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Arbol de la Vida: Voces de Tierra

Public art is often something you may find on a street corner or in a park.   But what makes it public?    Some San Antonio citizens are finding out as they help plan for a piece of public art that will be installed on one of the most historic stretches of their city.

On a sunny, humid April weekend, a group of about 40 community members gathers at Blue Star Contemporary, a San Antonio contemporary art space along the river.  Artist Margarita Cabrera asked them here to share stories of San Antonio, its missions, and its ranches.

Credit Norma Martinez
Mission San Francisco de la Espada

This story gathering session, or charla, is the 3rd of 4 that Cabrera has held.  She wants to gather 300 stories from 300 people and make 300 individual sculptures that will be a part of a giant Tree of Life, an Arbol de la Vida, that will serve as an artistic gateway to the Mission San Francisco de la Espada, established along the San Antonio River in 1731.

Cabrera frequently involves the community in the conceptualization and creation of her works.  And the individual clay sculptures that will make up the Arbol de la Vida will be nestled in the branches of this larger 40-foot-tall, 70-foot wide tree.

Cabrera says,  "This is going to be an iconic piece for the City of San Antonio.  It’s going to be able to be seen from the highway, if you’re standing in the missions you’re going to see it from the missions.

The Alamo is San Antonio’s most famous mission, but it’s only one of 5 missions along the San Antonio River. 

The San Antonio River Authority, the governing body that manages the river, has asked the San Antonio River Foundation to come up with a Master Plan for the Mission Reach stretch of the river.  Robert Amerman, executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation, says part of that Master Plan involves erecting large public art portals along the river at each of those missions.

"So the master plan said let’s lay out what they called portals, public art instances, nodes, that were along the river, that then allowed people to pause for just a moment, like if you could just get them to stop for just a second off their bicycle or their hike then we can redirect them. We can say did you know that there’s this amazing resource within a hundred yards of where you’re standing."

The people at today’s charla were seated in numerous intimate circles of 7-8 people, and they passed around a tape recorder as they each shared their stories.

In one circle, stories were told about the million-year-old fossils inside the limestone that’s associated with San Antonio’s missions and modern-day architecture....and of riding a bike to the mission school decades ago. 

Credit Norma Martinez
Matt Wallace (foreground), Margarita Cabrera (center)

Architect Matt Wallace talked about some broken cascarones he found on his welcome mat.  If you’re not familiar with cascarones, they are empty egg shells filled with confetti that are typically cracked over an unsuspecting person’s head at Easter or during the San Antonio festival known as Fiesta.  And this was not Fiesta. 

Some weeks after Wallace swept up the mess, he and his wife received a letter in the mail with three pictures attached. "The first photograph was of a woman parked in front of our house with the cascarones on her lap pouring something into each one.  The 2nd photograph was of her throwing it at our door.  And the 3rd one was a photo of our welcome mat after she had done what she did. And the letter said, “my aunt used to live at your house.  My aunt passed away 6 months ago and she was cremated.  And it wasn’t until a month or 2 ago, she came to me in a dream and said ‘I would like to rest again at the houses where I once lived.’”

Cabrera says she is going to gather these stories, and with the help of an advisory committee of historians, activists, and scholars, will find a way to physically embody them into sculptures.  "In this particular event today, we discussed the idea of creating a book.  We’re also thinking about creating fossils that actually exist on the façade of San Francisco del Espada."

And one, of course, shaped like a cascaron.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1