‘Tree of Life’ bears bountiful crop of tales from the past

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.

Rudyard Kipling

Assigned by the San Antonio River Foundation with the creation of a major work of public art to celebrate the community surrounding Mission San Francisco de la Espada and its strong connections to San Antonio’s ranching heritage, Margarita Cabrera envisioned a tree of life. A tree of life overflowing with fruit. “Arbol de la Vida: Voces de Tierra.”

The origin of colorful trees of life is rooted in Colonial Mexico. Missionaries worked with craftsmen in the Puebla region of Mexico to create clay sculptures to relay biblical stories, often branching upward and outward from Adam and Eve at the base.

Building on that tradition of rendering stories in clay, Cabrera has collaborated with more than 600 members of the community since May to capture their narrative memories. Workshops were held to help even novices record these chapters of San Antonio’s shared history in slab and coil based clay sculptures. The finishing touches on the final fruits of this labor of love involving so many are being completed in a studio at Mercury Project.

While many of the 700 pieces already have been fired, these photos are of works in progress. After firing, Cabrera says, each piece will be filled with epoxy so that, even if a piece is damaged, the sculpture will remain intact. The average weight of each of the suspended “fruits” will be in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. Serving as a portal linking the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River to Mission Espada, this tree will be immense.

An ostrich-plumed hat perched atop the head of “la patrona” made Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Balli (1752-1803) easy to spot on early Texas cattle drives, according to Merri Gutierrez, one of her descendants. Gutierrez chose to depict the signature hat to represent the story of the daughter of two Spanish aristocrats who was born in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Known as the first cattle queen of Texas, Hinojosa de Balli amassed more than one-million acres of land stretching across five Texas counties. She built chapels at all of her ranches for the ranchhands and served as godmother to more than 300 of their children.

Thelma Ortiz Muraida is crafting a truck to signify the lifestyle of her father, a migrant worker born in Floresville. An artist who has illustrated numerous children’s books, Muraida is enjoying working with the clay. Her father loved to create folk art from found objects, and her great-aunt worked with her husband alongside Dionicio Rodriguez, known for his landmark faux bois cement sculptures. The truck pays tribute to those who work with their hands and their appreciation of and respect for the land. She is filling her truck with family members and the things they would pack up to create a sense of home as they roamed to harvest crops in other parts of the country –  birds, chickens, the pet dog and the guitar her grandmother played.

The meaningful ornaments for Cabrera’s tree are taking shape within the walls of Mercury Project, a network of artists’ studios founded in 2012 by artists and designers Antonia Richardson and Warren Borror in a renovated factory on Roosevelt Avenue. When Borror’s mother first saw the structure, she said, “I know this building.” From 1945 to 1955, the building was the San Antonio home of Clicquot Club Beverages, distinguished by its Eskimo Boy logo. The owner was popular for giving neighborhood kids free ginger ales and root beers, and church socials often were held upstairs. Borror chose that part of Mercury Project’s past to highlight for his contribution to the tree, a Clicquot bottle cap.

But the scallops of the edge of the bottle cap reminded the fifth-generation San Antonian of another part of both the city’s and his family’s past. The flip side of the cap will represent the cranks for a bicycle chain. His family has a photo of his great-grandfather in San Antonio’s first bicycle parade in 1893, and one of his great grandfather’s sons operated Ullrich’s bicycle shop where La Frite is today. While relating some of the city’s early bicycle history, Borror also is celebrating San Antonio’s increasing transition into a bike-friendly city.

So, staring up at 700 individual clay sculptures, how will anyone glean the stories behind them? There will be an app for that, says Cabrera. After firing, each piece will be photographed on all sides and will be accompanied by narrative from the community storytellers.

While shading people below, this tree will be an incredible place to play “I Spy.” The bountiful tree of life will stimulate viewers’ memories, encouraging multi-generational sharing, reviving San Antonio’s rich oral tradition often drowned out by contemporary media.

