Chin’s enormous prickly pear umbrella offers shelter along the Mission Reach

WHEREAS, A native of the American Southwest and the Sonoran Desert region of Mexico, the prickly pear cactus provided nourishment to the earliest inhabitants of those regions, and both the sweet, fleshy fruit and the broad, flat stems were incorporated into tasty dishes; and

WHEREAS, Tunas, the prickly pear fruit, and nopales, which are made from the stem, have since become staples of the Mexican diet, and their growing popularity in Lone Star cuisine can be attributed to Texans’ appreciation for unusual and distinctive foods; and….

WHEREAS, This adaptable plant can survive under many different environmental conditions, and thus can be found from the hill country of Central Texas to the windswept plateaus and arid mountains of West Texas; because it thrives in a harsh climate that few plants can bear, the prickly pear cactus is often grown as forage for cattle and has had a tremendous positive impact on the vital Texas cattle industry; and

WHEREAS, Rugged, versatile, and uniquely beautiful, the prickly pear cactus has made numerous contributions to the landscape, cuisine, and character of the Lone Star State, and thus it is singularly qualified to represent the indomitable and proud Texas spirit as an official state symbol; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the 74th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby designate the prickly pear cactus as the official state plant of Texas.

1995 Texas House Concurrent Resolution

Viewed from the east side of the San Antonio River, the graceful arch indeed appears a portal to pathways on the other side. But Mel Chin‘s “CoCobijos” changes appearance as you approach and circle it.

Commissioned by the San Antonio River Foundation to link the Mission Reach of the river to nearby Mission San Jose, the massive steel sculpture represents the pads of two arching prickly pears joined together.

The prickly pear theme arose from two of Houston-born Chin’s first impressions of the area. Interviewed by Jack Morgan for “Texas Standard” on Texas Public Radio, Chin explained:

One: “I was looking at the roofs of the mission and I found that there was a whole planting of them, a bunch of them that have been growing there since the 1930s.”

Two: “After visiting the site… I noticed how hot I was.”

And since: “There’s nothing stronger than the state plant of Texas, I believe.”

Now: “There’s two of them coming together to create a shelter from the sun and a habitat for live cactus growing above.”

According to the San Antonio River Foundation website, Chin reflected about the resiliency of prickly pear and how the plant historically has nurtured people and animals. The lacey steel picado patterns echo the internal structure of nopal pads.

About the same time “CoCobijos” was unveiled in this semi-rural setting, according to Glasstire, Chin was taking over Times Square and several other spots in New York City with multimedia works portraying frightening potential results if global warming is allowed to continue into the future uncontrolled.

The New York installations are gone, but you need only head south from downtown along the San Antonio River to view Chin’s masterful piece of public art now a permanent part of San Antonio’s landscape.

‘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.