The legacy of Dr. Aureliano Urrutia extends far beyond the boundaries of Miraflores, his once-private 1920s sculpture garden now part of Brackenridge Park. Urrutia, a noted Mexican surgeon who relocated to San Antonio during the Mexican Revolution, brought along with him an artist whose name resounds throughout San Antonio’s past and present: Dionicio Rodríguez.

Rodríguez is known locally for an extensive legacy of faux bois artworks — the term means “imitation wood,” though Rodriguez preferred the broader term “trabajo rústico,” meaning “rustic work” — stationed throughout the city, from a footbridge in Brackenridge Park and a Broadway Street bus stop to a fanciful fence around what was once the Alamo Cement Company that long ago supplied the artist with his signature material.

Rodríguez’s legacy also extends to other artists and artisans, some well known, such as his colleague Máximo Cortés, and Máximo’s son Carlos Cortés and many others unknown, throughout the city, state, and in several states beyond Texas borders.

Authors Patsy Pittman Light and Kent Rush track Rodriguez’s significant influence in a new volume, Artisans of Trabajo Rústico: The Legacy of Dionicio Rodríguez, published last November by Texas A&M University Press. The book follows Light’s 2008 book Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodríguez.

Streetcar 245 at the waiting station designed by Dionicio Rodríquez, on Broadway at Patterson Avenue, in Alamo Heights, 1929.
Streetcar 245 at the waiting station designed by Dionicio Rodríquez on Broadway at Patterson Avenue in Alamo Heights, 1929. Credit: Courtesy/ UTSA Special Collections

While Rodríguez and Cortés are the most prominent artisans of trabajo rústico in and around San Antonio, Light and Rush explore existing works by a gallery of artisans including Basilio Aguilar, Antonio Lopez, Sam Murray, Frank Ramos, Rene Romero, Dionicio Rosales, and Beatrice and Pedro Ximénez. Carlos Cortés, who operates Studio Cortés in the King William neighborhood, remains prominent in San Antonio, with perhaps his grandest work represented in the elaborate River Walk grotto on the Museum Reach.

Winning recognition

Light traces the emergence of faux bois from its origins in mid-1800s France, through its use by noted Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, its appearance later in Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Panama, Mexico, and then San Antonio with the arrival of Mexican emigres Rodríguez and Cortés. Examples of the work can be found throughout Texas and in other states including Michigan, Maryland, Tennessee, and most notably Arkansas, where Rodríguez was recognized in the early 1980s as a “Mexican-American folk sculptor.”

In 1984, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program won National Register of Historic Places recognition for Rodríguez’s sculptures in the state, mostly in Little Rock and Hot Springs.

Light achieved the same result for his Texas sculptures in 2004, but works by Rodríguez in Beaumont, Corpus Christi, and near Floresville had already been destroyed, evidence that recognition for the artistic value of trabajo rústico sculptures was much harder won in Texas.

Patsy Pittman Light stands underneath the gates to the Japanese Tea Gardens, by Dionicio Rodriguez, then named the 'Chinese Tea Gardens.'
Patsy Pittman Light stands underneath the gates to the Japanese Tea Gardens, by Dionicio Rodriguez, then named the Chinese Tea Gardens. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Light said during her research in the early 2000s, she found that in San Antonio Rodríguez’s work was neglected or largely dismissed as being made by “some little Mexican man,” or at best as “a man named Rodríguez about 1930” in the inventory of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, where the artist made several works that still exist. And when the University of the Incarnate Word acquired the Miraflores property in 2001 it planned to raze the grounds — which hold several works by Rodriguez — to build a parking lot. That effort was halted when the property was transferred to the City of San Antonio two years later.

Mary King, board president of the Castroville Conservation Society and a member of the Medina County Historical Commission, is working to help win the county’s recognition for the Rodríguez grotto on the grounds of the Moye Retreat Center, in the care of the Sisters of Divine Providence. The grotto is unusual because Rodríguez used Edwards Plateau honeycomb limestone to construct it, similar to his elaborate grotto and stations of the cross at the St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church in northeast San Antonio, but few other such examples exist.

If King and cohort are successful at achieving Medina County recognition, a historical plaque will be mounted at the site sometime in 2023.

Denicio Rodriguez created this faux bois rotunda at Ida Claire.
Denicio Rodriguez created this faux bois rotunda at Ida Claire. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

A fragile existence

However, the National Register of Historic Places designation applies only to Rodríguez’s work, and a recent incident involving a large round planter signed by Máximo Cortés near the Moye Center highlights the fragility of other examples of this folk art tradition.

In her 2008 volume on Rodríguez, Light mentions the planter and suggests that as a frequent collaborator with Rodríguez, Cortés might have helped build the Castroville grotto. However, the planter no longer exists, destroyed in January by a business owner who replaced it with a parking lot.

Castroville Conservation Society member Meg Conner had taken photographs of the planter in September as part of her effort to win recognition for Rodriguez’s work and examples of trabajo rústico in Castroville. Conner lamented the loss of the piece. “I thought it was something we should protect and preserve,” just like the grotto, she said.

King said she’s known of the piece since moving to Castroville in 2008, but she assumes that like many residents, she didn’t realize its historical significance.

“That’s why we probably need to make people more aware of what’s here around town that is of historical significance, that people would appreciate. And unfortunately, that piece is gone now,” she said.

The planter that once existed along Highway 90 in Castroville signed by Máximo Cortés,
The planter that once existed along Highway 90 in Castroville signed by Máximo Cortés, Credit: Courtesy / Meg Conner

For now, Light and Rush’s book stands as a testament to the prevalence of the trabajo rústico folk art tradition and its local origins, and the two books together serve as a guide to those interested in seeing existing works in person.

Aside from the Torii Gate of the Japanese Tea Garden, perhaps the finest example for an up-close view of Rodríguez’s work is at the Ida Claire restaurant just north of the Quarry Market. The restaurant occupies what was once the Alamo Cement Company’s main office, and its elaborate fence still survives, as does an elaborate, faux-palapa roofed fountain.

The restaurant’s website mentions the “timeless charm of Southern hospitality,” but does not name Rodríguez. Diners armed with Light’s and Rush’s knowledge will appreciate what she called “the multitude and variety of textures and surfaces” that “pique our attention and keep us fascinated with the knowledge, skill, and creativity of the artisan.”

Both Artisans of Trabajo Rústico: The Legacy of Dionicio Rodríguez and Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodríguez are available at local bookstores (here and here) and through Texas A&M Press.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...