Deep in the heart of Texas: San Antonio’s art museums

 

 

When I visited Texas a little while ago, one thing I didn’t expect to encounter a lot of was highbrow culture.  Indeed, during my first few days there, my expectations of encountering such a thing got lower still as I noticed certain details about the place.  Details such as a Texan fondness for car-window stickers saying WE DON’T DIAL 911, WE USE COLT 45.  Or the rolls of novelty toilet paper on sale in Texan souvenir stores that had Barack Obama’s face on them.  Or the hulking roadside signs bearing the message THINK GOD in stark black letters.  All these suggested I wasn’t in a part of the North American land mass much given to Manhattan-style cosmopolitanism and culture-vulture posing.

 

However, after another couple of days, I realised I’d been wrong.  There is culture to be found in the USA’s biggest state and it isn’t just the culture you find festering on a half-eaten and month-old Big Mac.  At least, there’s culture to be found in the Texan city I was staying in, San Antonio.

 

Here are my thoughts on three of the art museums I discovered in San Antonio which taught me not to jump the gun in drawing conclusions about people and how highbrow or lowbrow they are.  (That said, ‘jump the gun’ does sound like an appropriate Texan expression.)

 

Sandwiched between the River Walk and West Market Street in central San Antonio, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is the type of cultural institution you’d expect to find in Texas.  Its mission, to quote its website, is “celebrating the art, heritage and history of the American West”.   Hence you get to see such items as a painted wood, steel and leather chuck wagon that would dispense ‘hot coffee, beans and biscuits’ to tired and hungry cowboys out on their rounds; a monstrous-looking beartrap collected by “J. Frank Doble, among the West’s finest writers and historians”; a 1950s / 1960s prairie windmill for pumping water up out of subterranean aquifers; and a collection of more than a hundred cowboy spurs from the 18th to 20th centuries.  Seemingly hovering in mid-air behind sheets of display-case glass, those spurs resemble a moored fleet of steampunk submarines, powered by star-shaped paddles at their sterns.

 

 

There’s also a diorama of 1836’s legendary Alamo siege, which is much better than the one on display in the Alamo itself.  And you get to see some American West-themed paintings.  I recall being impressed by Terri Kelly’s Contemplación and Oleg Stavrowsky’s And Stay Off – both pictured below.

 

From pinterest.com 

From briscoemuseum.org

 

The final museum-room I visited had some lovely old posters advertising America’s national parks.  (Take a bow, John Muir.)  They had a pleasing 1930s-ish look to them and I detected a hint of Art Deco too, though maybe it was just me.

 

 

The Briscoe’s museum shop, of course, is dedicated to all things Western and cowboy.  I thought it was brave of them to have on their bookshelves a few copies of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

 

 

While the Briscoe deals with local culture, the San Antonio Museum of Art, on the River Walk too but out of the downtown area, up by West Jones Avenue and almost at the expressway, is unashamedly internationalist.  You should set aside a good couple of hours to do this institution justice for it contains a lot of stuff.  SAMA, as it’s called, features everything from 18th and 19th century European paintings to Oceanian spirit masks, from Buddhist statues to samurai armour, from Islamic-world ceramics to Chinese Qing Dynasty vases, from Korean folding screens to Egyptian sarcophagi.  I could probably fill this blog from now until next Christmas with information about what I saw there.  But I’ll mention a very few of my highlights.

 

Being Irish, I enjoyed the display of ‘Irish silver’ up on the fourth floor, which featured silver in every culinary form you could think of: corkscrews, wine coolers, cups, funnels, ladles, teapots, jugs, chocolate pots, toast racks, tankards, decanter stands, beakers, ewers, chalices, urns, cruets, sauceboats, butter dishes, fruit bowls, teaspoons and toasting forks.

 

 

In the Oceania section, I liked the ‘male ancestor figure’ from Papua New Guinea.  Made of wood and shells, he sported a conical head, long nose, vacant expression and large arched member and he stood upon a luckless-looking squatting monkey.  Another unhappy monkey was one in the Chinese section kneeling under the weight of a Tang Dynasty ‘spirit guardian’, whose distinctive features included a pig-like snout and chin, a twisting tusk erupting from his cranium and weaving flame-like spikes behind him.

