Dionicio Rodríguez, artist, son of Catarino Rodríguez and Luz Alegría, was born in Toluca, capital of the state of México, on April 11, 1891. He perfected a secret process in which he carved chemically-treated reinforced concrete so that it looked like wood. He produced a number of major works in San Antonio, including the Brackenridge Park concrete footbridge that simulates an arbor of woven wooden limbs. The fact that he traveled throughout the United States to work on commissions and did not speak English has presented challenges in precisely dating some of his works.
As a boy, Rodríguez moved with his family to Mexico City, and he later helped his father in the construction of brick houses. He also developed skills he later used in his art by working in a foundry and for an artist who produced imitation rocks. In the early 1920s Rodríguez reproduced ruins of ancient buildings in collaboration with Mexican architects and engineers and worked on major projects such as Chapultepec Castle, the presidential residence in Mexico City. He briefly lived in Monterrey before going to Laredo, Texas, where he worked with fellow artisan Maximo Cortés on casting cement embellishments for a school. About 1924 Rodríguez moved to San Antonio to work on the home (named Quinta Urrutia) of Aureliano Urrutia, a prominent physician and surgeon. Rodríguez also did work at Urrutia’s nearby fifteen-acre estate—Miraflores. (Though the home was demolished in 1962, many of Rodríguez’s works at Miraflores survived and were later relocated or donated to various institutions.)
Urrutia most likely introduced Rodríguez to Charles Baumberger, president of the San Antonio Portland Cement Company (now Alamo Cement Company), who became an important patron and commissioned Rodríguez to construct a number of projects in San Antonio. In this capacity, Rodríguez produced the faux bois (“false wood”) bus stop at Broadway and Patterson in Alamo Heights. He created an impressive fence and fish pond eighteen feet in diameter and covered with a concrete roof resembling thatch (or palapa) and surrounded by an arcaded walkway at the site of the new office complex at Alamo Cement Company in Alamo Heights. Several examples of Rodríguez's work extant in Brackenridge Park, including the pedestrian bridge (ca. 1926), were possibly also commissioned by Baumberger. Rodríguez made a canopied table and bench now in Brackenridge Park that were originally installed at Alamo Plaza and numerous smaller pieces such as fountains, benches, tree-stump planters, trash receptacles, and lampposts that are scattered on public and private property throughout San Antonio. Other works by Rodríguez in San Antonio include light poles and benches (ca. 1930) at the Spanish Governor’s Palace and a grotto and Stations of the Cross at the Shrine of St. Anthony de Padua. Other artists worked with Rodríguez during the course of his career, most notably Maximo Cortés, whom Rodríguez encouraged to move to San Antonio, but most art scholars agree that Rodríguez was the “most skilled practitioner” of his craft. He received commissions across the state beginning in the later 1920s and extending into the 1940s, and his work can be found in Comfort, Port Arthur, Beaumont, Houston, Longview, Dallas, Castroville, and other towns.
During the 1930s Rodríguez received commissions to produce his art in other states. He worked for Arkansas developer Justin Matthews and sculpted pieces for three parks in Little Rock. In his most innovative work for Matthews, Rodríguez worked with an architect to design a site to look like an abandoned mill, in which everything but the stone walls of the mill was molded from cement. From 1935 to 1939 he created a dozen works based on literary and Biblical themes for E. Clovis Hinds in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. The most outstanding of these is a massive grotto, the inside of which is studded with crystals and decorated with ten sculpted and painted scenes from the life of Christ. In 1936 and 1937 he created concrete sculptures at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland. Other examples of Rodríguez's work have been found in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Ann Arbor, Michigan; New York City; and Clayton, New Mexico.
Back in San Antonio in 1942, Rodríguez, with Maximo Cortés, completed an entrance gate to the Japanese Tea Garden in Brackenridge Park. Characterized as one of Rodríguez’s “most exuberant works,” the gateway includes the lettering “Entrance to Chinese Tea Garden,” which reflects the anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II.
His inclusion of such painstaking details as insect holes, peeling bark, and broken-off branches in his work, which he called el trabajo rústico (“rustic work”), demonstrates a highly refined aesthetic as well as technical mastery of his medium. He began each piece by fashioning a metal framework, to which he applied cement that had been mixed without sand. He then sculpted the moistened cement with his hands or simple tools such as a fork, knife, spoon, or twig. He stained the cement while it was still wet, using chemicals such as copperas, sulfuric acid, muriatic acid, iron oxide, saltpeter, and lampblack for various tints. Rodríguez never used models or preparatory sketches. Though he trained workers to assist him on his commissions, many of whom have continued to work in his style, he jealously guarded his special techniques, particularly those relating to the tinting process, with the result that none of his assistants has approached his level of craftsmanship.
After 1942 Rodríguez, suffering from diabetes and failing eyesight, limited his travel and output. Limited materials of steel and concrete due to the war effort also curtailed his work, especially for larger projects. For the rest of his life he lived in San Antonio at his “tree” house which he had built as a “shelter being like both a tree and a cave” on Guadalupe Street about 1935. Reportedly he married and divorced twice in his life, but specific information is sketchy. His death certificate lists his marital status as “Widow[ed].” Dionicio Rodríguez died at Robert B. Green Hospital in San Antonio on December 16, 1955, and was buried in San Fernando Cemetery No. 2; he had no immediate survivors.
During the 1980s several scholars became interested in Rodríguez's sculptures, and his pieces in Little Rock were awarded a National Register of Historic Places designation in 1986. His work in Memphis was added to the National Register in 1991. In the early 1990s groups such as the San Antonio Conservation Society began efforts to preserve some of Rodríguez's works. Private individuals purchased the Alamo Cement Company property and in 1995 opened the Stone Werks Caffe and Bar, which featured his work. In 2004 the sculpture by Dionicio Rodríguez in Texas received a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This included the bridge in Brackenridge Park, gate at the Japanese Tea Garden, Stations of the Cross and grotto at the Shrine of St. Anthony de Padua, and other works in San Antonio. Carlos Cortés, son of Maximo Cortés and the great-nephew by marriage to Rodríguez, carried on the tradition of faux bois in San Antonio in the 2010s.
Chris Carson and William B. McDonald, eds., A Guide to San Antonio Architecture (San Antonio Chapter, American Institute of Architects, 1986). Files, Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library, San Antonio. Pat Jasper and Kay Turner, Art among Us: Mexican American Folk Art of San Antonio (San Antonio Museum Association, 1986). Tom Kazas, "Looks Like Wood," Americana, September-October 1989. Patsy Light, with Maria Pfeiffer (with assistance from Gregory W. Smith, Texas Historical Commission), “Sculpture by Dionicio Rodríguez in Texas,” National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service (https://npgallery.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/64500904.pdf), accessed January 25, 2018. Patsy Pittman Light, Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodríguez (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008). Vertical Files, San Antonio Conservation Society Library.
Texas in the 1920s
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