‘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.

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.

Brackenridge Park: ‘Is it still a postcard place?’

Colonel George W. Brackenridge, one of our oldest, wealthiest and most prominent and respected citizens, has tendered to the city a handsome gift in the form of a 200-acre tract of land near the head of the river, to be dedicated to the use of a public park. Colonel Brackenridge acquired the property some twenty years ago, but beyond enclosing it with a wire fence, has never improved it.

The tract is heavily wooded and susceptible, at considerable outlay, of being transformed into a beautiful and inviting “breathing spot.” Not unnaturally, Col. Brackenridge has been the recipient of many complimentary utterances….

San Antonio Light, November 12, 1899, page 2

In Brackenridge Park, San Antonio has one of those places nature made beautiful. Its two hundred odd acres are wild and picturesque, a primeval forest which has not been spoiled by the hand of man…. you will find a beautiful natural woodland with winding driveways overarched with splendid live oak trees festooned with hanging moss. Here in captivity live elk and deer and buffalo. Here the squirrels chatter at play, and the wild beauty of this spot makes it one of the most attractive parks in America. San Antonio, Chamber of Commerce Booklet, 1909

Well past her century mark, it is not surprising that Brackenridge Park is overdue for a facelift. Recognizing this, San Antonio City Council unanimously approved a master plan for the park on March 2, and approval of funds via the upcoming bond election on May 6 will jumpstart the plan’s implementation.

A day-long summit presented by the Cultural Landscape Foundation and Brackenridge Park Conservancy on March 3 represented a thoughtful approach to the ongoing planning process for the park. Panels focused on what could be learned from other recent improvement projects in San Antonio as well as park projects in other cities.

Kinder Baumgardner, managing principal of SWA in Houston, pointed out that the beauty of Brackenridge Park often was spotlighted on postcards visitors would purchase to send home. But, he posed, “Is it still a postcard place?”

Of course, once home, that sent me scrambling though my folder to look, because, as you can tell by the masthead of my blog, I like old postcards.

Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation recognized the Japanese Tea Garden as the first quarry in the United States to be transformed into a garden.

The answer to Baumgardner’s questions is parts of the parkland and its extensions are postcard-worthy: the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Antonio Zoo, the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Botanical Garden. But shouldn’t all the remaining 115 acres of admission-free parkland be equally as photogenic?

As an introduction to the first session, Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, pointed out that some of this “vacant” space has been plagued by a “plop and drop” approach to developing the parkland without enough planning focused on the importance of visual and spatial relationships. He stressed that “edge matters.” The park needs to be without borders, “porous.”

Speaker after speaker echoed this. Andres Andujar, CEO of Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, noted the importance of “connectivity and porosity.” As the park is hemmed in by its neighbors and proximity to Highway 281, Douglas Reed, principal of Reed Hilderbrand, was among those looking eastward to create connections. The edges of Brackenridge Park should be opened up from Broadway.

Opening up the parkland is a major planning challenge facing the Brackenridge Park Conservancy because the blockage originated at the time of the original gift. The 1899 article about Brackenridge’s gift quoted above continued:

These kindly utterances are probably deserved, I assume, but doubly so would they have been, to my mind, had the colonel’s generosity gone but a step further and alienated the entire tract to the city, instead of reserving a strip of 300 feet wide, running the entire length of River avenue (now Broadway). Of course this strip can be platted into most beautiful and eligible residence lots, and by reason of their proximity to the park grounds, be made to net an aggregate probably in excess of the present value of the entire tract. But, I am not one to “look a gift horse in the mouth.”

San Antonio Light, November 12, 1899, page 2

With its origins at the Blue Hole on the property of the Sisters of Incarnate Word, the San Antonio River runs through the park. Archaeological studies trace man’s history in proximity to the river back 11,000 years ago. Birnbaum observed this contributes to making the parkland a suitable portal for viewing the story of water in San Antonio. With its early acequias and later waterworks supplying the city’s needs, Birnbaum believes redevelopment of the historic park has the potential to qualify it for designation as a national heritage area.

The city at times abused and overused that source of water. Water rights remained privately held after the donation of the parkland, with water pumped up to the area of today’s Botanical Gardens for distribution to the city. Artesian wells of the breweries downstream also tapped into the river’s underground resources for replenishment. Later flood control efforts led to inartistic intrusions in the park, such as the concrete Catalpa Pershing channel.

Still, the park has always been regarded as a resort for citizens.

Gina Ford, principal of Sasaki, identified the river as the building block for a cohesive network in the park and the surrounding areas. While the natural ecosystem should be cultivated, “the life of a city and the life of a river should interact.” Opportunities for engagement with the river should be fostered.

Everybody, young and old, rich and poor, the lame, the halt – even the blind – as well as the robust, athletic swimmers, have made a trysting place of Lambert Beach in Brackenridge Park. San Antonio Light, August 29, 1915

Returning to the historical levels of interaction people enjoyed with the water is complicated by the behavior of the park’s users. Before even the once-popular paddleboats can be reintroduced, people must stop feeding the resident ducks, said Suzanne Scott, executive director of the San Antonio River Authority. She has waged war against duck dooty for years, but people continue to bring their stale loaves of bread to the river’s banks. The availability of an unnatural abundance of food leads to an unnaturally high population of floating fowl fouling the water. This translates into an e coli count making the river too dangerous for humans to come in direct contact its waters.

Brackenridge Park remains “the people’s park,” but the implementation of its master plan promises to enrich our experiences in this precious urban oasis.

 

P.S. Don’t forget a few old souls from the past who might still haunt the park. I know, I am the only person trying to populate the park with ghosts, but here are some of my nominations: Helen Madarasz, Ernest Richter, Otto Goetz, Sam Wigodsky, William Berger and Martha Mansfield.

Might Helen Madarasz haunt Brackenridge Park?