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 Texas : Features : Columns : 15 Minutes of Separation

Mr. Guevara’s Neighborhood

Arts Flourish in Midday San Antonio

The original plan was to be the delivery of a few dogs to the vet (to say nothing of the cat.) But nothing goes according to plan when you’re in “Mr. Guevara’s Neighborhood.”

Stepping over the threshold of artist Jacinto Guevara’s house is stepping into a timeless world. Bohemia without the alcohol. The rich colors of a South American county without the loud music. A monastery with (hungry) animals.

Black and White on Lime Green
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Works in progress and works long out of progress decorate the walls. The kitchen table displays a brightly colored architectural study while a svelte pale lemon papier-mâché Anna Mae Wong (last seen in the rear room) has made her way to the front salon.

Anna Mae Wong (pursued by Douglas Fairbanks)
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Flat-fingered half-Mariachi and half cabaret-musician figures occupy the music room where an accordion and banjo sit ready – in case the muse of music strikes without warning.

The animals were gathered and the trip begun, the patients remarkably patient and tranquil. Later, after the return home, the human members of the party left for a restaurant. By chance, the car is stopped by a red light next to the parking lot of another restaurant and it’s one that Jacinto vouches for. The “party of two” enters.

The rush is over and the rear of the restaurant is sought to avoid the television and juke box. The place appears overstaffed, but all of the servers are animated and busy despite the lack of customers. In the time it takes to look up the spelling of guacamole we’re greeted, watered, and salsa and chipped.

The conversation up until this point had been memory, the fathomless depths of the human mind and the rental of medical equipment to Hollywood movie companies.

Enter Carlos Cortés, an artisan in the rather unusual medium of cement. Jacinto and Calos have worked together on occasion, and an introduction is made and the party of two becomes three.

The Quiet Invitation to Observe
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Growth Rings with Gloss
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It happens that cement works is an art form that has a substantial history in San Antonio – one that has won acceptance through longevity (three generations) and San Antonians’ appreciation of functional art.

Cortés had recently returned from Europe where he toured the three dimensional art of Spain, France, Italy and Switzerland. He reported the high point of his trip being Lucerne’s famous dying lion, carved into the side of a limestone mountain.

The Lion of Lucerne

The figure, which symbolizes the sacrifice make by the Swiss guards protecting France’s monarchy in 1872, has been described as one of the most poignant memorials in the world. The design and completion of the statue is a story in itself.

After a three-way conversation that covered Art, Mexico, the facial structure of the waitress, and Cortes’ various works in progress (including a repair job on his father’s 1927 bus bench on Broadway, we left with an invitation to meet him later at his open-air studio.

The Shelter in Use
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The Melding of Supports and Roof
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Sanblasted History
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On the way there we passed one of his 2004 designs – a bench (shown above in use) on an otherwise unusable triangle of real estate on La Vaca Street. The sheltered bench dominates the landscaped triangle, but upon close examination, both the structure and the land are an interwoven memorial to the neighborhood.

The sidewalks have been sandblasted with quotations of former residents – describing their love of place. The area between the bench and sidewalk has been covered with a complementary set of tiles, tinted with soft pastels and containing leaf skeletons and other organic designs – giving the space an autumn feeling no matter what the season.

Tile Detail
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Backrest Detail
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The Former Pig Stand Piglet
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It was only a few blocks to the studio, hidden in plain sight on street – across from the old Pig Stand pig – another project that Cortés worked on restoring. Production was at full tilt – a relaxed but constant application of wet cement slush on three pieces by three apprentices. A radio provided music and the three craftsmen-in-the making were too devoted to their work to conspire in conversation. From time to time Cortés would comb his tool through the setting cement – a process something like a baker brushing butter on a pastry. Cortes’ controlled slow-motion swipe with his tool effortlessly created a rough faux-cottonwood bark.

Works in Progress
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Carlos Cortes
Carrying On a Family Tradition
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Carlos has kept a sharp eye on the changing landscape of San Antonio, over the years, buying back work of his father or great uncle – or other artists of the craft. Sometimes they are a bargain and other times they’re frightfully expensive. But if they’re imprinted with a name or date, they are, as the television ad says, priceless.

"The Quality Goes in Before the Date Goes On."
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In the wide-open yard, flamingos with exposed rebar vertebrae stand beside other classics of the “golden age.” The serape-clad unknown peon, donkeys with the simple lines of Chinese terra cotta horses and sundials, fountains and deer that en masse demand recognition.

Green lichen makes headway on a sunflower tabletop and neighborhood grackles drink from the fountains like it’s happy hour. Decapitated cherubs sit above copper dragons and a wedding couple of calaveras seem happier than a lot of living newlyweds.

Concrete Daisy with Lichen
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Part of the Cortes Collection
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Skull and Angel Statue
Cherub with Death's Head
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The yard’s denizens are durable, but crumbling and Carlos appreciates the decay. Since construction requires many layers (and reinforcement when the sculpture serves as a planter), it’s an education to observe the slow un-layering process as well as the exposure of stress points and the ravages of time. Think of it as a body farm for cement life forms or a garden of wabi-sabi.

Cortés’ art is the destination where this art form was headed, although no one could’ve anticipated the detail that would evolve in time. The joints, wood grain, growth rings and even the roofs reveal the professional insight of sawyers or thatchers.

If you see the individual pieces of the museum as something that your homeowner’s association would never approve of, you’re missing the point. Remember they’re antiques from a pre-air-conditioned era when people walked outside to cool off alongside their concrete deer. They may have brought joy to your grandparents or introduced nature to generations of toddlers.

Concrete Escargot on an Imported French Piece
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A Copper Dragon
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The Traditional Burro Yard Ornament - Rescued from Oblivion
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If you spot any benches, by Carlos, please stop and inspect them. Sit down and glide your hands over their cool smoothness without fear of splinters. If a bus pulls up and you don’t get on - the driver will understand.

Brand Loyalty
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Samples of Cortés’ individual pieces can be seen on his website www.studiocortes.com. Since each piece is designed separately, it’s worth a visit to see each piece in the places they were designed to complement.

"15 Minutes of Separation"
- October 9, 2009 Column
Copyright John Troesser
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