number of questions about his affinity for Mama Margie’s, a local San Antonio restaurant in the series. He turned out to be the restaurant’s owner and asked Esparza to re-create the piece on a larger canvas. And that’s the second restaurateur to fall in love with his work. “The owners of Taco Cabana actually bought the painting, and it’s hanging in their house,” Esparza says.