“All I know is that it looked familiar to me.” Says Gilbert Duran. The Southtown artist stumbled upon the stone Native American in a downtown thrift store. It was covered in moss and badly damaged (missing its nose and half its features). Yet the resolute expression beneath the overgrowth conjured up vague memories in Duran. “It was very well done and I felt sorry that such a beautiful piece came to be in this condition.”
Gilbert Duran beside the nearly completed piece. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
The sculpture sat in his studio for several years. He offered it to one of his artist friends to see what he could make of it, but the object didn’t garner much interest. It was only when he began researching the sculpture that he uncovered its surprising origins.
'The First Inhabitant' by Waldine Tauch on the Commerce Street Bridge. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
“I had no idea that it was part of the fountain by Waldine Tauch.” Duran explains. Tauch, the adopted daughter and protégé of Pompeo Coppini (of Alamo Cenotaph fame) was the sculptor of ‘The First Inhabitant,’ the fountain located on Commerce Street Bridge between Casa Rio and the Torch of Friendship. In his research, Duran uncovered information and several photographs placing the sculpture on the bridge. This statue was one of four. Because of the proximity and style, Duran strongly believes that Waldine Tauch sculpted these pieces as well.
Photograph of the fountain at a time when the torches were still present. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Gilbert’s memory served him well. He had in fact seen these sculptures before, intact, mounted with lamps as they watched over the intersection of Commerce and Alamo. “I remember when the torches on top of the fountain used to flame up, like little bonfires. That was a very dramatic place.” And if Duran has anything to say about it, these sculptures will return to their original posts on the bridge. He has been carefully restoring the sculpture he recovered in the hope of creating a mold to cast three more. “I like restoring things and saving things from San Antonio history,” he says.
“I would see broken toys at times and I would just put them back together.”
He’s been restoring things since he was a kid. “I would see broken toys at times and I would just put them back together.” Duran says he has always been an artist. During his childhood, Gilbert accompanied his father on construction jobs. While on site, Gilbert’s father gave him a sharpened pencil. “As soon as he put up the sheet rock and I could reach it, I started drawing right behind him. I did that for many years.”
A mold of the statue, which will be used to recreate the other statues. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
In regards to the sculpture, however, it’s all about moving forward. “He’s looking to the future, holding his ground,” says Gilbert of the figure’s strong expression. “It’s still a powerful symbol.” The importance of restoring these depictions of the First Inhabitants lies in the key part they played in Downtown’s rich cultural history, says Duran. The World Heritage designation wasn’t an accident. “But now we have to prove to them that we’re worth it.”
“I’m glad that I saw it before somebody else bought it.”
As the city enters its Tricentennial year, Duran says it’s important to celebrate every aspect of the last 300 years. The sculptures of the First Inhabitants are a part of that diverse patch work. Their return would be a result of Gilbert’s inspiring dedication. “It took me years to get it to this point.” What would have happened if Gilbert had not stumbled upon the sculpture? “I’m glad that I saw it before somebody else bought it,” he jokes.
Gilbert putting the finishing touches on 'The First Inhabitant.' Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
The team at Centro San Antonio has brought the project to the attention of the City of San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture. As of the date of this story’s publication, Gilbert reports the City has dropped by his studio and they have begun discussions on possibilities for the First Inhabitant.