 

 

And in the South Asian section there’s a fascinating Buddhist mandala made of marble sand.  A mandala, it’s explained “is a cosmic diagram made of concentric circles and squares representing the symbolic home of a deity… used as tools for meditation and in spiritual development.”  SAMA is only one of four American museums to contain a mandala, as normally they are taken apart after a few days to symbolise the transience of things: “Permission to preserve this mandala was granted by his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as a gesture to promote peace and harmony.”

 

 

Alas, I didn’t have time to look at SAMA’s collection of Latin American art, contained in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Centre on the ground floor.

 

And lastly to my favourite gallery in San Antonio, the McNay Art Musueum, north of the city centre, in Alamo Heights and on North New Braunfels Avenue.  The McNay is the oldest institution of its type in Texas, dating back to 1854.  Just inside its entrance stand some fun sculptures, such as Seymour Lipton’s Moloch, which resembles a mantrap folded into the shape of a pitbull terrier, or one by David Smith, which resembles a tangled weather vane but is really a representation of Groucho Marx’s face – look closely and you might spot his bowtie, cigar, moustache and glasses.  However, the real goodies are the paintings on display further inside.

 

 

They include works by Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Rousseau and Van Gogh.  I particularly liked Edward Hopper’s Corn Hill, 1930, whose explanatory notes include this quote by the artist himself: “Maybe I am not very human.  What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house”; Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with the Idol, which has lurking in its top right corner the Polynesian goddess Hina, “symbol of happiness, calm and peace”; and Georgia O’Keefe’s From the Plains I, inspired by the summers that the artist spent in the stark landscapes of New Mexico.

 

From wikiart.org

From wikiart.org

 

There’s also a neat little Medieval and Renaissance Art section, containing more paintings as well as altarpieces, limestone and wooden statues (of Mary Magdalene, St Paul, St Anthony and sundry other saints), stained glass and the inevitable representations of the Madonna and Child.  Actually, the atmosphere engendered by those venerable religious artefacts did more to make me ‘think God’ than any giant sign planted by the roadside.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: the Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery

 

 

When I was a wee boy at Christmas-time, when the Christmas tree in our house had been fully decked out with tinsel, baubles and fairy-lights, I would look up at it and indulge in a fantasy.  I fantasised that I’d shrunk to the size of one of the tiny snowmen, fairies and Santa Clauses hanging from the ends of its branches and I was living in the centre of it in an equally miniature treehouse.  So that all around me were those shiny, shimmering, glittering Christmas-tree decorations, now fantastically big and a thousand times more spectacular.

 

Having lunch one day at the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery brought back memories of that childhood yuletide fantasy.   This famous eatery does business in El Mercado in the Texan city of San Antonio.  It celebrated its 75th anniversary in October this year and is as much a restaurant and bar as a café and bakery.  And it’s so elaborately decorated that its dining experience is like having a meal at the heart of a gigantic Christmas tree.

 

Covering the ceilings are dangling constellations of big multi-coloured stars and floating galaxies of glinting fairy lights.  The columns supporting those ceilings are wrapped in artificial greenery, which itself is so wrapped in coloured lights and tinselly decorations that it’s impossible to tell what the greenery is meant to be – pine, ivy, whatever.  Adding to the phantasmagorical effect of the café’s interior are golden orbs, glittery ribbons, baubles shaped like hot-air balloons, miniature piñata, little snowman and angel dolls, sparkly-winged butterflies and squares of shiny coloured foil.

 

 

At one end of the premises is a drinking establishment called the Mariachi Bar, about which I scribbled in my trusty notebook at the time: “…rather less glitzy and, dare I say it, less chintzy…  Its comparatively sparse decorations include a cello, mounted at a skewed angle on the wall, and a big wooden eagle raising its wings dramatically before the central mirror of the gantry.”  However, this photo I took of the bar-sign hardly suggests sparseness and a lack of glitz and chintz.

 

 

At the café’s opposite end is a room containing a remarkable mural that folds around two walls.  It depicts an array of Hispanic celebrities and political heavy hitters who’ve achieved prominence over the years, especially in the United States.  I have to ashamedly confess that I recognised very few of them – only a handful whose fame has crossed the Atlantic like guitarist Carlos Santana, director Robert Rodriguez, actor Edward James Olmos and the dog whisperer himself, Cesar Millan.

