Telling Stories With Paint
STEAM You’re a true native Corpus Christian? How has that influenced your work?
RR Yep, born and raised here. I have worked for 34-years at the same hospital I was born in, so you don’t get much more native than me (laughing) Really, living in this part of the world you can’t help but be influenced by the culture. I have family that still live in Mexico and some of my fondest childhood memories are from our family visits.
STEAM In looking at your works I see a lot of symbolism, but there are two that I’m very curious about. First are the frogs. Why do you use the frog image in so many of your paintings?
RR Well, this is kind of a long story… When I was a kid we would visit our family in Mexico every March and at some point during the visit we would go to the Mercado. We’d see all the cheap little toys, shoes, clothes, boots, belts, and lots of stuff. One of the things they sold were these little frogs posed as mariachis, but my dad would never let me get one. So one day as a young man I went south of the border at Laredo with a bunch of friends and while we were there we went to the Mercado. Well I saw a mariachi frog playing an accordion and I thought “Dad never let me have one. I’m a man now, I can buy a frog myself.”
Later that night I’m sitting at a table looking at the things I’d bought and I stop at the frog. On closer look I realize the frog’s mouth and anus are sewn closed. That’s when I realized this was a real frog, not a aplastic toy. Someone had pulled it’s insides out, stuffed it, sewn it closed, shellacked it, nailed a wooden accordion to its hands, and stuck a sombrero on it to sell at the Mercado as a souvenir. So, these frogs became martyrs to me; they gave up their lives for someone’s petty amusement and it seemed like a horrible thing to do. So I began using these frogs as personas, play actors in the narratives that I present. My stories are about people I know, the city, the neighborhoods, the past, our children; and over the years the frogs have evolved to being an extension of myself.
A while ago I was in a show and there was at least one frog in each of my paintings being shown. A man come up to me with that same question and after I had given him the story he told me that, “it was an interesting thing about those stuffed frogs.” He said that he’d been a missionary in Mexico and had gone to the orphanage where they make the frogs. Kids make these frogs because their hands and fingers fit into the mouths without ripping the bodies apart, like adult fingers would. This tragic news made the mariachi frogs much more meaningful to me. So I paint these frogs as little martyrs and I pin brass badges on them; the badges have a symbolic arm or hand or children. In my mind they have become little saints for little miracles, so if you lose your keys you ask a martyr frog to ask God to help you find your keys; really the little trivial stuff.
STEAM That is so interesting! I don’t think I’d thought about how those frogs were made. That’s such a tragic story. Now I’m almost afraid to ask about the grackles.
RR You know it’s rare to see a dead grackle. You see dead pigeons, doves, sparrows, and dead mocking birds for sure; mocking birds because they’re in so many fights that they die all the time, but it’s rare that you see a dead grackle. That thought just got into my head and one day while I was driving around that it felt like I’d seen these same birds when I was growing up.
So I formed this theory in head that grackles live for a long time, and if anything lives long enough they will develop societies with businesses and have neighborhoods, and establish brotherhood organizations like the Shriners. Of course if you have a group like that you’ve got to wear the hat and put on the pants and the jackets to show your membership. What I’ve been doing with the grackles is painting partridge like you’d hang in the halls of a building like the Masons Lodge or something. These are like the past presidents of the club and each one has a story. They might be a small business owner or car salesman or librarian or an accountant and they all have their own personal history behind them. The title of the piece usually gives you a clue or a hint about his particular story. I did one recently called “El Mi Amore” and his fez has a big heart and says El Mi Amore in metallic lettering and a big ruby heart pendent on his sash. There was a song when I was a kid where the man sang “me llaman el hombre de un amor mil“ (they call me the man of a thousand loves) and he was just bragging, so male birds are just braggers and show offs, so I’m pointing out their strongest features.
STEAM I have to tell you – I love your imagination and your ability to come up with these ideas and run with them. I want to congratulate you on receiving your Masters of Fine Arts from TAMU-CC! Can you tell me the story of how you decided to go back to get your degree?
RR Thank you, I just got that in May of this year. Well, I got my Bachelor Degree years ago and life kind of got in the way so that I couldn’t pursue my Master Degree. I ended up taking care of my mom, taking care of my sister, and then I met a girl, got married, and had kids. You know things just kind of happened and the next thing I knew 22-years had gone down the road. That’s when my older son started going to school at TAMU-CC as an art major. After his freshman year he told me, “You know Pop you ought to go back to school and get your Masters,” and I asked him why should I do it now? And he told me about teaching at the university level and a few other good points. But I really felt it was kind of late for me to do that and so I just told him I’d look in to it. Then he tells me, “You better look in to it hard, because I already signed you up. I did all your paperwork, registered you, and you got accepted,” and hands me the letter. So that August I went back to school and three years later here we are.
STEAM That is such a great story! I can’t think of a better way to end our talk. Thank you.