Third-tmgeneration sculptor Carlos Cortes puts a San Antonio spin on faux bois garden art
DO YOU REMEMBER AS A CHILD being fascinated by familiar things that were a little out of whack? Who could resist a one-inch-tall plastic cola bottle, or a five-foot-long Ticonderoga pencil? Decades ago, Andy Warhol twisted the commonplace into art, but in this age of reality–or at least TV’s version of reality–illusion and allusion may have lost some of their charm. But not for me. I have a passion for certain fakes. 1 am not referring to forgeries or photocopies, but artistic interpretations of nature crafted with great skill to glorify their inspiration. A case in point: concrete faux bois (French for false wood).
Carving natural-looking “logs” for furniture, sculpture, and even structures has been popular for ages. Antique Asian and European stone pieces still exist. But at the turn of the last century, a real rage began in France for whimsical, romantic pieces of outdoor furniture carved or cast in a novel material: concrete.
In 1824, an Englishman, Joseph Adspin, rediscovered, or re-invented, cement (which the Egyptians had used as early as 2500 BCE). He superheated pulverized chalk (what we Yanks call limestone) and a few other ingredients to temperatures over 1300oF. The result was ground into a fine powder, which, when moistened, hardened into a stonelike product that Adspin named Portland cement, for its resemblance to the limestone of his hometown.
Adding an aggregate, such as sand or gravel, to cement creates concrete. In 1867, Joseph Monier of France was granted a patent for his invention of reinforced concrete (concrete strengthened by an imbedded metal). A gardener, Monier crafted flowerpots by pressing cement over welded steel bars and wire mesh–just as faux bois artists do today, as the art enters into a serious revival. My own desire to possess some of these exquisite pieces–antique, sculpted by American artists, or newly made and imported from Asia–is tempered by the unfortunate reality of my bank account. But that hasn’t dampened my fascination. (I’ve also tried making my own; see “Faux Bois First Hand,” page 63.)
TEX-MEX FAUX BOIS
While researching faux bois, I learned of a group of Mexican artists who made what they called trabajo rustico, rustic or rough work. Some of these men traveled to San Antonio in the 1920s and settled there. When I was invited to speak at the San Antonio Botanical Garden a few years ago, I took some time to scour the area for any pieces that might still exist. I discovered that Carlos Cortes, the son of one of these men, was restoring local works and making new ones. His father, Maximo Cortes, assisted his own uncle, Dionicio Rodriguez, the greatest trabajo rustico artist of all time.
For 25 years, Dionicio Rodriguez created works around San Antonio, in Michigan (for clients who summered there), and in a few other places in the United States. Most of the works that survive are municipal installations in parks and zoos. The National Register of Historic Places lists 17 of the Rodriguez pieces.
I was a bit surprised to find that the local citizens I met, with a few exceptions, did not recognize or care about these unique constructions. I photographed as many as I could find with the help of friends who live in the area and included the slides in my talk.
A WALKING TOUR
I’ve since found out I’m not alone, after all, in finding the work of Rodriguez and Cortes interesting–last summer, an exhibit was mounted at the botanical garden, and I received a note saying it was in part a result of my presentation. The show is over, but maps were prepared for walking tours past some of the two dozen works still found around the city. Carlos Cortes is in the process of restoring some of the pieces.
There is a bus stop shelter at the northwest corner of Broadway Street and Patterson Avenue that still stands (others have been torn down). In Brackenridge Park, there are benches and a picnic table covered by a thatched umbrella-like roof, or palapa. There is a large gate s leading to the Chinese Tea Garden, and a half dozen other features. But r the most ambitious and remarkable Rodriguez/Cortes work is the lovingly restored 100-foot-long bridge spanning a stream in Brackenridge p Park. You have to touch it to believe it is not made of wood. Every post and beam is unique. There are saw marks and worm holes. The floor, made of faux bois planks, is smooth and beveled–faux worn from years of imaginary foot traffic. The name Rodriguez can be found // Cetti carved into one of the “trunks.”
No one knows exactly how Rodriguez developed his interest or his techniques, but the family believes he might have been taught by a European artisan. He was born in 1891 in Toluca, near Mexico City. By the early 1920s, he was creating faux concrete rocks for a Mexico City park. He emigrated to San Antonio shortly thereafter and was later joined by his nephew. Rodriguez died in 1955. Maximo Cortes died in 1997, at the age of 93, leaving his son, Carlos, to carry on the tradition and techniques.
The San Antonio pieces are all subtly colored, carved, and smoothed to suggest years of wear and handling. The pigments were mixed of mineral dyes and salts, and they retain their color today. Carlos Cortes knows how some of these colors were made and applied, but he keeps the recipes as secret as they’ve always been.
Today, Cortes makes a welded rebar armature covered with wire mesh. He pushes concrete made of cement and sand, much like commercial mortar mix, into the wire. After the concrete has hardened (not dried–concrete hardens, through a chemical reaction with water), he trowels on another layer, as though generously icing a cake. When this layer is set and firm but not rock hard, it is carved with a variety of masonry and homemade tools, including bits of rakes, combs, forks, and spoons.
The modern pieces have delicate proportions, and although they survive winters in southern Texas, they would not last long in cold climates where moisture would cause the concrete to crack and crumble. I would advise anyone who acquires a piece to store it in a dry, protected place for winter. But that may not be so easy. A good-sized concrete bench can weigh a ton. H
Faux Bois First Hand
My first attempts at faux bois were flowerpots fashioned over plastic nursery containers, but now I make basketlike frames of galvanized welded wire hardware cloth. I mix cement with sand, milky acrylic liquid, and a concrete admixture for strength and durability, and nylon fibers for reinforcement. (All available from masonry product suppliers.) First I push the concrete onto and through the bottom of the form, inside and out, until the form can no longer be seen. After a few days, when the base is hard enough to not crack, I cover the sides in the same way. I keep the project covered with plastic or a damp cloth during the entire process, which may be a few days or longer, depending on the temperature of the air. It is not a good idea to make concrete when the temperature is below 50oF. Above 75oF, you have to keep the project in the shade, covered, and/or mist it frequently to keep it from drying too fast. The longer concrete stays moist, the harder it will become (Boulder Dam is still hardening).
I’ve painted some of my pots and left others gray, in the French style. Recently, I applied tinted stucco layers, so that when I carved into them, the colors below were revealed.
I should go into the business. But, in reality, the last thing I need is another get-rich-slow scheme. -K.D.