 

I’m told that the mural includes the San Antonio-born Henry Gonzalez, who served as a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives for nearly 40 years and who was in Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on that fateful November day in 1963; the civil rights activist and labour leader Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association; and the surrealist and folk artist Frida Kahlo, whose feminism-inflected work was once described by Andre Gide as being like a ‘ribbon around a bomb’.  The mural began life in the 1970s, has gradually expanded since then and today incorporates over a hundred people.

 

 

Meanwhile, another corner of the same room houses a shrine dedicated to Selina (Quintanilla-Perez), the Mexican-American ‘Queen of Tejano Music’ who was murdered in 1995 by a former friend and employee.  Since then her adulation by the Hispanic community has reached Elvis-like proportions; to the point where George W. Bush, when he was the Governor of Texas, was moved to designate her birthday ‘Selina Day’.  The shrine is topped by a big framed picture of her singing on stage, the picture sounded by a purplish mane of tinsel, fake flowers and artificial birds.  Smaller framed photos of her from various stages in her life crowd around the shrine’s base.  There’s also a figurine of the Virgin Mary, enveloped in a halo of light, standing guard over the shrine on one side; and a statue of a girlish-looking angel acting as a sentry on its other side.

 

 

When I was there, the entrance area was dominated by an additional shrine.  This was a Dia de los Muertos – Mexican Day of the Dead – shrine dedicated to deceased members of the family who’ve run the café for three-quarters of a century, most notably Pedro and Cruz Cortez, who in 1941 founded it as an early-morning breakfast place for market-workers.  Back then it contained all of three tables.

 

A green-robed angel stood at the shrine’s summit, with a somewhat H.R. Giger-esque arrangement of horn-like spikes forming a vague halo behind her.  There were also dolls, flowers, candles, papier-mâché skulls with cartoonishly-drawn features and the inevitable clutter of framed photos.  I visited the café shortly before Dia de los Meurtos, which takes place from October 31st from November 2nd, and I don’t know if this shrine was a temporary one erected especially for the holiday or if it’s a permanent feature there.

 

 

During my visit, I was so busy making notes about the décor that I forgot to record anything about the Mexican food I ate.  All I can say is that I don’t recall having any complaints about it.  Actually, if you’re likely to be in San Antonio in the future and fancy trying the place out, here’s a link to its menu:

 

http://www.mitierracafe.com/menu

 

By the way, the Mariachi Bar has a Happy Hour every weekday evening from five to seven o’clock.  However, if there’s a Christmas-loving wee kid inside you, any hour spent inside the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery is an enchantingly happy hour.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum

 

 

This may look like a sedate and unremarkable, if pretty, house in a leafy neighbourhood in the Texan city of San Antonio.  However, two features suggest there might be more to it than initially meets the eye.  One is a hand-painted sign half-hidden in the foliage outside, announcing the existence of a museum.  The other hints at something stranger – a toilet bowl and cistern parked in its back garden, used as a big porcelain plant-pot, green blades poking out over the bowl’s rim.

 

 

In fact, this is the home of San Antonio’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, created and run by the wonderful Barney Smith who, when a couple of friends and myself visited him a while ago, was 94 years young.  He keeps his museum-collection in a corrugated iron garage.  It’s a big collection and he has a small garage, but Barney has managed to cram the former into the latter in Tardis-like fashion.  

 

When we telephoned him to say we’d arrived – we’d made an appointment to view the museum a few days earlier – Barney crossed his back garden with the aid of a Zimmer frame, unlocked the big garage door, swung it back and propped it with a stob.  And then it seemed that Aladdin’s Cave had opened, an Aladdin’s Cave of toilet seats.

 

 

Now I should clarify something.  This is not a museum of toilet seats per se, not one of antique toilet seats, or exotic toilet seats, or unusual toilet seats.  What Barney has done over many years is take a huge number of toilet seats, or more precisely, toilet-seat lids, and decorate them according to different themes.  The theme might be a country, city or state, or a profession, or an organisation, or a special occasion, or a newsworthy event.  And he works on each seat with the artistry of a medieval craftsman engraving, gilding, inlaying, embossing and enameling the front of a medieval shield.

 

 

At the time of our visit, he mentioned that he was currently working on six new toilet seats to add to his collection.  I can’t quite remember how many seats he said he’d already completed, though for some reason the number ‘1172’ is lodged in my memory.

