Postcard from Portugal: Lessons for San Antonio?

Whenever you travel, you always come across things you’d love to see at home. These are listed randomly, not ranked. Click on the photos to see larger images or the highlighted links if you would like to see additional related photos.

  1. tables under giant rubber trees at Esplanada Cafe
    sandwiches served under giant rubber trees at Esplanada Cafe

    Huge multi-grain sandwiches oozing with melted cheese served under towering rubber trees in a park. This was the easiest of things to adapt from Portugal. Panini(tost)-maker purchased. How did I live without one? It grills veggie burgers, Greek cheese, eggplant, zucchini, naan bread, pineapple, French toast. Anything and everything.

  2. DSCN0748Robert H. H. Hugman designed the River Walk  in San Antonio with varying designs of sidewalks underfoot, but Portugal takes such artistry a giant step farther, and the results are striking. Every step you take should be memorable. Maybe we need a non-slick surface, though. But, it all goes back to something we haven’t quite embraced in Texas. Park the car. A city should be walked to be appreciated.
  3. DSCN0692Statues should be statuesque, or not at all. Poor Henry B. by the Convention Center, wherever he ends up relocated, is rendered too petite. He seems less than life-size. Statues should be awe-inspiring (The exception: Keep oyster-shelly Gompers small and hidden under overgrown trees.).
  4. DSCN1349DSCN1350Festival beer booths do not have to be hideous. Lisbon utilizes these little self-contained booths with several different designs for their special events. Some have homey images, such as a cat in a window or a friendly dog at the door.
  5. DSCN1163Tiles. We have the tradition here. Wonderful tiles from Ethel Harris’ San Jose Pottery. Or those colorful tiles Marion Koogler McNay installed on the risers of her patio stairs. Susan Toomey Frost donated a San Jose tile mural for the Museum Reach of the river to add to the original ones along the downtown river bend, and there are the incredible ones at Alamo Stadium. But we need more. They are such an enduring form of art.
  6. DSCN1200Promotional banners and advertising for festivals do not all have to be identical. Maintaining integrity of logos is one thing, but succumbing to boring repetition renders the message meaningless. Love the way Lisbon engages several artists each year to interpret their marketing materials for its month-long festival in honor of Saint Anthony.
  7. Sardines are a good thing. When they are fresh. Grilled street-side. Just before we left for Portugal, Central Market had a few laid out for the media preview of their Ciao Italia. Then we left, and dove into the land where they were in abundance. We’d like them here, please.
  8. DSCN1214DSCN1216Love our San Antonio Book Festival. But how in the world does Lisbon keep Feira Livro up and running for two weeks? Self-contained booths that can be locked up securely each night help. The sheer number of booths and books made me feel downright illiterate, particularly since the books were in Portuguese.
  9. DSCN0582Inner-city parks are filled with activities on a rotating basis. Farmers’ markets. Regional gourmet food festivals with vendors and tastings. Mini-book fairs. A once-a-month antique fair that would be great some place like Travis Park.
  10. DSCN1316The San Antonio Missions are crying out for intimate, customized tuk-tuk tours crisscrossing the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. The tuk tuks of Lisbon had different designs on the outside. My favorite one, not pictured, was covered with a skin of images of some of Portugal’s distinctive blue tiles.
  11. DSCN1229We now have food trucks, but what about little portable craft beer carts, perfect for sampling new beers on tap in park-like settings. This cart was parked outside the botanical garden. We also encountered wine trucks for sampling Portuguese wine, complete with bar stools for sipping at the wine truck counter. Oh how I would love it if Texas wines were as inexpensive as Portuguese.
  12. DSCN1160Portugal seems to have more than its fair share of parts of saints enshrined in reliquaries. I always thought American Catholics were too squeamish to even want to know how far one saint could be spread, but I was wrong. We just don’t have many saints and parts to fight over. Archbishop Fulton Sheen has not even been beatified yet, and New York and Peoria are fighting over his body and whether he should be exhumed for obtaining some first-class relics to disseminate. I wonder if Portugal would share some modest little second-class relic of Saint Anthony with this city bearing his name….
  13. DSCN1248And about Saint Anthony. He is ever-present everywhere in Portugal. This city named after him needs to pay more attention to him, particularly on his feast day in June. He is a really useful saint.
  14. And, finally, although this blogger might prove the exception….DSCN1257

Note Added: The featured photo strangely popped up on my facebook page immediately after I posted this. Thanks to Mark Twain for providing it.


