Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
A T-shirt worn by sculptor George Schroeder essentially tells the story of how Tribute to Freedom, his new monumental sculpture at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, became a reality.
“Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it themselves,” the shirt reads in white letters over a black background. The quote circles a bird’s-eye image of the sculpture.
Schroeder said the saying was a favorite of Mark Loomis, principal landscape architect for MP studios, one of many partners who worked on the complex 3½-year project.
“Throughout the process, he was my go-to guy for every little detail of how it was assembled, how it was supposed to be built,” Schroeder said. “I can’t tell you how many times he saved the day with his knowledge of how this thing was engineered and built.”
Substance Behind the Image
While Tribute to Freedom is intended primarily to honor all branches of the U.S. armed forces who train at Lackland, it also pays tribute to those who made it, said Jimmy LeFlore, public art manager for Public Art San Antonio (PASA) and the City’s Department of Arts and Culture.
Simply put, “It’s an engineering feat,” LeFlore said of the 75-foot-tall aluminum and steel monument.
“We’re a military city because of all these engineers, and scientists, and strategists, that basically have the highest-capacity military force the world has ever seen. … The sophistication, the majesty, the soaring aspect of the work is informed by what it represents. More than just the image of the military, it’s the substance of it as well,” LeFlore said.
The monument was conceived as just the first step of a massive infrastructure improvement plan, known as the Lackland Corridor Gateway Project, for the 3.9 mile segment of Southwest Military Drive that acts as an entryway into Lackland. The master plan was approved by City Council in 2014, then expanded by the Transportation & Capital Improvements Department (TCI) in 2016.
Led by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and TCI, the initial phase of the project is the result of a combined effort by Schroeder, Larry Hicks of RVK Architects, MP Studio, Camacho-Hernandez Engineering, Jerdon Enterprise, CCC Group, and PASA – notably all local.
“It’s a tribute to all their efforts and skills, and it’s all San Antonio,” Schroeder said in praising the collaboration. “The group we had, it’s like a dream come true.”
In particular, Schroeder pointed to CCC Group, which fabricated and installed Tribute. “CCC went far above and beyond to get it done,” he said, describing a detailed fabrication process and complex logistics in bringing the more than 70 parts of the sculpture together for installation.
“It was a daunting task,” he said, but all throughout “they’ve had amazing solutions with their engineers and the metal guys in the shop,” with whom Schroeder worked to drill the 30,000 rivet holes necessary to connect the one-eighth-inch raw aluminum cladding to the sculpture’s steel interior supports.
“We were sweating our ass off all through the summer, putting that sheet metal on,” he said of himself, an assistant, and two shop workers, pointing out that “there’s a lot of unsung heroes on the team.”
A Monumental Task
The massive size of the monument was intentional from the beginning, Schroeder said. Not only did TCI want to kick off the corridor improvement project with a big statement, he explained, but “scale is important in public art because you’re dealing with the built environment.” Building, billboards, and other visual “clutter” all compete for attention in the landscape, “so if you’re going to make a statement of any magnitude … you gotta go big.”
Though purported by LeFlore and Debbie Racca-Sittre, executive director of the City’s Department of Arts and Culture, to be the largest metal sculpture in Texas, Schroeder said his design has nothing to do with breaking records. The nearly 70,000-pound sculpture, 50 feet wide at its base, is made to be appropriate to its environment, he said.
Not only is the sculpture visible from a great distance, but it also offers the possibility for intimate experiences. “That was real important as part of the design, that the public could interact with it as a different sort of experience,” Schroeder said.
The 75-foot-tall central spire recalls the obelisk form of the Washington Monument. Around it, an airfoil-like wing and three curvilinear forms, representing the various branches of the military, create a “protective shroud” around the symbol of the nation’s capital, he said. Spaces separating the shapes allow walkable access between and around the sculpture’s massive forms.
Though the monument is fully accessible to the public and features a plaza and picnic area, one of its primary functions is to provide the backdrop for weekly graduation ceremonies of Lackland’s cadets. For the occasion, Tribute will be lighted in blue each Friday, while the rest of the week it will be bathed in regular white light.
The sculpture is particularly picturesque, Schroeder said, and sunset provides an ideal time to see how its forms capture light.
Native grasses will be planted as one facet of the corridor improvement master plan, which will eventually include “a complete street improvement system with Multimodal Travel, median landscape improvements, Improved Wayfinding signage, Low Impact Development (LID) irrigation and a Linear Creekway connection,” according to a TCI information sheet describing the project. The monument “establishes the overall vision for the entire corridor,” as the sheet reads, and forms its gateway.
Serving Multiple Purposes
The sculpture itself cost $832,000, which Schroeder said was a bargain. A similar monument might have run $2.5 million to $3 million in another city, he said, while praising the level of commitment throughout the team. He himself took a minimal fee, saying he and others believed in the importance of the project and emphasizing the “public” in public art.
“I wanted to see it happen. Everybody wanted to see it happen. We knew we had limited funding. Basically we did it for half price. … Across the board it was a financial challenge, but we did it anyway,” he said.
Cost for the multiphase improvement project will total $50-60 million, according to TCI, of which $7 million went to Tribute and substantial improvements at its five-acre site. Funding sources for the gateway project include PASA and the Department of Arts and Culture, $300,000 in savings from a 2007 bond, $1.6 million from the City’s general fund, and sales tax revenues. Stormwater operation funds will cover $4.5 million as a major component of the overall project.
The area has suffered drainage issues for years, according to Racca-Sittre, who was assistant director of TCI prior to her appointment as interim director of the Department of Arts and Culture in 2016. (She became director in 2017.)
“We were able to pool funding and put it into this one monument,” she said, while accomplishing multiple goals.
The project will expand hike and bike trails in the area’s greenways, she said, which connects with one goal of her new Cul-Tú-Art plan. As noted in a prior Rivard Report article, a November 2017 survey of more than 3,000 San Antonio residents, visitors, and arts patrons found that 91 percent of respondents would like to see more public art in San Antonio, with parks and greenways given as among the most desired locations for it.
Another oft-cited goal of the plan is to spread the wealth of public art to more areas of the city. A recent example is the Cruz Ortiz Dream Song Tower by South Park Mall, and Tribute to Freedom now adorns the Southwest Side.
“I think that side of the city has been somewhat ignored,” Schroeder said. “I think it was high time they got their monument,” he said, stressing its importance to the neighborhood and to the city.
“You could go to any big city in the world, I don’t care where you go, and that sculpture would hold its own,” he said.
Though it should appeal to a worldwide audience, Schroeder is especially happy that one person got to see it.
Mark Loomis died of cancer Oct. 29, but was able to visit the Tribute site just after its completion. “This couldn’t have happened without him,” Schroeder said in summary, wearing the T-shirt made by MP Studio in memory of Loomis.