Donna Zarbin-Byrne and Diana Rodriguez were struggling in the 100-degree heat. After several hours working under the sun mixing cement for one of their sculptures at the Gardens at San Juan public housing complex, the two artists were hitting a wall.
Then, out of the blue, a young boy who lived in the complex sat down next to them.
“Y’all keep going, you’re getting there!” he cheered. “Keep going, it’s beautiful and it’s making our lives beautiful!”
Then, the task didn’t seem so daunting.
“It’s like we needed that little pep talk right then,” Rodriguez said.
The young boy is one of many San Juan residents who have formed relationships with Rodriguez and Zarbin-Byrne, the two artists commissioned by the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) and Ohio-based developer NRP Group to create large-scale pieces of art to connect the mixed-income Gardens at San Juan housing project off Zarzamora Street to the Westside community.
The project, which took about one year to complete, will finally be revealed to the public on Saturday, July 9 at 9:30 a.m.
It’s called Al Paso de Tiempo: A Cyclical Journey Toward Home and is composed of three phases: the Moon Garden, Cantos y Juegos and the Tree of Life Courtyard.
The Moon Garden sits in a grassy area between two rows of apartments. The lunar images, which are found throughout all three phases, pay homage to the complex’s namesake – the Virgin of San Juan – who has lunar imagery in her symbolism.
The Cantos y Juegos portion of the project sits on the other side of Zarzamora Street beside the complex’s playground. It’s composed of three distinct pathways made with the help of the children of Storm Elementary next door. Rodriguez and Zarbin-Byrne reached out to the students and asked them to paint what “home” means to them on white 4-by-4 tiles. The tiles are interspersed throughout English and Spanish nursery rhymes, which comments on San Antonio’s multi-ethnic demographic.
Many of the rhymes in cement, such as A la ru ru niño, are ones that Rodriguez’s grandmother used to sing to her, she said. Others, such as Mother Goose, were chosen because they’re classics or because a resident suggested it.
Located in the courtyard that all the apartment windows look out onto are a shaded gazebo and Tree of Life iron sculpture created by Rodriguez and Zarbin-Byrne. The gazebo is lined with Zarzamora, or blackberry, leaves, referencing the street name the complex is located on.
“(The Tree of Life) is about people making their homes here, now,” Zarbin-Byrne said. “It’s about all people through time immigrating and the community changing, (people) moving in and it culminates in this place.”
The project was funded by a partnership between SAHA and the NRP Group. This is one of several properties that SAHA has commissioned public art for, including two other public housing projects.
“We believe public art is important,” said David Nisivoccia, SAHA interim president and CEO. “At SAHA, we try to treat our clients and the greater community holistically. We know our primary purpose is to provide decent, safe and affordable housing and build excellent communities where people can thrive, but part of that thriving is not just the roof over their head — it’s their experience in life and we believe art is a large part of that experience.”
So far, feedback from the Gardens at San Juan community has been overwhelmingly positive. Some kids come out every day to help with the art. Others sit and watch, such as the girl who lives in the apartment above the Moon Garden or the couple with the herb garden who watches the two artists from their porch.
“I’ve gotten used to seeing you guys work,” the man with the garden told Rodriguez and Zarbin-Byrne Sunday. “I’m going to miss you.”
One night, when Rodriguez and Zarbin-Byrne were working late, a family emerged out of the darkness behind the Tree of Life carrying dinner plates for them. It’s for these reasons that the artists said they will have such a hard time saying goodbye after the art is revealed.
“We are happy to be leaving behind something beautiful,” Zarbin-Byrne said. “People are already sitting on those boulders in the Moon Garden and reading there. It makes us feel like what we made has meaning — that the spaces are being enjoyed and utilized.
“Art is what brings beauty to life and so knowing that we have left the environment and created a space of beauty and meaning is really what makes it worthwhile,” she continued. “So when I see all the pieces looking beautiful, of course I am glad they are looking beautiful, but it’s more than that — it’s that they are hopefully going to speak to other people (who) are going to get pleasure and enjoyment from living with the art.”
As Rodriguez and Zarbin-Byrne finish up the final touches on the three pieces, Rodriguez said she is going to miss seeing and talking to the children every day in the community she grew up in.
“I feel like it’s been a collaboration with the children,” Rodriguez said. “They have an investment and I feel good about the fact that we got to know them and they got to know us. They built a relationship with two women who work in art and make art about people.
“Art is life, like that cliché bumper sticker (says).”
Top image: From left: Donna Zarbin-Byrne and Diana Rodriguez Gil work on the finishing touches of The Moon Garden. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.