Don’t be fooled by the disarmingly quiet exhibition of visual art and writing at the City-owned Culture Commons Gallery. St. Anthony’s Lost & Found: A Poetry Exchange is a trove of San Antonio history, a complex panorama of immigration, neighborhoods, architecture, and cultures interlacing the region’s 10,000-year period of inhabitation.

A Tricentennial-year collaboration between Poet Laureate Jenny Browne and the City of San Antonio’s Department of Arts & Culture, St. Anthony’s Lost & Found presents local work by 18 visual artists, two writers, and a host of students and residents from across the city.

St. Anthony of Padua, the city’s namesake whose statue stands in front of the San Fernando Cathedral in Main Plaza, is the patron saint of lost things and was “good with words,” Browne notes.

The San Antonio De Padua sculpture is located near the entrance to San Fernando Cathedral in Main Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“I didn’t really know where asking people these questions about naming and loss and place and communication might lead,” Browne wrote in an email to the Rivard Report, “but I wasn’t surprised when they led us to larger questions, complexities, and histories.”

For example, Browne invited painter Ana Fernandez to make a series of watercolors depicting lost buildings in recent San Antonio history. Fernandez’s deft, near-photographic elegies depict the first Texas mint on Rivas Street (now Houston Street), Dr. Aureliano Urrutia’s Brackenridge Park-area residence, Scotty’s Ice House on what became the Hemisfair grounds, and the now-demolished La Gloria #3 rooftop dance hall and gas station on the Westside corner of Brazos and Laredo streets, among other lost landmarks.

Fernandez said she used a neutral palette “to suggest transience and loss.”

During her research, Fernandez met with a descendent of original La Gloria proprietor, Mathilde Elizondo. In tiny handwriting, Fernandez named figures depicted in the image, which lends the intimacy of a family photograph to a piece of lost history. The demolishing of La Gloria #3 in 2002, even after the property had won historic landmark status, was controversial, and wounds linger to this day.

Her watercolors, along with a series of four oil paintings of lost buildings by Abraham Mojica, are accompanied by a booklet containing short texts by writer John Philip Santos, a University of Texas at San Antonio distinguished scholar in mestizo cultural studies.

Sebastian Guajardo, Department of Arts & Culture special projects manager, with whom Browne collaborated on the exhibition, asked Santos to further illuminate the Fernandez and Mojica paintings with imaginative, semi-historical tales. Of the 1818 viceroyal mint on Rivas Street, Santos writes, “Money made its late arrival in Béjar, on the eve of empire’s twilight.”

The Santos booklets are available free of charge at the exhibition, along with another volume, Cuentos de San Antonio, by 2013 State of Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos, who worked with Madeline Kennedy of Trinity University, and Paula Allen of the San Antonio Express-News. Their 13 stories, all in letter form, accompany drawings and works on paper by 13 local artists. The drawings were commissioned by the City and will remain in its collection after the exhibition.

One 2017 pencil drawing, Dinosaur Tracks by Jose Sotelo, depicts a sign in Government Canyon that reads: “Help Save These Dinosaur Tracks From Extinction!,” lending a much longer time frame to the region’s inhabitation and its environmental fragility. Other drawings depict historical San Antonio personages, times of protest, and otherwise lost histories embedded in local culture. The accompanying texts are essential to understanding the depth and gravity of the drawings, and how shared histories combine to make the San Antonio community of the present day.

On view in the easy-to-miss hallway gallery of the Plaza de Armas building are shelves filled with handwritten postcards, mailed in by the more than 1,200 local students and residents who have participated in Browne’s Poetry Exchange portion of the project.

Browne held a May workshop for City staffers who manage summer youth programs and senior centers, then a June workshop for 80 educators at the Central Library auditorium.

Participants were given examples by lauded poets such as Pablo Neruda and Nikki Giovanni, followed by prompts on which to base their own poems, such as, “In some ways, every moment that passes is a moment that is lost. Write a poem that remembers someone as they were in a specific moment.”

Visitors to the gallery are invited to take one of the postcard poems home with them, provided they leave their own postcard poem behind.

In a sense, the Poetry Exchange is a lost-and-found operation in itself. At first, Guajardo blanched at the giveaway of postcard poems, seeing it as losing a potential archive of city voices, but Browne persuaded him that the exchange was essential to the project, he said. “It is going to be lost to us, but somebody else will have it,” he said.

Local author and educator Jenny Browne will serve as San Antonio’s third Poet Laureate for a two-year term from 2016-2018. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Jenny Browne. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Guajardo said the remaining postcard poems will be given to the San Antonio Poetry Archive at Palo Alto College, “to keep as a legacy” of the Tricentennial. In the curricular journal given to educators and students to guide them through the participatory phase of the project, Browne wrote:

“We don’t always know how far a poem might travel, or who might be waiting to read it, but I believe a poem is a kind of letter, a necessary message sent from one human life to another.”

On Wednesday, the day before the exhibition opened to the public, Browne said: “I have a lot of faith in the idea that everyone who lives in this city has something important to say about what makes [San Antonio] theirs. By giving them a chance to do that, we can learn more about what it means to call it ours.”

St. Anthony’s Lost & Found: A Poetry Exchange runs through April 27 at the Culture Commons Gallery in the Plaza de Armas building behind City Hall. Admission is free, and the exhibition is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Among several scheduled events, a screening on March 1 from 6-8 p.m. will feature a documentary video on the project by daughter-and-father team Joey and Paul Fauerso, whose ancestor was John William Smith, the last messenger to leave the Alamo before its fall and the first mayor of San Antonio under the Republic of Texas.

The Fauerso family history resonates deeply with Browne’s educational pamphlet question, “What do you know about your own name? What does it mean? Does it have a story?” Other visitors to the gallery can register their own names via postcard poems, to become part of Browne’s shared archive of San Antonio history.

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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...