It might be tricky to define “public art” but it’s far more complicated to discern its value or purpose.
Poke around online a little and you’ll find that the Visual Arts Encyclopedia suggests public art is “an umbrella term which includes any work of art purchased with public funds, or which comes into the public domain (by donation, or by public display, etc.) irrespective of where it is situated in the community, or who sees it.” In its mini-lesson “Public Art 101,” the stalwart nonprofit Americans for the Arts points out that public art goes far beyond the stereotypical “historic bronze statues of a soldier on horseback in a park” and that it’s frequently a collaborative endeavor that’s “part of development or construction projects that are part of a larger urban development or cultural plan.” Perhaps the most inward-looking encapsulation comes from the Association for Public Art, which reminds us that public art can “enhance our environment, transform a landscape, heighten our awareness, or question our assumptions.”
One thing they all seem to agree on is that for public art to be truly successful, it’s crucial to consider the voices and concerns of the surrounding community from the get-go. If it’s not a reflection of the community it was created for, why should it matter to them? At its best, public art can start enlightening conversations and engage locals and tourists alike. At its worst, public art can stir up controversy and enrage a community.
When you picture public art on a national or global scale, what do you see? Maybe the promises of “freedom and democracy” heralded by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s colossal copper Statue of Liberty that presides over the New York Harbor? Tourists taking selfies in front of Indian-born British artist Sir Anish Kapoor’s 110-ton, shiny stainless-steel sculpture Cloud Gate (better known as The Bean) in Chicago’s Millennium Park? Perplexed visitors searching for meaning in Stonehenge — the iconic megalith that’s been described as everything from a “giant sculpture” to a “pile of rocks” and “the most disappointing tourist attraction in Britain.” The tired old adage still rings true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Now bring the focus back home and what do you picture? Mexican sculptor Sebastián’s 65-foot-tall, fiery orange Torch of Friendship (Antorcha de Amistad) at the intersection of Losoya and Commerce streets? Chicago native Donald Lipski’s illuminated F.I.S.H. that swim through the night sky along the River Walk’s Museum Reach? Or maybe San Antonio’s own Bill FitzGibbons’ computer-controlled, candy-colored Light Channels that flash and blink at drivers passing under I-37? What about Austin artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade’s Guinness-certified World’s Largest Cowboy Boots at North Star Mall? Should those count as public art? (Technically, as long as it’s art installed in a public, it fits the bill.) One might even make a case for Confluence Park’s dramatic, water-saving pavilion as a work of public art.
Or maybe your mind wanders to controversies that can overshadow the art itself — such as London-based artist Jason Bruges’ $1 million sculpture Liquid Crystal in the Henry B. González Convention Center, which sparked considerable drama due to both its price tag and non-local creator and got dubbed by critics as the Cheese Grater, or the Confederate monument that was removed from Travis Park last year.
If you spend a little time with the online map organized by the San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture program Public Art San Antonio (PASA), you’ll quickly realize that our city abounds with public art, including dozens of off-the-beaten-path projects even die-hard art fans are unlikely to be aware of. Since some of the more conceptual offerings tend to fly beneath the radar, essentially hiding in plain sight, certain works of public art can require a bit of hunting — meaning you’ll need to know exactly where to look and exactly what you’re looking for. Nothing against the obscure, the abstract or the understated, but how many people do you know who go out of their way just to experience public art? If it’s not in your bubble, why bother visiting anything other than a blockbuster like French artist Xavier de Richemont’s dazzling San Antonio: The Saga light show on the facade of San Fernando Cathedral or maybe James Turrell’s awesomely meditative Twilight Epiphany Skyspace on the campus of Houston’s Rice University? At least for projects commissioned by PASA, the short answer for San Antonians is: You helped pay for it.
Passed in May 2017, San Antonio’s five-year bond program (2017-2022) allotted $8.3 million for the acquisition and installation of public art. Representing one percent of the total bond, that figure will fund projects near (or associated with) capital improvements — including repairs and enhancements to streets, sidewalks and bridges throughout San Antonio. With all this in mind, it’s only natural that we question the public art around us. Who made it? What were they trying to convey? And how is the community responding to it?
In an attempt to address some of these questions, we visited 10 recent public art projects to gather gut impressions and try to determine how (or if) they’re rising to the occasion of engaging the communities in which they reside. Following our visits, we sat down with San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre to learn more about PASA’s future plans as well as the rigorous processes involved in the creation of public art.
Jorge Marín: Alas de México (Wings of Mexico)
Hemisfair Park, 434 S. Alamo St.
