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Art Imitates Meat

Rogelio Tijerina's art is hopelessly intertwined with the food chain. Sculpture pays the bills on his free-range cattle ranch--where he casts his finest animals before they're processed--and what makes his East Village arts space possible is a restaurant



Rogelio Tijerina lives half the year in Chicago and the other half with his wife and five children on a 180-acre cattle ranch in Bayview, Texas, about ten miles west of South Padre Island. He raises Simbrahs, a cross between docile, easy-calving Simmentals and sturdy, heat-resistant Brahmans, and at any given time he has a herd of around 40 freely roaming about. The livestock is sold for meat, but that's not what keeps the operation going. "There's no money in ranching," he says. A sculptor and former teacher at the School of the Art Institute, Tijerina breeds his cattle as models. "They lead a good life as an art project. One cast bull feeds a lot of hungry cattle."

Each calf is evaluated on its musculature about 18 months after birth; those who won't develop the right way are auctioned off to a meatpacker, the rest are kept around for another two or three years. Once a cow or bull has reached its full physical potential--but before it's fully grown, to keep the cost of casting down--Tijerina loads it into a squeeze chute, slaughters it, then uses forklifts, cranes, pulleys, and hoists to move and position the body inside his sculpture studio. The meat will spoil in less than 30 hours, and Tijerina needs every minute. He works nonstop, positioning and casting the beast one section at a time, using cold-water pumps and ice bags to preserve the carcass. When the task is done the model is sent off to the butcher. The plaster mold is eventually cast in wax, then in ceramic, and finally in bronze. Never produced in an edition larger than three, the sculptures sell for as little as $2,000 or as much as $125,000.

The idea of breeding models came to Tijerina in 1998, after he bought a bull for casting at auction. "It was amazing how they'd bred him for loin and muscle, bred out all the fat. He looked like he was on steroids. I called him Hercules, but soon learned he was friendly, good-natured--a gentle giant. I couldn't bring myself to cast him, but it struck me I could easily reproduce him, and then cast his offspring. I'd work with Mother Nature to create art." When he casts an animal, especially one he's raised, Tijerina pays special attention to "shape and form and expression--like contentment, fear, resistance, life, death--drawn from the experience of living with and getting to know the animal for several years." He also leaves his weld marks visible on his sculptures, exposing the production process. "As a result, some of my pieces resemble 3-D butcher's diagrams."

Tijerina grew up alongside cattle, horses, goats, and pigs on his parents' ranch in the lower Rio Grande Valley. His grandmother, who lived with the family, taught him to use every scrap of an animal, from cooking the meat to tanning the hide. In second grade, he says, he started whittling anatomically correct naked dolls, selling them on the sly to classmates until he was the "richest kid in class." He left Texas to attend the University of Missouri, where he earned a BFA, and followed that with an MFA from the University of Wyoming. "I was all set to be a perennial student," he says. After grad school he made a decent living churning out abstract glass and mirror sculptures for a local Wyoming gallery, but when the Art Institute offered him a fellowship in 1984, he decided to reorient his work and give urban living a try.

"Living in a city for the first time, I'd go deer hunting to get away," Tijerina says. "I like the rituals of deer hunting--camping out, cooking--but usually stop short of shooting the deer. I'm happy to harvest what I consume, but not more than I need and not for sport." On those trips he spent a lot of time thinking about his childhood experiences on the ranch, and what role domestic animals play in a society so alienated from them. "We no longer use horses for transportation, just recreation. We eat processed and packaged milk and meat but never think of the animals they came from. We're disconnected from the life cycle of domestic animals, the natural cycle of life and death." With that in mind Tijerina created an installation for his graduate panel at the Art Institute--which included sculptors John Buck and Deborah Butterfield--that was based on his grandmother's recipe for cabrito en sangre. He procured a young goat from a friend in Wisconsin, slaughtered it, cast it in bronze, and served its meat to the critics, who sat on a sheepskin rug he'd tanned. The installation also featured jewelry boxes, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings, all of which were made from the goat's skin and organs. Shortly after that the school offered Tijerina a teaching job.

The following year Tijerina took a group of SAIC students down to his folks' ranch in McAllen for spring break. They slaughtered a Brahman bull his dad had paid $850 for at auction, cast it, feasted on the meat, and eventually completed a life-size, 1,800-pound bronze statue of the animal on a trailer. Tijerina hitched it to a '54 pickup he'd renovated, drove it to Chicago, and parked it outside Navy Pier about a week before the annual outdoor sculpture show. "I fed the meters all week," he says. "We effectively crashed the show." For several years he hauled the sculpture around the country, financing the adventure with money raised at public barbecues thrown by arts organizations.

In 1990 Tijerina heard that a horse had been injured at Hawthorne Race Course; he sped there before the owners put the animal down and arranged to cast it. The resulting piece is now perhaps his signature work: locally it's been in the Art Institute, Skokie/North Shore, and Purdue North Central sculpture gardens and at the Evanston Art Center. Tom Scarff, curator of the Purdue show, describes it as "a casting of a horse in terror--pulling back in fear from its death blow." Tijerina's largest work to date is a 30-foot-long melange of bronze cattle with wooden fencing, built in 2000 for the pier show and now permanently installed on the grounds of Harper College in Palatine. To build it he resculpted and reconfigured plaster casts he'd used on earlier pieces, partly as an expression of his commitment to "using and recycling the whole harvest, out of respect to the animal."

Tijerina quit teaching at the Art Institute in 1997 and moved his family to the ranch. Now he spends about two weeks a month in Texas and two in Chicago, where he's rented studio space to local artists in East Village and West Town since the early 90s. He's built a portable foundry on a flatbed truck so he can conduct metal sculpting workshops across the country, some as short as a weekend and some as long as two weeks. He also takes on apprentices and is currently working in Chicago with Georgie Leisz, an art student from Montana. As part of her training, Tijerina makes her roll 300 tamales daily to build up her stamina. "It's a very involved process with a lot of steps, just like a sculpture," Leisz says. "You need patience to do both." She also has to muck out the stalls of Michigan Avenue carriage horses. "Casting sculpture is physically demanding and time-consuming, and it helps to be a jack-of-all-trades," Tijerina explains. He happens to own a carriage-ride business on South Padre Island and sometimes relaxes by driving the carriages himself.

Food and art are obviously intertwined in Tijerina's aesthetic, and in February they became even more so. Along with business partners William Kasser and Kim Dolton, he opened Dodo, a breakfast-and-lunch joint in the center of his property on Damen, which also houses artists' studios and a gallery, Resaca. "The artists in the buildings needed gallery exposure," he says, "but we couldn't afford to staff a gallery. Having a restaurant here solves the problem, since the restaurant crew, who are mostly artists, double as staff for the gallery." Tijerina contributed recipes for meat and vegan tamales to the menu, "adapted from my mom's best dishes," and plans to open a dinner restaurant next door, behind a sculpture garden that will double as its patio. The place is already doing private parties, but he says it will open to the public later this fall, "with a fusion of Texas brisket, banana-leaf tamales, and Latin cuisine." No word yet on whether those briskets will come from his Texas-bred models. "I don't give details about my artwork or my cooking," he says. "That takes away the magic. I want my audience to question what they're seeing--or tasting."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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