Self-taught craftsman finds purpose in producing handcrafted art for homes and gardens
Words by Emily McMackin
Photos by Stephanie Davis
Each spring—and summer, autumn, and winter—master gardeners, landscape designers, and people in search of unique, handcrafted art for their homes and gardens, make the pilgrimage from Atlanta and beyond to Casa Montano in the sleepy town of Fairburn, Georgia.
Inside the modest building, fanciful statues perch on handmade shelves, on benches, and in every nook and cranny, mingling with planters, pedestals, birdbaths, and stepping-stones. Celtic crosses, gargoyles, and faces of the sun, moon, and seasons cover the walls while strains of Enya, Yanni, and Spanish flamenco music flow through the speakers.
Wearing a dusty shop apron and an infectious smile, owner Carlos Montaño warmly greets every guest who steps inside and often gives impromptu tours of his workshop, where he mixes sand, cement, and pigment powder into molds to make his concrete reproductions. Sometimes he lets them open the molds themselves. He loves seeing the surprise on their faces as the sculptures emerge. “I have a sign here that says, ‘Work is love made visible,’ because you don’t see all of the labor you put into a piece until it’s done,” Carlos says. “You can never tell exactly from the outside what's in the mold until you open it.”
For Carlos, that’s where the challenge begins. Once he gets his pieces cast to perfection, he devotes days to finishing them by hand. On the fly, he conjures up formulas for washes that make his concrete sculptures look like limestone, terra-cotta, sandstone, and other types of stone that catch his eye. “The beauty of my work is with time and how it weathers,” Carlos says. “I love visiting a garden that has a piece I made 10 or 15 years ago and seeing how it has completely changed with Mother Nature.”
Creating lasting work with his hands has been a dream for Carlos since he was a boy growing up in Michoacán, an area of Mexico known for its craftsmanship. He helped his mother make chocolates and other candies out of molds of saints and other religious icons and was impressed by the extra money it allowed her to earn for the family. After moving to Atlanta at age 14, Carlos worked for companies making plaster reproductions and patio furniture.
But it wasn’t until he met the late sculptor Christine Sibley that he found his calling. She hired him to manage her studio and taught him how to make concrete reproductions of her designs. Soon they began collaborating on commissioned pieces, including an installation honoring the late artist Eddie Owens Martin and his famed art site Pasaquan for Atlanta’s Folk Art Park developed for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Working with Christine introduced him to other artists and designers and inspired him to take more risks. Shortly after she passed away, Carlos launched his business. “I saw the challenges you have to accept to do what you love, and it taught me not to be afraid to take a chance to try something new,” he says.
Though he still recreates select pieces from Christine’s original molds to keep her work alive, Carlos has produced hundreds of his own since opening Casa Montano 20 years ago and has made a name for himself solely through word of mouth. With an aesthetic that ranges from classical to funky, he has collaborated with top designers in the area on planters, fountains, and other architectural features gracing some of Atlanta’s finest homes.
But his real passion is restoring pieces with stories behind them. He’s restored fountains for the Atlanta Botanical Garden and for the Hills & Dales Estate at Callaway Resort & Gardens. His most meaningful project was reconstructing a whimsical life-size statue of a little girl holding an oversized fish, which had been sculpted by the girl’s late grandmother decades before.
The piece was crumbling when the family brought it to Carlos, so he prayed over it. “I asked the grandma to guide my hands,” he says. “I said, ‘If you can help me fix the face, I can fix everything else.’ Then one day while I was touching the face, I felt heat coming from my hands, and the face ended up turning out exactly like it was before. The day I delivered that piece was one of the happiest days of my life,” he continues. “That’s when I knew I was living my purpose.”
Between fulfilling special orders for customers and supplying pieces to local shops, including Boxwoods Gardens & Gifts, Atlanta Water Gardens, and Kudzu Antiques, Carlos stays so busy in the spring and summer that he takes orders months in advance. But customers don't mind waiting for his work. And they often bring family, friends, and out-of-town guests with them when they visit Casa Montano. Carlos always makes time to show first-time visitors how his reproductions are made so they can appreciate even more the pieces they take home with them.
“I believe that if you touch a piece with your hands, you have to put all of your love into it from beginning to end,” he says. “My favorite part is seeing it finished and ready to hand to the customer. You never know who’s going to get it.”