Hailed as a gift from the Mexican government and internationally recognized sculptor Jorge Marín in celebration of San Antonio’s Tricentennial, Alas de México (Wings of Mexico) isn’t the only new addition to Hemisfair Park but it stands poised to become the one we’ll be seeing the most of in the future. Presented as a symbol of “unity and fraternal friendship” between San Antonio and Mexico City in the midst of volatile times, the bronze statue joins works by an array of local artists, including Karen Mahaffy, Oscar Alvarado, Joey Fauerso, Stuart Allen, Alex Rubio, Justin Boyd and Jennifer Khoshbin, as well as an assortment of holdouts from HemisFair ’68. If Alas de México looks familiar, it might be because an earlier version of it was on display at the San Antonio Botanical Garden three years ago as part of Marín’s outdoor sculpture showcase “Wings of the City.” While we’re not sure how effectively the sculpture will inspire visitors to “pause and reflect on the relationship between San Antonio and Mexico,” we’ve seen its selfie strengths successfully at play, with tourists patiently waiting to climb atop its pedestal and pose as a gold-winged angel beneath the Tower of the Americas.
Joey Fauerso: Canopy
Fulton Railroad Underpass, 729 Fulton Ave.
Playfully rendered in a palette of cool blues and greens, San Antonio artist and educator Joey Fauerso’s Canopy mural brings a sense of serenity to a railroad underpass in Alta Vista. Known for works encompassing painterly video projects, ethereal portraits and “drawing battles,” Fauerso is no stranger to public art or creative collaborations. In 2014, she organized the excellent street-level exhibition “X Marks the Art,” which turned storefronts and vacant building facades into canvases for six of her students from Texas State University. The following year, her series of steel Sky Camp pup tents were dedicated as part of the larger “Play” project in Hemisfair’s Yanaguana Garden. Drawing earthly inspiration from beloved neighborhood landmark San Pedro Springs Park, Fauerso covered two facing walls with a mural depicting South Texas birds perched in cypress trees. Peppered throughout are curious snippets of poetry penned by elementary-school students from nearby Agnes Cotton Academy. Speaking about Canopy, Racca-Sittre suggested that, “As a kid growing up in that neighborhood, you would be, like fiercely, ‘Do not touch this, this is important to me.’ [That’s] why we want to have such strong community involvement. We want the community to take pride in the public art and take ownership of it like it’s theirs. Because it is — it’s their money.”
Suzy González & Michael Menchaca: ¡Adelante San Antonio!
Consolidated Rental Car Facility (ConRAC), San Antonio International Airport,
9800 Airport Blvd.
Although its location at the airport pretty much dictates that the Tricentennial project ¡Adelante San Antonio! will be seen chiefly by tourists and travelers, it might take the eyes of locals to see it for all it really is: a sprawling celebration of San Antonio history. Created by the artist duo of Suzy González and Michael Menchaca (who collaborate under the moniker Dos Mestizx), it comprises three distinct parts. A pair of exterior mesh murals “represent a hybrid bird/airplane” with a golden eagle referencing daytime travel and a Boeing 737 referencing “traveling by night, migration, and arriving home.” Inside the facility, stretched above the car-rental counters is another two-part mural made up of colorful duotone panels depicting symbols and icons (from bluebonnets and prickly pear cactus to Air Force logos and an aerial view of San Pedro Creek), historic aircrafts and a number of notable San Antonians — including accordion queen Eva Ybarra, tejano/conjunto hero Lydia Mendoza, labor union organizer Emma Tenayuca and pioneering pilot sisters Katherine and Marjorie Stinson. The third piece of the puzzle is a clever “Ventana Rosada” that puts a literal spin on the “rose window” concept via a plane propellor surrounded by yellow roses. While stressed-out car renters are unlikely to connect all these references, their kids might. Smack in the center of the lobby sits an iPad with a scrolling legend that explains each and every aspect in both English and Spanish. If your future plans don’t include renting a vehicle at the airport, keep in mind that short-term parking is free if you can get in and out in 15 minutes or less. (Consider it a challenge.)
Cruz Ortiz: Dream Song Tower
I-35 Access Road at S. Zarzamora St.
