Wednesday, April 4, 2012

National Poetry Month—Carlos Cortez "Tumbleweeds" and "Houn' Dog"

Carlos Cortez was born August 13, 1923 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  His father was a full blooded Indio from Mexico and an active member and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World.  His mother was a well read German Socialist and pacifist.  Named Karl Cortez at birth, he was reared in a loving household that was radical and proud of it. 

At home the family spoke English.  He picked up some German from his mother, but never truly mastered his father’s tongue.

Despite looking more like his fair skinned mother than his deeply brown father, young Karl felt the sting of ostracism at school where he was taunted for his unfamiliar Spanish surname and for not going to church.  His mother taught him to stand proud, but to never resort to violence.

Those lessons in non-violence were so deeply engrained that Cortez became one of the relatively few pacifist draft resistors during World War II, and one of an even tinier minority of non-religious objectors.  He told a judge he could see no reason to “shoot other draftees full of holes.”  The unsympathetic judge sentenced him to prison.  He served two years in Sandstone, Minnesota Federal Prison—the very same one I would be sent to for the same offence 30 years later.

After his release Cortez found work in a variety of jobs—as a dishwasher, construction worker, clerk in a deli, and as a hand at various factories.  He joined his father’s union.  He also took up art as a self-trained painter.  Around 1948 he began submitting drawing to the Industrial Worker and contributing occasional stories.

In the ‘50’s he came down from Milwaukee to Chicago to be closer to the center of IWW activity.  He volunteered at General Headquarters on Halstead Street.  It was there that he learned the medium for which he would become most famous.  Like many other struggling leftist periodicals, the Industrial Worker had limited resources to turn his sketches into engraved plates for the use on the flat bed presses that produced the paper.  Cortez noticed that some contributors sent linoleum cut blocks which could be used directly on the press.  It did not take him long to master the techniques of creating lino-cuts.  Soon almost every edition of the paper featured at least one new print by him.

The medium also helped him re-connect to his father’s culture.  He discovered that lino-cut blocks were a staple of the art of the Mexican Revolution.  He studied books at the library and was soon adopting techniques and themes from such artists as José Guadalupe Posada.  He was also impressed by the wood cuts of German Socialist and expressionist Käthe Kollwitz.

Despite his limited Spanish, Cortez became more and more identified with his Mexican, and particularly his peasant Indian, heritage.  He abandoned Karl as a first name and adopted Carlos,  By the mid-60’s so much of the Industrial Worker was made up of his illustrations, articles, poems, and columns that he began using a variety of ways of signing his contributions—CAC, C.C. Redcloud, Koyokuikatl, and his IWW membership card number X321826.

Eventually even commercially prepared lino-blocks for carving became too expensive.  Carlos learned to adapt to wood cuts, which both required the development of new skills and which afforded a medium more amenable to fine line and shadings than the bold lines of lino-cut.  He learned to make printing blocks from almost any cast-off wood scraps he could find.

A lifelong bachelor, a Greek friend told him that he should meet his sister.  The trouble was that she was still in Greece.  The two corresponded through her brother for a while.  Carlos saved his money, quit his job, and crossed the ocean as a passenger on a freighter.  He met Marianna Drogitis, a lovely young woman who was, however, by the standards of her culture, a spinster having rejected several suitors.  The two fell in love despite not speaking a word of each other’s language.  They communicated by gesture and the few words of German they had in common—she had learned the language while in occupied Greece where members of her family were in the Resistance.  They returned to the U.S. on another freighter, married, and settled into the happiest marriage I have ever seen in a Chicago apartment in 1965.  

It was a great love story and Carlos would frequently use Marianna as a model for his woodcuts, including loving, voluptuous nudes.

After several years in a north side apartment, against his will, Marianna finally convinced Carlos to buy a house.  Carlos was ever suspicious of the lure of property.  But she found a single floor store front building with a large rear apartment in the middle of an un-yuppiefied north side block.  They were able to buy it for a ridiculously low price—about $16,000 as I recall—on money she had saved from her job doing laundry and cooking for “the Priests” at DePaul University.  It turned out to be the smartest thing she ever forced Carlos to do.  

He transformed the large storefront into a virtual gallery and studio.  His paintings and posters decorated the walls.  There was plenty of room to accommodate gatherings of friends for both social and organizational activities.  There was space for the small flat bed press that Carlos had acquired, nick named El Gato Negrothe Black Cat--in  the basement and he was able to go into production of posters and prints on a scale he never could before. 

