From canvas to underpass, bristles to hacksaw, pencils to wheat paste, miniscule to monumental, sterile structures are coming alive all over San Antonio with just a little “enhancement.”
These public works of art are often so large you couldn’t ignore them if you wanted to and the public is consequently expected to look at, enjoy and reflect.
Within this year alone, we have seen beautiful additions to our city’s landscape including the newly installed 1005 faces project in Southtown, the geared greatness of the South Side “Ballroom Luminoso,” and the recently completed colossal 1.2 mile streetscape between Redland Road and Thousand Oaks Drive titled “Along Here and There.”
While multiple organizations are funding various projects in a variety of ways, financial support for many of these works can be traced to the City of San Antonio; more specifically Public Art San Antonio. A division of the Department for Creative and Cultural Development, PASA has had a hand in more than one hundred projects completed since 2000.
PASA Public Art Manager Jimmy LeFlore says that public art isn’t as simple as making spaces pretty. Many of the PASA projects deal with infrastructures that have been abandoned or forgotten, so they are challenged to beautify a space with sensitivity. “The projects have to adapt to the conditions of the site, which is sometimes where art can be more precise and insightful.”
A prime example of his philosophy is visible in the work of Joe O’Connell and Blessing Hancock.
O’Connell notes that the original inspiration for their fist public art project in San Antonio, the breathtaking “Ballroom Luminoso,”stems from the site itself.
“At first, we were drawn to the formal elegance and clean lines of the freeway underpass. It had a spirit of rejuvenation.”
O’Connell and Hancock created a series of six chandeliers 48 inches in diameter from metal parts salvaged from junk bins.
“They create delicate projections for a muddy underpass sandwiched between Taco Cabana and a Shell station,” said O’Connell. “We took simple origins and developed them into beautiful results.”
Each globe contains a custom-designed LED light fixture and medallions that draw on the community’s agricultural history, strong Hispanic heritage and burgeoning environmental movement.
With the title public artist comes a responsibility to discover the potential of a wide range of distinctive materials.
Oscar Alvarado designs and builds mosaics using stone, tile, glass, rocks and found or discarded objects. He has completed two projects this year including the “Zarzamora Drainage Project,” which includes three sculptures along a mile-long stretch of Zarzamora that weigh about three tons each, and the “Walters Street Streetscape,” seven columns decorated with mosaic panels and spheres.
Alvarado has completed numerous pieces in San Antonio and began working with PASA when they were still a department within Public Works. The crew has now grown and the workload has increased.
“PASA has to negotiate that fine space between politics and public service while coordinating the artists efforts with architects, engineers, project managers, contractors, review boards, politicians, administrators, and the public,” Alvarado said. “The people at PASA help the artist with all aspects of making the idea into a reality.”
Mark Schlesinger is no newcomer to the public art scene either. His work includes “Under the Over,” a public painting located on the underbelly of the bridge overpass located at the Museum Reach Ninth Street bridge. Commissioned by the San Antonio River Foundation, the piece includes stainless steel panels that reflect and play upon the surface of the water, hand-painted bars that glow at night and fiber optic benches.
“Up On The On,” a painting on a footbridge just southwest of Roosevelt Park on the Mission Reach, features a modular design with 8 blocks that glow at night and hand-painted sections of sidewalk.
Completed this year, “Along Here and There,” is Schlesinger's third and largest project in San Antonio. The streetscape design utilizes utility covers, color retaining walls, accessibility ramps, guardrails and central turning medians along the 1.2-mile stretch between Redland Road and Thousand Oaks Drive.
When asked about the difference between the private and public sector, Schlesinger observed, “The difference is the artist is no longer isolated. The work produced is becoming a social function of creativity.” The work thus becomes less of a statement and more of a conversation.
LeFlore has lofty goals for the creative culture of San Antonio.
“I’d like to see art as more of a common experience … not littered everywhere, but more of a daily experience.” He also wants to emphasize local talent. “We need more artists working and living here – be able to grow and feed them here.”
One organization striving to retain our creative artists earlier in their careers is San Anto Cultural Arts. With over 80 square miles of art gallery, the nonprofit organization specializes in large-scale public murals that involve a central artist and handfuls of participants assisting in its completion. Their programs emphasize one of the riches of public art: its ability to be collaborative and cooperative, creating a sense of community during its construction.
[Read more about San Anto's latest mural project: "'Vortex' Mural Bridging Eastside, Downtown Communities."]
San Anto Executive Director Harvey Mireles has high hopes for our city. “San Antonio has some great public art, but it isn’t as evident as it needs to be. We need to make is easier for artists to put their work out there and eliminate bureaucracy while also complying with regulations.”
While the thought of art around every corner is a lovely one, it is idealistic to say the least. The reality of the situation struck San Anto particularly hard during the past few months when a handful of their murals were vandalized. Awareness and respect are issues that clearly need to be addressed with the community as well.
LeFlore mentioned that tagging is a common problem that factors into the design of projects. PASA has found a possible solution, however, in material choice. The tiny box trains that adorn the rails of Hayes Street Bridge, for example, are designed from a metal that is immune to penetration of surface markings.
Artists can thus help cities construct better infrastructures by creating large-scale structures that are both aesthetically pleasing and functional.
“Getting young artists working on small projects is key,” said Schlesinger. “Instead of keeping them (indoors) and stifling creativity.”
As an eighth generation San Antonian, Alvarado adds, “San Antonio has maintained it's uniqueness as other cities across the USA become vanilla strip malls of ubiquitous commercial zones with unimaginative design. We have to continue to keep our city unique.”
PASA and DCCD continue to strive for uniqueness. X Marks the Art, a program of PASA will be unveiling their newest round of storefront installations in August. In addition, PASA continues work on various projects including a Hardberger Park ecology center including a restored prairie area and focusing on environmental sustainability. A project at Basse and Blanco is in the works as well and will feature two gateways on the east and west sides that will emulate smokestacks.
Something that is hard to put a value on but most would agree is valuable, says O’Connell is the idea of creating a sense of place. Public art can become a landmark, touchstone and a symbol. He also emphasizes the need for a design-build implementation.
“As a society we have moved in a direction where one group designs and slides the plans under a figurative door to an entirely different group of people who build from these plans. Most of the things that make us proudest as humans were not built that way; they were built as a tightly coupled series of experiments, revisions, and further experiments.”
Public art is a conversation and San Antonio has spoken. It has spoken of green technology, recycled materials, community, acceptance and appreciation. I look forward to seeing what local artists say in return and how they say it.
Melanie Robinson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Concentration in Professional Writing and a minor in Anthropology from the University of Texas at San Antonio in December 2011. Her current Marketing position at the local nonprofit organization ARTS San Antonio has afforded her the opportunity to further explore her love of the arts. She now spends her nights among local musicians, artists and poets – finding beauty in self-expression. You can contact Melanie through her Facebook.