One of the great challenges of public art is deciding where to put it. As Racca-Sittre explained to us, publicly funded art projects must “by law connect to a project that’s listed that’s not for public art.” But since every district includes improvement projects for “pedestrian mobility,” that gives PASA the green light to install public art “anywhere in the district as long as there might be pedestrians.” The chosen location for local art star Cruz Ortiz’s 60-foot-tall Dream Song Tower may seem like an odd one — an urban slice that butts up to the I-35 access road, South Zarzamora Street and active railroad tracks. Unless you’re hoofing it to Baptist Emergency Hospital or South Park Mall, you probably won’t experience this one as a pedestrian unless you make a point of it. Drivers, it seems, are its target audience, and folks stopped in traffic on I-35 might have the best view of its entirety. Described by PASA as “a welcoming gateway to the South San District,” the dramatic sculpture recalls a strange hybrid of a radio tower, a rocket ship and a tepee tricked out with Ortiz’s graphic signatures and visual nods to Selena (the words “Siempre Dreaming of You”) and the urban legends of the Donkey Lady and the chicken-footed Dancing Devil. If the chief purpose was to add visual interest to a former eyesore, mission accomplished. It’s an undeniable statement piece with pizzazz aplenty (some of the design elements even twirl in the wind like pinwheels), but there’s so much noise surrounding it (visual and otherwise) that it’s not exactly a destination where many would opt to linger.
RDG Dahlquist Art Studio: Aguas Onduladas (Rippling Waters)
Elmendorf Lake Park, 3702 W. Commerce St.
Like Dream Song Tower, the recently dedicated sculpture Aguas Onduladas was born from a desire to beautify a dilapidated bit of land — and it’s also unfortunately nestled on a traffic triangle amid unappealing elements (telephone poles, wires, etc.), which makes it tough to photograph it in a way that reads as “art.” Designed by Iowa-based RDG Dahlquist Art Studio in response to the “natural beauty” of nearby Elmendorf Lake, the project takes shape in three ripping waves cut from stainless steel. During our meeting with Racca-Sittre, she likened the installation to a transitional space or “gateway” from the neighborhood into Elmendorf Lark Park, which recently underwent a $16.2 million improvement project that includes new pedestrian bridges, LED lighting, a splash pad and tile mosaic artwork and benches by local fixture Oscar Alvarado. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Aguas Onduladas (besides the fact that it lights up from within and looks considerably more realized and romantic at night) also illustrates the role of PASA’s Public Art Committee. As Racca-Sittre explained, the committee members felt the project needed to be tied “a little bit more to the community” and pitched the idea that poetry be etched into the undulating stainless steel. A natural fit, West Side native Carmen Tafolla — San Antonio’s inaugural Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014 and later Texas Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2016 — rose to the occasion by selecting excerpts from two of her poems: “River Music” and “Cada Sueño.”
Cathy Cunningham-Little: Spirit of the Phoenix
Fire Station 18, 1318 S. WW White Road
Following suit with Aguas Onduladas, ever-inventive local artist Cathy Cunningham-Little’s Spirit of the Phoenix is optimized for nighttime viewing in a fairly unusual spot. Created to accentuate a vintage fire apparatus (read: truck) in what one might describe as a storefront or showroom attached to Fire Station 18, the project sees Cunningham Little softening up her geometric lighting wizardry for a large-scale installation that alludes to fire and firefighting through the juxtaposition of hot and cold colors, ladder-like projections and an abstract pattern inspired by the mythical phoenix rising from the flames. Set back a bit from the sidewalk, Spirit of the Phoenix might fly under the radar more than any other project we visited. Despite the fascinating light tapestry it casts onto the interior walls and exterior walkway, there feels like an imaginary barrier in place. (When’s the last time you wandered up to a fire station to peek inside?) Speaking to the Current over the phone from Hawaii, Cunningham-Little, who is married to sculptor and fellow public artist Ken Little, explained that while it might look best at night, the station often welcomes daytime visitors in for a closer look.
Legge Lewis Legge: Love Is Never Lost
West End Park, 1226 NW 18th St.
Undoubtedly the easiest project in the lot to take a jab at, Austin-based outfit Legge Lewis Legge’s installation Love Is Never Lost got the unenviable task of beautifying a Google Fiber Hut in an unassuming neighborhood park. At its core an installation of colored metal tabs installed on a chain-link fence surrounding said hut, Love Is Never Lost almost defies the promise of its title by disappearing into its own environment. If you don’t live within a few blocks of it or seek it out, chances are you’ll never see it. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the nerdy irony of a public art installation beautifying (disguising?) a hut housing technological infrastructure left us liking Love Is Never Lost. Especially considering that Google Fiber’s San Antonio rollout sparked such a hissy fit, West End Park’s decorated hut feels a bit like a punchline, or maybe an abstract answer to an annoying riddle. Rather than “put a bird on it” Portlandia-style, Legge Lewis Legge drew inspiration from nearby Washington Irving Middle School’s namesake, cutting the writer’s famed phrase “Love Is Never Lost” into orange tabs that pop amid a scattered grid of blues and greens. Pushing the irony factor even further, this location offered the weakest (read: nonexistent) internet connectivity of the bunch.
