San Marcos art installation honors Indigenous culture and creation story
The San Marcos River has stories to tell. A newly constructed art installation, The Guardians of the San Marcos River, splashes some of those stories across hundreds of colorful hand-painted tiles.
They come together to create a series of mosaics illustrating the five spirit guardians of the San Marcos River and the Coahuiltecan creation story. The works are supported by thick wooden frames that stand permanently at Ramon Lucio Park on the banks of the river.
As the story goes, the spirit guardians, which take the form of animals like a deer and a waterbird, guided the ancestors of the Coahuiltecan people on their journey from the spirit world and into the physical realm through the San Marcos Springs, the headwaters of the river.
When Thomas Rogers, the former lead visual arts teacher at San Marcos High School, first heard this story from Mario Garza, founder of the Indigenous Cultures Institute, he said he knew he wanted to bring the story to life with his students.
"I knew our community would find tremendous joy in a public artwork that celebrates our rich, Indigenous culture, and that it was important to involve our artistic youth in creating this piece," Rogers said in a press release.
Each of the panels were created based off of drawings created by students from San Marcos High School. Rogers hosted a school-wide arts contest, and the San Marcos Arts Commission selected the winners. Rogers took the winning 5-by-9 inch drawings, photographed them and digitally enlarged them to the size of the panels, breaking the larger image up into smaller tiles that make up the mosaic.
A collective of more than 750 students came together to paint each of the many tiles that make up the larger mosaics.
The piece is the city's first public art installation dedicated to the creation story of the Coahuiltecan people. The $8,000 installation was approved by the City Council and several commissions back in 2018. Because of the pandemic, city officials said, work on the tiles, assembly and installation was delayed until this year.
Leela Jackson, a recent graduate of San Marcos High, designed “The Creation Story” panel. She said seeing everyone come together to create such a large work of art based on her drawing was "amazing." Born and raised in San Marcos, she said she had never heard of the story until her involvement with the project.
"It was kind of like eye-opening in a sense, because it was like I had already known my river, and I had been in it and I had seen it all my life," Jackson said at a dedication ceremony for the installation. "But seeing the story of how it became the river of San Marcos, it was really cool."
Many involved with the project hope it will inspire a younger generation to be guardians of the river themselves.
Garza, an elder of a Coahuiltecan tribe called the Miakan-Garza Band, said more young people becoming aware of the story can inspire them to take responsibility.
"Indigenous people believe that we are all connected, and we also believe that we're responsible for taking care of Mother Earth and the environment," Garza said. "And a good example is taking care of the river here, because whatever happens to the river here, whatever we do to the river here, the river is going to flow to another river, to the ocean. ... Whatever we do here is going to affect, you know, the whole world."