Updated: Sep 9, 2020
It may be San Antonio’s most-recognized art work — PanterAzul in Hemisfair’s Yanaguana Garden.
Created by Lavaca artist Oscar Alvarado, the panther is seven tons of steel, concrete, mosaic tiles, and glass. It’s part of an extended work that also includes two mosaic-clad concrete benches, all the pieces together telling the origin story of the indigenous Payaya people.
It is one of dozens of public art works by the 58-year old artist, works that dot the city, covering walls, walkways, and bridge underpasses, and brightening building facades and parks.
If you’ve lived in San Antonio for a while, you’ve probably seen many of these mosaics, and you may have considered them simply a style of art here in the city, not realizing that most of them are, in fact, the work of a single artist.
He didn't start as an artist
Oscar Alvarado wasn’t meant to be an artist. At least that’s how it seemed for quite a while.
He had no formal training as an artist. He graduated from high school in 1980 with a scholarship to A&M and, after four-and-a-half years, finished up with a business degree from UTSA. Then he moved from San Antonio to Los Angeles to take a job selling computer systems to businesses.
But he quickly discovered that the business world didn’t really fit him. He liked to work with his hands, making things. And, more awkwardly for a businessman, he felt compelled to go through piles of junk and discards to find things that he could assemble into interesting new objects.
Alvarado describes a day in Los Angeles, when — on his way to a sales meeting — he walked down a block where several old homes had been demolished to make way for a new office building. In the debris, he spotted some shiny objects. Dressed in a suit and wearing his freshly-shined wingtip shoes, he walked onto the lot, pawed through the junk, found pieces of glass and mirrors, stuck them in his briefcase, and took them home.
“It made no sense to me,” he admits today. “I don’t know what I was doing.”
He finally decided to quit the sales job, and, after some time spent traveling, he joined his twin brother, Robert, in a renovation and restoration business. That business had multiple incarnations, beginning in L.A., moving to Portland, and finally returning to San Antonio in 1993.
In San Antonio, he and his brother located their business on Pereida Street, and they worked on the wave of renovations and restorations that was underway in King William and Lavaca.
All the time he was working on restorations, Alvarado was also producing small works of art and struggling to turn that art into a living. While still on the West Coast, he sold some of his works in small shops in Pasadena and Venice. In San Antonio, his friend Craig Pennell carried his work in a store on South Alamo, Tienda Guadalupe. One year, he wangled a show at the Babylon restaurant. And every year, he managed to get work included in the Blue Star Red Dot exhibition and sale.
“I was there every year,” Alvarado says of the Blue Star event. “They never invited me back, but I always found a way to get included.” One year, he says, he showed up uninvited with a piece of assemblage art that involved a TV console with looping audio and a mosaic of himself as Jesus, and he cajoled Blue Star’s Jimmy LeFlore into letting him set up in an unused side room. That work sold immediately, Alvarado says, to collector Joe Diaz.
Sales or no sales, Alvarado was obsessed with creating his art and putting it wherever he could. For a time, his renovation business operated out of the building at South St. Mary’s and Pereida that now houses Southtown 101, and Alvarado lived there, too. So he put a mosaic on the outside wall facing St. Mary’s. It’s still there today.
In the mid-nineties, when he and his brother landed a contract to work on the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, he saw another opportunity. Would the Center mind, he asked, if instead of installing budget-friendly vinyl tile in the bathroom, he instead installed a mosaic at no extra cost? They didn’t mind, and that mosaic is still there, too.
Of course, neither of those works earned him any money.
One of the earliest works to bring him some income was in the home of Lynda McCombs. “She was my first patron,” Alvarado says. Having seen some of his small pieces at Tienda Guadalupe, she got in touch with him to do tiling in her home. He did kitchen backsplash, patio furniture, and a huge turtle — his first animal sculpture — for the garden.
In 1997, on marrying fellow artist and performer S.T. Shimi, he committed full-time to his art. He landed more private work, doing mosaics in homes both locally and in places like California, Montana, Colorado, and New Jersey. He even outfitted a mobile studio for remote work.
Over time, Alvarado’s reputation grew and his commissions grew. Soon, he got a position as Artist in Residence for the Art Museum of South Texas and, while there, created a mural at the Garcia Center for the Arts.
Then, back in San Antonio, he was offered a commission from the City to install mosaics at a dozen locations along the Riverwalk. That commission preceded the City’s establishment of Public Art San Antonio, the entity through which the city now provides both budget and planning for the inclusion of art in major engineering projects. Because that formal entity didn’t yet exist, there was very little budget for the project, but it was an opportunity, and Alvarado took it.
This was in the early 2000s. Over the next several months, he installed mosaics, mostly under bridges, on both sides of the river from Richmond Avenue down to Travis Street, working under the direction of landscape architect Larry Clark.
Alvarado completed a dozen mosaics along the Riverwalk, including a portrait of José Antonio Navarro and a view of San Antonio from the perspective of his dog, seen here in both the original conceptual sketch and the final mosaic.
The series begins with two murals at the Richmond Avenue bridge, representing an abstract cross-section of Texas. Next, at Navarro Street, is a portrait of José Antonio Navarro, based on an old portrait of the man Alvarado cites as his great, great, great, great grandfather. At St. Mary’s Street, you’ll find a map of 1836 San Antonio on one side of the river and, on the other side, a mural — based on a map from 1825 — of the San Antonio River as it flows from its headwaters past all the missions. Additional works can be found at Convent Street, Martin Street, Pecan Street and Travis Street.
It was a satisfying project, and it led to further commissions from the City in the following years.
Billboards on Zarzamora
One of the most personal of his public works is a series of three mosaic ‘billboards’ at bus stops along South Zarzamora Street, near where he lived with his family in the 1960s.
The project grew out of a request from Public Art San Antonio.
The city was working on a big engineering project to combat flooding along Zarzamora, Alvarado explains, and the original engineering plans offered a big open space for an art installation. Alvarado came up with a concept for a replica drive-in movie theater in that space. His plan included a mosaic of the screen, little cars parked in front of the screen, and speakers where visitors could hear people from the neighborhood tell stories.
Then the engineers changed their approach, the big empty space went away, and Alvarado needed to come up with something else.
Looking at street plans, he noticed three nearby bus stops that had no shelters, and he decided those would be good places to install art. So he designed three mosaics — to be installed like double-sided billboards — that illustrated his memories of the neighborhood from 1968. Each billboard had matching designs on each side, along with a text label, Spanish on one side, English on the other.
The first one (A Los Cielos / To the Skies) shows an Air Force C5 Galaxy transport plane taking off into the air. Alvarado’s father worked as a machinist on the C5A planes at Kelly.
The second (Llevame a la Luna / Take Me to the Moon) shows his dad’s 57 Chevy “flying off to the moon — the young kid in the back seat thinking he can go anywhere”.
And the third (Hoy Bailamos / Today We Dance) is a portrait of his parents dancing at Arturo’s Ballroom, which had been in that location for thirty years, Alvarado recalls.
As is the case with most of Alvarado’s public art, installing the billboards was as much construction project as art. The heavy concrete and steel structures had to be engineered, built partly off-site and moved into place with heavy equipment. The mosaics themselves were also created off-site, on a mesh, and added to the structure in place. That work took place over more than a month in an improvised ‘hut’ built at each site to protect the artwork from the elements and vandals. Pulling it all together required a team of people, Alvarado says, including a metal fabricator, an architect, and multiple craftsmen.
The Zarzamora billboards were engineering and construction projects, not just works of art.
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.
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.
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.”