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Legendary Hemisfair in San Antonio art gets some overdue TLC

Workers detailing Juan O'Gorman's Confluence of Civilizations mural
City of San Antonio.
Workers detailing Juan O'Gorman's Confluence of Civilizations mural

It’s one of San Antonio’s biggest pieces of public art, and it’s a window into a very important event in Texas history. And now the huge mural above the Lila Cockrell Theatre is finally getting some TLC.

That mural is just far enough off Market Street, tucked behind the Grand Hyatt Hotel that the best way to see it is by riding the River Walk barge tour.

This 130-foot long mural isn’t just another piece of public art. Author and historian Susan Toomey Frost says it's one of a kind.

A Confluence of Civilizations mural by Juan O'Gorman
Jack Morgan
A Confluence of Civilizations mural by Juan O'Gorman

“I consider this the most important public art that we have in all of Texas, and certainly South Texas," she said.

Despite its massive size and artistic importance, there are probably a lot of us who don’t know much about it. Not so the city of San Antonio’s Guillermo Moya.

“It was part of the 1968 World's Fair, or Hemisfair as we knew it here in San Antonio,” Moya said.

The mural was designed by artist and architect Juan O’Gorman, who was good friends with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

“O’Gorman did the mural back in ‘67 and they fabricated all these pieces," Moya said. "There's over 500 pieces that make this entire mural. And they were all fabricated in Mexico.”

O'Gorman mural arrives by truck to San Antonio in 500 pieces
UTSA Special Collections and the San Antonio Express-News
O'Gorman mural arrives by truck to San Antonio in 500 pieces

Those pieces were trucked from Guanajuato and arrived to be assembled in October of ’67 before Hemisfair opened the next April. Hemisfair had as a marketing slogan A Confluence of Civilizations, which is what O’Gorman named the mural. Frost says O’Gorman took the concept literally, by depicting a Confluence of Civilizations.

"With the right side being European, Greek, Roman civilization," Frost said. "The left side, everything we draw from South America and Mexico. And in the middle — as if San Antonio were in the center of civilization, it all comes together here, with the astronaut and the cowboy, and things that are very Texas."

Unlike most murals, Moya said there’s no paint in this one.

“These are hard elements. They're stones. These stones were from O’Gorman's hometown of Guanajuato.”

There are 12 colors of stone that make up the mural, 11 from Guanajuato, and one they had to import from Italy. But now, after 55 direct western sun summers, it was decided it was time for repair and cleaning. The city’s Richard Oliver said given all that, it's held up well.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.

“That mural, to look as good as it does right now and to have only lost a few tiles in all those years, says something about how wonderfully it was put together, obviously, because the conditions, as we all know, in south Texas are harsh,” he said.

Matching stones 55 years after the fact is no small matter.

“The actual repair of the mural is under arts and culture," Oliver said. "They have looked for the tiles that are missing, matching up the colors. I mean, it's an intricate process.”

fine detail from A Confluence of Civilizations
City of San Antonio
fine detail from A Confluence of Civilizations

Director at the Department of Arts and Culture Krystal Jones says there are about 500 panels that make up the murals, and each panel has hundreds of colored stones on them.

“There's so many pieces of rocks, about 400,000 pieces up there. And if you're looking from the Riverwalk level, it looks very much intact," Jones said. "Those rocks are so small that you wouldn't be able to tell.”

Workers from the Noble Texas Buildersput up scaffolding to get a better look, and discovered something unsettling.

“That's when we realized that there were about 100 rocks missing. And that's when our team really got to work engaging and sourcing rocks that would match the originals,” she said.

They’ve found matching stones from Texas and around the US. As to exactly how many rocks they had to replace, Nobel foreman Sergio Grosso said a lot.

“It's divided into a grid of, let's say, two and a half by two and a half squares and on each where they were probably a total of five to 10 rocks to replace,” Grosso said.

The Lila Cockrell Theatre and the mural were built to welcome international visitors to San Antonio’s world fair, and Grosso said it’s a Confluence of Civilizations theme was smart and optimistic.

“The history that the mural says about San Antonio, the intention of the art, I think it becomes more and more interesting as I learn more about the mural,” he said.

Asked if he felt like Juan O’Gorman were looking over his shoulder, he laughed.

“I hope so. And I hope that he's happy with what we did," he said. "We try to be very respectful with the job that we did. I feel really honored to be part of it.”

Jones said they’re nearly complete with the cleaning, and soon you’ll be able to see the mural repaired and pristine.

“All the scaffolding will come down. It'll be a clean O'Gorman mural," Jones said. "And for all of us to enjoy for generations to come.”

A very good view of the mural is directly across the river standing by Carlos Merida’s glass Hemisfair era tile mural also titled A Confluence of Civilizations.

Carlos Merida's A Confluence of Civilizations directly across the river from O'Gorman's mural
Jack Morgan
Carlos Merida's A Confluence of Civilizations directly across the river from O'Gorman's mural
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Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii