Public art enhances new Museum Reach

Donald Lipski's giant longear sunfish swim beneath I-35 along the Museum Reach (Courtesy San Antonio River Foundation)On the upper part of the new Museum Reach of the San Antonio River Walk, you walk into the gaping jaws of a jaguar as you descend from street level into a grotto with dripping stalactites and a splashing waterfall, a $3 million fairy tale creation by San Antonio artist Carlos Cortés . He carved the craggy faces of the men who worked with him on the project into the walls of the spectacular cavelike grotto, a folk art fantasia that would dazzle Walt Disney. The concrete faux bois – or false wood – style has been a Cortés family tradition for generations.

He learned how to hand carve concrete into drippy, dreamlike forms from his uncle, Dionisio Rodriguez, who built a bus stop resembling a palapa, or thatched-roof hut, in Alamo Heights in the 1920s. Cortés, who built the H-E-B Science Treehouse at the Witte Museum and an outdoor pavilion of twisting oak tree trunks holding up palm fronds at the Hannah Landa Memorial Library, also built a palapa at the intersection of Camden and Newell streets overlooking his grandest folly. This once forlorn and forgotten corner of the city has been transformed as part of the $250 million public/private San Antonio River Improvements Project creating a 15-mile linear park through the heart of the city from the headwaters at Brackenridge Park south of downtown to Mission Espada.

Cortés said he studied the old grottos of Europe and Latin America as well as cave formations before embarking on his biggest project to date. He added quirky follies such as the portraits of his workmen and shell work mosaics on the outside of the grotto along the river. Benches, recessed lighting and the waterfall make the grotto a cool place to retreat from the South Texas heat.  Modeled to resemble a natural rock formation, it contains the silhouette of the Virgin Mary formed within the carved concrete form that sticks up above street level like a gnarly steeple.

The San Antonio River Foundation commissioned the grotto, along with another $2.2 million worth of public art projects, for the new two-mile extension that opened this summer, connecting the better-known central tourist zone of the River Walk with the San Antonio Museum of Art and the revitalized Pearl Brewery to the north of downtown, extending from Lexington Avenue to Josephine Street. San Antonio has had its share of public art controversies, but the city is now touting tours of its new “floating art corridor.”

Lushly landscaped walkways run along both sides of a part of the river that has long been practically invisible because it was so neglected and overgrown. A functioning lock, already a tourist attraction, makes it possible for barges to carry sight-seeing passengers around the new loop. Both boat riders and pedestrians can enjoy public art projects by eight national and regional artists spread over a series of eight bridges and six underpasses. The main complaint about the new art along the Museum Reach is that it’s an all-male show.

Just south of the grotto, Philadelphia artist Donald Lipski has suspended a school of 25 glowing longear sunfish beneath an underpass at Interstate 35. The swooshing sounds of the traffic, like giant waves crashing on a beach, lends to the underwater feel of the installation, titled “F.I.S.H.,” a surreal sight for anyone driving by. At night, the internally-lit 7-foot long fish seem to be swimming through dark depths, but during the day, the cables and lines that Lipski used to hang the fish are more visible, undermining the illusion somewhat. Still, it’s probably the most surreal and amusing highway underpass you’re ever likely to visit.

Lipski created a giant Texas star covered with cowboy hats for the Forth Worth Convention Center, and he’s proposed a fountain of overflowing bathtubs for a Houston waterworks museum. Made of meticulously hand-painted fiberglass so each is an individual, the sunfish are modeled after fish native to the river, featuring bright bands of color accented by a black ear-like fin along the sides of their heads. Lipski’s fish may be seen as the downtown counterpart to one of the city’s best known works of public art, Bob Wade’s giant cowboy boots near North Star Mall. Both aim to please the public with humor on a Texas-size scale.

But it’s not just the giant fish that are attracting crowds. A large colony of bats became fodder for local news shows when the Museum Reach first opened, but now the bats nightly take-off attracts hordes of nature lovers.

Bird calls, frog croaks, crickets and other natural sounds make it seem as if a zoo has been installed under the Jones Avenue Bridge beside SAMA, but it’s just the natural sounds of the river amplified and intensified by sound artist Bill Fontana of San Francisco. He used microphones at different locations along the river to capture rushing water, a wide variety of bird calls and buzzing insects, which are broadcast over outdoor speakers suspended under the bridge and a pedestrian entrance with a handicap ramp. The sound is rich and atmospheric, though there’s no visual component to Fontana’s work – the view consists of a series of large drain pipes that empty out under the bridge. However, the concentrated waves of the sounds of nature make the river seem far more exotic and lush than it actually is in the middle of the city. The installation is Fontana’s first in Texas.

