San Marcos Art, Á Pied
A family getaway to a Texas town for art, culture and fun
By: Hilary Stunda
It took some cajoling to convince my two boys to leave behind their baseball gloves and bats. But this time, with my husband away on a business trip and a three-day school holiday, they were my captives. We were heading toward a cultural getaway of my design, a loose itinerary through San Marcos that would lead to new discoveries.
“Guys!” I said, trying to get my boys’ attention as we peeled off the highway from Austin onto the exit toward San Marcos. “We’re copying the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle on this trip.”
“What?!” they cried.
“We will be exploring à pied,” I said, glancing in the rear-view mirror to gauge their reaction to the French phrase.
”À pied,” my youngest son asked. “What’s that?”
“On foot—it’s French,” I replied, tossing the map of San Marcos behind me into the backseat. I was hoping to expand their brains through experiences; nothing like what they were used to in the classroom.
With our San Marcos map in hand, backpacks full of water bottles, lunch, a camera, notepad and a small towel in case of a spontaneous swim, we embarked on day one of our cultural foray.
I had divvied up our roles for the adventure well in advance: my youngest son, August, would be the historian; my eldest, Sam, the cultural attaché. I was merely tagging along.
We began at Veramendi Plaza.
TIME FOR A HISTORY LESSON
Standing in the center of a classic white gazebo, in one of the most scenic parks in San Marcos, the sun speckling through the ornate wooden latticework, August gave us the first of our several history lessons of the day. He had done his homework. Before the trip, he tapped into Google and downloaded the current Guide To Everything San Marcos.
“Did you know that Veramendi was a Spanish-Mexican politician who died from cholera? That was back in 1833,” he said, looking up from his guidebook (aka: cell phone) with a professorial smile. “Right over there is the Merriman Cabin, built in 1846,” he said, pointing across the park.
Just a few minutes away from the park were two relics of historic San Marcos: the Charles S. Cock House, the oldest residential house in San Marcos, and the Merriman Cabin.
“Wow, it’s so small,” said August, as we walked inside the cabin and surveyed the sparse wooden furnishings, the stove and the few pictures on the wall. “Merriman was the first doctor in town,” he said. “And he lived here!?”
“Classic 19th century,” Sam said knowingly. “Probably a lot like the cabin Abe Lincoln lived in,” he surmised.
PUBLIC ART STOP
We continued on, following a tree-lined pathway to the River Walk. On the trail, we came upon a vibrant mural at Children’s Park, about 100 yards from the riverbank, and stopped to explore it.
August told us that the painting is a tribute to the delicate ecosystem that’s unique to the San Marcos River and the American Indians who inhabited the area, as well as San Marcos’ local plants and animals. The mural included vibrant images of the San Marcos salamander, and the endangered, beautiful Texas wild rice plant.
A few local students stood nearby, listening to August’s accolades about the mural.
“The acrylic markings,” one student said as he pointing to the colored bricks, “are river currents reflecting the summer sun. We helped the artists create it,” he said.
As we carried on down the River Walk path, we arrived at Rio Vista Falls—the perfect place for lunch and a quick dip in the water. The boys swam while tubers and rafters floated by. We dried in the sun—no need for those aforementioned towels—and continued on our journey. As we walked along the river, three pillars became visible in the distance. It was the Sculpture Garden.
The Sculpture Garden is part of San Marcos’ Activity Center, a popular cultural nexus for the community. We roamed the grounds to look at the sculptures: the pillars we had seen were called “Caryatids”; “Memory with a View,” was a large rectangle with eight small windows that highlighted views of nature; and an interesting work called “River of Life.”
“River of Life” is a kinetic sculpture made of polished stainless steel and colorful glass that reflects the change of light throughout the day. It is artist Jim La Paseo’s homage to the beautiful San Marcos River and its headwaters, called Aquarena springs, where an unending source of water rises from a white sandy bottom of pulverized limestone.
