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Installation At San Antonio Convention Center Tells 'The Story of Civilization'

A massive piece of art hangs at the recently re-built Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.


But while the piece is new to the center, technically, it isn't new at all. San Antonio artist Gary Sweeney first created the piece 14 years ago and titled it, “The Story of Civilization.” The entire piece is built from old, cut up, weathered signs.

"I started using signs probably 20 years ago, and the first signs I used was political signs because they were free,” he said. “I was a starving artist. So after an election I would drive around and collect all these political signs and chop them up and make these, what people call ransom notes.

“It was a very cheap way of making art."

Credit Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
"The Story of Civilization"

Along with the “ransom note” look, Sweeney also created whimsical mini billboards just outside San Antonio International Airport's parking garage.

And much like the billboards, the inspiration for “The Story of Civilization?" was borrowed.

"I set out to re-create an entire book using discarded signs. Bear in mind, this is a project I knew I was going to fail at," Sweeney said.

He further guaranteed failure by choosing the sweeping series of historical books also titled “The Story of Civilization,” which he describes as unbelievably tedious.

"It took the subject of history and sucked all the life out of it. And not only that, but it was a 10-volume set — and the first volume was 935 pages. And so that made it all the more ridiculous," he said.

But after four years of sign collecting, he finally had enough words to build the first two sections of the first book from that history series, standing 70 by 20 feet tall. Not long after completion, the works were displayed at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, before Sweeney dismantled it and brought it back to San Antonio.

"Since then it's been taking up my wife's storage in our garage, much to her delight," he said. “... For 14 years, my wife has periodically said 'Can we get rid of this? It showed one time and that was really nice.’ Fortunately I'm on the hoarder spectrum and I jokingly said 'No, somebody's going to buy it,' ” he said.

He was right. San Antonio City Manager Sculley was working with Public Art San Antonio to find local art to cover some of the acres of bare walls at the convention center, and called Sweeney.

"I got the call saying 'Hey, do you still have that ‘Story of Civilization?’ ' They said 'How much is it?' and I was just going 'I dunno.’

“Janet's in the background going, 'We'll pay you a thousand dollars to come and pick this up,' ” Sweeney said.   

Credit Gary Sweeney / Contributed Photo
Contributed Photo
Mini billboards outside the San Antonio airport by Gary Sweeney.

He and the city agreed on a price, and Sweeney's wife got her garage back.

Sculley said Sweeney is one of many area artists whose work now gives the building a local flavor.

"Gary is now one of 25 San Antonio-based artists that are featured at the convention center. We're just excited that he agreed to participate," she said.

The “Story of Civilization” is a permanent installation, placed on two converging walls at the top of an escalator. Sculley said this piece in particular seems to give people pause.  

"I notice when I'm at the convention center that people stop and read his piece. And that's really what art is about," she said.

Sweeney feels he's in distinguished company, being included with the other artists.

"They have been able to find the creme de la creme of the San Antonio art world,” he said, pausing. “And then there's mine. “The comic relief."

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii