Florence has Michelangelo’s Gates of Hell. Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate. The Great Gate of Kiev was immortalized in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition suite – and it was never even built.
Now San Antonio has its own epic gates, the Sherron and Guy Bodine Gates. Their frame had been waiting for months – two concrete trees with interweaving branches instantly recognizable as the work of San Antonio Faux Bois artisan Carlos Cortés. The botanical theme continues in the gates’ wild “South Texas Art Nouveau” style created by San Antonio-based sculptor George Schroeder in collaboration with a team from the Witte and Lake/Flato Architects. The gnarled, forged steel gates were installed last week at the Witte Museum and already are iconic, according to Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott.
“The new gates are spectacular,” she said. “We are thrilled that they are the portal through which all school children and all guests at events will enter. The New Witte is a once-in-a-100 years transformation, and these wonderful gates are symbolic of the change.”
The Witte Museum, which opened in 1926 with natural history dioramas, art exhibits, and intellectual magnetism will re-launch as the New Witte after two years of construction on March 4. The ribbon cutting will take place at 9:30 a.m. and is open to the public. New glass-paneled exhibition spaces will bring the river into view and enlarge exhibits of natural and cultural heritage into more than 174,000 sq. ft.
Sherron and Guy Bodine, who have homes in Boerne and San Antonio, both grew up with the Witte Museum as a cultural force in their lives despite living in San Marcos. Guy serves on the Witte’s board of trustees and is chairman, president, and CEO of Vantage Bank Texas.
“The Witte was my first museum,” he said. “The memories I have of it are beyond fond. It was an important part of my life and has a special place in the heart of my family.
“I think the gates are extraordinary. This has been a wonderful time; we were truly honored and blessed to be part of it.”
Besides serving as the entrance for school tours, the gates secure the courtyard entrance to the Mays Family Center where weddings and special events take place.
The design of the Bodine Gates embodies the cultural history of the museum, Brackenridge Park, and the San Antonio River, and not just through imagery.
“The gate harkens to the WPA-era buildings present throughout Brackenridge Park – a blending of art and artisans with architecture,” Lake/Flato partner and founder David Lake explained. “We wanted to keep that tradition going and support art and artisans in our region.”
The location of the Witte Museum, named after benefactor Alfred W. Witte, sits within a mile of the San Antonio River’s headwaters, an area that was dammed to irrigate the Alamo and surrounding farms. Beyond the Bodine Gates, cypress trees in the Zachry Family Acequia Garden are said to be close to 260 years old. A tile map of the area dating back to 1756 is on display in the courtyard.
Knowing that the Bodine Gates would be schoolchildren’s first impression of the Witte for generations to come was central to their design.
“We wanted that entrance to be playful and exuberant and wondrous,” Lake said. “Also we thought it’s a gateway from Broadway to Brackenridge Park and the river. It’s a really important community gateway. We wanted people to say, ‘Wow, I’ve come to an important portal, a gateway to the river.’”
Schroeder, 49, was a natural choice for the commission. He co-created the Frost Gates at the Tuleta Street entrance to the museum and is responsible for local landmarks including the Justitia Walls next to the Bexar County Courthouse, Museum Reach enhancements to the Camden Street bridge, and a bronze mule at Alamo Heights High School, his alma mater. He has been commissioned by Brackenridge Park, the Pearl Brewery, Semmes Library, and the University Health Care System, and has done site-specific sculptures in Memphis, Houston, Jackson Beach, Fla. and Reykjavik, Iceland.
Schroeder said the freedom and feedback Lake, McDermott, and VP of Exhibitions Randall Webster gave him were invaluable.
With free rein, Lake said, Schroeder succeeded at “taking it to another level.
“He’d listen and when we came back to his studio we’d go, ‘Oh my God, that is perfect!’ He loves what he does and you can feel it in the gates.”
Lake described the gates as a South Texas Art Nouveau interpretation of the flora and fauna of the river that express “the delicacy of plants and the strength of Mother Nature.”
South Texas ranching culture curls through the gates’ botanical shapes and leather straps and evoke the movement of horses and flowing water.
Schroeder said that while running along the Mission Reach near his home he absorbed every reed and pod. From his subconscious, they re-emerged in the molten steel.
“There’s reference to lily pads, cattails, seedpods and a crescendo of metal at the top, buds and floral life forms, things that show the longevity of the area,” he said. “It’s the cycle of nature from the seedpod to the water to the bloom. In the middle is the palmetto, like a sunburst, like a spiritual explosion. I hope people feel that.”
Schroeder said the power of the gates is directly related to the process of making them.
“The metal is only hot for so long,” he explained. “You only have a moment, so you go into this hyper-accelerated decision making – you have to be thinking about the next shape before you even do it to make it all fit together. All the layering you see, it all had to be ‘decided’ on the spot.
“All 8,000 pounds of those gates have been baptized in fire, hammering, cutting, twisting, and water. It’s quite a transition from how it started and has a lot of energy. I wanted them to be timeless.”
The gates’ wild style was right for their rendering, not a signature style. In his studio’s office, located in an industrial area near the airport, the long window ledge is lined with child-sized blocks of grey stone, a linear, modern Stonehenge inspired by a visit to the ruins at Chichén-Itzá. His large drawing table is scattered with models of a new private commission for sculptures imitating “murmuration,” the swarming of birds into patterns in the sky. Its curving steel swaths lead the imagination straight to the graceful motion of birds – and to how the work will look once installed and viewed from below.
Unlike many modern day artists, Schroeder didn’t study art when he was at Alamo Heights High School or North Texas State, where he earned a degree in business. But he always liked sketching, an influence from his grandfather, a commercial artist in Enid, Okla. In his spare time he worked alongside his father, George Schroeder Sr., at his drink dispenser manufacturing plant. He liked the heavy machinery, the metal, and the blue collar workers.
“I didn’t go to summer camp,” he said. “I spent summers at the plant. It’s all about the hours, the work.”
After college he started making small sculptures and started taking on project work and public art commissions, which enabled him to grow his studio space. One of his current work areas could accommodate a small airplane. Heavy machinery in another looks like it came from Steampunk culture.
The manly nature of the machinery and space fit with his densely tattooed right arm and make his boyish curly hair and clear blue eyes all the more striking. One wall in his office is adorned with a framed yarn heart, made by his 8-year-old son and wife Heather. Meeting his wife calmed his wilder instincts, he said. He enjoys making her jewelry, which he said requires much of the same process of design and crafting as sculpture; so much so that he recently asked longtime San Antonio metal smith Alejandro Sifuentes to mentor him in jewelry making.
“The smaller works are very personal but available to the public,” Schroeder said.
He will have a show of jewelry in rose gold, which he calls “the most noble metal,” at Sifuentes’ Equinox Gallery in La Villita on Feb. 12.
“It’s very intimate,” Schroeder said. “I let the metal speak and I try to listen.”