Edward Grassmann, a civil engineer and real estate investor, purchased much of the Deserted Village in 1919. He used a few of the cottages to entertain friends and family. Grassmann, who was fond of both Mexico and the Southwest, engaged artist Roberto de la Selva to paint Mexican murals on interior walls of one cottage.
A native of Nicaragua, De la Selva (1895-1957) was unhappy with the occupation of Nicaragua by U.S. Marines, and moved to Mexico City in 1921, where he studied art the Academy of San Carlos. He learned woodcarving skills from indigenous artisans in Apizaco. Following graduation in 1925, De la Selva left for New York City to join his brother Salomon, a poet and journalist who was teaching at Columbia University. It was during this time, in the late 1920s, that De la Selva was hired by Grassmann.
Sometime after the Union County Park Commission acquired the Deserted Village, the cottages were rented out and the murals by De la Selva were covered with wallpaper. During a 1975 renovation, the murals were rediscovered when the wallpaper covering them was removed.
Not known as a muralist, the bulk of De la Selva’s work is bas-relief wood sculptures, and he was one of the first artists to use this medium. His art combines traditional wood carving with Mexican Modernism, connecting art to social-reform movements of the period, and some of his scenes make political statements. Some of his carvings illustrate the daily lives of Mexican villagers. Others depict Aztec or Mayan civilizations.
Much of De la Selva’s wood sculpture work is poly-chromed, although some is stained to emphasize the fine mahogany he used. His work, influenced by that of Diego Rivera, also includes expertly carved busts of such notables as Gandhi, Edison, Moses and Benito Juarez. The latter work was described by Rivera as “the best ‘Juarez’ I have seen.”
By the 1930s, De la Selva had achieved a significant reputation following exhibitions in several major cities, including New York. “His message of the new order honoring folk art, indigenous people, and the working class helped shape that period’s understanding of what Mexico was about,” said Marion Oettinger, Jr., Director of the San Antonio Museum of Art.
The catalog for a 2016 San Antonio Museum of Art exhibition of De la Selva’s sculptures identified the Deserted Village murals as the only existing examples of the artist’s work as a muralist. The murals in the cottage have deteriorated over time; however, some are candidates for restoration.
Above left – This mural was painted by artist Roberto de la Selva nearly 100 years ago in a cottage of the former Feltville.
Above right – Working in dense mahogany, Roberto de la Selva produced bas-relief panels that meld traditional woodworking—a prized pre-Hispanic craft—with modernist painting and the social zeitgeist of post-revolutionary Mexico. This image of sculpture by Roberto de la Selva appears courtesy of the San Antonio Museum of Art. All Rights Reserved.