San Pedro Creek Culture Park: Hideous drainage ditch now inviting urban space

In this place of herons where the grasses sway in starlight I have flowed since the dawn of evermore.

John Phillip Santos, historical text carved in limestone

The stretch of San Pedro Creek between the tunnel inlet at I-35 and Houston Street beside a new office tower climbing toward the sky might only be a little more than four blocks long, but the transformation from drainage ditch to park seems miraculous to me.

Yes, I watched the earlier magic worked on the Museum and Mission Reaches of the San Antonio River Improvements Project, but there was absolutely nothing natural-creek-like remaining following decades of flood-control projects in this neighborhood.

All that remained was a ditch. And then there was a dream. San Pedro Creek Culture Park.

Some dismiss projects like these as “legacy projects” fluffing up politicians’ egos with taxpayers’ dollars. Politically charged, the design process for a project this complex is rarely perfect. There are budget cuts, and still the enormous projects tend to run over-budget.

But, as with the original Paseo del Rio project, they can prove visionary. Development along the Museum Reach demonstrates how quickly highly blemished urban corridors become desirable.

While flood-control is an underlying purpose of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, the incorporation of site-specific art reflective of the city’s history and culture gives the new pedestrian passageway a distinctive San Antonio feel.

Bexar County is the primary funder of San Pedro Creek Culture Park, and the San Antonio River Authority is project manager.

looking south from Houston Street

Work is underway on the next phase heading southward from Houston Street. As you can see from the photo, this narrow stretch probably is even more challenging.

In my mind, the photos above illustrate that the complications and difficulties encountered along the way are so worth it. Those involved are leaving a legacy that will enrich the quality of urban life for generations to come. Looking forward to walking the next phase and those to come.

Fiesta Arts Fair

Uncharacteristically (for Fiesta Week) comfortable weather, plenty of elbow room to browse the rows of art and the lively music of Brave Combo added up to make Saturday an extremely pleasant day for taking in the Fiesta Arts Fair at the Southwest School of Art.

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If you are reading this on San Jacinto Day, Sunday, April 21, STOP! Get off the computer, and meander on over to the fair before it’s too late.

Bud Light Music Stage
11:30am – 12:30pm Choupique High Rollers
1:00 – 2:00pm Michael Martin & the Infidels w/ special guest Patricia Vonne
2:30 – 3:30pm Stephanie Urbina Jones
4:00 – 5:00pm Suzy Bravo & The Soul Revue
McNutt Garden Stage
12:00 – 3:00pm George Gaytan
3:00 – 5:00pm Juan Cabrera

Kersey’s pieces like portable public art you can throw in the dishwasher

To get an idea of the sculptural beauty of coffee mugs crafted by potter Diana Kersey, ride across the Mulberry Street Bridge or the Millrace Bridge leading to the Brackenridge Park Golf Course. Each of these bridges is graced with more than 200 square feet of the artist’s figurative tiles.

At first, I felt silly interviewing someone who recently completed these two major public art installations about coffee mugs, but Kersey put me at ease. Yes, she still loves taking a lump of clay and shaping it into a mug as her potter’s wheel turns.

“Small projects allow me to explore design ideas,” Kersey said. “These small works play into the design elements of larger ones.” Plus, she is never bored because: “No two mugs are exactly alike.”

Gayle Brennan Spencer in San Antonio Taste Magazine, December 2011

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Steve Bennett spotlighted the first bridge Diana Kersey completed on the San Antonio River in a June edition of the San Antonio Express-News:

“The city wanted me to do something on the health of waterways,” Kersey said. “I started thinking about amphibians — you know, if the amphibian life was healthy then the waterway was probably healthy. And in doing my research I learned that the most common toad in this region is the Gulf Coast toad. It’s the one that we all know, that we all run across in our backyards.”

In bas-relief sculptural panels embedded in the bridge’s concrete guardrails above 8-foot sidewalks, Kersey visually tells the story of the life cycle of the toad, from the courting days of Mr. and Mrs. T to strips of frog egg “tape” floating on water to developing tadpoles and “froglets” to the mature toad with the ridges over the eyes and the mouth that turns downward, sort of sadly. The overall effect is a “primordial narrative” like the well-known ape-to-man evolutionary image.

The Millrace Bridge installation was scattered around the tables and floor of her studio when I interviewed Kersey for the story on coffee mugs. The clay since has been glazed and fired to attain striking colors evoking the exuberance of majolica pottery.

Kersey described how she takes clay large-scale in an interview with Gene Elder for Voices of Art Magazine:

I don’t really create ’tiles’ in the traditional sense. I build the panel as one giant piece of clay, and then when it is complete I cut the work up into smaller shapes that can easily be fired, transported and installed. That way the grout lines becomes an important part of the overall design.

Now installed, the panels on the bridge relate to the history of the park and the golf course. Gutzon Borglum, who worked on designs for Mt. Rushmore in his nearby studio, and George Brackenridge, looking a bit dour as one would expect from the man who forbade the consumption of malt beverages on the parkland he donated, are among the relief portraits in clay.

But the story of Queenie the dog stumped me completely? Kersey enlightened me:

Queenie the dog was the beloved dog of Jack O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien was a sportswriter for an early San Antonio paper and a huge fan of golf at Brackenridge. He helped start the Texas Open in the early years. Anyhow, the dog was always by his side and became a bit of a mascot at Old Brack. A portrait of her has hung in the clubhouse for over 60 years and is still there.

Kersey’s mugs are like small slivers of portable public art that you can take home with you – art that can be thrown in the dishwasher. Find Kersey at work in her new studio and showroom downtown in the Atlee Ayers Building at 112 Broadway.