Public art is typically defined as artwork that enhances public spaces. But what happens when you involve the public in the creation of public art? That’s the case with a giant tree of life that is not only a jewel for an area mission, but an expression of San Antonio’s ranching history.
In spring 2017, San Antonians from all walks of life gathered to share their stories in charlas – charettes – and over the course of two years, their stories were ultimately realized and transformed into clay structures.
Those sculptures now hang from the massive Árbol de la Vida – tree of life – just off a trail between the San Antonio River and the three-century-old Mission San Francisco de la Espada. The tree is based on the Mexican craft tradition inspired by personal and spiritual tales.
Robert Amerman, executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation, says the clay sculptures come in all shapes and sizes. “They range from a couple of pounds for the little infill pieces that the kids in elementary & middle schools made, to...the largest piece is about 500 pounds,” he said.
The San Antonio River Foundation commissioned the Árbol de la Vida. The tree is just one public art portal along the Mission Reach, an 8-mile stretch along the San Antonio River that takes bikers and hikers past the four missions that make up the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
The artist behind the project, Margarita Cabrera, had never created a public art work this massive. “The piece is 40 feet tall and 80 feet across, and it holds 700 ceramic sculptures made by community members,” Cabrera said. “(The community) gifted San Antonio and all of us these beautiful stories — very compelling stories — stories that were personal to them, personal to their families, personal to their communities.”
The Rancho de las Cabras — the Ranch of the Goats — in nearby Floresville is the ranching outpost to the Mission Espada. It also dates back over 300 years.
Cabrera, whose family descended from the Canary Islanders who were some of San Antonio’s earliest settlers, discovered another tie to the region while researching this project. “While walking the grounds of el Rancho de las Cabras, I came across a historic marker that read ‘el rancho de la familia Cabrera.’ I realized then that there was a connection to my family history and the history of this amazing city,” Cabrera said.
Amerman says the sculpture is a love letter to San Antonio “because of all the stories that were collected and the importance of our history and the diversity of our culture and how that culture gets together. I love that that’s literally embodied into this piece. So we have 700 stories collected from the community that have been realized, essentially -- converted into a physical artifact that will last for generations.”
The sculpture will officially be unveiled in mid-May.