Web Extra: In the Grotto, Concrete Artist Carlos Cortes
When San Antonio concrete artisan Carlos Cortes was a child, he often assisted his father, Maximo Cortes, as he created his signature faux bois (false wood) structures from concrete. The senior Cortes had learned his craft from master concrete artist Dionico Rodriguez, who had brought his highly secretive technique from Mexico to Texas in the 1920s (and would eventually marry into the Cortes family). Rodriguez called his work—fashioning concrete structures that look uncannily like wood—trabajo rustico, or “rustic work.” Cortes and Rodriguez worked together on many structures throughout San Antonio, including bridges and palapas in Brackenridge Park.
The younger Cortes was in his twenties before he realized he was destined to pursue trabajo rustico himself.
My father died in 1997,” says Cortes, “but he got to see me do the faux bois tree at the San Antonio Children’s Museum.” That year, Cortes went on to create a four-stor, faux bois “tree” at he Witte Museum near Brackenridge Park. Known as the H-E-B Science Treehouse, Cortes’ creation overlooks the San Antonio River and provides kids multiple opportunities to learn about science and nature.
Cortes’ latest faux bois vision—a 180-foot grotto along San Antonio’s new River Walk extension—features such elements as a waterfall, a bench inside the largest cavern, and re-created tree roots coming through the ceiling. “It looks like a natural cave, “ says Cortes, “with stalactites and sedimentary deposits of minerals, but it also looks very whimsical, with a tall pinnacle towards the center. I’ve also created a sculpture of Father Nature, with hundreds of seashells creating his facial features. I use shells to symbolize that this part of Texas used to be part of the ocean. And I love doing benches. I’m interested in doing work that is functional.”
Like his father and great-uncle, Cortes uses simple, handmade tools to replicate wood grain and create other organic effects. “We might use a fork with bent tines, or use a trowel made of a wide comb,” he says. “And when the concrete is cured, we stain it using natural mineral salts.”
“When I was a kid,” Cortes continues, “helping my dad clean the tools…helping out however he needed me… was mostly a chore. My dad was older than my friends’ fathers. He was 54 when I was born. I would rather have been out playing. But now, I’m glad that I was there and can carry on the family legacy.”
— Lori Moffatt
From the June 2012 issue.
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