Photography of the Crystal Shrine Grotto by Mark Johnson
In 1935, a man by the name of Dionicio Rodriguez made his way to Memphis by way of southern Texas. Rodriguez, a Mexican sculptor of considerable renown, liked to dress in nicely pressed slacks and a crisp white shirt. He wore his black hair closely cropped and slicked back, in the style of the day. A sepia-tone photo, taken in 1937, shows Rodriguez standing near a footbridge that he sculpted for a cemetery in Maryland, his arm propped against a lighting feature at the base of the bridge. He appears relaxed and casually confident.
At first glance, it would be hard to guess that the clean-cut Rodriguez spent his days tying together iron rebar and wire and hand-pouring cement in order to create life-like imitations of the natural world. But for the six years he spent on and off in Memphis, the quiet sculptor worked eight- to ten-hour days in the service of his elaborate creations, gathering together roughshod elements to make faux bois (translation: fake wood) trees, footbridges, benches, and fountains.
Memphians may not know very much about Rodriguez, but they are probably familiar with one of his most famous works — the Crystal Shrine Grotto, an elaborate man-made cave located at the center of East Memphis’ Memorial Park Cemetery. The Grotto is both the physical and spiritual center of the cemetery. The dark, crystal-studded enclosure is home to a ten-panel tableau depicting the life of Christ. It is surrounded, on the outside, by other unique features, all sculpted out of cement in a characteristic trabajo rustico (or “rustic work”) style.
Among Rodriguez’s creations are a hollow tree called “Abraham’s Oak,” a bench in the shape of a fallen tree limb, a “Fountain of Youth,” a second tomb-like cave known as the “Cave of Machpelah,” a “wishing chair,” and a series of rustic footbridges that lead to what Rodriguez called “God’s Garden.”
The Crystal Shrine Grotto and the accompanying sculptures have been on a shortlist of off-the-beaten-path Memphis attractions for decades now. A 2014 segment called “Behind Closed Doors” by News Channel 24, for example, called the sculpture “a subterranean art museum of religious dioramas” while the ilovememphisblog.com recently surmised that the work has a “secret outdoor temple feel to it.” The Grotto is now also something of a national attraction, drawing attention from art and travel writers from around the country. In 2013, the critic Allison Meier wrote for the national art blog hyperallergic.com that “the experience is alternately transporting and peculiar” and that, while inside the Grotto, “you feel alone in a sweeping stillness.”
There is something transporting about walking into the Grotto. Sculpted stalactites emerge, in clusters, from a low ceiling, while five tons of raw crystals — brought to Memphis by Rodriguez from the Diamond Cave in Jasper, Arkansas — gleam under multicolored artificial lights. A leather-bound guest book sits adjacent to a wooden plaque that impels visitors to spend a moment of repose in the cave. Many of Rodriguez’s dioramic paintings inside the Grotto are accompanied by carvings (added in the late 1970s and early 1980s) by Memphian David Day, which depict, variously, New Testament scenes such as the Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Resurrection of Christ.
The air is cool, and plinky recorded harp music resounds throughout, contributing to the kitschy-ness of the place; a defunct Super 8 camera mimics surveillance in one corner. But the effect transcends kitsch. A first-time visitor cannot avoid the sense that he is inside a work of art, one that retains the feel and vision of the artist.
Despite ample press about the Grotto, little has been reported about the man behind its creation. Until eight years ago, not much was widely known about Rodriguez. In 2006, Memphis magazine historian Vance Lauderdale reported that, despite some digging, he had discovered no available photographs of Rodriguez in Memphis, much less anything resembling a complete biography. What was known was that Rodriguez was born outside Mexico City in 1891 and died in the states in 1955. He is buried in San Antonio, where he spent much of his career. Because little was known about his artistic training, it has often been assumed that he was a self-trained folk artist.
“Much of his life,” wrote Lauderdale, “is shrouded in mystery. But somehow, he perfected a technique for chemically tinting concrete and then carving or molding it into naturalistic forms that closely resembled stones, branches, trees — whatever he wished — even down to artificial wormholes, cracked branches, and peeling bark.”
In 2008, a Texan art historian named Patsy Pittman Light published a survey of Rodriguez’s work across the United States called Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodriguez. Light’s book, based on extensive interviews with Rodriguez’s niece and assistant, Manuela Vargas Theall, reveals much more about both the sculptor and his works, including a stunning series of faux bois structures in North Little Rock’s Pugh Memorial Park, an achievement that Light calls a “lyrical fantasy” for its poetic use of faux bois forms.
