Looking Up at Laguna Gloria and Austin City Hall

Last Saturday, a chilly, blustery day under a brilliant cobalt-blue sky, my dad and I attended two docent-led tours about the landscape architecture at cultural sites in Austin: one at Laguna Gloria, the other at Austin City Hall. Led by landscape architects who’ve restored or designed these public spaces, the tours were hosted by the Cultural Landscape Foundation for its November 21-22 What’s Out There Weekend Austin. A total of 27 such tours were offered, free of charge, at sites all over the city, and they were so educational I wish I could have attended more.

I’ve been to both Laguna Gloria and City Hall many times, but it was interesting to hear the landscape architects involved with these projects talk about their design decisions and the history of each site. I didn’t take pictures during the tours, but I snapped a few beforehand. This giant, silver man, who looks like he’s made of aluminum foil, is a sculpture by Tom Friedman called Looking Up.

Molded out of styrofoam and pressed aluminum turkey-roasting pans, and then converted into stainless steel, Looking Up stands 33 feet tall…

…vying with nearby palm trees for vertical dominance on the lawn in front of the historic Driscoll House. Here it is with Dad, for scale.

The Driscoll House — the 1916 Italianate home of philanthropist Clara Driscoll, “Savior of the Alamo” — is today part of The Contemporary Austin (an art museum) and is the location of The Art School, which offers classes year-round in studios located on the lakeside grounds.

While the Italian-style gardens of Laguna Gloria emphasize vertical lines, like these palms…

…the contemporary design of Austin City Hall emphasizes horizontal lines. Carolyn Kelley and Eleanor McKinney, the landscape architects who designed the plaza and green-roof gardens of City Hall, led the tour, sharing that the building’s angled horizontal planes represent the ancient Balcones Fault that divides Austin’s natural landscape between blackland prairie to the east and rocky hills to the west.

The plant choices riff on this theme too, with Hill Country plants on the west side of the building, post oak savannah plants on the east, and prairie plants on the north. This raised bed, which faces south, is planted with Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and golden thryallis (Galphimia gracilis).

Austin’s an interesting city, and I enjoy learning more about it through tours like these. Fellow Austinites, did you partake of any of the Cultural Landscape Foundation tours last weekend? You can also read about cultural sites here and in other cities on the What’s Out There webpage.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Flower-adorned skeletons at Dia de los Muertos parade

Today is the final day of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a 3-day Mexican holiday that’s celebrated here in Austin too. My daughter and I attended the Day of the Dead parade in downtown Austin on Saturday, part of the 32nd annual Viva la Vida Festival, and we enjoyed the beautiful costumes of the participants and many of the spectators as well. This trio, with Marie Antoinette-style, cotton-candy-colored hair, may have been my favorites.

The painted-on skeleton faces are not meant to be scary, as in the Halloween tradition. Rather they symbolize our connection with loved ones who’ve passed away. These women carried bouquets of flowers, and in fact flowers and skulls are a common theme in Dia de los Muertos decor and costumes, although traditionally the flowers are marigolds.

This little girl standing beside us along the parade route wore blue flowers. Even her skeleton eyes had been painted with blue petals.

Another little girl wore a pink flower in her hair.

The skull-and-flower shirts of this couple caught my eye as we waited for the parade to arrive.

And here they came. We’d staked out a spot along 6th Street across from the historic Driskill Hotel. The enthusiastic spectators, while plentiful, were not overcrowded. It felt wonderfully small-town, as Austin sometimes still does.

I’m sure there’s much about the symbolism that’s lost on me, since I didn’t grow up with this tradition. Is this a traditional family with deceased mamá, reunited on this day? Update: My thanks to Luisa (see her comment for more) for her insightful explanation that this is a Diego Rivera mural brought to life: “You can find the group in the center of this famous mural, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park (Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central) by Diego Rivera. You see the Catrina in the center, with the feathered serpent of Aztec mythology around her shoulders. She is arm in arm with her creator, the great printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, who popularized calaveras in his work at the turn of the last century. Holding her other hand is the artist Diego Rivera as a child, and behind him, with her hand on young Diego’s shoulder, is Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife and a great artist in her own right.”

This woman came dancing down the street in a black dress adorned with tiers of flowery tulle.

So festive!

A car-sized skull with crepe-paper flowers appeared next, powered not by gasoline but by people underneath pushing a wheeled platform.

Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Latin America, as these Peruvian dancers illustrated. Notice the flowery vests and skirts.


Colorfully dressed women from Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico, danced with pineapples on their shoulders.

Ribbons braided into their hair added extra color.

Aztec dancers came next, the men with painted bodies, fantastic feathered headdresses, and rattling seedpods around their ankles.

Their faces were painted as skeletons or half-skeletons.

Some wore taxidermy animal heads in their feathered headgear, like this coyote…

…or animal skulls.

With metallic accents jangling on their dresses, women Aztec dancers followed, dashing down the street…

…anklet seedpods rattling…

…leaping and stopping short. It was a dramatic dance.

