A Bold Artist, a Quiet Texas Town and the Heritage of the Borderland

Michael Tracy at one of his residences in San Ygnacio, Tex. His signature outfit is an Indian kurta.

SAN YGNACIO, Tex. — There are two ways to tell the story of how the artist Michael Tracy ended up living in the tiny Texas border town of San Ygnacio.

This is the more rational one: In 1978, a friend reminisced about a United States town on the Rio Grande that felt just like Mexico with its central plaza, Roman Catholic church and old stone buildings. Mr. Tracy was intrigued. Growing restless in Galveston, he drove to the town and signed a lease for a house the next day.

Credit...Bryan Schutmaat for The New York Times

The other version is far more meaningful, according to Mr. Tracy, and it has to do with electromagnetic fields, unseen powers drawing town and artist together. “I do think that is probably true, just like birds are able to negotiate flying from northern South America to the Gulf Coast without any landmarks,” he said. “They are not doing this because they are tuning into the bird radio.”

Today, Mr. Tracy remains a perplexing resident of sleepy San Ygnacio, which has a population of less than 700. Outside the town, Mr. Tracy is known for his paintings and sculptures that at times are homoerotic or steeped in his Catholic upbringing and sense of social justice. But his art won’t be his entire legacy. That will be shared with his work restoring San Ygnacio’s historic architecture. At 74, Mr. Tracy still brims with a vision to draw visitors to this town, even as he ponders who will take over his efforts to remember the Texas-Mexico borderlands.

It’s easy to see how Mr. Tracy might stand out in San Ygnacio, where many residents are the descendants of its original settlers and a paved road didn’t link the town to the outside world until the 1930s. His uniform is a knee-length tunic. His head is shaved with a rat tail at the back. The early rumors that he was a Satanist who painted with human blood didn’t help either.

A decade after he arrived, Mr. Tracy established the River Pierce Foundation with the aim of cleaning up the Rio Grande. Those efforts didn’t get very far. The foundation found a new purpose when, in 1998, an elderly resident offered to sell his half-share of the Treviño-Uribe Rancho, a Spanish Mexican fort on the verge of becoming a national historic landmark. It wasn’t in good shape.

“The purity is not just to let it sit there and let it deteriorate in its essence,” said Mr. Tracy, at the end of a breathless, profanity-laced rant on why he decided to restore the fort. “I feel like I am a very responsible, cultural person who has to do this because it is required of [my] belief system.”

The fort is now the centerpiece of several historic buildings in San Ygnacio owned by the River Pierce Foundation. Its oldest room was built in 1830 as a ranching outpost when families lived on the south side of the Rio Grande and farmed their cattle to the north. In the face of constant raids from Native Americans, its thick fieldstone walls became a refuge and its gunports a defense. Over 70 years, five rooms and a walled courtyard were added. Those additions reflect a changing world. It became a permanent home for ranchers when land north of the Rio Grande became part of the United States after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848.

“The Treviño-Uribe family moved to the northern banks to secure their land,” said Mario Sanchez, a former architect with the Texas Historical Commission. He called the fort “an exceptional survivor of the time.”

Each piece of the structure tells that grander story. The poorly constructed stone walls in the original room hint at the area’s isolation and the need to use nearby materials. A sundial over the northern door installed by the fort’s early inhabitants is a celebration of the return of two men who were kidnapped during a Native American raid. In one room, a prayer is inscribed on a ceiling beam. “En Paz y Libertad Obremos” is its request — May we work in peace and freedom.

For Mr. Tracy, the fort communicates a shared history and blurred boundaries between two countries. “The idea that we have this problem with the frontier and with immigration and illegality and illegal aliens and children being torn apart and their mothers being arrested and incarcerated in these big holding tanks and I don’t know if there is any solution,” Mr. Tracy said. Customs and Border Protection trucks often roam the town. Residents say they’ve seen people crossing the river before disappearing into waiting cars.

