Alfonso "Piloto" Nieves was at a friend's birthday party—still going strong at almost 4 AM the day before Christmas Eve—when he got a call on his cell from Omar Magaña. Magaña owned the Little Village building where Nieves, an award-winning sculptor, rented a studio in the attic. He told Nieves the building was on fire.
It wasn't unusual for Nieves to hear from Magaña at that hour—the two are good friends and they both like to stay out late. So Nieves assumed it was a joke and, eager to get back to the party, hung up without a second thought. It wasn't until he got another call a few minutes later, from a friend who lived near the building, that he realized the situation was serious.
Though Nieves didn't live in the studio, at 2214 S. Sacramento, he spent long hours there creating his signature apocalyptic sculptures out of clay, discarded objects, and industrial refuse, and he stored some of his finished work there. And he'd come himself as part of a budding arts community. Seven other artists—photographers, painters, writers, and musicians—lived in the spacious four-story building, and it served as the home base for Expresiones-Artisticas, a grassroots arts collective that had planned to open its first show January 17 in a new gallery on the ground floor.
"We were a real community," Nieves says. "If you smelled food cooking you would just knock on someone's door and they'd feed you. If you needed a beer or something you'd just look through someone's fridge. It was like a family."
Since most of his real family is in Mexico, that meant a lot to Nieves.
After the second phone call, he and Marco Tellez, a building resident who was also at the party, ran in the cold to Tellez's car, then headed west toward Little Village. As they drove past taquerias and shuttered stores on Cermak, they could see plumes of smoke and the glow of flames rising from their block. As they drew closer the scene got worse: firefighters stood on ladders above the disintegrating roof of the building, aiming jets of water at it from fire hoses.
With the road blocked off they circled the area for a few minutes before finding a place to park. Then they sprinted back to Sacramento. They quickly found the other building residents among the neighbors shivering and staring up at the blaze. Photographers Cheryl Tomlin and Paolo Valera and painter Gustavo Perez were sure they'd lost a lot of their work and supplies.
Angela Anderson, the main organizer and fund-raiser for Expresiones-Artisticas, had been asleep when the fire broke out. She'd awakened to the sound of smoke alarms and some of her neighbors throwing rocks through the windows. Police, the others said, had broken down the door just before firefighters arrived; everyone got out unhurt.
Nieves says his shock turned to relief that his friends were safe. "Once I saw that everyone was OK, I just started laughing. My whole world was flipped over in an instant—all my work from the last seven years burning. . . . What else could I do but laugh?"
In a sense, the fire was a fitting demise for Nieves's sculptures, focused as they were on death and destruction. Though he is relatively new to art, Nieves has a lifelong fascination with darkness.
He grew up in the city of Queretaro, about 125 miles from Mexico City, where from the age of nine he played American football. He played in college, too, at the Autonomous University of Queretaro, where his coach gave him the nickname "Poncho Piloto," which means "Pontius Pilot." When he wasn't on the field, Nieves was singing for a heavy metal band called Ruinas Malditas, which translates roughly to "Damned Ruins." Though he didn't play any instruments, he could scream, and he loved the rock lifestyle. The band was part of a thriving underground scene, playing at empty warehouses, clubs, and outdoor festivals. But during a concert in 1997 Nieves dove off the stage and damaged his inner ear, ending his football career. "Football was my passion," he says. "After I got hurt I felt like there was nothing in Mexico for me."
That same year he came to the U.S. on a tour with Ruinas Malditas. He met up with an aunt and uncle in Chicago and, sensing more opportunities here than in Queretaro, he decided to stay.
The novelty of his new surroundings soon wore off as he faced the grueling life of the immigrant who speaks very little English. Nieves grew depressed, desperate for a new way to express himself. Walking through a highway underpass one day, he was moved by the sight of the wings of a few dead pigeons on the pavement as live ones flew by overhead. "I got a really weird feeling," he says. "So I just picked them up and went to my house and made a sculpture."
