With paintings hanging from nearly every available space, it would be easy to believe the Kika de la Garza Building has always been a home for local artists.
But Maxilou Link, president of the Upper Valley Art League, may know better than anyone how much work its metamorphosis required.
“This is like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon,” said Link, a silver-haired octogenarian.
Though Link is a petite woman, her feet not quite touching the floor from her seat behind the desk in the gallery’s lobby, her vision for the Art League has never been anything but big.
Link joined UVAL in 1992 when she and her husband ventured to the Rio Grande Valley as Winter Texans seeking reprieve from the harsh cold of their native Ohio.
Back then, the Art League met in a small, cinder block-mounted building in McAllen. Shoddy electricity left members sweating from lack of air conditioning during summer, and the uneven floor had to be leveled every two years.
“You couldn’t draw or paint and walk down on the floor because everybody had to lay their brushes down,” Link recalled, “and just wait until you got down to the end of the room because the floor would move.”
Link became UVAL president before her first year as a member was up, and she set out to get help from McAllen to replace the building’s leaky roof. The city was known for leaving the artists largely to themselves, and Link said it was roughly a month and a half before a McAllen representative met with her.
“It was so degrading to go over there and be turned away so many times because she had something more important to do,” Link recalled, adding that UVAL was eventually given half the money it needed for the roof. “So I said, ‘I’m never doing that again. I’m not going to crawl on my hands and knees and beg, ever.”
Link and then-Mission City Councilwoman Gen Long had talked about moving UVAL out of McAllen. Long scouted out the league’s current location on 12th Street in Mission.
“The first place she showed us was this place, and we fell in love with it,” Link said.
The location that would become the Kika de la Garza Building was a definitely a fixer-upper. The warped wood paneling that lined the walls would make it impossible to hang and rehang art, and – like the UVAL’s previous home – the roof needed replacing. After Link got some advice on what was needed for proper walls from the museum, Mission began remodeling the building to the artists’ specifications.
“I wish I had the vocabulary to tell you all the wonderful words about the City of Mission,” she said. “They are fantastic.”
Douglas Clark, an art professor at the University of Texas-Pan American and UVAL member, first met Link around 10 years ago when he owned a gallery in downtown McAllen. Link approached him while visiting the workspace during Art Walk.
“She was extremely charming and very interested in everything that was going on,” Clark recalled. “I felt I’d just met someone with unlimited energy.”
He said it wasn’t long after their introduction that UVAL began talks with Mission to move into the Kika de la Garza Building.
“It was a wonderful thing. We had more membership, had a much better place to work. I don’t think any of it would have gone anywhere if Maxilou hadn’t been in charge,” he said. “In fact, I’m certain of it. She’s got a knack for getting the right people together.”
The UVAL began hosting workshops and exhibitions out of its new home around seven years ago. It is now the largest gallery in the Rio Grande Valley to exclusively host the work of local artists, said Nancy Moyer, a professor emerita at UTPA whose work is currently on display in the Mission building.
“We tend to – certainly back then and maybe still now – think that McAllen’s the great center of activity, but there’re things going on elsewhere,” she said. “Suddenly, quiet Mission sort of rose to the occasion, and they’ve just been so supportive of the arts ever since.”
Moyer said the Kika de la Garza building has filled a hole in the art community. Many smaller galleries in the Valley must limit the size, quantity and type of art exhibited. Places like the International Museum of Art and Science focus on nationally or globally recognized artists, while the Nuevo Santander gallery is “a different animal” because it professionally represents the traditional-style artists whose work is displayed.
“It was difficult for artists to find any place to show. Not only has (Maxilou) gotten a facility for the Art League, but also basically for everyone else,” said Moyer, adding that UVAL also hosts exhibitions for artists who are not members. “It’s added tremendously to the quality of the art scene from what we had.”
‘An Artist In Her Own Right’
Link created her first painting in 1974 when she was already an adult living with her family in Cleveland, Ohio. She and her plein air painting class went to a nearby town for their weekly sessions.
“We went to Chardon, Ohio,” said Link, pronouncing it “Oh-hi-ya” with a soft “a.” “It was a nice beautiful brook in the woods. We really had a good time.”
Work and family life didn’t leave much time for Link’s art, but she took classes whenever she could. It would be nearly 30 years before she would seriously take up painting again as a member of UVAL.
“It all started over there in the old building,” she recalled. “We would just have to tear the place apart, and then we’d have rows and rows and rows of standards to hang paintings on. But we sold stuff, believe it or not.”
Link began showing her artwork in 1994 and sold her first painting two years later for the tidy sum of $28.80. Her body of work is filled with lifelike renderings of still life, landscapes, Westerns and even a commissioned piece of a desert scene. She swears it’s the one and only custom job she she’ll ever do.
“I gave blood for that,” she said. “She wanted this changed, that changed, or she wanted this in there. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t put an Arizona and a Texas cactus in one painting because it’s not realistic. But that’s what she wanted.”
She’s still pushing her own limits as an artist, having completed her first bronze sculpture and, more recently, her first abstract painting.
“She’s an artist in her own right,” said Clark, who teaches sculpting at UTPA and for UVAL. “She works constantly doing her own paintings, and she has done sculpture … and she’s involved the whole Upper Valley Art League in making life-size sculptures for the community.”
UVAL treasurer Robert Rivera met Link when the Art League began moving into the Kika de le Garza Building, right next to where Rivera works as community outreach specialist at Speer Memorial library.
Link went into the library to inquire about the display case, and after their meeting, Rivera volunteered to help the members with the heavy lifting.
“The astonishing thing about Maxilou is that she’s a powerhouse,” Rivera said. “She lives the Upper Valley Art League. There isn’t anything you can ask her to do for the Art League that she won’t do.”
Despite her long tenure as president, Rivera said that Link is anything but a dictator.
“She feels everyone needs to be involved in the decision making,” he said. “We’ll all make decisions, we’ll all compromise, but she’s the spearhead who’ll go to city hall, go to the mayor, go see the city manager to try to get things resolved.”
For as far as the UVAL has come from when Link first joined, her vision is not yet complete. A new classroom wing that will be able to host a slew of workshops – from painting to welding and sculpting – is under construction, which will allow the league to hold classes without tearing down the gallery.
“I feel in my heart that people need to be exposed to the arts and culture for economic reasons, social reasons, and also not only being creative, it makes you think,” she said. “Being surrounded by arts and culture, this stuff comes more automatically to you and it becomes really exciting and fun.”
Looking out at the back porch of the Kika de la Garza Building, Link sees a space just waiting to be turned into a stage for bands with plenty of room for dancing.
“I personally don’t think we’re there yet. We’ve got a long way to go,” Link said. “I really, really want all the artists in the Valley to be recognized for their value and what they’re capable of doing, and they’re all capable for doing valuable art work no matter what medium it’s in.”
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