Obsession preserves a slice of time in Mexico

Susan Toomey Frost’s obsession with vintage San Antonio tiles led her to her first postcard featuring a photograph by Hugo Brehme (1882-1954). In her introduction to Timeless Mexico: The Photographs of Hugo Brehme, just released by the University of Texas Press, she explains how she ended up in relentless pursuit of his work:

My Brehme collection began innocently with an image of a winsome young woman in the traditional folkloric dress of a China Poblana. She was standing in front of a tile doorway at the ex-convent of Churubusco, but it was really the tiles surrounding her that interested me.

In researching the history of tile making in San Antonio, I reasoned that vintage photographs of tiles could help me solve a puzzle. Which of the tiles installed in San Antonio were made locally and which were made in Mexico, California, or elsewhere? If I found a specific design pictured in a vintage postcard from Mexico, for example, I could be assured that the same design found in San Antonio was imported and that local San José workshops had not made it.

And so I began acquiring tile images in earnest. I found most of them on Mexican postcards, but I soon was buying images that didn’t picture tiles. Certain photographs stood out because of the inherent beauty of their subject matter and the quality of their execution. I began noticing that many of the better images were signed by someone named Brehme. Thus a new obsession had begun.

Susan devoted countless hours scouring the internet and monitoring eBay auctions. Collecting made her a whole new group of associates and friends throughout the country as she solicited card collectors and gallery owners to watch for both iconic and rare images of Mexico preserved by the German-born photographer.

In the foreword to Susan’s book, Stella de Sá Rego describes the pictorial style characterizing some of the Brehme’s most easily identifiable prints:

Although aware of his adopted country’s problems, he chose to present what was beautiful, unique, and distinctive about Mexico. He crafted his images with the greatest care, both in terms of composition and printing. The result is seductive: graphically strong images in a lyrical Pictorial style. That style had its origins in the nineteenth-century Romanticism that infused German culture when Brehme was a young man….

Pictorialist photographers sought to achieve the look and status of fine art (e.g., painting) for their works. To achieve this they employed various techniques. Dramatic lighting—as in images made at twilight or with watery reflections, for example—evoked a still, fin-de-siècle mood. The nostalgic quality was heightened by the use of toners or processes such as gum bichromate or platinum printing that rendered a soft, painterly look.

Politics affected Brehme’s photography as well. Following the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz in 1910, Susan explains:

Porfirio Díaz’s regime was Eurocentric, modeling its capital on Paris as a city of palaces, while the majority of Mexico’s oppressed citizens were on the verge of starvation. The new nation no longer wished to look to Europe, but inward with pride in its emerging national self-recognition. The new nationalism celebrated Mexico’s natural beauty, its indigenous heritage and its pyramids and archaeological artifacts. Brehme created indelible images that reinforced Mexico’s identity and the search for its roots. Consequently, Brehme seldom pictured the middle and upper classes in his postcards and photography books….

Through the years, we spent an absurd amount of vacation time waiting… and waiting… for people to wander out of our picture frame before we would snap photos of landmarks. As a result, we have boxes of slides devoid of any human scale or connection. Only recently did we finally realize the error of our ways.

If only we had this collection of Brehme to view earlier. As Susan writes:

Throughout his published work, Brehme typically included human figures in the compositions to give a sense of size or perspective. He usually placed human subjects at a distance and seldom shot close-ups.

And a wonderful quirk Susan discovered – similar to spotting Alfred Hitchcock in his films – is that sometimes the human figure was Brehme himself.

This spring, some of the 1,900 items relating to Brehme Susan has donated to The Witliff Collections at Texas State University will be featured in a major exhibition.

Of course, the donation probably has left Susan with a large hole in her heart and her home to fill. Wonder what obsession is taking their place?

Susan will be among the collectors explaining why they do what they do at the Witte Museum from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, November 12.

But, be forewarned, collecting is a highly contagious disease.

Before I even finished reading Susan’s introduction, I found myself following her leads to interrelated distractions. Are any Brehme postcards lurking in my drawers? Then, her words sent me pulling Frances Toor’s A Treasury of Mexican Folkways off the shelf to look for Brehmes. Soon I found myself comparing Carlos Merida’s “Seri Woman with Mask” to Brehme’s (?) photos of Seri women in the book. The silver bracelet on my arm is by Bernice Goodspeed, but I had no idea she had written guidebooks.  Oh, no, I am headed to eBay in search of a copy. And even while looking for that, I begin to wonder if I am too late to find any of the original books of Brehme’s photos for a price less than astronomical.

Help… I’m being pulled into the swirling vortex. Is there a known antidote? Or do I stop fighting and be swept along with the current wherever it leads?

Update added on December 4, 2011: Steve Bennett reviews Timeless Mexico in the Express-News and reports that the opening date for the Brehme exhibition in the Alkek Library at Texas State University is January 23.

