The burgeoning friendship between José Cisneros and El Paso artist Tom Lea not only marked the beginning of Cisneros’ professional career in the art community, but also granted him increased notoriety and an introduction to Carl Hertzog, an El Paso typographer and book designer. José Cisneros and Carl Hertzog both met Tom Lea in 1937. Hertzog had opened a printing shop in 1934. He and Lea were introduced to each while both working on a book titled The Notebook of Nancy Lea (1937). Lea’s first wife, Nancy, had died the year before due to complications following a surgery. The publishing of her journal was a passion project for the young widower, and, as such, he sought out a publisher who would approach the project with the same enthusiasm as himself.
Hertzog initially hired Cisneros to recreate historical styles of calligraphy for an academic history text which his company was publishing. Impressed with his talent and attention to detail, Hertzog enlisted Cisneros on other projects for illustrations, illuminated lettering, and cartography. While designing the layout for Everett DeGolyer’s Across Aboriginal America: The Journey of Three Englishmen Across Texas (1947), Hertzog recognized that the historical illustrations, drawn in steel pen, called for the mastery of subject and medium that Cisneros exhibited. The publication was a huge success and is regarded by many as being among the best books ever published in Texas. In a 1993 interview, Cisneros recognized the book as one of his most significant publications.
The collaboration between Cisneros, Lea, and Hertzog led to dozens of other projects over the next 30 years. Their collective work on the 1951 Flowsheet, the Texas Western College yearbook (now the University of Texas at El Paso), was so well-received that it prompted the college to contract Hertzog to establish the Texas Western Press, which still functions as the current university press of UTEP. In addition to the publications with Hertzog, Cisneros was sought out by many other university publishers and historians and would go on to illustrate more than 300 books in his lifetime.
A significant turning point in Cisneros’ art career was in 1969 when he was awarded the Paisano Fellowship sponsored by the graduate department at the University of Texas at Austin. The fellowship consisted of a $3000 grant and the opportunity to live and work at Paisano Ranch (the former residence of J. Frank Dobie) for six months. Cisneros was allowed to secure a leave of absence from his job at El Paso City Lines and for the first time was able to devote himself to his true passion. The resulting drawings from his time at Paisano Ranch later became the subject of Riders Across the Centuries (1984), the first book published to showcase Cisneros’ artwork. There would be several other publications devoted to the art of José Cisneros, complete with passages and introductions from many of the historians who had previously benefitted from Cisneros’ illustrations in their own books.
If you’d like to know more about José Cisneros or see some of the art and books discussed in this blog, visit The Bryan Museum to see the special exhibit, José Cisneros: A Colorful World in Black & White, which runs through mid-February.