SAN ANTONIO — Most San Antonians may not know the name Joan Fabian, but those who nabbed the city's official 2022 Fiesta medal can bet they're familiar with her work.
No, Fabian didn't directly design the one-inch-by-two-inch trinket you can hold in the palm of your hand. She did, however, create the four-foot-by-six-foot cousin the miniature represents, along with 11 other similarly sized paintings that now call downtown's City Tower home.
For about nine months, Fabian says, she and city officials held conversations about the design of "Vibrant Village"—what about San Antonio they wanted to capture, and how they wanted to capture it. The result is one of the biggest artistic endeavors she's undertaken.
Actually creating "Vibrant Village" in the paintings' full-scale glory took five months, and the key element for Fabian is right there in the project's name.
“When I think of San Antonio, I wanted to convey the movement, the excitement, the color. The festiveness of it,” she said. “I was kind of taken aback, working that big. But then (I) soon realized it was very freeing to me.”
One priority was compromising on a final design which would include a spirit of unity, given that City Tower will soon be home to all of San Antonio’s various departments once ongoing renovations are complete. Yellow bees can be glimpsed in the work as a nod to that collaborative spirit.
Officials with the city's arts and culture department said they use survey results as a guide to finding artists which would make a good fit for public arts projects; an individual's qualifications are then reviewed and approved by local arts commissions.
"Fabian has a signature aesthetic that is energetic, colorful and cheerful—all characteristics apply to capturing the vibrancy of San Antonio," said Krystal Jones, interim executive director for the department.
Just as integral to Fabian was embedding a sense of discovery, of creating a desire in her audience to look deeper and find more than what may appear on the surface. She refers to it as her "intuitiveness."
Look down at the city’s Fiesta medal, for example, and it may take you a few seconds to make out the Tower of the Americas stretching through the middle of it, blending in seamlessly with the lines around it in a display of aesthetic unity.
“I wanted the city to see just how beautiful San Antonio is," Fabian said. "That every department of the city needs some kind of visual goal to work toward keeping it that way—or rejoicing in it."
Nine of the dozen pieces that make up "Vibrant Village" have been hung in City Tower's lobby, while the remaining three paintings can be seen inside the entrance off Houston Street once the building reopens.
Gazing upon her work, your eyes want to dart every which way, as if keeping them situated in one place would put them in danger of being swallowed up the vibrant thickets of color that define her art.
“We always say, 'Well, I like that, or I don't like this,' but I want to get beyond that," Fabian said. "'What’s the secret behind all this? I want to know more.' It's kind of like this mystery.”
'The painting has gotten to be more precious'
The Fiesta medals featuring "Vibrant Village" are now getting pinned on teal-colored vests and jackets all over the city. But it was a while ago that Fabian was told about that plan.
“I think it was early last year; they were planning this ahead,” she said. “But I couldn’t say anything to anybody. You can imagine being really super-excited and you can’t say a darn thing about it.”
A former Fulbright winner whose artistic career has taken her to Pakistan, Holland and elsewhere, Fabian say she’s long found inspiration in the culture, color and energy of the Alamo City. She found her way here through her husband, a San Antonio native whom she met at an art reception in Chicago.
She would attend UTSA for graduate school, at which point it made sense to stay in the city she fell in love with, even if meant getting used to "getting in a hot car when it's been sitting in the afternoon sun."
To her, that was a small price to pay.
"I decided I'm just going to go with the flow, stay her and let things happen while working as an artist," she said. "It's a totally different environment from a big city. Here it just seemed like there were more opportunities and less congestion, you know, (where) everybody is applying for the same thing."
As the years have gone on, her instinct to communicate San Antonio's energy in abstract forms on canvas using her own two hands has only become more integral.
"In this day and age, when you have a lot of digital this and that,(there's) something about making things with your hands, you know, getting dirty, getting paint all over your hands and making your mark," she said. "I just think that the painting has gotten to be more precious for me as I get older."
Part of that mindset is exploring her way through any given work, and finding the right color combinations as motivation.
“I love going in the studio and mixing up a new type of color and saying, 'OK, what can I do with this to make the paintings pop even more, to have that vibrancy come out even more?'”