EL PASO, Texas – Ana Cortez light-handedly drags a keen-edged glass cutter across a square of glass. She handles the glass like tissue paper, smoothly and easily, shaping and sizing the sheet to fit into its framework.
Cortez used to fashion a dark brown braid, when she first started cutting, matting and assembling frames at the Art Center, 3101 E. Yandell, but now she’s older and experienced. With nearly 53 years of framing experience and a short white hairdo, she has seen a half-century of history pass through the glass of frames she works with.
“I love what I do,” Cortez said. “I’ve met a lot of famous artists in my 50 years. That to me is one of the nicest things that has happened in my life.”
Cortez started framing after graduating from Bowie High school in 1957. She was 17, and her favorite musicians were Fats Domino and The Platters. She was hired on the spot at the Art Center.
With no experience, she began working. She never thought she would be framing this long, but she can’t imagine not working there. Cortez has developed a love for her job, and the customers she works with.
“Work where you like to work. If you like what you’re doing work there,” Cortez said.
Framing the customers’ invaluable belongings has become her life. It is a privilege, Cortez said.
“You get attached to your bosses, the people that you meet,” Cortez said.
Cortez doesn’t consider herself an artist, but she does contribute to the overall piece. Therefore, she said customer service is the most important part of her job because they deal with items that may carry sentimental value.
“I know a lot of the artists and they are so grateful their artwork looks even better,” Cortez said.
Cortez has framed anything from astronauts Danny Olivas’ space-toured flags to a woman’s personal letter from President John F. Kennedy.
Cortez said she enjoys her work because it challenges her artistically and logically. She has to figure out which materials best protect and preserve the artwork while still complementing it.
“We do so many pieces that are very sentimental to people,” Cortez said.
Frames enhance the artwork aesthetically, in addition to protecting the piece. Cortez frames many works including – drawings, watercolors, pastels, letters, flags, rugs, etchings, clothing engravings, lithographs, silk-screens and photographs.
Although the framing was tedious, her favorite article was an heirloom wedding dress she framed nearly 20 years ago.
“I had to be super cautious with it because it was old,” Cortez said.
She has framed work for Tom Lea, Jose Cisneros, Dorothy Geyer, Peter Hurd and many more, and recalls a painting worth more than $20,000 as the most expensive piece she has done.
Pat Cisneros, artist Jose Cisneros’ daughter, had two of her father’s pieces framed in the last month. Cortez realizes, in some cases, she may be one of few people to see the piece and, for that, she is “very honored.”
Within her half-century as a framer, Cortez has married, purchased a home and raised two kids, one which currently works at Art Center as well.
Other than the love for her job, Cortez’s daughter Michelle Lightbourn said her mother probably loves her job because it allowed her to be around her children.
“I was proud of what she did,” Lighbourn said. “I loved it because she was able to work full-time and still pick us up from school.”
Lightbourn, who is a single mother, has worked as an assembler for a year. She said she also values her job because it allows her to spend time with her children.
Over the years, her line of work has become a family affair. Cortez gets to work with her daughter and sister, Suki Tonchi, who has worked as a matte cutter since 1973.
“Now that I work here I get to see everything that she does. It amazes me,” Lightbourn said.
Although she has been working for a long-time, Cortez said she is not going to resign anytime soon.
“I don’t even feel like retiring, to be honest, because I love working here,” Cortez said.