The schematic design of "Arbol de la Vida: Voces de Tierra" shows how large and colorful the piece will be.
The schematic design of "Arbol de la Vida: Voces de Tierra" shows how large and colorful the piece will be. Credit: Courtesy / Margarita Cabrera and the San Antonio River Foundation

When Catholic missionaries spread across New Spain to convert indigenous people to Christianity, they used the Arbol de la Vida (Tree of Life), a traditional Olmec storytelling device, to relay Biblical tales of Adam and Eve, Noah’s flood, and other creation stories.

That powerful cultural symbol, as well known to El Mercado shoppers as to Olmecs, soon will tower 40 feet over the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach, stopping strollers in their tracks to study the 300-plus clay sculptures arrayed in its mighty branches. Both familiar and brand new, this image of the Tree of Life will serve as a portal to Mission Espada and reconnect the mission to the river after the late 1930s flood control project changed its course. 

“Arbol de la Vida: Voces de Tierra” is part of San Antonio River Foundation’s public art program for the Museum and Mission Reaches of the river, including portals announcing pathways to four Spanish-colonial missions. While individual artists created dramatic portals to Missions Concepción, San José, and San Juan, the portal to Mission Espada will be fashioned through a community collaboration open to any and all who have stories of the Espada or ranching culture in South Texas.

“I believe different projects call for collaborations and that for this particular project it was important in order to truly engage the community and activate that site on the river,” said Margarita Cabrera, the Arizona-based artist whose proposal was selected by the River Foundation. “I felt it was necessary to be a shared experience.”

Three phases of the project will give it increased meaning and dimension.

The first is a series of four charlas, or storytelling circles, in which participants from all over San Antonio will tell stories they’ve heard, read, or have been passed down through generations of family, that bring light to the history of ranching and the missions.

While mission life and ranching may seem unrelated, Mission Espada originally ran livestock at Rancho de las Cabras between 1731 and 1794, near modern-day Floresville in Wilson County. The Rancho’s ruins and pastures are now part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The first charla was held at Mission Espada; three more will occur on Saturdays in April from 1-3 p.m. at the locations below. The public is urged to attend and tell their stories.

  • Saturday, April 8 – Instituto Cultural de México (600 Hemisfair Plaza Way)
  • Saturday, April 15 – Blue Star Contemporary (116 Blue Star)
  • Saturday, April 29 – Niedorf Gallery at Trinity University (1 Trinity Place)

The charlas, Cabrera explained, will “give an opportunity for the community to bring their stories to a tree of life and work together to share our community’s perspective on our past, our present, and, therefore, our future.”

In June and July, Cabrera and other trained ceramicists will help community participants translate the stories told at the charlas into clay sculptures depicting aspects of ranch life. These sessions also will be hosted by organizations throughout the city.

Cabrera will incorporate the community’s 300 images into the grand tree structure in studios both in San Antonio and Arizona, where she teaches at Arizona State University. Cabrera plans to complete the work in time for unveiling at the start of the city’s Tricentennial Celebration in early 2018.

Margarita Cabrera at work.
Margarita Cabrera at work. Credit: Courtesy / Margarita Cabrera

Though Cabrera was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and has an address in El Paso, she has come to know San Antonio through exhibits and projects at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Luminaria, the McNay Art Museum, the Alameda Theater, and Ruiz-Healy Art.

While serving as a resident artist at Artpace in 2008, she created a vast work involving public participation called “The Craft of Resistance,” exploring the social implications of Mexico’s maquiladoras. She and community volunteers assembled 2,500 copper butterflies that were viewed where they were made and in a private home, underscoring the gap between the two places.

Always alert to symbolic meaning, even the clay in the portal project adds dimension.

Cabrera is using Mission Clay Products clay, mined from the same local sources used to form bricks that built Mission Espada. River Foundation honchos undoubtedly are relieved to know the clay in its new project is so durable, its primary use is for sewer pipes.

“[The source of the clay] was very inspirational to me,” Cabrera said. “Some of the bricks you see in the façade of Mission Espada came from that clay. It’s a reminder of the people in that time period and all the work and labor and effort that went into making that beautiful structure. So it also represents the people who made it, and I think that’s an important part of history.”

Clay climbs even to a spiritual realm in the artist’s mind.

“My interest is in reflecting some of the stories of the Bible,” Cabrera said. “The Bible speaks of us being created from dust, and to dust we will return. I think it’s very inspirational to be bringing it all together.”

Anyone ambling along the river or glancing from the nearby overpass also will be inspired, Cabrera believes, or at any rate the piece will allow them to “acknowledge the history of the site and its natural environment.

“When they come up the river, they’ll encounter this iconic work of art which will be very eye-catching,” she said. “When they place themselves underneath the tree, their eyes are going to move from one section to another, at the sculptures which will be both dynamic and contemplative. It’s a place of rest where people come to contemplate the culture and the community’s work.”

A shade will give it additional appeal in the summer. Cabrera believes the complexity of the work reflects well on San Antonio’s present as well as its past with the missions.

“It takes a very supportive community to see something like this to fruition successfully,” she said. “It takes a strong, united community, because it requires a lot of energy and flexibility because people are coming from different areas of San Antonio, and we all have different perspectives and ideas of our history.

“But being creative together and accepting our differences is the key to success to this kind of public art-making,” she continued. “So I’m proud of San Antonio for coming together, because it’s the right time for this project. I couldn’t be more excited to have been selected to make the design. I’m really grateful. “

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Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.