Public Art Depicts Culture, History on Eastside Bridge

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The red and golden hues of Indian blankets gleam in the setting sunlight while a shadow drifts across the newly completed bridge at 3190 E. Houston St.

The Indian blankets are near perfect replicas of the flower created by local artist Diana Kersey. They are part of a public art project jointly designed by Kersey and Bernice Appelin-Williams. Both artists aimed for a lasting impression along the public street, a beautiful backdrop to the nearby Salado Creek Greenway trail.

Kersey is a visual artist working to create pottery and architectural ceramics within the community. She earned her masters in ceramics from Washington State University and her bachelors in drawing from Texas Tech University.

Appelin-Williams attended Columbia University in New York and later received her bachelors from the University of the Incarnate Word and her masters from Trinity University.

The existing bridge (306 feet long by 43 feet wide) was replaced by a larger roadway (330 feet long by 65.5 feet wide) with four travel lanes and adjacent sidewalks. The bridge, a direct product of a 2007 bond package designed for roads and other major improvements, includes 36 ceramic panels (approximately 2 x 1.5 feet) that create the visual anchors of Gaillardia pulchella or “Indian blanket.” Another 28 ceramic panels describe the human and natural history of the Eastside community.

Local artist Diana Kersey designed 36 panels depicting Eastside wildlife, history, and culture for the Houston Street bridge. Photo by Kay Richter.

Local artist Diana Kersey designed 36 panels depicting Eastside wildlife, history, and culture for the Houston Street bridge. Photo by Kay Richter.

One such story is that of Johnnie Phillips and the former Eastwood Country Club that opened in 1954. Located off of E. Houston St. on St. Hedwig Road, the club also was called Eastwoods during the “chitlin’ circuit,” providing African-Americans a place to perform.

“Eastwood Country Club was one of the few places during the social unrest of the 1960s where blacks sat, drank, and danced beside whites in peace,” according to Spot Barnett, a saxophonist who performed at Eastwoods.

The music club saw many of the popular black performers of the era, including Fats Dominoe, B.B. King, Pearl Bailey, the Drifters, Tyrone Davis, Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Delta Reese, and Big Joe Turner.

Another panel recounts a specific story of St. Philip’s College and Artemisia Bowden. The college began as a normal and industrial school in a small house along La Villita. In 1902, Bowden was hired as a teacher and administrator. Under her leadership, the school moved to a new location within the Eastside community and it eventually became part of the San Antonio College system in 1942.

The Carver Community Cultural Center gets another panel. Originally dubbed the Carver Library and Auditorium, the building was erected in 1929. In January 1970, community leader Norva Hill is credited with organizing 100 women to stand in the path of bulldozers, saving the buildings from destruction.

“I didn’t want to see the first building that the city had provided for blacks on the Eastside destroyed, because it was and is the most beautiful city building on the Eastside,” Hill wrote in her notes about the campaign.

(Read More: Community Rescues History and Culture in ‘Eastside S.A. The Future and Back)

Another panel on the bridge describes the Jefferson Heights Neighborhood. During the late 1940s, an influx of African American military personnel from World War I and World War II began a migration into this formerly inclusive neighborhood. A Supreme Court ruling also paved the way by ruling against racially restrictive covenants in 1948. The housing styles in these communities can still be seen today as Queen Anne, as Victorian styles and Craftsman bungalows remain.

Local artist Diana Kersey designed 36 panels depicting Eastside wildlife, history, and culture for the Houston Street bridge. Photo by Kay Richter.

Local artist Diana Kersey designed 36 panels depicting Eastside wildlife, history, and culture for the Houston Street bridge. Photo by Kay Richter.

Even the color schemes that were selected for the project reflect the Eastside community.

“The overall color schemes of the bridge are limited to four colors: yellow, red, green and black,” wrote the artists in their project proposal. “These colors are traditionally associated with Africa. We propose using these symbols and colors in order to identify and honor the African American presence and history in San Antonio’s near Eastside, directly west of the Houston Street Bridge.”

While Kersey has already finished installing her part of the artwork on the bridge (the ceramic panels), Appelin-Williams has yet to complete her part of the project. Four finials will be placed along each corner of the bridge.

“The base of the finials will be bought as ready-made metal light poles with decorative, artist constructed elements on top made of metal with removable/replaceable stained glass,” wrote the artists.

The final step of the process is scheduled to be complete during the early spring of 2015. There is a temporary delay with the second installment of the project, described by Public Art San Antonio Manager James LeFlore as a budget transfer issue with several different projects pulling amounts from the 2007 bond.

“Our schedule is delayed, but we will put funding together quickly,” LeFlore said, adding that the issue was due largely to an internal coordination miscommunication.

The history and tiles that represent different stories paint a clear picture of the Eastside. The design for the project came not only came from the collaboration of these two artists, but was from a focus group that discussed the significance of public art tying into the community.

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