San Antonio artist Stuart Allen relies on the viewer’s movement – either walking or riding in a barge — in his series of metal panels with shimmering, thin metal strips featuring colors sampled from the sky, water, plants and landscape, which cause flickering, optical experiences as you move past. Allen’s work focuses on a subtle exploration of our senses, although he is trained as an architect, which is reflected in the solid design of his installation that looks like it should last for decades. Allen’s work doesn’t do much if you’re standing still, but as you move past, the colors morph and merge in unexpected ways.

Experimenting with cement infused with fluorescent pigment, Mark Schlesinger, a New York artist who has settled in San Antonio, used the old concrete bridge at Ninth Street as his canvas, adding stripes and oddly tilted reflective panels. But the glow-in-the-dark concrete is already scuffed in places, and it doesn’t really glow all that much. A couple of large cubes are the best part of Schlesigner’s installation. Light shines out through small holes in each cube, which you can manipulate by using your hands as shades. Light seems to travel through the cube at crooked angles.

Martin Richman of Great Britain, in his first project in the United States, used hundreds of prismatic strips suspended beneath the Lexington Street Bridge, which is the entrance to the new Museum Reach from downtown. The light dancing on the water at night can be seen from blocks away, creating a sense of mystery and anticipation. The yellow, purple and blue strips are suspended beneath the bridge like wind chimes. Richman dubbed them “light chimes,” which sway in the breeze, forming shifting patterns on the cement walls of the bridge and the surface of the water.

Two donated pieces of public art are also along the Museum Reach. Near the Lexington Street Bridge, a Work Projects Administration-era mural originally commissioned by famed San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick for his family’s kitchen has been restored at Dunis Studio in Bulverde and installed on a river wall below the El Tropicano Hotel. The Mexican village scene is a tile mural by Ethel Wilson Harris , who had a private tile business in the 1930s called Mexican Arts and Crafts. The River Foundation also has installed signs with historical information along the Museum Reach, including an old dam that was discovered opposite the oldest VFW Hall in the country. Rockport sculptor Jesús Moroleshas installed three soaring slabs of granite, “River Stelae,” at the top of the bank on SAMA’s property overlooking the old dam, though the piece is not lit for nighttime viewing – which is really the best time to see the Museum Reach.

Two projects are yet to be completed by San Antonio artists, who have had to contend with the city’s safety restrictions for sidewalks, although the bridge rails are expected to be finished by this fall. George Schroeder is making art nouveau handrails incorporating forged-steel sculptures of plants and animals for bridges at Camden and Newell streets. Rolando Briseño designed canopies and railings for bridges at McCullough, Brooklyn and Ninth streets. Briseño already has a work on the River Walk downtown, “Padre Damian Massanet’s Table,” praying hands and an open book in wrought iron commemorating the 300th anniversary of the first mass said on the bank of the San Antonio River. You can find a few other scattered works of art along the River Walk, ranging from a larger-than life-size bronze of the city’s patron saint, Saint Anthony, donated by the government of Portugal in 1950 to the towering, orange, abstract “Torch of Friendship” by the Mexican sculptor Sebastián.

San Antonio’s attitude toward public art has improved quite a bit since the cultural wars of the 1990s, when a percent for art ordinance was shot down during a heated City Council campaign. No controversies have erupted over the new art on the river that was all privately funded by the San Antonio River Foundation, though the foundation’s selection process came under fire for overlooking female artists. The foundation responded by commissioning San Antonio artist Anne Wallace, who created an outdoor sculptural installation for the city’s popular Brackenridge Park, to work on a footbridge on the Mission Reach, the next phase of the San Antonio River Improvements Project that will stretch through the city’s long-neglected South Side.

The River Walk is a natural spot for a sculpture garden, sunk below the bustle and noise of the city. The art doesn’t have to compete with skyscrapers; instead it’s framed by winding walkways, limestone walls and native Texas plants. But whether the new Museum Reach will bring life to a long overlooked part of the river is a question that may take some time to answer. Although the original River Walk was completed in 1940, it languished underutilized for decades, until the success of HemisFair in 1968 made San Antonio a popular tourist destination. Except for the VFW Hall and the El Tropicano, you aren’t going to find restaurants along the new Museum Reach, which is intended more for San Antonio residents than tourists, though the city seems to have finally decided that art has as much a place in the city as the river that runs through it.

This article appeared in the August 1990 Glasstire

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