HISTORY AND CULTURE

Show will pay tribute to Old Spanish Trail highway

By JASMINA WELLINGHOFF

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JANET ROGERS

artbeatYears ago, artist Laurel Gibson stopped to look at some merchandise sold from a roadside stand along Highway 16. Large perforated paper rolls attracted her attention, but she was puzzled. What were they for? It turned out she was looking at decades-old paper rolls once used by player pianos (mechanical pianos) as a music storage medium. She bought them with no clear idea what to do with them.

After collecting dust for a while, the rolls have finally been put to good use as canvases for her embroidered drawings in Embroidering the Old Spanish Trail, a unique exhibit currently at Bihl Haus Arts, which will stay open through mid-January 2017. The show is part of the multi-state centennial celebration of the construction of the Old Spanish Trail Auto Highway (OST), the first such road in the Southern part of the country, which ran from St. Augustine, Fla., to San Diego, Calif., traversing eight states, including Texas, along the way.

The centennial festivities are spearheaded by the San Antonio-based OST100, which according to its website, was organized “to locate, revitalize and preserve the roadway, businesses and historic sites of the original 1920s Old Spanish Trail Auto Highway.” It so happened that Bihl Haus Arts founder and guiding light Kellen Kee McIntyre learned about the centennial from her neighbor Charlotte Kahl, a history aficionado and the chairperson of OST100.

“That’s how I got interested,” says McIntyre. “Bihl Haus, which is about 100 years old as well, stands on the stretch of OST that followed 4 miles of the current Fredericksburg Road. To join in the celebration seemed like a natural fit for us.” Then McIntyre, who has known Gibson for a long time, remembered Gibson’s piano rolls, which date back to the same time period. “The use of player pianos peaked in the 1920s, exactly during the construction of the original road,” she added. “Everything came together nicely, and I said, let’s do an exhibit.”

To develop her concepts, the artist traveled up and down the old route, visiting places, sketching and photographing monuments, road segments, old businesses and landmarks of all kinds, while also interviewing the locals wherever she went. But this landscape was already familiar to her. An Arizona native, Gibson remembers going with her family to visit the Nogales area on the border, home of ghost towns and mining camps as well as splendid old Spanish mission churches such as the nearby San Xavier del Bac, which impressed young Laurel with its colorfully decorated interior. “It was like walking into a painting,” she recalls.

More recently, Gibson, her sister and their mother took a train-and-car trip down to Florida to visit Disney World, traversing a sizable portion of OST’s territory. She sketched away during the entire journey, and it was those images that she showed to Kahl when they first met. As a result, the two women immediately connected as kindred spirits. “I like this meridian of the United States; it’s been part of my life all along,” said Gibson, who was named OST100’s official artist. “This is the trail that kind of defines me.”

Gibson also attended the 2015 meeting of OST100 supporters in Mobile, Ala., to learn more about the centennial plans and will address the same gathering this year to talk about Embroidering. And, of course, she drove along the convoluted route that the highway took through the San Antonio area, from Seguin to some fields in Boerne. There are still patches of it that can be seen here, she said, including one behind the Drury Inn near 1604 and I-10.

“The subject matter has to be meaningful to me personally for me to be able to depict it for what it is and to convey why it should be remembered,” she explains. “Many of my students have never even heard of the Old Spanish Trail Highway. I feel it should be remembered. I just got inspired to go for it.”

Embroidering Will Travel
As far as anyone knows, player piano rolls have never been used as ground for visual art before. Gibson’s first task was to find a way to physically stabilize the old paper while maintaining its flexibility. A jazz and blues aficionado, the artist first drew representations of jazz musicians and their instruments. At the time of this writing a couple of those panels were hanging in her studio, designed to depict the history of jazz along vertical lines. A large, remarkable portrait of the young Louis Armstrong, titled Oh, Yeah, was smiling at us from another wall. Jazz is yet another element that fits perfectly into the OST story, as the genre flourished during the 1920s and ‘30s. On another wall stood a very different image, however, showing a large figure of a praying Virgin Mary overseeing the entire OST landscape represented by smaller human figures and the outline of the OST pathway. After drawing her images with color pencils, Gibson embroiders certain parts to give them more presence and texture by guiding her needle through the paper’s existing perforations, turning “musical notes” into “visual music.”

Other themes with ties to the time period, such as Prohibition-era secret partying and romance in The Great Gatsby style, were captured on other panels. What’s additionally interesting about these pieces is that, though some images are drawn on a single paper panel, the Armstrong portrait and the Virgin Mary work encompass multiple parallel panels that retain a measure of free motion even while just hanging on the wall. Intentional or not, it’s a nice touch.

The entire project was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission for the Arts. To expand the impact of the show, a series of special events has been planned throughout November and December and beyond, including player piano demonstrations, period jazz performances, workshops and panel discussions on period themes such as fashion and transportation. “I think holistically about our shows,” said McIntyre, “and this show will reach so many different audiences. It’s a show that has legs.” Indeed. McIntyre is planning to turn Embroidering the Old Spanish Trail into a traveling exhibit that will visit towns and cities along the OST over the next decade.

As for Gibson, who holds art degrees from Arizona State University and UTSA, this is her biggest project so far. Known primarily as a ceramicist, she has had solo shows at the McNay, the Children’s Museum and at the Semmes Library in recent years, but this project is definitely the most challenging. “It’s really exciting for me as an artist. I am learning more with each piece, but I have no clue what people expect to see,” she said with a slightly nervous laugh. To which McIntyre calmly responded: “They will be blown away.”