 

The interior of the garage is absolutely dense with the things: lining the walls, propped along the floor, dangling from the roof, suspended along rails in tightly-packed rows.  Entering it is like venturing into a congested pocket of rainforest, one where the leaves are all big, solid and shaped like loo-covers.  When he leads his visitors inside, such is the clutter that Barney has to swap his Zimmer frame for a walking stick, which handily doubles as a pointer when he’s indicating the more notable items in his collection.

 

 

Despite the sheer number of exhibits, each one seems to have its own identity – largely due to the bewildering range of bric-a-brac Barney has used in decorating them.  I saw seats adorned with action figures, badges, baubles, beads, buttons, cards, car number-plates, CDs, chains, cell-phones, cocktail sticks, coins, corkscrews, computer keyboards, coral, crosses, dolls, electronic circuitry, feathers, keyrings, keys, Lego, marbles, medallions, medals, miniature flags, neckties, notes of money, pebbles, penknives, pennants, photographs, rocks, rosettes, scent bottles, sections of plumbing, sew-on patches, shells, smokers’ pipes, spectacles, stained glass, stationery, stones, surgical instruments, taps, toy cars, toy trains and watches.

 

Barney is also an accomplished artist and calligrapher and many of the seats, in part or in their entirety, are emblazoned with his drawings and / or inscribed with his handwriting.  Indeed, such is the aesthetic effect that you soon forget that what you’re looking at are, essentially, the top parts of latrines.

 

 

About the only exhibit I remember seeing that had a connection with an actual toilet was one bearing a souvenir that a visitor, an American soldier back from service in Iraq, had given Barney one day: a chunk of porcelain allegedly salvaged from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s personal ‘khazi’.

 

In his time Barney has worked as a plumber, electrician and fireman.  Looking at the exhibits here, and thinking of the many skills that were necessary in fashioning them, I’m sure there are a dozen other professions he could’ve successfully turned his hand to.  He’s also a bit of a publicity hound – clearly, he keeps an eye open for any opportunity to promote himself and the museum.  Thus, the garage comes equipped with a television set and an old VCR, on which he plays footage of his appearances on TV over the years, on programmes like the Tonight Show, Offbeat America and the BBC’s All Over the Place.  As a thank-you for the coverage, those shows have been honoured with their own toilet seats in the collection.

 

 

While I didn’t go to the Toilet Seat Art Museum with the intention of scoffing, I expected to have a good chuckle about it.  Where I come from, at least, toilets are supposed to be funny – hence the expression, ‘toilet humour’.  Yet I went away feeling impressed and oddly inspired.  This was partly because of the time spent in Barney Smith’s company.  Despite his advanced years he seemed as alert, vivacious and energetic as a man a third of his age.  Why, the following week, he told us, he was planning to pop up to Tennessee and visit Dollywood, the theme park devoted to the mighty Ms Dolly Parton.

 

 

And the sheer variety of things displayed in his garage made me admire his curiosity and enthusiasm for the whole rich tapestry of life.  I particularly admired the way his work showed respect for and gratitude towards those many groups of citizens who keep society ticking over and glued together – all those many professions, services, institutions, associations, sports clubs, social clubs, faith groups, youth groups and so on.  You name them, he’s got a toilet seat dedicated to them.

 

 

Tellingly, at a time when the bile, bombast and general ghastliness of the Trump-Clinton race for the presidency have acted as the worst possible advertisement for America, it strikes me that Barney and his eccentric but charming little museum are an advertisement for the very opposite, for America at its best.  Both the man and his creations seem to embody the virtues of a nobler America, virtues such as neighbourliness, civility, loyalty, positivity and all-round decency.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: the Alamo

 

 

Originally a Roman Catholic mission, later a military fort and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alamo is found in the Texan city of San Antonio.  Today much of the site is parkland where long-trunked deciduous trees cast dappled shadows and provide shelter from the unrelenting Texan sun.  The atmosphere there is infinitely pleasanter than it was between February 23rd and March 6th, 1836, when, amid a ruckus of cannonballs, rifle-shot, bayonets, flames, smoke and blood, a hundred Texan defenders held out against a besieging Mexican force of 1500.  The siege ended with the deaths of the Texans – who were then known as ‘Texians’ and whose number included such personages as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis – but it had an important legacy, inspiring many to join the Texian army and hasten the success of the Texas Revolution and the formation of the Republic of Texas.    

