© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Juan O'Gorman's Daughter Shares Memories Of An Artful Childhood

If you're walking in front of the Lila Cockrell Theatre downtown, you'll see an enormous mosaic created by Mexican Artist Juan O'Gorman

Earlier this month, Texas Public Radio's Arts & Culture desk reported on how the tearing down of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center has revealed a side of the city's cultural history that may be new to some residents. But there's more to the artist, Juan O’Gorman, who created the work. One San Antonio woman shares her experiences with O'Gorman and his iconic art.

Sixty-something Maria Carstensen is a proud grandmother who lives in San Antonio. She has a deep connection to that O'Gorman mosaic, beginning with her unique childhood.

"I'm Juan O'Gorman's daughter," she shares. "I grew up in Mexico City and I lived in the Cave House in the Pedregal."

The Pedregal is a southwest Mexico City neighborhood where the ground is mostly volcanic rock and cave houses are common.

"It was a small one, and then he dynamited it to make sure it wouldn't collapse or there wasn't any issues, and then he did a lot of mosaic on the inside of it as well," Carstensen recalls.

As a young child, Maria didn't think her living situation was unusual, even though cave living provided some interesting challenges.

"Lava is very porous, so when it rained, we had buckets all over to catch the rain. That was my life. I never thought it was anything different, because that's where I lived," she says.

Architect and artist Juan O'Gorman was a man of international reputation, so young Maria's early life was peppered with fascinating cave house guests, like first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, the first lady and her husband.

"Lyndon B. Johnson came, and I remember coming home from school and there were a lot of guards, bodyguards in the yard on the walk up to my house," she recalls.

But, for Carstensen, nature held more interest than art. She remembers playing with friends and hiding among the lava rocks outside her cave home. One of her vivid memories was of a large, colorful Mexico City mural created by her father.

"The one that he talked a lot about to me was the bank mural in Mexico because I'm in it," she says. "There's a drawing of me in it."

The mural was done for a bank called Bancomer, and features a landscape where commerce and nature combine seamlessly. In the far right, a young Maria stands holding a document. In that Mexico City mural, she’s about the same age she was when her father created the designs for the mosaic featured in San Antonio's 1968 World's Fair.

"I was...I want to say about 11 when that was going on. And I remember going out where they were putting the meter blocks of mosaic, and watching that. And they shipped 'em up like that, and put them all together, kinda like a puzzle," she says.

Catherine Nixon Cooke is the author of Juan O'Gorman: A Confluence of Civilizations, which details the mosaic’s creation.

"Maria, his daughter, tells a great story of him having piles and piles of colored stone. And as a little girl, she and her friends would go out there and jump in the stones," Nixon Cooke says.

Maria thought back fondly on it: "I grew up with a lot of the colored stones that he used for the different mosaics, piled in the yard. To me there were just...throw 'em around, do all kinds of stuff with them."

"O'Gorman and a workman assembled more than 500 of those meter square blocks, cementing more than 400,000 individual rocks, creating a mural which tells a specific and highly detailed story" she said. "Moving towards the middle you see math, you see science, you see what the western world has contributed. And then on the other side of the mural you see the allegorical Aztec Gods, and as you move towards the center you've got this unified confluence, which is really quite wonderful, and running beneath it all is our San Antonio River."

For nearly 50 years though, this massive piece has stood just far enough off market street, and in the shadow of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Catherine Nixon Cooke says it was, essentially, hidden.

"It was not seen by many. And I think that is going to change and I am really excited about that," she says.

With that portion of the Convention Center now torn down, the Confluence mosaic is finally in the line of sight for thousands of daily passersby. Maria Carstensen, the daughter who at 11 watched it all come together, welcomes the change. She recently paid the mosaic a special visit.

"I went with my grandson's field trip from his school. And I did a little presentation about the mural.  Big posters, and I had a slide show, and they really enjoyed that," she says.

Carstensen says her father thought artists' rewards don't always come in their lifetimes.

"He always would tell me 'you're not famous 'til you die.'  And that's kind of true, especially for artists," she says.

It seems now O’Gorman is finally getting his due in San Antonio. A Confluence of Civilizations was the theme of the 1968 World's Fair, and given that O'Gorman's father was Irish, and his mother Mexican, it was also the theme of his life. In a larger sense, Confluence of Civilizations describes what most San Antonians live every single day.

Find more on Juan O'Gorman here

Find more on Catherine Nixon Cooke's book here