Members of the public views Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra at dusk.
Among the public art in San Antonio is the Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra at the Mission Espada Portal on the South Side. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A new tree of life has taken root on the Mission Reach, just north of Mission Espada.

Thursday evening, artist Margarita Cabrera unveiled her massive public sculpture, Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra, with a festive public celebration that included hundreds of members of the surrounding community, who participated in the sculpture’s making.

The sculpture could be defined by numbers — an 80-foot by 40-foot steel armature with 700 clay sculptures hanging from its branches, realized with the help of nearly 1,000 members of the San Antonio community.

But according to Cabrera, sponsoring organization the San Antonio River Foundation, and major donor Ramona Bass, the Árbol de la Vida is really about stories.

“Every single one of you made this árbol a success,” Cabrera announced to a crowd of 400 gathered under and around her sculpture. “Your stories will transcend time, and will reflect upon all of us like a mirror, allowing us to see ourselves and others in respect and celebration of our shared history.”

The stories she referred to were collected for the past three years with the help of arts nonprofit organizations and schools throughout the city. Citizen volunteers contributed by reflecting on their families and their histories in San Antonio, which were recorded and turned into clay sculptures.

The 700 sculptures now hang as permanent leaves along the branches of Cabrera’s tree, dangling high overhead, framed by the sky overlooking the southern end of the Mission Reach.

Contributors ranged from 9-year-old Maximus Gonzalez, who was 7 when he made his clay cross in honor of his local church, to 69-year-old Gloria Hernandez, who made several pieces, including a mermaid in honor of her granddaughter, who approached her at age 3 with a copy of The Little Mermaid, wanting to learn how to read.

A detail of Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra.
A detail of Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As project lead and one of many participants, Cabrera contributed her own family story in honor of her grandmother Aurora. “She was a very strong woman who overcame incredible obstacles,” Cabrera said.

Her mother Rosario, Aurora’s daughter, collected a single tear from Aurora’s eye. Cabrera made an image of the tear using a microscope, and included it as a design on her contribution to the Árbol‘s 700 clay sculptures, along with St. Francis — the patron saint of Mission Espada — and Rosario via a rosary, with a shovel to acknowledge the indigenous communities who built the missions. The microscopic image of her grandmother’s tear, rendered in clay, resembles a flower, Cabrera said.

Explaining why the tear was the image she chose to represent her grandmother and the wisdom she had imparted to her family, Cabrera said, “It’s a material that carries so much emotional information, spiritual information. It’s true, it’s honest, it’s physical, it’s spiritual. It’s a way of getting in touch with her true essence.”

River Foundation director Robert Amerman said the Árbol itself reflects the true essence of the San Antonio community as represented by the Tierra in the title, which, in a poetic sense, can refer to “the people” as well as the land on which they live.

Bass, who was interviewed in March as the sculpture was being installed, said she contributed a sculpture of a windmill to acknowledge her family’s ranching history in South Texas. Though Bass disparaged her own sculpting abilities, she credited community contributors, who, like her, had little or no experience with ceramics.

“All these people were in there making the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen, who’ve never done it before,” she said.

Mission Espada maintains a close relationship with its ranching past, Amerman said, which was one reason Bass was a perfect match for the project as a donor and contributor. Bass said since childhood she’s loved Mission Espada. “It’s the little jewel [of the Missions]. That’s what I call it. It’s my favorite.”

Cabrera also connected to Espada’s ranching history. When she visited the mission’s companion Rancho de le Cabras near Floresville as part of her research, she realized her own last name was reflected in the ranch’s name and history.

“Lightning is striking right now,” she thought at the time. “I realized I had an amazing connection to that Rancho, and to the history of San Antonio, and it was an incredible moment for me.”

Lead artist Margarita Cabrera
Lead artist Margarita Cabrera Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

That realization led to what Cabrera described as a public artwork informed by “10 generations” of local contributors.

A series of benedictions at the beginning of the Thursday ceremony, given by representatives of diverse congregations including the Tehuan Band of Mission Indians, and representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Interfaith, and other communities, all acknowledged deeper connections between inhabitants of the region throughout the centuries.

“These stories help us to grow and to learn and to heal, and that is the medicine we need as we grow together,” said Vanessa Quezada, of Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the MujerArtes Clay Cooperative, which contributed 15 pieces to the sculpture.

After energetically bellowing out the traditional native Strong Woman Song with several members of the crowd, Quezada symbolically watered the metal base of the Árbol.

Frates Slick Seeligson, onetime board chair of the San Antonio River Foundation, reflected several generations of San Antonio ranching, cultural, and spiritual patronage. He is related both to Bass and legendary Texas rancher and arts patron Thomas Baker Slick Jr. Seeligson enlisted Bass to contribute, knowing of her love for Mission Espada and the family’s multi-generational ranching heritage.

Walking around the trunk of Cabrera’s Árbol, Seeligson said he believes the sculpture is a spiritual place. As people experience the piece, he said, “They’re looking up to the sky, they’re looking up to the [clay] pieces. I think this is going to be a magical spot. Think of it, [700] different stories, and generations of people coming and sharing those stories… For us to be a vibrant community, we need to be storytellers.”

The public views the small details through binoculars.
Members of the public view the small details of the clay sculptures through binoculars. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), recently re-elected by the district in which the Árbol resides, described the sculpture as “a visual story of what is held so close in our residents’ hearts. … I’m so proud that visitors and locals are gonna come by and just be awestruck by this, and have some snippet of what the people in this community are all about.”

At the close of her remarks, Cabrera invited members of the public to gather around the Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra sculpture for a second, free public opening on Friday, from 6-8 p.m. The artist will be present, along with community members who contributed clay pieces.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...