Yanaguana Garden: A fitting name for the first phase in the rebirth of Hemisfair. Slated to open to the public in 2015, this park is envisioned as an oasis that will draw the natives of our city, and not just the tourists. Andres Andujar, CEO of the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, issued the battle cry: “Great cities have great downtowns. Great downtowns have great urban parks.”
This is true; after decades of sad urban decay and isolation had taken its toll on the area, it is a breath of fresh air to finally see construction teams breaking ground on the redevelopment.
The City of San Antonio’s Public Art Board approved moving forward on the playscape concept in January, and the eight-member team of artists led by Stuart Allen has been meeting since to hone and define each aspect of the project. According to Allen, things have been going very well.
“The group is dynamic and there is a lot of enthusiasm and engagement because it is such an important site,” he said. We had an opportunity to speak briefly as Allen and his family were road tripping through eastern Colorado. “Many of the artists involved have kids and families, so on a personal level this is super appealing. The response has been great.”
In addition to overseeing this creative dream team, Stuart Allen is also the project manager for Confluence Park, the $10 million community park initiative on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River.
A well respected artist and arts consultant, his work is found in dozens of public and private collections including four U.S. Embassies, UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, the Tokyo Kite Museum and multiple museums in the U.S.
You may well know his work if you have spent quality time in San Antonio’s down-under, along the river. Take a good look under the bridges at Brooklyn and McCullough and you will see 29° 25´ 57˝ N / 98° 29´ 13˝ W and 29° 26′ 00″ N / 98° 29′ 07″ W commissioned by the San Antonio River Foundation in 2009. The latitude and longitude coordinates refer to the location of the art, and this is a naming device that Allen frequently employs in his work.
“Stuart Allen was a terrific choice to head the Hemisfair Park project,” said David S. Rubin, independent curator and author. “He is a seasoned professional in public art, both as an artist and as an administrator. I have had the pleasure of knowing him in both capacities, first working with him on his site-specific installation for the Great Hall at the San Antonio Museum of Art and, more recently, in serving together on the Art and Architecture Committee of the San Antonio River Foundation.”
What is fascinating beyond Allen’s deep professional experience in managing projects is the art that he makes. There is a tremendous sense of, well, play. His sculptural works, with a few notable exceptions, are mostly comprised of canvas, laminated wood struts, wire, string — elements that you would commonly find in the construction of kites. These are generally site -pecific works, soaring into the interior spaces of public places, giving the sense of loft, air, movement. The work is very precise, certainly architectural in scope and exquisitely crafted — and I use this term pointedly as a compliment. The work has clear intention and is always quietly engaging.
Allen also has a large body of work in photography. His latest series is a group of works called Soap Bubbles. According to Allen, “This series exploits an optical phenomenon that occurs when visible light is distorted by the thin film membrane of a soap bubble. Soap bubbles deconstruct daylight, amplifying some wavelengths while canceling others out, creating an array of color that speaks to the complexity and mutability of what we see as ‘white’ light.”
In fact, when you study Allen’s work, the manipulation of the characteristics of light is the thread that connects all. His time-based light experimentations are intriguing, and I especially liked the series that was done for the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, Dance Lines (2003). By attaching light to professional dancers, Allen captured the intricate movements in the light trails left by utilizing a long exposure. Again, the artist is in a collaborative mode, working with dancers specializing in a variety of styles. He captures the precision inherent in the most elusive and ephemeral of the arts.
Another favorite is PARALLAX, an installation done in 2009 for the Artpace Window Works series. I am often frustrated by Window Works, and it is because every artist who has the awesome opportunity to blow out this very visible venue doesn’t always apply the same thoughtful planning to place and intent that Allen does. In PARALLAX, Allen once again applies the simple, but never simplistic, laws governing movement and light and creates an over-sized image of three figures that appear to move and dance as the viewer passes by. Take a look, and take note: this is a terrific application of thoughtful technique.“With movement, time and space are activated to create a more complex engagement,” he said.
As I learned from David S. Rubin’s essay that accompanied the San Antonio Museum of Art 2007 installation, Stuart was immersed in the exploration that informs his work to this day from an early age. “The son of creative parents, an artist mother and a mechanically-inclined father, Allen received encouragement to think inventively early on, both at home and in school. An ‘A’ student and valedictorian of his high school class, he enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1989 to study architecture, a subject that continues to inform his work to this day. Nonetheless, he was spending the majority of his free time hanging out in the art department, so when a photography professor suggested that he consider transferring to the Kansas City Art Institute, Allen took the advice.”
So, as I turn my focus back to the Yanaguana Garden project, I am truly thrilled aesthetically and as a tax-paying citizen, that Allen was tapped to head up this project by the City of San Antonio Department for Creative & Cultural Development. “My involvement as an artist with previous projects for the city and my experiences as a project manager was appealing as they were looking for someone to put a package together that works well. It is curatorial on one level and largely a management job.” The ideal being a leader that can move the project through the myriad meetings and approval processes collectively and efficiently.
Allen was given the task of choosing his team and he did well, bringing a thoughtful and diverse band of cohorts to the table. Justin Boyd, Alejandro Diaz, Joey Fauerso, Jennifer Khoshbin, Karen Mahaffy, Alex Rubio and Chris Sauter round out the team. If you follow art in San Antonio, you will recognize these individuals as consistent and reliable contributors to the intricately woven fabric of our creative community. They each bring strongly developed skill sets and a variety of aesthetics that will harmonize at the end of the day. In addition to their skills as artists, they each have experience in the realm of public art installation. And because it is San Antonio, there is a generosity of spirit and sharing that is not always a given when talent and egos are brought to bear. We are fortunate in that respect.
“We really batted around the idea of the ‘play‘ concept. It seemed almost too obvious in the beginning, but we ended up coming back to it in the end. ‘Play‘ is open ended. It means something different to an 8-year-old versus an 80-year-old,” Allen reflected as we discussed the process. The vision is an active play and recreational environment for all ages and abilities that will attract residents and strengthen the local community.
The process that Allen is taking his team through seems very collaborative and tailored so that each artist has the opportunity to bring their best work. “There are ways that we can guide each other to fill particular niches. All the ideas come to the table and we choose those that are most complementary to the project.”
It is encouraging that our city leaders are bringing such thoughtful and skilled creative minds to bear on this important reimagining of a public area that has lay fallow for so long. Stuart Allen has never lost his sense of play, exploration and discovery. San Antonio is better for it.
*Featured/top image: Yanaguana Garden rendering. Image courtesy HPARC.