His father and grandfather had been artists, so the pull he felt toward art wasn't unexpected. Around this time Nieves was taking English classes at the Lakeview Learning Center, an extension of Truman College. A teacher noted his budding interest and invited him to paint a mural at the school. Nieves went at it eagerly—he had something to say. When it was completed, the mural showed a Christ figure holding a pair of scales. On one a skull was balanced with an airplane dropping bombs, symbolizing "war and all that shit"; the other, weighing love against materialism, held an embracing couple and a pile of money. Surrounding these images was a ring of hands dripping blood. The mural provoked a range of reactions: while some students and faculty grumbled that it was offensive, others thought it was powerful. It stayed up for about six years.
Soon he started studying ceramics at Truman. Encouraged by his teacher and mentor, Jose Garcia, Nieves began spending long hours experimenting with sculpture ideas, and he reached into other media, learning welding and other technical skills from artist friends. But he also needed to pay the rent, so he worked—waiting tables, cooking, coaching football, and teaching art to young kids in after-school programs.
After a few restaurant jobs he hated, Nieves landed at Las Palmas, a trendy Wicker Park Mexican restaurant and bar. One of his metalworking projects, a serpentine aluminum dragon, still adorns the ceiling there. Nieves also helped organize monthly "art parties" at the restaurant—exhibits that turned into late-night bashes with wild drum circles. Some of the artists who exhibited and met at Las Palmas formed Expresiones-Artisticas in 2004.
Over the past few years Nieves has continued to hone his skills, creating a series of sinewy human figures in states of pain, despair, and terror provoked by environmental destruction and urban decay. His reputation has grown as well. Nieves recently won second place in a national art contest sponsored by Red Bull, fashioning empty cans into a bull springing from a human torso. Last year the team of Nieves, Magaña, and a third partner, Todd Hoffman, was selected to participate in Chicago's "CoolGlobes" public art exhibit, a rumination on climate change featuring an international roster of artists. The trio's work, a tarnished iron globe wrapped in chains to illustrate how reliance on fossil fuels is destroying the earth, was stationed near Navy Pier from June to September. And Nieves was selected to participate in the "Chupacabras!" exhibit that opened last month at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. By late December he had nearly finished a piece for it called Illegal Alien, featuring a white hard hat over a set of metal jaws and a row of grinning teeth made from pebbles purchased at a dollar store.
That piece was consumed in the fire, along with almost all of Nieves's 30 sculptures from the past seven years. Among them were ruminations on Hurricane Katrina, war, and immigration as well as an homage to a recently ended relationship, "Tu Halucinas Tu Amor" ("You Hallucinate Your Love"): a woman's body springing out of a guitar, its strings tugging at her heart and morphing into ladders, while at the base crumpled fallen angels cradled their broken wings among twisting roots and serpents.
A few days after the fire Nieves crept gingerly through the singed, water-damaged hallways to the roofless shell of what had been his studio. He salvaged some pieces of charred metal and debris—a partially melted bucket, burned pipes, scraps of wood nearly turned to charcoal. He's using them to construct his first postfire sculpture, which will be shown at a fund-raising party and exhibit Expresiones-Artisticas is hosting at a supporter's home on February 8. The event will feature an open mike, a drum circle, sets by Pilsen bands, and guitar by Michael Garcia, a former resident of the burned building.
Nieves is putting the new piece together in the basement of his aunt and uncle's house. At its center is a dejected angel, with wings made from goat jawbones acquired from a local butcher. It sits on top of a life-size human head; from the head's ear protrudes a metal wheel adorned with wailing skeletons.
The piece represents destruction and death, like many of Nieves's works, but also the cycle of life and rebirth. Nieves says he's been thinking a lot about loss and new beginnings lately. In the months before the fire his uncle in Mexico died and his cousin was seriously injured in a car accident.
Nieves recalls the evening before the fire, when he and Tellez went to see a play about impoverished people scavenging through garbage dumps at Christmastime.
"Around Christmas you get nostalgic for Mexico and you miss your family," Nieves says. "We're watching this play, saying, 'Shit, look at these guys' and feeling really bad. And the next day—that was us. Lost everything, just sorting through the trash." v