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Artist Transforms Tools For A Job Into Icons Of Labor In San Antonio

A large art installation in San Antonio may be one of the city’s oddest and most-often overlooked artistic works. But that obscurity is what makes it so special to so many of its admirers.

Traffic flies by at high speeds on Wurzbach Parkway on San Antonio's Northeast Side. Across from Heroes Stadium, just west of the massive smokestacks of the long-dormant Portland Cement company, there's a city vehicle maintenance facility. David Newman of the city’s Solid Waste Department said it's not exactly a suit-and-tie location.

"It's a blue collar setting. Industrial really," he said.  

Buses, garbage trucks and other vehicles come and go at all hours for maintenance.

"The actual name of the location is the Northeast Service Center,” Newman said. “But I don't know anyone that calls it that. Everybody calls it the Tool Yard."  

The tools that give the Tool Yard its name are right out front, between the Parkway and the entrance to the service yard. 

"And they're large. I mean they're larger than life," he said. 

"The giant tools made the facility what it is today," said Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the city's Department of Arts and Culture. Those giant tools are 11 15-foot high steel hand tools. A hammer, a screwdriver and several kinds of wrenches. 

Credit Jack Morgan | Texas Public Radio
Tool Yard with Portland Cement in the background

How did this modern art end up at this city facility? 

"We didn't specifically ask for big giant tool sculptures," she said. 

No, in fact back in 2003 when the Northeast Service Center was being designed, the city viewed the purpose of art as more passive: it was supposed to be a pleasing, artistic add-on to the architecture.

"We were looking for art at that time that was more of a design enhancement that will connect with what the architects were doing," Racca-Sittre said. 

But in this installation, the city would get more than it anticipated. 

"We ended up with something that was very character defining for that facility,” she said. “We were lucky to have some very talented artists like Riley Robinson here in San Antonio that would come up with the idea."

Robinson remembered when he turned the city’s general concept into a solid vision. He was on a long bike ride down by Stinson Airport. 

"I'm thinking about keeping it simple, keeping it direct, and that's when I got, you know, it's a maintenance center for city vehicles. They use tools!" he said.

Credit Courtesy Riley Robinson
Tools under construction

And just like that, the core idea formed. Robinson said he quickly got approval from the architect in charge and began the work.

"And we basically did the whole project on a handshake," Robinson said.

In other words, nowhere in the city’s Request for Proposal for the art did it say he would deliver eleven massive hand tools. He and the architect just agreed to the idea, and shook on it. 

Now: what to use to build them? Their epic size demanded steel. But steel can actually degenerate over time unless it's galvanized.

Robinson explained. "Galvanizing is a process that coats steel to keep it from oxidizing,” he said. “So you have the raw piece of steel, and you dip it in an acid to clean it and then you dip it in a rinse to clean off the acid."

Then the steel is dipped in a mixture of molten lead and tin, which protects it from rusting for as much as a hundred years. He applied the process of design/fabrication/galvanizing until all 11 pieces were done. Installation with a small crew and a crane went quickly.

"The design architects and the city architects came out and they thought it was going to take a little bit longer to install. So they showed up around noon, [and] we're finished [by] 11:00."

Credit Courtesy Riley Robinson
Day of installation. Robinson in yellow shirt and ball cap and sunglasses, center left.

Once the installation was complete, Robinson realized there was something he forgot to do.

"Once it was all finished and done I talked to the architect and he said 'yeah, we better go back and sign the contract and the paperwork' and I said 'yeah, we better do that!'"

Credit Jack Morgan | Texas Public Radio
The sculpture garden has lent its name to the street leading up to the facility and even to its name on a map.

Now, 16 years later, Racca-Sittre thinks the tool-shaped sculptures have  become a symbol for those whose hands hold the real tools at the Northeast Service Center and who keep the city's trucks running.    

"I know that those guys that work there--they love the public art that the space because they feel like it represents their work," she said. 

Tool Yard mechanic Kirk Rae loves the artwork. "It stands out and tells you that's what we're here for," he said.

He said seeing the tools makes him feel good when he turns off Wurzbach Parkway to come to work. 

"Always. Always. I always have a sense of pride," Rae said. 

Robinson said "I think it needed to be something that acknowledged the space in a very positive way and acknowledged the labor of the people who worked in the space."   

In fact, if you go to Google maps and search Tool Yard San Antonio you'll see that the city has also named the road leading to it Tool Yard Road. No one knew that when a simple art installation was requested  it would result in public art getting its own place on the map.  

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

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