Crystal Shrine Grotto
Memorial Park is proud to be home to one of Memphis's hidden gems, the Crystal Shrine Grotto. Open Daily from 7am-Dusk.
The Story of the Crystal Shrine Grotto
One day in February 1935, vision shook the hands with genius. That is, the tall and distinguished Hinds met the short, proud Mexican Artist Senor Dionicio Rodriguez. Over the next eight years their unlikely partnership as patron and artist would produce a treasure trove of folk art in Memphis that to this day attracts visitors from all around the world.
Senor Dionicio Rodriguez (1891-1955) hailed from Toluca, Mexico and spoke no English, but he could transform cement into fantastic works of art. He probably had little formal education. He may have been married and widowed at a very young age. Rodriguez came to San Antonio, Texas in the 1920’s and created his first known concrete sculptures, for the city’s Brackinridge Park and the Alamo Cement Company.
No one knows where he got his training or what he knew of other artists doing similar work. Rodriguez called his method el trabajo rustic, or rustic work. Many folk artists were creating rustic designs presenting natural elements like stone and wood, but Rodriguez seems to have created the best kind of sculptures.
Rodriguez worked for Justin Matthews, sculpting pieces for three parks in Little Rock, Arkansas. Rodriguez had created a reproduction of an old grist mill. The walls of the mill were made of stone blocks, but he sculpted the mill’s water wheel, several bridges and even toadstools and logs from concrete, shaping and treating it to make it look like old wood and stone.
The ‘stumpy little brown man’, as he was described in the newspapers of the day, arrived at Memorial Park with an interpreter. Hinds and Rodriguez negotiated a price - $75 per week for Rodriguez and a helper – and Hinds gave Rodriguez plans for the first sculpture wanted, Annie Laurie’s Wishing Chair.
Like all the sculptures Hinds would commission, this one had a story behind it. Annie Laurie lived in Glencairn, Scotland. When she died in 1764, she was buried in a churchyard. The Stones from the Altar where she prayed were used to make a chair. According to legend, this chair was blessed by fairies, so that any boy and girl, who sat in it, held hands and made a wish, might have that wish come true.
Rodriguez fashioned the double-seated chair from concrete, which he scored and stained to look like stones. As Rodriguez said about his own work, “It doesn’t take much material or time, and gives wonderful results.” Hinds must have agreed, for the Mexican artist was soon at work on many more concrete sculptures.
Visitors came to Memorial Park on Sunday afternoons to watch the curious little man work. To make his sculptures, Rodriguez would first create a support structure of steel and copper tubing; he never welded, but wired these pieces together for strength. Over this he would shape a rough form out of wire mesh, filled with rubble. Then with one sack of cement at a time, adding no sand; he applied this wet cement to the form, shaping and carving it with his hands, with twigs or kitchen utensils - forks, spoons and knives. The sculpture took shape as Rodriguez added layer upon layer of cement. While the cement was still wet he added stains and dyes he mixed to give it color. Hinds bought some of the chemicals for him some which was copperas, sulfuric acid, muriatic acid, iron oxide, saltpeter and lampblack.
Rodriguez jealously guarded the secrets of his trade, especially the formulas he created for coloring the concrete. He worked in a tent where no one could see him mixing the colors and stains in glass jars. Sometimes he kept these jars in the trunk of his car, and if anyone approached he quickly slammed down the trunk lid. When he had emptied or finished with a jar, he would soak the label off, tear it up and throw it away, and break the jar.
The second sculpture that Hinds commissioned was the Broken Tree Bench. Like his other work, Broken Tree Bench was sculpted from concrete but it included minute details to make it look like wood. Rodriguez created the texture of bark, some of it peeling off, knotholes and worm holes and other imperfections to make the bench seem more like real wood. Many people have mistaken it and his other sculptures for petrified wood.
The next sculptures Rodriguez did for Hinds were inspired by the Bible. Abrahams Oak (near the entrance to the Crystal Shrine Grotto) is 15 feet tall and 9 feet in diameter. It is a representation of an old hollowed-out tree, large enough to walk through, with benches carved inside. It stands near the Pool of Hebron, inspired by the water reservoirs created by King Solomon for the arid land of Judea; Hebron was a town about 20 miles south of Jerusalem, and it was Abraham’s home. Behind the Pool of Hebron, Rodriguez built the Cave of Machpelah. This cave was the tomb for Abraham and his family. Hinds wanted it to be represented in his cemetery because it was the first burial place mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 23.