It was the start of a period of great productivity.  He used that press to make a series of posters of IWW, Mexican Revolutionaries, and other radical heroes that featured portraits and quotes.  These posters became his most famous work.  They often went through different editions.  He would scrounge for any paper he could to make his prints on.  Sometimes he cut up butcher paper or begged odds and ends from commercial shops.  Friends occasionally donated better quality stock.  He would make new versions of posters to adapt to the paper sizes he had available or when he decided to make them in a two block process for added color.  He also churned out, upon request, posters for any organization to which he was sympathetic and who asked.  He never charged for that.  And the posters he did sell were offered at just a few dollars apiece to benefit the IWW or some other organization’s treasury.

A firm believer in “people’s art” available and affordable to the masses, he refused to sign or number prints.  In fact, when his posters began to attract the attention of the commercial art world he let it be known that if ever they started selling at inflated prices, he would print more to keep the cost down.  He even made that as a provision in his will for those who came into possession of his blocks.

Carlos was also becoming known as a mentor for a new generation of artists.  In 1975 he helped found the Movemento Aristico Chicano (MARCH)—the first organization of Latino artists in the city.  With his close friend Carlos Cumpian and others, meeting in the comfortable front room, he built an organization which mentored many young artists, spread “the culture”, and helped foster the re-birth of the muralist movement in the city.  He also became an early supporter of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum which became the repository of many of his works and has the largest collection of his extensive production in the worldHe was also active with the  Chicago Mural Group, Mexican Taller del Grabado (Mexican Graphic Workshop), Casa de la Cultura Mestizarte, the Native Men’s Song Circle, a Native American group out of the American Indian Center.  Through that association, he came to mentor and encourage young Indian artists with the same passion he dedicated to the Chicanos.  In fact, there was no artist or poet of any race who was not welcome in that home, as long as they were ready and eager to serve the people’s needs and not “art for art’s sake,” a notion he found repugnant and elitist.

By 1981 Carlos’s heart forced him to retire from wage slavery.  It gave him more time to dedicate to his art work, poetry and causes.  Unfortunately, it also put a strain on Marianna who took extra work to make up for the lost income.  Despite sometimes working twelve hours at two jobs, she always had a smile for any of Carlos’s many guests, and a pat on the cheek for the old man.

Carlos, although best known as a graphic artist and for his work on the Industrial Worker, was also a poet.  He would do occasional readings at an old haunt, the College of Complexes, in coffee houses, at radical book stores, and where ever his friends gathered.  He wrote three books of poetry, including De Kansas a Califas & Back to Chicago, published by March/Abrazo Press, and Crystal-Gazing the Amer Fluid & Other Wobbly Poems, published by the old Socialist publisher Charles H. Kerr & Company.  Carlos was President of the Kerr Board for 20 years, a title he detested.  He also edited, wrote the introduction to, or contributed to several other books.

By his later years, Carlos’s work was gaining international recognition.  He illustrated the novel Brassero by Eugene NelsonAlthough not widely read in this country, it circulated widely in editions in Sweden, Germany, and the Soviet Union which attracted attention to his lino-cuts.  In Sweden where Joe Hill is a national hero, an edition of his famed poster which he made in Swedish, was widely circulated.  His prints have appeared in various touring shows and were added to the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art.  He preferred venues like the traveling exhibition Eighty Years of Wobbly Art which he curated in 1985 and the retrospective exhibits of his work at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum.
Carlos was devastated when his beloved Marianna died in 2001. .
His health deteriorated rapidly after that and he was often confined to a wheel chair.  He continued to greet a steady parade of visitors and admirers to his studio home and participated in the planning of new exhibitions of his work, including one in Madrid sponsored by the anarcho-syndicalists of the Confederacion National de Trabajo (CNT.)   He suffered a massive heart attack and was confined to his bed for the last 18 months of his life.

On January 17, 2005 Carlos died, surrounded by friends and “listening to the music of the Texas Tornados.”

From Carlos’s first book, De Kansas a Califas & Back to Chicago.


When the Tumbleweed
Has finished his days of existence,
The roots that bind him down
To Earth Mother
Give way
And he can go wherever
The wind takes him.

How much better
Than a tombstone
And the Pearly Gates!
—Carlos Cortez

From his last book, Where Are the Voices a reaction to the familiar “Uncle Sam Wants You” recruiting poster.

                                        Houn’ Dog

Trotting along the sidewalk
with not a feline in sight
to give chase to
and not a girl doggie in sight
that he can pursue
but just as happy as
only a houn’ dog can be,
he espies the recruiting poster
in front of the post office.
His tail stops wagging
long enough
as he cranes his head forward
to make the sniff test
and upon seeing that it
does not sniff too well,
with excellent body english
and a back paw salute,
he administers upon this artifact
of an alleged higher creation,
his most eloquent appraisal.
—Carlos Cortez

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