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We all have those buildings or structures that are at the edges of our lives; those special buildings, large & small that we pass by on a daily basis- that if we slowed down and stopped to ponder, they would illicit not only a smile, but so many questions about their histories and the people and stories behind them.

 

For me, that structure would have to be the old trolley stop just down the street from my home. I pass by it every time I go to the grocery store, to pick up my cleaning, or to go to my favorite lunch spot. The trolley stop on Broadway (what used to be called River Road) is a set of two huge gnarled oak tree trunks, branches outstretched to support a palm frond palapas roof; the benches of large split trunks with a crazed grain and large gnarly knots. Now a bus stop, it always has a passenger or two sitting under its shade.

Broadway bus stop, Faux Bois (Trabajo rustico),San Antonio

Broadway trolley stop

The structure, being from the 1920’s, is not of real wood of course, but of a concrete craft technique known by its French name, Faux Bois. Faux Bois, or “false wood”, was a technique used in Europe for centuries and eventually brought to Mexico as trabajo rustico.

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Palapa-covered fountain, San Antonio. Photo: Bob Parvin

On my way to meet friends at a restaurant in South San Antonio I notice the gates of what appears to be a junkyard open. Inside, I find Carlos Cortes hard at work. What at first, from the street appears to be junk, is a half-acre of concrete objects, discards and rusted steel skeletons.  Off in a far corner by himself, I find Carlos with an old toothbrush, bent table fork and palette knife in hand carefully etching the wet concrete spire of a birdhouse.

Carlos, an affable man in his forties, immediately drops what he is doing to chat. He begins with a tour of the grounds filled with abandoned projects of benches, playhouses and bridges, to the 1920’s era of fantasy worlds sculpted in concrete- relics rescued from demolition, to 18th C Spanish horse troughs of ancient weathered wood that serve as models for his work.

Carlos isn’t just another artist trying to emulate the work of the Faux Bois masters of the 20’s responsible for the many famous San Antonio landmarks like the Trolley Stop, the Japanese Tea Garden Gates, or the Bridges of Brackenridge Park, but the son and great-nephew of the duo that put San Antonio Faux Bois (Trabajo Rustico) on the map.

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(LEFT) Dionicio Rodriguez, ca. 1916  (RIGHT) Dionicio Rodriguez with Maximo Cortes on Houston Street, San Antonio, ca.1940

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Japanese Tea Garden

Brackenridge Park

Carlos proudly shows us the pieces he has rescued over the years that were built by his forefathers; benches, tables and chairs that look as though they were hewn from giant logs. He proudly points to his lineage as a 6th generation San Antonian, “I’m not certain if we were related to the original Canary Islander Colonists, but we were here when they were.” Carlos explains how his great uncle, and father, forged an art in San Antonio that would take their craft to distant places around the country and eventually make them famous.

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Rodriguez at Cedar Hill Cemetery, ca. 1937, Courtesy of Manuela Vargas Theall

A book published in 2008 by Patsy Pittman Light, “Capturing Nature” illustrates the Duo, Maximo Cortes and Dionicio Rodriquez  and the art that brought with them from Mexico and San Antonio to places like Arkansas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Memphis & Detroit.

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Old Mill, T.R. Pugh Memorial Park, North Little Rock, Arkansas. Photo: Myssie Light Acomb

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Bridge of a fallen black locust tree with canopy of entwined branches, Old Mill, North Little Rock, Arkansas. Photo: Myssie Light Acomb

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Carlos now works alone, since nobody has the patience to apprentice long enough to truly know the craft as his forefather’s did. Yet, Carlos continues the art in a loving way as only a dedicated son could, continuing to build new fantasy worlds, like his River Walk Grotto and Witte Tree House among other wondrous structures from sculpted concrete.

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River Walk Grotto

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Witte Tree House

When pointing to the table in the corner ready to ship to Carmel, California, I ask how they heard of his work, Carlos sheepishly relinquishes, “Oh, they heard of me through my client, Martha Stewart.”