Friday, November 1, 2013

¡Saludo Carlos Cortez en la Día de los Muertos!

Carlos was honored at a retrospective exhibit at Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art.

Whenever Día de los Muertos rolls around, my thought turn to my old Fellow Worker Carlos Cortez.  Carlos often incorporated the skeleton figures popular in the Mexican celebration of All Saints’ Day into his art work and he used a sketch of a black cat with an arched back on a fence for the heading of his column musings, The Left Side, which ran in the Industrial Worker for many years.  That cat, of course, was an old Wobbly, symbol for sabotage, a tactic of striking while still on the job by the voluntary “withdrawal of efficiency.”

If you never heard of Carlos, you need to get to know about his remarkable life.

He 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 letter press 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 addition 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 Mestizo, 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.

I first met Carlos in early 1969 while I was working for a short time at an antique/junk store on Armitage Avenue.  He came in wearing a white Open Road Stetson like mine, but not so beat up.  He had on a plaid shirt under nondescript jacket.  He had heavy black framed eye glasses and a drooping black mustache.  He walked with a peculiar kind of shuffle and spoke with a vague accent that he picked up mostly from trying to communicate with his wife.  He was looking for old table tops or other wood to make wood blocks from and cheap picture frames.  We spent an idle hour chatting, each of us smoking hand rolled cigarettes.  He preferred Bull Durham and Wheat Zig-zag papers.  I was using Prince Albert from a can and Tops papers.

A month or so later I joined the IWW and began a long friendship and fruitful collaboration in earnest.  Carlos had just been made editor of the Industrial WorkerFred W. Thompson, who became my personal mentor, and I were soon working together to provide most of the content that Carlos didn’t generate himself.  By this time the paper was coming out on an offset press and had become tabloid sized. 

One Saturday a month we pasted up the paper from long sheets of typeset copy, various illustrations and photos, and standard features reproduced from photostats.  We worked with paste pots, X-Acto knives, and Press Type on a table in Carlos’s living room.  If we had an odd space, Carlos would whip up a sketch to fit it.  We would work all afternoon, Carlos and I smoking and drinking Blatz from quart bottles.  When we were finished we would celebrate with a good stiff shot of bourbon.   Marianna kept us well fed, too.

Eventually the Worker became, in the style of the day, a collective.  Carlos did not mind at all being “demoted” we continued to work together in much the same way as we did before.  Even when the Executive Board decided to return to management by an editor, he did not take offense when I was named to the post instead of him, or when I made changes.  Every month still featured a Left Side column and new art work.

Besides the paper we worked on other projects together.  I remember putting together one of the first return to the Haymarket May Day rallies in 1970.  The local IWW branch collaborated with the Illinois Labor History Society, and some radical unionists to hold a rally calling for the Six Hour Day.  Carlos designed the poster/flyer and I ran it off on the q.t. on the offset press I was then running for Columbia College.  Carlos was one of the featured speakers from the flatbed truck set up just where the Haymarket speakers orated from an open wagon.

About 1973 Carlos and Marianna had to find a place to live while their landlord did major work on their apartment building.  I lived near-by in a fourth floor walk-up in a courtyard apartment building dubbed Wobbly Towers for all of the fellow workers who had places there.  My roommate Kathleen Taylor, then General Secretary-Treasurer of the IWW, and I had a spare bedroom.  Carlos and Marianna stayed with us for several months.  Marianna taught me to appreciate thick Greek coffee brewed in a tiny brass pot and served in demitasse cups.  Carlos and I refined our tastes in whiskey and he tried unsuccessfully to convert me to the vile black cigars he had switched to.

A few years later, Carlos returned the favor.

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 Negro—the 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 now known as the National Museum of Mexican Arts 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.

Not long after the Cortez’s settled into their new home, I found myself semi-homeless and out of a job.  I was bouncing from couch to couch.  When Carlos found out he invited me home.  I was not the only one.  The several spare bedrooms in the back of the building often accommodated guests and visitors.  I stayed happily with them for several months.

Carlos also got me a job.  He had to quit his job of many years, hand loading box cars with cases of shampoo at what he called the Bubble Factory.  It was just too punishing on his body.  He  found work as a custodian at the Coyne American Institute, a trade school on Fullerton Ave. and got me a job as a boom pusher on the second shift.  The folks at the school often thought we were father and son.  We both had our cowboy hats, thick glasses, and at the time Carlos as sporting an impressive goatee to complement his flowing mustaches.  We had arrived at our curious adoption of the same look quite independently, but there was no dishonor in being called Carlos’s son.

When I proposed to Kathy, Carlos was pleased to make a drawing of the two of us with her daughters Carolynne and Heather for the invitations I designed.  He and Marianna danced happily at our wedding party at Lilly’s on Lincoln Ave.

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.  I last saw him at her memorial.

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.”

On the Day of the Dead, Carlos, I wish I had an offenda decorate in your honor with Wild Turkey, cigars, sugar skulls, and copies of your great art.

Here is one of his favorite of his poems:

Crystal-Gazing the Amber Fluid

Sitting at this bar
Thinking of places
In my glass of beer
I see
Thru the smoke-filled haze Of this room
Like a crystal vision
A ribbon of cement
Black line down the middle
Perdition bent
Like a galloping snake
On the make
Thru treeless prairies
And bottomless passes
Ever in motion
Over a moonkissed desert
Toward golden California
Stopped only
By a big blue ocean,
Give me the song
If you can
Of a greyhound motor's
Crawling along
Some old ten-mile grade
Where life can be complete...
Carlos Corez

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