Light’s research into Rodriguez’ life also drew on a correspondence between E. Clovis Hinds, the founder of Memorial Park Cemetery, and Rodriguez. The two men’s relationship was defining for both Hinds and Rodriguez, as evidenced by a shared desire to create, as Hinds put it, “a landmark cemetery marked by beauty and serenity” that “will attract people.” The letters reveal two men who, despite the financial adversity of the Depression years, stayed the course until the project was finished in 1941.
In 1924, Hinds sold his successful life insurance company, Cotton States Life Insurance, and started work on what would be his legacy, a “memorial park” cemetery in Memphis, in the style of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. As Hinds envisioned it, the cemetery would have hallmark flat grave markers, allowing for an unimpeded sense of the landscape, a vista that the proprietor hoped would draw the mind towards life and hope, and away from dreary visions of mortality.
According to Pittman Light, Memphis’ Memorial Park Cemetery is one of “more than six hundred ‘memorial park’ cemeteries that were built in the country by 1935.” Hinds, like many others, was influenced by a turn-of-the-century movement towards urban park space, which began in Europe and found American expression in Frederick Law Olmstead’s Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
In order to create Memphis’ Memorial Park Cemetery, Hinds employed a landscape architect from the George Kessler firm of St. Louis. Kessler, a correspondent of Olmstead’s, was the architect who built Midtown’s sprawling Overton Park. The idea of adding sculpture to the cemetery came from Père Lachaise, the Paris cemetery that dates from 1804 and includes many notable works of art.
In 1935, Hinds engaged Rodriguez to start work on his sculptures, while he simultaneously was working on projects in Maryland, Alabama and Michigan, among other sites. Rodriguez was apparently protective of his methods; when he worked with a team, he mixed his cement tints in private and disposed of them so that no one else learned of his recipes. He wrote to Hinds asking that the proprietor not allow “anyone else to try and perform or practice any of my artistical [sic] work.”
Memorial Park’s uncluttered vistas — broken only by trees and bouquets of flowers that mourning relatives leave atop the graves of loved ones — make for a better view of Rodriguez’s “Garden of the Gods,” which includes three large, conical rock formations, the largest of which houses the Crystal Shrine Grotto. The Grotto, like the neighboring Cave of Malapach, is carved 59 feet into the hillside. It is fronted by the koi-filled “Pool of Hebron” (a grand name for a quiet, man-made pond) and the gnarled “Abraham’s Oak,” through which visitors can walk.
Though no one knows exactly where Rodriguez learned his craft, Pittman Light writes that many Mexican craftspeople emigrated to San Antonio in the 1920s, following difficult economic times and revolution in Mexico. There was an influential craft school in Mexico City that trained many of these artisans. Rodriguez was not the originator or sole practitioner of the trabajo rustico genre. Genaro Briones, who may have worked with Rodriguez in Memphis, was another adherent to the style. Briones and other artisans are well remembered for the faux bois work that they created throughout the American Southwest.
Despite this lineage, Rodriguez’s work in Memphis is often grouped, stylistically, with work by environmental sculptures by self-taught and untrained artists such as the French postman Ferdinand Cheval’s “Le Palais idéal” — an obsessive monument in the Rhone Valley made of small stones — or Florida’s “Coral Castle,” the solitary labor of a man named Ed Leedskalnin. These sculptures bear some surface similarity to Rodriguez’s Crystal Shrine Grotto, but the comparison unfairly groups him with figures pejoratively classed as “naive artists,” when the Mexican sculptor was a prolific professional.
Rodriguez worked to support his family (he was married and divorced twice, but had no children) and made good money from his skill. His work is more correctly identified as in the tradition of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco.
Something else Pittman Light’s comprehensive study makes clear: The Crystal Shrine Grotto and the biblically inspired scenic creations that accompany it are doubtless some of Rodriguez’s finest works. With its elaborate use of tinted concrete, detailing, and embedded crystal, the Grotto is perhaps Rodriguez’s most experimental undertaking. E. Clovis Hind’s vision for Memorial Park was demanding, and Rodriguez met that challenge. His expansive, expressive work deserves recognition not only as a folk oddity, but as a considerable achievement in the tradition of Mexican art in the United States.