The River Pierce Foundation acquired the other half of the fort in 2008. It took several more years and about $600,000 to restore it. Most of that money came through grants and private donations, according to Mr. Tracy. Last June, the foundation began tours on the first Sunday of the month. An abstract sound experience created by the composer Omar Zubair installed in December brings each room to life with the noise of the fort’s early life. In the coming months, the foundation will ramp up efforts to draw more people interested in heritage tourism, according to Christopher Rincón, its executive director.

Yet, few San Ygnacio residents have been involved in the fort’s restoration. It’s hard to know who is to blame: Mr. Tracy’s temperament or the insular nature of small towns. On a recent Tuesday afternoon at Pepe’s Grocery, one of the few stores in San Ygnacio, the consensus was that the work of the River Pierce Foundation is good for the town, but Mr. Tracy is odd.

He can be warm, hospitable and funny, but also hotheaded and bossy — a cyclone of a person. “I don’t know anyone that loves him,” said Eduardo Botello, 66, a retired school maintenance worker who had a run-in with Mr. Tracy when he installed sound equipment for an event. Another man, who said he was Mr. Tracy’s neighbor, recalled in hushed tones seeing nude participants at a performance art piece in 1990. The performance, which mimicked San Ygnacio’s annual Good Friday procession, culminated with a burning cross floating on the Rio Grande. Titled “River Pierce: Sacrifice II, 13.4.90,” it protested the toxic state of the river, and was a collaborative effort between artists from Chile, Mexico and the United States, according to Mr. Tracy, who spent eight years organizing it.

“He’s created a lot of enemies,” said Frank Briscoe, an architectural conservator who worked on the Treviño-Uribe Rancho and experienced Mr. Tracy’s intense micromanaging. However, without Mr. Tracy’s vision and attention to detail, he added, “I don’t think that building would have had much of a future.”

Mr. Tracy remains a prolific creator even though his art hasn’t sold well in recent years. He goes to India twice a year to make jewelry for private clients. A meditation garden is under construction at one of his four properties. He still paints.

An Ohio native, Mr. Tracy created work in the ’70s and ’80s that often reflected turmoil and aggression from a foundation of Catholic ritual. “A canvas mounted like an altarpiece is penetrated with spikes,” described Michael Brenson in a review of Mr. Tracy’s first New York show in 1987. In the ’90s, he created a series of sculptural wagons molded from bronze. One has a base covered by dozens of ears and topped off with a male face with a penis protruding out from it.

Now, Mr. Tracy is more concerned with social justice. A recent piece, “Para México,” shows his anguish for the cartel violence playing out over the river in Mexico where journalists and bystanders have been brutally killed. Mr. Tracy spent four years building up mounds of acrylic paint on canvas, swishing it around with sticks and other implements. Like clouds morphing into objects, the layered paint begins to take the shape of faces screaming in anguish. “Mexico is in distress right now,” Mr. Tracy said by way of explanation.

His foundation is planning another building restoration for May. It will coincide with construction of a viewing platform that will look out over the Rio Grande and a bird sanctuary, which draws the rare white-collared seedeater and bird watchers. Eventually, the platform will become a cafe. “It really provides the border with a new language,” said Leslie Aboumrad, from Frank Architects in Laredo, about 50 miles west, which has worked pro bono for the River Pierce Foundation. “Right now it is not friendly.”

It’s hard to picture the River Pierce Foundation without Mr. Tracy’s extravagant personality and his knack for fund-raising. Yet he is getting older. “I can’t imagine giving any more of my life to this thing,” he said. And he has other goals, perhaps another art exhibition in New York. “We need to choose an agreeable godfather, godmother for this organization who will help produce the future,” he said.

He will, however, be staying on in San Ygnacio. “You receive these transmissions that are happening from the stones of these buildings,” he said, referring to the unseen powers that drew him to San Ygnacio. “We are much more sensitive to that than we think.”

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