 

 

The few buildings there, such as the chapel and barracks, seem to be kept in pristine condition.  But I have to admit that on the day I was there, I made a mistake common among many visitors.

 

What happened was, I wandered into the Alamo gift shop, housed in a historical-looking building that, according to www.thealamo.org, was “built in 1937 as one of nine Texas Centennial Museums honouring the hundredth anniversary of Texas independence.  Dedicated in 1938 the Alamo Museum held historical artefacts until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas decided to also use the space to sell souvenirs in order to raise money for care of the mission.”  And as the website notes, this building is “often mistaken as part of the original Alamo compound.”  That’s certainly what I thought.  I went into the eighty-year-old gift-shop building and assumed I was somewhere that’d seen heavy-duty action back in 1836.

 

 

Confronting me at the entrance was a sign that urged me to “shop and support”, in order to “preserve the Alamo and its legacy for future generations”.  Fair enough, I thought, but it seemed a bit tough that such stout-hearted defenders of Texan, or Texian, liberty as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis had to depend on hard-core capitalist retailing for the memory of their sacrifice, and the scene of it, to survive into the 21st century.

 

As I wandered among the wares on sale inside – flags, T-shirts, Davy Crockett-style raccoonskin hats, cuddly-toy eagles, lots of things emblazoned with the defiant old Texian slogan ‘Come and take it’ (which, when you think about it, is actually what the Mexicans did) – I still mistakenly believed that the building containing this shop had existed during the 1836 siege and Texians and Mexicans had really died here.  I got a bit cynical about it.  I found myself thinking sourly: “Here’s where William Travis went down, bravely battling to prevent the Mexicans from taking the Alamo’s supplies of fried-egg shapers…  And here’s where Davy Crockett heroically gave his life whilst holding off the Mexicans from the Alamo’s stock of hoodies…  And over here is where Jim Bowie was bayonetted to death as he tried and failed to stop the Mexicans from getting their hands on those boxes of delicious Alamo fudge.”

 

 

Anyway, I later discovered I was wrong.  So while you’re spending money in the Alamo gift shop, don’t feel you’re desecrating a site of the fallen.  The only thing that fell there was the occasional Alamo souvenir, falling off a rack.

 

 

In the centre of the shop is big glass case containing a model of the 1836 Alamo and a depiction of the siege with toy soldiers, horses and cannons.  Mind you, the siege is much better represented by a diorama that’s featured in San Antonio’s Briscoe Western Art Museum.  There’s also a selection of Alamo-related DVDs on sale, including films like 2004’s The Alamo with Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson, and 1960’s The Alamo with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey and Frankie Avalon, and the mid-1950s Disney TV mini-series Davy Crockett with Fess Parker as the raccoonskin-wearing frontiersman.  No sign, though, of the 1969 comedy Viva Max!, in which a rogue Mexican general played by Peter Ustinov leads a small company of Mexican soldiers into present-day Texas and retakes the Alamo.  The original plan was to shoot some of Viva Max! in the real Alamo but the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, its then caretakers, were so outraged that instead it had to be filmed at a replica Alamo elsewhere.

 

 

Outside, the most interesting feature for me – being something of a Japan-o-phile – was an inscribed stone from Japan that commemorated the medieval soldier Suneemon Torii.  He’s sometimes known as the ‘Bonham of Japan’, after James Bonham, an Alamo defender who was sent out to get military aid for the garrison, only to have his requests for help turned down.  Bonham finally returned to the Alamo three days before the culmination of the siege, even though in doing so he doomed himself to the same fate as his comrades.  Suneemon Torii performed a similar feat of heroism / martyrdom at the siege of Nagashino Castle in 1575, which has been dubbed ‘the Alamo of Japan’.

 

I also saw the name ‘Bonham’ sculpted into one side of a square, stone fountain.  As I walked around the fountain, I saw that three more names were sculpted into its three other sides: “Travis… Crockett… Bowie.”  I have to confess that, as a Led Zeppelin lover, I would have been pleasantly surprised if instead the names had read: “Bonham… Page… Plant… Jones.”

 

From www.musiclipse.com