For a handcraft or any other kind of artistry to stand out, there needs to be a personal and cultural connection between the creator and the creation. Straight out technical talent is not enough. That connection can be through family history, the material and/or the techniques used, but often this connection comes through the themes expressed in the work.
José Flores is best known by his nickname Cactus, prominent on his business cards. He is a native Durangan, born and raised in the city’s iconic Analco neighborhood. He does not come from an artist or artisan family; he came to be so through the movies.
Cactus lives in the modest neighborhood of Granja Graciela, but the interior of his home is an impressive reflection of his aesthetic sense and personal history. The garage has been converted into a kind of large foyer/bar area with a decoration style I’ll call not-quite-Wild-West. Kind of like Durango itself, it is the frontier but with a number of other elements of more “civilized” areas.
I had a few minutes to look at several of his crafts, both completed and in-progress as I had gotten there before the maestro. Cactus’ wife pointed out a few of them. Without knowing much of anything about the creator, one type of craft stood out immediately – miniature facades of Wild West buildings recognizable from the cowboy movies of the mid 20th century.
That may seem odd for a Mexican craftsman. Cactus has been criticized for this work, especially with their signs and other elements in English rather than in Spanish. But knowing a bit about Durango and the artisan explains why this works in their favor.
At the height of the Western in Hollywood, Durango experienced a heyday as a setting for many of these movies, starting with White Feather, shot here in the mid 1950s. This boom continued into the 1960s and 1970s, with John Wayne himself shooting a number of movies here, including The Sons of Katie Elder. Wayne even bought himself a ranch not far from Durango City. The movie companies used area towns and landscapes but also built sets recreating the classic scenes of one dirt road bordered by wood buildings representing saloons, post offices, general stores, etc.
Fast forward to the 1980s… Cactus grew up during Durango’s movie heyday and decided to become a movie set designer, studying in Los Angeles for a number of years. When he returned to Durango, there was still a movie industry but it had gone in decline along with the popularity of the western. By the 2000s, many of the old stage sets had been abandoned or put to other purposes, including a tourist Wild West Show and one that has become a real town, with people living under the old English-language signs for 19th-century establishments.
Cactus worked on some restoration projects at some of the old sets at the turn of the century, but it became clear the he needed other sources of income. He has taken his artistic and design skills to produce lines of several handcrafts and some artistic works.
In addition to the facades, Cactus creates interior scenes and other miniatures such as log cabins and horse-drawn carts which keep more-or-less to the Western theme. Other works include small decorative chests and crosses. These tend to be Spanish in design but not Baroque. Rather they are simplified versions that at home in both Western settings and colonial Mexican homes. This also reflects Durango. While it is squarely in the North, it is also the outer periphery of the Central Mexican Plateau. Influences from farther south can be readily seen here in the architecture and the food.
His artistic work runs from typical canvas paintings, to sculptures made from organic and recycled materials. The most interesting are his air-brush paintings, oddly enough. Forsaking gaudy colors and unrealistic space scenes, Cactus uses the technique to paint realistic images on old and cracked wood, most often salvaged from decayed buildings. He prefers this because this wood has character and he must “negotiate” with it in order to create an image. Indeed, one of his favorite themes in our conversation was the concept of “respecting the medium.”
The artist can be reached through his web page at https://www.facebook.com/cactusoldwestart/