Let’s face it: Donald Trump is president, and any post-election art, music, theater, literature, and other self-expression likely will be deconstructed for its political message. Put another way, art has become suspect.
In the Alta Vista neighborhood, just west of Monte Vista, residents are having that premise tested by celebrated artist and neighbor Jennifer Khoshbin, who received a Start Place Grant from the City’s Department of Arts and Culture for a temporary public art project. Word Around Town consists of two arrow-shaped signs rimmed in flashing lights and lit from within, situated in the yards of two corner houses facing North Flores Street. Rather than selling hamburgers or tires, each side features a tiny poem, almost a haiku, by distinguished local poets Naomi Shihab Nye and Jenny Browne, current poet laureate of San Antonio.
Khoshbin’s book art and paper works have been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and featured in magazines such as House Beautiful, Glamour, and Spaces, and in art and craft books. Her metal sculpture Sideshow is a theatrical series of proscenia at Yanaguana Garden in HemisFair Park, reminiscent of her smaller paper pieces.
In coming weeks, poems by other writers will appear on the signs. For now, the arrow on North Flores Street and West Agarita Avenue reads, “Change your orbit and be changed.” The other side complements the Alta Vista Community Garden beside it with the words, “Abundance! Nature doesn’t shout.”
A few blocks south on North Flores Street at West Magnolia Avenue, passersby are reminded to, “Be brave. Little things still matter most,” and on the other side, “Imagine that wind just turned around to catch your name.”
While not obviously political, the poetic messages are eliciting different responses, most commonly that they show beauty and unity. Public reaction is where the rubber meets the road – literally North Flores Street – for Word Around Town.
“Everyday at dusk when the lights come on, people stop and take pictures and ask about it,” said Paul Sartory who is hosting one of the signs with his wife Peggy. “It’s a constant thing.”
Peggy Sartory’s favorite comment came from a teenage boy who stopped on the sidewalk to tell her he really liked the “jokes” she’s posting.
“We need jokes,” Nye said when she heard about the comment. “Call them anything – medicine, aphorism, jokes, horoscopes…feel free, people.”
Last week Nye told an audience in Paris about the project.
“People’s eyes grew wide – they loved it,” she said. “They said, ‘We want that, too!’”
The reaction of the passing teenager is what Khoshbin hoped for.
“It starts a conversation with this young man about poetry,” she said. “It’s repurposing a tool known for selling used tires into an extremely visible message board of ideas. … That was the whole purpose – to bring art to unusual places in order to expose more people to the power of contemporary art and writing.”
Browne said a friend’s daughter in the neighborhood has taken pictures of herself and friends in front of the signs.
But not everyone is keen on the concept. A married couple who own a home near the West Agarita sign and asked to remain anonymous, said the signs are an “ugly distraction” that break up the continuity of the street.
“Maybe the words are art but the signs definitely aren’t,” the husband ventured. “But they do make you ponder and think, though I don’t know what they’re supposed to mean. It’s like they’re selling an idea or a thought.”
His wife reads them as political.
“The political environment is so toxic right now,” she said, “and I didn’t know if they’re trying to bring political debate to the neighborhood. I wish there were more civility and ways to disagree agreeably.”
A Beacon Hill neighbor, Katie Halleran, said she loves the signs and their messages.
“Especially given our recent election, it was warming in some way,” she said. “I thought not all hope is lost, right? We drove around the block and came back to take pictures.”
In explaining the assignment to the writers, Khoshbin was sensitive to imposing political discourse into a residential setting where families and individuals seek peaceful lives. She asked Nye and Browne not to present anything “overtly anti-Trump.”
This proved difficult for Nye.
“At this dangerous time of language travesties right and left – come on, ‘Bloodbath?’ ‘Carnage?’ – we need all the poetry we can get,” she said. “We need little and big signs that something better still exists in the dictionary and in our futures. Since my firm feeling has always been we are living in a poem any time we let ourselves do that, it’s encouraging to think of simple phrases and lines finding new friends as they’re just passing by, not expecting them.”
In her position as poet laureate, Browne, who is associate professor of English at Trinity University and author of two poetry collections, said she tries to find “ways of creating encounters with poetry especially in people who aren’t poetry readers.”
Word Around Town helps achieve that goal.
“These little poems are not poetry with a capital ‘p,’” Browne explained, “but that’s part of the charm. It gives people a little poke of surprise. You don’t expect something meditative on a bright red arrow sign. So, juxtaposition of the ‘big wow’ look with a bit of intimate language is a really fun experience. I’m all in favor of mystery.”
Khoshbin was surprised by initial negative response by several Alta Vista users of the community website Next Door, though many came around after learning that Nye, who has been known as a poet, author, educator, and anthologist in San Antonio for decades, and Poet Laureate Browne, authored the poems.
“People often express a skepticism toward things that aren’t immediately useful or conventionally decorative,” Khoshbin said. “That’s where I come in, along with other artists, writers, musicians, and activists exposing us all to the unusual, disruptive, and unconventional, constantly shifting what is deemed normal.
“And in the end, it’s only temporary, they don’t have to look at it for too much longer.”