The catch-all term public art generally refers to officially sanctioned, publicly funded artworks freely available to all. The works tend to go through a lengthy governmental process of proposals and vetting, and in San Antonio, the process begins with extensive efforts at gaining community input.
Artist Albert Gonzales sees things differently. While he understands the goals of city-funded art — and has applied and been approved for the Department of Arts and Culture’s pre-qualified list of artists eligible for public art projects — Gonzales has undertaken his own self-driven project, installing flower paintings on the outer walls of shuttered businesses.
In contrast, sculptor Leticia Huerta was selected by the City of San Antonio first in 2018 to mount three large-scale sculptures in McAllister Park. The botanical-themed, brightly colored flowers collectively titled Bloom proved popular enough that the department has commissioned 14 more sculptures, to be placed in parks and greenways throughout the city, in collaboration with the Parks and Recreation Department.
These two artists represent divergent approaches to making public art, highlighting commonalities and stark differences in attempts to beautify San Antonio.
Bringing art to the people
Under the overall title of Wabi Sabi, Gonzales has produced more than 630 pieces of art for gallery shows and private commissions. Fifteen of them, however, are pieces of public art of the unofficial variety.
Understanding the competitive nature of applying for public art commissions, he said “I thought I could wait around till I hear something, but in the meantime, I thought I’d just take the initiative.”
He made his first Wabi Sabi street art installation on March 10, posting on social media an image of himself skittering away from a building holding a ladder. More soon followed, with viewers of his posts encouraged to message him directly to learn the locations of the artworks.
To make them, Gonzales cuts and paints body-sized pieces of cardboard into his signature flower shapes. He then locates well-known but unused buildings in various neighborhoods and mounts his large-scale flower paintings on outdoor walls using industrial velcro.
His 15 installations to date are part of an effort to place a Wabi Sabi outdoor painting in every zip code of San Antonio, to eventually reach at least 83 installations, by his count.
After speaking to a group of students at Lanier High School, which he once attended, he learned many had never been to an art gallery or art museum. That realization spurred him to take his art to the public, rather than waiting for people to visit one of his gallery shows.
“Immediately, I thought I need to expose these kids to what’s out there,” he said. “With the Wabi Sabi street art project, I’m initiating these conversations and these interactions, where I could bring awareness that art is for everybody, art is for all areas.”
The citywide approach of Gonzales mirrors the department’s focus on placing new works of public art in every district of San Antonio, using the River Walk public art garden as a hub to spur awareness of distant projects.
In April, two new Bloom series flowers — based on native species yellow columbine and lantana — were placed in the art garden, connecting to the McAllister Park winecup, plains coreopsis, and Mexican hat wildflower sculptures.
Then in July, the city announced the installation of three new Bloom flowers in Eisenhower Park, based on wildflower species red cedar sage, four nerve daisy, and antelope horn milkweed.
Debbie Racca-Sittre, the department’s executive director, noted that the indigenous flower species were selected by San Antonio residents, “particularly residents who live, work, and enjoy recreational activities around the trailheads.”
Racca-Sittre said the sculptures reflect her department’s philosophy of public art. “The blossoms represent a connection between public art and community, and how both cannot exist without the other,” she said.
Government-sponsored public art is sometimes derided as “art by committee,” but a key feature of the process is encouraging sensitivity to locale.
Huerta’s flower sculptures are based not only on wildflowers that might easily be found in the parks they inhabit but also on bicycle parts, recognizing a popular use of parks and greenways.
“Bicycle parts also have a similarity to flower anatomy, so I use them to describe the native flowers of San Antonio that are seen along the trails,” Huerta notes on the department’s public art website.
Flood markers on the silver stems of the flower sculptures indicate levels floodwaters have reached in San Antonio’s history, a reflection of Huerta’s observation that “the surrounding area has been shaped by years of flooding, which has created a rough terrain ideal for hikers and mountain bikers.”
Gonzales’ approach to site sensitivity is more portable. Inspired by the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, meaning to find beauty in imperfection, Gonzales set out to enhance abandoned buildings some might see as “eyesores” in their communities, with the goal of seeing beyond their present condition to “remember what that building once was, how it tied into the community. Either a historical connection, or just a sentimental one.”
One major difference between the governmental approach and Gonzales’ unsanctioned actions is funding.
Huerta’s Bloom sculptures each cost between $40,000 to $45,000, for a grand total of an estimated $700,000 after the series of 17 works has been planted. The artist receives 15% to 20% of the cost for each sculpture, Racca-Sittre said.
In contrast, Gonzales pays for his own materials and transportation, and estimates costs to date at around $1,000. He said a grant from the city or another source would surely help and has mounted an auction of artwork to raise funds. But, he said, “in the meantime, even if it means spending my own hard-earned money as a full-time artist, this is something that I was dedicated [to] doing, and I wasn’t gonna let anything slow me down or stop me.”
He takes care to properly document each Wabi Sabi piece through photographs and plans to compile them for an eventual book once the project is complete.
The artworks themselves will likely not survive until then, given the temporary nature of their materials, and that the paintings are sometimes taken down by property owners or fans of Gonzales’ art.
Like the Bloom series, however, Gonzales has begun to explore sculpture intended for the long term. An upcoming show at Overland Partners will include a Wabi Sabi flower fabricated out of powder-coated steel.
Meanwhile, the Bloom series keeps growing. New installations are planned throughout 2021 and 2022, at Brazos Pocket Park, South Side Lions Park, Mario Farias Park, and the Tezel Road Facility near Leon Creek.
As Racca-Sittre said in the announcement for the latest Bloom flowers, “the installation at Eisenhower Park gets us one step closer to a full bouquet of vibrant public art that residents and visitors will enjoy for years to come.”