Harvesting the tales hanging above will take multiple visits to the story-telling tree. I sure hope this magical tree comes with a couple of rocking chairs below for grandparents to hold their grandchildren in their laps while telling them about life when they were young.

Morning art walk through the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center

Seriously. We walked on the river yesterday morning into downtown, along the River Extension, into the Convention Center Lagoon with its stunning 1968 mosaic murals by Juan O’Gorman and Carlos Merida and then turned left into the actual Convention Center itself.

A convention center seems an unlikely destination for locals, but we wanted to explore the City of San Antonio’s exhibition combining some things old and many new works in celebration of our Tricentennial, “Confluence: Art in the Convention Center.”

We wandered around the myriad of halls and multiple levels of the expansive center on a scavenger hunt for art, a hunt enhanced by the fact we had no clues where we would find the pieces. This added an entertaining touch of serendipity to our quest, but the Department of Arts & Culture does have a cheat sheet online locating the artworks for those who prefer to spend less time lost in the amazing maze of meeting spaces.

While we went for the art, the architectural design of the center itself, reconfigured in 2017 to eliminate its dated frumpiness, is worth meandering through. MarmonMok has created an award-winning facility that gives San Antonians one more reason to be proud to call this home.

Let me know if you spot Ken Little’s cast-iron pair of shoes, “Victory and Defeat.” We missed them completely. We saw Little last night fronting Rodeo Ho Ho at the Liberty Bar, and he said he was not sure he could find his way back to them either. He did offer a clue; they are parked in front of a window.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: ‘Creating with thumb, hand, head and heart versus robotics’

The odalisque-type figures lolling about on the pastel mosaic friezes of the Budapest Hall of Art appear idle, but the creative Hungarians whose minds envisioned items featured in the 2017 National Salon obviously have been working overtime during the past decade.

The salon we viewed in May, “All Around Us,” was organized around eight applied art and design areas. According to Erno Sara and Joszef Sherer, curators of the exhibition:

“The Art of Everyday Life, Inevitable Design” – we could add as an explanation, and as a subtitle in some cases. Both the title and the subtitle are accurate, since the displayed materials comprise artworks we live with, artworks that are part of our everyday life, objects that we use and that contribute to our everyday comfort….

Our material culture is characterized by explosive attitudinal and technological development…. Archaic techniques and futuristic concepts meet in a warm embrace here…. The futile opposition of Craft and Design are replaced in this exhibition by the nature and possibilities of their mutual interaction.

The architectural designs lining the streets of Budapest reflect a culture reverent of the importance of adding appealing embellishments. But Gyorgy Szego, the artistic director of the hall formally named Mucsarnok – Kunsthalle Budapest, sounds an alarm for the future:

Somewhat more than 150 years ago, the relation between objects and people became a key civilizational issue. Since then, with the exception of “periods of grace…,” creative masters making and using their own tools have been forced on the defensive. The vectors of the curve describing this trend point in the direction of robotisation in an ever-widening scope of products. Resolving the conflict that exists between machine and man, technology and nature has to this day been a recurring, heroic and convulsive challenge faced by architecture and the applied arts….

How can we continue if artificial intelligence overwrites everything? Will the thousands-of-years-old practice of creating with thumb, hand, head and heart versus robotics eventually bring about the end of human existence?

We both had our favorites. I so can picture this cheerful green cocktail pontoon lazily cruising in the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River. Or a spa or little sunbathing pontoon smoothly sailing out of a landing by Hotel Emma. The pontoon boats are electric, so they would be extremely quiet on their relaxing journeys. The collection was designed by Zoltan Peredy.

The Mister, on the other hand, was drawn to Peter Uveges’ metal and glass guitars. The slide and fretless guitars are designed to be particularly appropriate for playing the Delta blues.

Unfortunately, the explanations of his designs are in Hungarian, but the instruments speak for themselves:

During our wanderings throughout our stay in Budapest, the human element in design and invention seems well engrained in and safeguarded for the future by Hungarian culture.