‘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.

Something old, something new along the Mission Reach

In the early 1700s, Native Americans dug an elaborate system of irrigation ditches, or acequias, to water the farmlands surrounding the string of missions founded by Spanish friars. According to an article written by Jose A. Rivera in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 2003, the farmlands near Mission San Juan Capistrano were served by this system:

… until the spring of 1958, when a channel improvement project relocated the bed of the San Antonio River two hundred feet away from the headgate of the San Juan Acequia. In the process of straightening, widening, and deepening the river, the site of the original saca de agua (the historic San Juan Dam) was buried with excavated dirt and rubble. The new channel was too far away and deep to supply water to the San Juan headgate by way of gravity-flow irrigation as had been the practice for more than two hundred years.

Secularization of Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1824 included close to 500 acres served by San Juan Acequia. This land was granted to:

… military officers from the Bexar garrison, a former military chaplain, and four women, each coveting the quality of agricultural lands available at this mission site.

It took subsequent landowners decades of litigation and negotiations to regain their water access following the 1950s’ flood-control work undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the San Antonio River Authority. The oldest water rights in Texas, Rivera writes, finally were restored in 2001, ahead of the San Antonio River Improvements Project.

Now, a short jog off the west bank trail of the San Antonio River Improvements Project leads through a field of wildflowers back to the ancient stone arched acequia, topped once again by water flowing into the restored ditches nourishing neighboring fields. The 13 miles of the recent river project, including the Mission Reach, represent a monumental effort by the Corps, the River Authority, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to restore the river ecosystem to a more natural, healthy state. The wildlife, fisher-folks, hikers, runners, bicyclists and paddlers using it attest to their success.

Only a stroll away is a contemporary addition to the river’s banks, “Whispers.” In 2015, the San Antonio River Foundation contributed this site-specific sculpture by Belgian artist Arne Quinze to the Mission Reach project. (Read more about Quinze’s sculpture here.)

Lush greenery and wildflowers carpet the banks all along the Mission Reach. Hope you get a chance to walk and explore it before spring is overtaken by the summer heat.

Coming home to roost to celebrate San Jacinto Day?

corrmorants

 

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew, 
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv’d….

Paradise Lost, John Milton

Satan disguised as a cormorant to spy on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden seems apt to me.

stretching-cormorant

USDA photo

The gloomy-looking double-crested cormorants always spook me. They love to pose on the chains by the dam by the marina, stretching their pterodactyl-type wings as though offering to lift the chains for the barges to cruise right under, dramatically plunging to the level below.

I feel a little bit better about this display now that I know they have no oil glands to repel water; they have to spread their wings to dry out their water-logged feathers. They can’t help it.

But cormorants pop up suddenly from underwater, seemingly out of nowhere, as you walk along the river’s banks. Like Lola Fandango swimming in the tank in Where the Boys Are, these expert fishermen can hold their breath as they swim underwater for a long time. More than a minute.

Even one of river’s cormorants can give me the willies. That’s why this Hitchcock-like gathering of the birds on the Mission Reach seemed particularly ominous the other morning. For birds added to the list of those protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the 1970s, this had to represent some kind of major powwow. Fortunately, their eyes focused toward downtown, the water buzzards let us pass by them unharmed.

What could the convention of cormorants portend? The Irish part of me heaved a sigh of relief – at least the sea crows were not perched atop a church steeple.

Some cultures consider cormorants noble, but, while I’m trying to regard the glass as half-full, I can’t sell myself on that one.

Fishermen regard their sighting as good luck; the fish they seek should be found nearby. One plus for the cormorant.

According to the USDA, greedy cormorants keep fish from overpopulating the river. They actually are an environmental indicator species, meaning the environment of the Mission Reach is healthy. So our cormorants are bearers of good news. Chalk up one more for the cormorant, plus one for the work of the San Antonio River Authority.

In old Norwegian legends, a trio of cormorants bear messages or warnings from the dead.*

But we encountered a whole army of them ready to invade downtown. There were maybe 100 of them. Maybe even more than 200 (Okay, I’m not sure how many. But we definitely were outnumbered.).

But good ol’ Cliff helped me figure this out. Norwegians also believed the dead used the cormorant guise another way as well – so they could fly home for a visit.

the spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

the noble spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

So, based on my extensive research, my interpretation of the meaning of the gathered army follows.

Obviously, those cormorants were the defenders of the Alamo, rising up to celebrate the anniversary of the defeat of the Mexican Army at San Jacinto in 1836.

What do you think of that brilliant idea, my friend, Phil Collins?

Fiesta San Antonio must be their favorite holiday for rising from the grave. Betcha they come back next year.

*I have to stop right here and make a confession to the spirit of Mrs. Masterson. Some of these concepts came from CliffsNotes.com. But I promise. I never opened one of those guides once in your class in high school. Not for Milton. Not even when Moby Dick threatened to swallow all time for social life. Plus, I knew you could smell a CliffsNotes’ idea in the answer to a discussion question before the ink dried. Toward the end of the book, though, I did start reading only every fifth chapter…. That was still a whale of a lot of pages.