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A decapitated head has been watching a deer graze for at least four months.
This may have been going on for 25 years, but four months is how long I’ve lived down the street from Studio Cortes. From here, I’m able to maintain visual contact with the Virgins Mary, the gluttonous squirrels, the park benches and mini-Mission replicas that clutter the yard. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked by the studio’s sculpture garden and wanted to ask them if I could take pictures … and how much they’re asking for the grazing-deer sculpture.
Every man has his price, but It’s technically not for sale.
Most of the cement sculptures are more than 50 years old, crafted by either Carlos’ father, Maximo Cortes or his great-uncle, Dionicio Rodriguez (1881 -1955). These pieces seem more at home in a museum rather than exposed to the pollution, rain and heat on the corner of Perieda and St. Mary’s.
When I was hired as an intern at the Rivard Report early this summer, I finally had an excuse to roam the yard and talk with Carlos at length about his family’s artwork, which is fairly well-known and scattered throughout Mexico, Arkansas, Texas, much of the US, and Martha Stewart’s home.
What started as a construction skill became art. Rodriguez worked with Carlos’ grandfather at an ornamental architectural shop in Mexico, mostly working on civil projects. They started to experiment with “faux bois,” or imitation wood, in San Antonio in 1924 and trained Carlos’ father, Maximo.
Rodriguez became well-known by creating very large installations (see: the footbridge in Brackenridge Park below) that have tricked many passersby into thinking that his sculptures are made of natural wood.
Though the exact nature of Cortes’ relation to Rodriguez is not certain (Rodriguez is either Cortes’ great uncle by marriage to his Great Grandmother or is a sort of godfather), there is no question that his techniques and knowledge have been passed down through Cortes’ family.
“Even if we’re not (technically) family, we’re considered family,” Cortes said, “I learned from my father, who learned from one of the best.”
Cortes and his assistant, Alejandra Salinas, sit with me at one of several faux bois picnic tables. Their faces are lightly dusted with a white powder, a side effect from working with cement on a hot afternoon. Salinas is studying architecture at San Antonio College (SAC).
“I’m glad that people appreciate the (faux bois) craft,” Salinas said, “Sometimes these things are lost … It’s good to keep the tradition alive.”
Some ingredients have changed since his grandfather’s day and other faux bois artists use additives to their concrete. Cortes says the faux bois sculpting process has remained the same.
A human-sized figure next to Cortes’ tent folds its hands – yet to be defined – behind its head. It’s made of re-barb and metal mesh (lath). It’s this form that will serve as the base structure to a likeness of Jesus. Cement is then poured into and around the lath.
Once the base cement cures and hardens, two or three more layers are added before the detail work is chiseled, sawed and stained (with various mineral salts) to look like real wood.
I’m not skilled enough to pick out subtleties between the artwork of Rodriguez’, Maximo, and Cortes’ – this is mostly due to their similar training lineage.
“It is sort of like a signature, you can recognize details that are specific to the artist,” Cortes said.
For a novice sculpture audience like myself, each artist signs their work literally – though sometimes in hidden places (see Rodriguez’ signature in the slide show gallery below).
While gardening supply stores sell cheap, mass-produced (from a mold) furniture and lawn ornaments, Cortes creates pieces of art that can last for decades.
Despite the recent downturn in the economy, Cortes and Salinas are keeping busy.
“The economy has hit everybody,” Salinas said, “but we always have something to do. The bigger challenge is finding apprentices to carry on the tradition.”
For more information about and maps to Dionicio Rodriguez’ work: