This article was first published September 8, 2020, on the original 'Lavaca & Friends' website. It is one of several articles from that site that we have preserved and moved to the 'LNF Weekly' archive.
This is part two of a two-part article. Read the first part here.
Alvarado’s best-known work is the PanterAzul (Blue Panther) sculpture in Hemisfair’s Yanaguana Garden.
Ironically, Alvarado was not selected as an artist for Yanaguana Garden — he was hired by the landscape architects to build benches. Nonetheless, his panther is probably the most successful piece of art in the Garden, rising organically from the grounds of the play area, perfectly capturing the spirit of the place, and seeming to radiate joy.
It has become the iconic image of Yanaguana Garden.
The panther was originally part of the design for a long bench that used sculptural components and mosaics to tell the indigenous Payaya people’s origin story for the San Antonio River. The bench design featured the panther, an anhinga bird, and the ‘blue hole’ — the spring from which the Yanaguana River arises.
The final layer, of course, is the mosaic.
“I'll get a Sharpie and start marking where I want details, just mark it up and then I'll go from there.”
For the mosaic tiles and beads themselves, Alvarado uses commercial materials that are made for durability. Some are tempered glass; he also uses a high-fired porcelain. Most important, the materials are all low-porosity so they won’t take in water and can survive San Antonio’s annual freeze-thaw cycles.
Artists and craftspeople who work on big commissions have peaks and valleys in their schedules, so they often help each other out. For the panther, Oscar pulled in Oscar Cortes and his crew of concrete and steel specialists, and he asked Gini Garcia, of Garcia Glass, to create the glass for the panther’s eyes.
Working on the panther, Oscar says, “ I really did learn how to manage a crew. And then also how to assemble one.”
More to come
Currently, Alvarado is wrapping up a big project at The Rim. Again, he’s building benches, but this time he’s trying a new technique for the concrete, using wooden forms.
The benches are intended to represent survival and regeneration, inspired both by the indigenous people of the region and by the biological regeneration of an area after it’s been scraped clean, whether by a natural event or, in this case, by a quarry.
This is a little piece of a bigger idea — a monumental work on the theme of indigenous resilience — that Alvarado has conceptualized and modeled and wants to build some day. It’s planned to be thirty-six feet tall.
“That’s my obsession,” Alvarado says. “I’ve planned it. I’ve sketched it. I’ve built a model. I just have to find a place to put it.”
Finding his work in San Antonio
Oscar Alvarado’s public art is available for viewing throughout San Antonio. Here’s where you can find a sampling of it.
The PanterAzul sculture and the Payaya benches are in Hemisfair’s Yanaguana Garden, at the corner of South Alamo Street and César Chávez Boulevard. Not far away from Yanaguana — just up the street a couple of blocks — a pair of Alvarado's murals can be found in the lobby of the Hilton Palacio del Rio hotel at 200 South Alamo.
But the landscape architects had a concern. They worried that kids would climb on the panther, and, if they fell, would land on the concrete bench and injure themselves.
The play area in Yanaguana was designed to have a soft surface, so Alvarado suggested that they remove the panther from the bench and make it a standalone sculpture out in the play area. There, if kids fell, they’d land on the soft play surface.
That was a critical design decision. Freed from the bench, the panther became a more dramatic piece of art.
Concrete and steel
Building the panther was a big job.
Underneath the mosaics, Alvarado’s panther is concrete and steel — it weighs about seven tons, he says.
“I learned steel and concrete construction from Carlos Cortes,” Alvarado explains, referring to the Lavaca-based faux bois artist whose log-like concrete benches dot the city. “I lived catty corner from his studio, so I would be doing tile work, watching him work on his benches. I just started hanging out there and asking him about his process. So he let me help him. I grabbed all the tools, and I learned to bend the steel, mix the concrete, and understand the process.”
When he got the Yanaguana commission, Alvarado needed some help. First, he needed some help with the steel. Today, he has his own professional grade welding equipment and does all the welding himself, but when he built the panther he jobbed that kind of work out. A fellow artist, Chris Tilton, signed on to help him.
To go from two-dimensional sketches to a three-dimensional sculpture, Alvarado wanted some models, so he bought a bunch of ‘big cat’ toys — cougars and panthers — in order to see them from all angles.
Once he had decided on the pose, he and Tilton “did the math”, using calipers and a calculator, to translate measurements from the toys to the full-size sculpture.
With measurements in hand, they started bending steel.
There are “probably a thousand pieces of steel in there,” Alvarado says. “You create an armature that’s basically an exoskeleton, and then you fill it with concrete. And then all that gets covered again with one more inch of concrete. So all of the metal is buried. “
The twelve foot long sculpture was too big and too heavy to build in the studio and then transport. It had to be built on site in the park.
Once he had crafted the basic armature in his studio, Alvarado went on-site and drilled holes where he could implant steel supports at points where the sculpture would touch the ground, like at the paws and the belly. “Then I took that armature, and I welded it to the steel and I added about 60%, 70% more steel to it to really reinforce it.”
The armature provided the basic shape, and there was metal lath at the bottom of the structure so that, when concrete was poured, it wouldn’t leak out. The concrete itself had to be mixed to just the right consistency, with enough moisture to flow into the defined shape, but not so much that it could leak out.
“Basically it's a multistep process. Once the armature is built, you've got your shape. And you hold that from the first pour. And then the second pour, you add another whole layer and you sculpt that with tools after it.”
“That second layer is a different mixture from the first layer, but they're made to bond to each other.”
Alvarado explains that his concrete is a special mix, using additives and fiberglass, to extend its lifetime. “My concrete will be resilient. Concrete maintenance cycle is ordinarily 25 years. Mine is going to be 250 years because of everything I've put into it.”
The bus stop ‘billboards’ are spaced out in three locations along Zarzamora. The C5A billboard is at Humble Avenue, in front of a cluster of industrial buildings; the dancing billboard is located at Cavalier Avenue, along the front parking lot of La Michoacana meat market ; and the ’57 Chevy billboard can be found at Winnipeg Avenue, in front of the car wash.
Alvarado’s Riverwalk mosaics can be found along the river, mostly under bridges, between Richmond Avenue and Travis Street. The street-level addresses for the works are 124 Convent Street, 133 East Travis Street, 162 East Pecan Street, 122 East Martin Street, 703 North St Mary's Street, 1045 Navarro Street, and 165 Richmond Avenue.
In 2011, Alvarado created a beautiful mosaic walkway at the Mission Trails Baptist Hospital, at 3333 Research Plaza on the South Side. The work is based on a design by Larry Clark which was, itself, based on an old map of San Antonio. The walkway is built to scale and includes, nearby, a ‘you are here’ type marker that shows the relative position of the modern-day hospital. The walkway is outdoors and accessible, located between the hospital and a separate office building.
Over on the West Side, you can visit Elmendorf Lake Park. It’s located just off West Commerce at 3599 Buena Vista. The park features several of Alvarado's works — including benches, bus stops, and entry monuments.
If you’d like to see one of Alvarado’s very early works, from before he decided to commit full-time to art, check out the mosaics on the building at the northwest corner of South St. Mary’s and Pereida, facing St. Mary’s Street. Alvarado did this work while he was living in the building and, along with his brother, doing home restorations in Lavaca and King William.
Note: photographs published in this article are the property of Oscar Alvarado and are used with permission of the artist.
This is part two of a two-part article. Read the first part here.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
Crews construct the panther and the benches in Yanaguana Garden.
In addition to the Panther Azul, Alvarado's depiction of the Payaya origin story includes, as part of the Garden's benches, an anhinga bird and the blue hole from which the river arises.
One of the Hilton mosaics, alongside a detail from that mosaic, and the mosaic walkway from Mission Trails Baptist Hospital.