Artist-in-residence to publish photography book on LBJ

Trends Reporter
John Valadez works on a draft of his new book on Lyndon B. Johnson and the Civil Rights Movement at the Center for The Study of The Southwest

Thanks to the life-size statue of US President Lyndon B. Johnson that stands in the middle of The Quad, most people are aware that he must have had at least some connection to Texas State.

What most people don’t know, however, is just how monumental Johnson’s time at Texas State—then Southwest Texas State Teachers College—was to shaping American history.

This summer, the Center for the Study of the Southwest welcomed its first artist-in-residence, director and producer John Valadez, to the university. Valadez, whose appointment will end Aug. 31, decided to take this opportunity to create a companion photography book to a 2010 PBS documentary he directed, wrote and produced entitled “The Longoria Affair.” The title references WWII veteran Felix Longoria.

During his last year at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Johnson was given a teaching position at a Mexican-American school in Cotulla, TX, a school facing racial segregation much like the rest of the nation. This was Johnson’s first time experiencing segregation and interacting with people of color in general. Johnson was appalled at how underfunded the schools were and the poverty faced by the citizens. It stayed with Johnson for the rest of his life. 

When Johnson was elected to the Senate in 1949, he received a telegram from Dr. Héctor P. García, who relayed the story of Felix Longoria.

After Longoria fought and lost his life in battle, his ashes were sent home to his wife, Beatrice. In preparation for the burial, Beatrice went to the local funeral home, where she was denied services because of her late husband’s race.

When Johnson heard this story, it reminded him of the time he spent in Cotulla. He arranged for Longoria to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, making him the first Mexican-American to be buried there. This event led to a lifelong friendship between Johnson and García. García eventually pushed Johnson to enact key legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Valadez’s book is a photographic history of that time period that takes the transcript from the film and uses images and artifacts that weren’t able to make it into the actual finished product to accompany the text.

“This work is a very accessible and inviting way to enter into a history that people may find boring or distant,” Valadez said. “When you see lush and beautiful photographs, it draws people in, not like reading a thick textbook. It allows people to enjoy the intellectual pursuit in a very visceral experience.”

He hopes to have the book published by 2015 in time for the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s signing of the Voting Rights Act.

Valadez hopes that a book like this could eventually even see use in classrooms as the result of his desire to create a new literary genre of art/photography books that have a strong historical component. Despite not having concrete graphic design experience, Valadez took from his experience as a documentary filmmaker to help contribute to the layout of the book.

He says he took inspiration from the tinted midnight blue covers of 1960s jazz records and even studied layouts from more contemporary music media such as Rolling Stone Magazine. Valadez said he wants looking through this book to feel like “you’re thumbing through a music booklet.”

Jesus de la Teja, director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest, said that Valadez will return to the university during the fall semester to deliver a talk on his project. The exact organization of the talk has not been determined, since Valadez was the first appointee to the artist-in-residence program.

Valadez is confident, though, that not everything has to be figured out beforehand. He says ideas include a screening of “The Longoria Affair” or an explanation of how the layouts in the book are intended to help re-conceptualize history.

De la Teja said bringing artists such as Valadez to the university is important because they are often doing groundbreaking work in a non-traditional setting.

“Bringing such individuals to campus exposes students, faculty and staff to different approaches; allows for networking with the professional, artistic and publishing worlds and otherwise enhances the quality of campus intellectual and artistic life,” de la Teja said.