Susan Toomey Frost stimulates a second revival of San Antonio’s traditional tilework

“Benign Obsession” was the moniker she assumed on eBay, but, fortunately for San Antonio, Susan Toomey Frost’s obsession with the products of San Jose Tile Workshops proved anything but benign.

I first “met” “Benign Obsession” online, back when eBay was more fun because you could see the id of those you were bidding against, begin to understand their patterns and learn from an expert willing to warn you of forgeries lurking out there. Susan, in fact, became the leading expert on San Jose Tile Workshops; she literally wrote the book about them. The stunningly beautiful publication, Colors on Clay, was published by Trinity Press in 2009.

I was excitedly telling Sally Buchanan, then president of the San Antonio River Foundation, that I finally succeeded in purchasing a San Jose plate on eBay when she casually mentioned her friend, Susan, was looking for a home for an entire tile mural. I was thrilled to be near one plate, but an entire mural…. With miles of extended riverside trails in the planning stage, surely we could find a home for a Work Projects Administration ((WPA) era mural.

And Susan said, yes, of course, she would donate it to the River Foundation. 

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Privately commissioned by Mayor Maury Maverick, the 188-tile mural had been rescued by Susan from a home on Huebner Road that was slated for demolition. She flew in a tile preservationist from California to gently pry the mural from concrete and carefully stored the tiles for close to a decade.

“What I do,” Susan explained to me the other day, “is try to save their lives and get them in public view in a safe place.”

Architects from Ford, Powell & Carson came up with the ideal location within the project, directly below El Tropicano Hotel on the river, the point where the original Robert H.H. Hugman designed River Walk began and the new Museum Reach now extends northward. This also is directly below the spot where the mural was born – the Mexican Arts and Crafts shop operated in the old Nat Lewis Barn by Ethel Wilson Harris (1893-1884).

In Colors on Clay, Susan wrote that Harris became the technical supervisor of the Arts and Crafts Division of WPA in San Antonio in 1939. Sixty workers joined her existing crew of craftsmen in the workshop on St. Mary’s Street.

While I had long admired the two existing murals on the river resulting from the WPA program – the “Twin Cypress” mural on the stairway by the flood control gate at the northern end of downtown river bend and “Old Mill Crossing” now at the river level of Hotel Contessa by the Navarro Street Bridge – I had no idea of the quantity and diversification of the products resulting from the WPA program until reading Colors on Clay. In addition to the four spectacular 60-square-foot works – depicting a century of sports in San Antonio from Native American archers on Military Plaza in 1840 to high school football in 1940 – at the entrance to Alamo Stadium, here are other contributions Susan described:

Six weeks after Harris’s appointment, WPA workers were building a kiln to fire 500 sets of dishes for distribution to needy families….

Harris also supervised the wrought iron shop that forged lanterns, railings, table frames and other decorative and useful objects, including window grilles for the Spanish Governor’s Palace, a fountain in the form of lilies of the valley for the San José Burial Park, a wrought iron gate and window frames for the San Pedro Park bandstand, barbecue pits for Olmos Park, and fifty artistic foot scrapers for schools and city parks….

Because federal funding supported the program, charitable and public institutions in and around San Antonio received the products free of charge. City parks and golf courses, for example, received tile drinking fountains and 1,000 concrete and wooden benches carved with a Lone Star….

Susan’s search-rescue-and-return efforts have taken her on virtual and actual adventures throughout the country as she finds new homes in San Antonio and nearby for the tiles made here long ago. Her obsession with the project is only matched by her generosity: Texas State Centennial tables now live at the Witte Museum and the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University; a “Las Sombras” mural graces the cafeteria at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church; and soon works will be installed on the river behind the Witte Museum, at the Ceramics Studio of the Southwest School of Art, at the new theater at SAY Si and at the restored Women’s Pavilion in HemisFair Park.

And there is another mural, this one recovered from Indiana, that Susan has pledged to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project. It, too, is returning to just below its birthplace. During her lifetime, Ethel Wilson Harris operated San José Potteries next to Mission San José and Mission Crafts within the mission compound itself. The Mexican village scene will be installed at the portal reconnecting the historical ties of Mission San José to the river.

In 1943, the Texas Legislature recognized Ethel Wilson Harris for her role in “the revival and perpetuation of Mexican arts and crafts,” skills Spanish friars taught Native Americans long ago on mission grounds, skills almost lost as Americans rushed pell-mell into an age where machines mass-produced what once had been crafted carefully by hand.

This traditional art form from San Antonio’s past is now entering its second revival due to the efforts of Susan Toomey Frost. Her obsession is bringing the tiles home to roost before they were lost or all ended up hidden away from public view in the homes of wealthy Californians.