Anyone under the tender age of 66 may be oblivious to a downtown artwork considered one of the most influential ever by Juan O’Gorman, a muralist, painter, mosaic artist, professor and architect whose career was spent mostly in Mexico.

In time for the renaissance of Hemisfair Park, local author and world explorer Catherine Nixon Cooke has written a book to awake the slumbering mural – and a public unaware of its importance to art history and to San Antonio’s global role as an example of cultural diversity and expression.

The mural is located on the top, western wall of the Lila Cockrell Theatre, now largely obscured by the construction of Hemisfair’s Civic Park and the Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center’s new parkside entrance. Once completed, the mural will play a much more prominent role in the viewshed from the park and convention center.

“I think the meaning is probably more important now than it ever has been,” Cooke told the Rivard Report. “People are talking about how we’ve just got to find a common ground and be harmonious in the context of the election and the world. And Juan O’Gorman certainly believed in that confluence.”

Beyond the mural’s reflection of our city’s cultural confluence, the book also explores the mural’s creation using mosaics and 12 colors of Mexican rocks, assembly of its 500-plus panels, and the fascinating story of O’Gorman as an artist, architect and child of the Mexican Revolution.

Cooke will discuss these ideas and sign books at The Twig Book Shop on Saturday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

The audience for the book’s message is ripe. When the mural, A Confluence of Civilizations, was unveiled during HemisFair ’68, Henry Cisneros, now 69, was in college, and Lila Cockrell, 94, was a young City councilwoman. Many of the civic leaders who created the fair were in their 30s or 40s and are now deceased. 

“It is going to remain a treasure for the new Hemisfair Park – so it had a wonderful past, but it also has a great future,” Cooke said.

Cisneros wrote a passage for the book’s back cover, but it arrived to late to use:

“The O’Gorman mural captures the essence of how San Antonio has become a model for the nation,” stated Cisneros. “For us the “Confluence of Civilizations” is more than a poetic phrase; here it is a real and functioning ideal.  We are a physical place where European and indigenous cultures met, we are a crucible of converging histories, we are a melding of traditions, and together we comprise a people who live, work, gather, and worship with the conviction that by transcending our differences we create the blessing of an exemplary city.”

A young Juan O'Gorman.
A young Juan O’Gorman. Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University Press

Patsy Steves, widow of HemisFair ’68 President Marshall T. Steves and knowledgeable collector of Mexican art, was the chief force behind inviting the distinguished artist to create an artwork for the fair.  A lifelong friend of Cooke’s mother, Patsy Steves prompted another mutual friend, Flora Cameron Chrichton, to provide funds for its commission. Chrichton, as happens in San Antonio’s close-knit community, is Cooke’s mother-in-law and a philanthropist for many local institutions.

Not long ago, Steves suggested that Cooke write a brochure about O’Gorman’s mural for modern visitors to Hemisfair. As Cooke researched the artwork, she said she realized O’Gorman himself personified its theme of cultural confluence as the son of a Mexican mother and Irish father; however, very little had been written about him. Trinity University Press agreed to the longer project and became publisher.

Catherine Nixon Cooke, Flora Crichton, and O'Gorman's daughter María Elena O’Gorman Carstenson holding a copy of "A Confluence of Civilizations" mural.
Catherine Nixon Cooke, Flora Crichton, and O’Gorman’s daughter María Elena O’Gorman Carstenson holding a copy of “A Confluence of Civilizations” mural. Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University Press
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Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.