“It’s Jim’s interpretation of what the Anasazis would have seen when they first arrived at the river,” said the gallery attendant at the Activity Center. “At the time, the main spring was shooting 50 feet in the air with a large plume at the top.” Ever-changing and sparkling, to stand before River of Life is to be mesmerized.
Lastly, we came to “Conversation PEACE,” a pair of giant red scissors, the tip of one blade topped by an origami “paper” crane. The entire work is perched on the base of a 400-pound stone.
“It’s a huge rock, scissor, paper!” a delighted Sam exclaimed.
ENGAGING WITH ART
Inside the Activity Center, we discovered a fantastic art exhibit as part of The Walkers Gallery. The space serves as a professional curated gallery that showcases local and regional artists all year long.
Both the boys found pieces of art they loved and were quick to describe them; this was the kind of engagement I was hoping for. It had been difficult to get August and Sam away from their baseball—giving them San Marcos research homework probably made them think this was going to be a learning experience like they were used to at school. It was nice to see that the kids were open to learning and it was easier than I thought it would be to “teach” them outside of the classroom. Aristotle was on to something: the peripatetic classroom does work.
The kids were ready for our final stop of the day and, what I referred to as the “piece de resistance”: The Wittliff Gallery. With more than 6,000 square feet of exhibition space, entering a space this expansive can be daunting, not to mention overwhelming for kids at the end of the day, so we decided to visit just one exhibit. Or so we thought.
The Wittliff collections consist of significant archives and works of the Southwest’s literature, film and music, as well as the photography of the Southwest and Mexico.
I thought the current photography exhibit, “The Face of Texas,” was a great decision for our one exhibit. Photography shows are, in general, kid-friendly, easy to understand and visually captivating.
We walked through the exhibition in silence, standing in front of portraits that ranged from those of ordinary people to famous Texans such as Willie Nelson.
It turned out that the boys liked the show so much they weren’t in any rush to leave.
So we marched onward toward the two other shows that were on display. One showcased the original literary papers and artifacts of some of Texas’ major writers, musicians and filmmakers. It even included Fox’s animated series King of the Hill, and the CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove, which both took place in Texas.
“The Armadillo Rising” exhibit showcased many of the treasures from the Wittliff’s extensive Texas music archives.
“This is cool,” said Sam, as he peered into the display cases. There were handwritten song lyrics, signed guitars, as well as photographs and memorabilia. Success!
LETTING OUR HAIR DOWN
Things were going well. The kids were happy; I was happy. I didn’t want to push my luck by pressing any more history on them, so we decided to spend the next day downtown exploring all there was to offer at the 23rd-annual Swing on the Square Festival.
My plan was to give the kids some hard-earned allowance dues and head to the festival. With an arts and crafts village, Texas-style barbecue, and live music—from Western Swing Bands to fiddlers to gospel, all day long—there was plenty to keep us entertained. There was even a free street dance competition, something I had always wanted to do.
“What do you want to do first?” Sam asked, on cue.
I paused for a second. “Oh, heck. I might just have to find myself a dance partner.” I ended up with two: Sam and August.
After dancing we explored historic downtown, rounding the corners of what the locals call “Kissing Alley”, when we discovered the vibrant, artful murals of local famed graffiti artist David Perez tucked away in the alleys. The boys loved the cartoon-style mural depicting “Box Trolls," and I loved the one featuring "The Jetsons"—though I had to explain who they are to Sam and August! Finally, we found the “San Marcos Postcard” mural. Of course, we just had to take a selfie for Dad.
I couldn’t stop smiling: the friendly, small-town Texas ambience had rubbed off on us; it was as warm and inviting as the river coursing through town. Even better, the boys learned a little bit about the San Marcos’ history and its dazzling and unique riparian ecosystem. We even got a glimpse of the who’s who of Texas’ arts and music scene. I was happy to know that Sam and August were returning with new knowledge—not to mention, new memories.
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