Diana Kersey: Bridges of Understanding; Adriana M. Garcia: De Todos Caminos Somos Todos Uno (From All Roads We Are One); Katie Pell, Red Arch, Green Arch; Alex Rubio, Aqua; Joe Lopez: Bellos Recuerdos del Teatro Alameda y Tiempos Pasados (Beautiful Memories of the Alameda Theater and Times Passed); John Phillip Santos, Historical Text and Poetry; Michael Menchaca, Plaza de Fundación.
San Pedro Creek Culture Park, 715 Camaron St.
Only in its first phase of completion, San Pedro Creek Culture Park boasts an abundance of public art created by a solid array of local artists, some long-established, others still on the rise. Not commissioned by PASA but the San Antonio River Authority and its program San Pedro Creek Arts, the project aims to “express what is authentic about San Antonio’s culture today” and explore “the historical significance of the creek through a contemporary art lens.” Curated by Carrie Brown, the collection combines a series of historically inspired ceramic works by Diana Kersey, limestone walls etched with the poetry of John Phillip Santos, graphic tiles throughout by Michael Menchaca and vibrant murals by Adriana M. Garcia, Katie Pell, Alex Rubio and Joe Lopez. As construction here is ongoing, the area can be a bit tricky to navigate — the overall experience feels like you’ve caught the park in a state of undress — but it still offers a promising glimpse of big things to come.
David Blancas & Oscar Alvarado: Windows to Our Heritage
Hwy. 90 Underpasses at S. Presa St., Roosevelt Ave., Mission Road and Steves Ave.
Part of the larger World Heritage Trail (a collaboration between Arts & Culture and the World Heritage Office), the not-yet-dedicated Windows to Our Heritage is right up there with ¡Adelante San Antonio! as a well-executed project that’s packed with local history. Essentially an extensive series of painted vignettes with mosaic tile treatments on concrete beams under Highway 90, the project took shape when PASA smartly paired painter David Blancas and sculptor Oscar Alvarado, both local artists with studios in close proximity to the installation sites. Described by PASA as “functional murals” designed to “reinforce and enhance the visitor experience, while also providing an aesthetic vision that reflects the rich history and culture of the missions, people and neighborhoods within the area,” the project successfully breathes life and color into otherwise nondescript underpasses but also wins with its thoughtful mixture of icons and locales both the essential and unexpected — from Mission Espada and Hot Wells Hotel to Sunshine Amusement Park and the Ghost Tracks. For these, a slow drive-by won’t cut it, you’ll need to park in the neighborhood and take a stroll under the bridge.
Buster Simpson: Midden Mound Wickiups
Pearsall Park, 4838 Old Pearsall Road
Serving up Mad Max realness from their respective landing pads on hilltops in a former dump, Seattle-based artist Buster Simpson’s bizarre Midden Mound Wikiups easily take the cake in the category of landscape transformation. Billed by PASA as a “modern take on a wickiup … a primitive domed structure historically associated with Native Americans of the Southwest,” they’re eerie and post-apocalyptic, looking a bit like the bombed-out shells of sci-fi shelters. Recognized last year by Americans for the Arts as an Outstanding Public Art Project, Midden Mound Wikiups might be the biggest hit of the lot. Since they’re outfitted with benches and offer expansive views of Lackland Air Force Base, Leon Creek and downtown in the distance, they make for a truly unusual respite from the daily grind. During our three visits, we saw them being put to use by hip young kids, families, yoga enthusiasts and dogs. Rendered in steel and woven wire mesh, among other materials, the three structures are divided into two camps: Wickiup Encampment and Wickiup Overlook, the latter of which is unfortunately shedding crimped metal scraps all around it. Upon closer inspection, there’s an abundance of the crimped metal strips that appear hastily stuffed into corners of the mesh covering — unattached to anything and ready to disperse in the wind. This design hiccup feels particularly glaring since the project sits atop a former landfill that’s been successfully transformed into a hilly park. Oddly enough, the description on Simpson’s website states, “The wickiups in Pearsall Park honor the historical presence of indigenous peoples and their light footprint on the land … The wickiup atop our cultural midden suggests a return to a less wasteful society.”
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