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San Antonio artists transform I-35 highway underpass into magical world of light

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San Antonio underpass
The Ballroom Luminoso installation is located under I-35 between Theo and Malone avenues in San Antonio. Public Art San Antonio and the Department for Culture and Creative Development
San Antonio underpass Ballroom Luminoso
Ballroom Luminoso comprises a series of six brilliantly lit, color-changing chandeliers. Public Art San Antonio and the Department for Culture and Creative Development
San Antonio underpass Ballroom Luminoso
The chandeliers are made from bicycle parts, an ode to San Antonio's burgeoning bike culture. Public Art San Antonio and the Department for Culture and Creative Development
San Antonio underpass Ballroom Luminoso
San Antonio's rich Hispanic heritage is also honored. Public Art San Antonio and the Department for Culture and Creative Development
San Antonio underpass Ballroom Luminoso
The custom-designed chandeliers are lit with LED lights. Public Art San Antonio and the Department for Culture and Creative Development
San Antonio underpass
San Antonio underpass Ballroom Luminoso
San Antonio underpass Ballroom Luminoso
San Antonio underpass Ballroom Luminoso
San Antonio underpass Ballroom Luminoso

In San Antonio, the I-35 freeway underpass between Theo and Malone Avenues was your typical dark, forgotten space. But artists Joe O'Connell and Blessing Hancock envisioned something far grander for the a muddy patch of earth sandwiched between a Taco Cabana and a Shell station: a world of light and community.

The duo, who together make up JB Public Art, are calling the installation Ballroom Luminoso. The installation features six brilliantly lit, color-changing chandeliers made from  recycled bicycle parts and sprockets — an ode to San Antonio's growing bike scene. The images in the intricately detailed medallions draw on the community’s agricultural history, strong Latino heritage and burgeoning environmental movement. Drawing from the formal elegance of the freeway underpass and the cultural currents of the surrounding neighborhoods, the piece transforms a forgotten space into one that connects the community.

 The images in the intricately detailed medallions draw on the community’s agricultural history, strong Hispanic heritage, and burgeoning environmental movement. 

O'Connell and Hancock have created a magical space, a majestic ballroom-cum-shadow theater of grandeur, with the custom-designed LED lit chandeliers casting sharply detailed shadows, painting the underpass with complex color patterns and ethereal lighting.

The site was chosen by Public Art San Antonio (PASA), Department for Culture and Creative Development, who put out a call to artists to create an artwork for that specific location. "The goal was to bring art to the city's south side as a means of enlivening the area for current residents and encouraging cultural diffusion beyond the city center," says O'Connell. "Our artwork is part of a larger influx of local funding."

O'Connell adds that he and Hancock really believe in the transformative power of public art, particularly in the way that light and projection can enliven otherwise dead spaces. The Ballroom Luminoso concept began with extensive research into the cultural and social threads that run through the neighborhood.

"We didn't want to represent the city as a whole, but we tried to delve into the specific neighborhoods surrounding Theo and Malone Avenues. We were interested in the roots of the area as a haven for moderate income families and the strong Hispanic heritage. Finally, we wanted to connect the piece with the nearby eco-restoration and recreation projects along the San Antonio River."

Ballroom Luminoso is the artists' attempt to span these histories and project an aspirational picture of the neighborhood's future. "It's a piece about rejuvenation and reinvention," O'Connell says. "Ballroom dancing is also something that crosses cultures. When we first saw the underpass, we were drawn to its formal elegance and clean lines. It possessed a certain dignity and rhythm of its own that we tried to call attention to with the chandeliers. We wanted to turn a forgotten underpass into a elegant ballroom."

O'Connell and Hancock's goal as artists is to create new ways to live with art, including ways in which art solves problems, enriches the human experience and creates an atmosphere of participation, curiosity and communal connection. With Ballroom Luminoso the challenge was to achieve all these goals with a very modest budget and an atypical location.

The response has been extremely positive, the artists report. "The neighborhood was ripe for capital improvements and was very appreciative of the inclusive of art outside of downtown tourist-centric San Antonio," says O'Connell. "We heard a lot of comments like 'It’s about time' or 'Finally, there is art for another part of the city.' It was a great opportunity to work on this site, and this piece reflects our ideological desire to bring art to spaces and people who traditionally have not had public art."

Ballroom Luminoso was the first project in a series to be completed as part of the 2012-2017 Bond Program, and won a SXSW Eco Place By Design Transformative Design Award.

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