Other paraders were content to merely stroll, he in a top hat, she with marigolds in her hair.

More marigolds adorned a life-size Frida Kahlo made of papier-mâché.

Larger-than-life papier-mâché figures of Mexican heroes came rolling down the street: another Frida, Pancho Villa, and a blue-suited military figure (who does it represent?).

Pancho’s in the middle, but I don’t know the other two.

These lacy costumes were lovely. Red netting lightly veiled the women’s skeleton faces.

More flower-painted eyes

He had a great costume…

…and some playful dance moves.

More lively skeletons

Dapper too

Accompanied by the percussion of a samba beat, dancers in white came stepping down the street, led by a joyful woman in a turban.

She looked blissed out.

The samba dancers, their faces painted like skeletons, made the parade feel like a party.

Joyful smiles and flowers in their hair

I was looking for my friend Lee Clippard of The Grackle blog, who I knew would be drumming with Austin Samba. It’s hard to miss Lee because he’s tall enough to stand out in a crowd.

We saw him leading the drummers down 6th Street…

…and followed them around the corner to Congress Avenue, where they really knocked out that samba beat. The tall skeleton at back, third from the right, is my kids’ former math teacher, Mr. Mark Hathaway!

This woman had an incredible costume with a bit of skull-and-crossbones flair.

And who wouldn’t want to be a magical unicorn skeleton, just for one day?

As the parade ended, we stopped to look at the giant papier-mâché puppets up close.

They are very tall.

This skeleton riding a skeleton horse was decked out in paper marigolds.

Others were checking out the props too, like this huge skull.

A cute Bat Dog

A handsome couple

Frida and flowers

The Dia de los Muertos parade is one of my favorite annual events in Austin. Maybe next year I’ll go in costume myself.

Painted skulls on the wall of the Mexic-Arte Museum, which sponsors the parade

This mural is a classic.

Happy Dia de los Muertos! If you’d like to see additional posts I’ve written about Austin’s Day of the Dead parade, click these links:
Skeletons on parade: Day of the Dead 2010
Dia de los Muertos in Austin, 2008

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

October evening stroll on South Congress Avenue

I had dinner on Austin’s iconic South Congress Avenue on Wednesday evening and afterward took a leisurely stroll to people-watch and window-shop. Honky-tonk music from Guero’s Oak Garden filled the cool evening air, people were smiling, and the street had a festive yet laid-back vibe that made me fall in love with Austin all over again.

Tesoros had closed for the day…

…but Dia de los Muertos skeletons were having a party in the shop window. A bony fellow played the guitar while a skinny gal in a red dress danced and a skeleton cherub hovered overhead.

Colorfully painted skulls with flower eyes and leafy adornment illustrate the celebratory nature of Dia de los Muertos, so unlike Halloween’s horror of death.

Speaking of Halloween, costume shop Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds was doing a brisk business.

In a nearby clothing shop, I spotted this hilarious t-shirt…

…and crayon-bright dino planters filled with succulents — fun!

Outside, super-sized succulents — agaves and yuccas — grow in street planters.

Live oaks offer shade to strolling tourists and locals, as always a mix of hipsters, cowboys, students, hippies, and techies. Look all the way down the street and squint, and you’ll see the buildings of downtown and the Texas Capitol building.

Guero’s Oak Garden was pulling people in with cold beer, tacos, and live music by Ted Roddy.

Listeners sit on wooden benches beneath live oaks, with string lights glowing overhead. Notice the Austin City Lemons parking sign. Yes, that is a lemon-shaped food truck at the left.

This guy on a horse — a regular on South Congress — was parked nearby, checking it all out.

Speaking of cowboys, Allens Boots is the place to get your boots. As I walked by the closed-up shop, I wondered about the pair of boots sitting out on the sidewalk.

From old Austin to new Austin — the South Congress Hotel, a hip new boutique hotel, is open for business where the food-trailer park used to be.

Its landscaping caught my eye, like this horizontal rebar trellis and Corten planter at the entrance. The friendly valets invited me to have a look at the hotel lobby and bar, which I did. It was the definition of Austin cool, and I plan to go back and get pictures of its courtyard garden sometime.

Along the street frontage, white-trunked Texas persimmons grow amid concrete strips, which remind me somewhat of a High Line detail. Christine Ten Eyck, Austin’s premiere landscape architect of sustainable gardens, did the design.

And check out this shaggy vertical planting of Texas-tough groundcovers like Mexican feathergrass, firecracker fern, and purple heart! Sorry for the poor quality of the photo; I only had my cell phone, and it was dark.

I’ll have to go back and see this in the daytime. I’m also curious to see how it holds up long-term, especially during the summer.

Although displaced by South Congress Hotel’s construction, Hey Cupcake! has set up a sweet little trailer park of its own just down the street.

And that’s my snapshot of SoCo, on the eve of Halloween 2015. Old and new, it still has plenty of charm. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the 6-minute documentary about neon sign artist Evan Voyles, who makes all these iconic signs, you’ll enjoy this little slice of Austin charm.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.