#397: The Steelworker’s Art

November 10th, 2014

“They just closed the damn door,” Roman Villareal said as his great-grandchildren laughed through the studio.

“One shift went out, the next shift was coming. And everyone who was coming in, they wouldn’t let you in, not even to get your stuff out of your box or nothing. They slammed the lock on there,” he said.

“That was the last time the men went into the steel mill.”

Between 1979 and 1986, about 16,000 Chicago-area steelworkers lost their jobs. Roman Villareal was one of them.

The steel mills that helped build the nation for more than a century were out-priced by foreign markets. Wisconsin Steel, U.S. Steel, Acme, Republic, South Works, Iroquois Steel, General Mills, Valley Mould & Iron, LTV and others closed, one after another, along the South Side of Chicago.

Out of work and feeling betrayed by union leaders, many of the steelworkers turned to alcoholism, some to crime.

“That period led to the downfall of many, many good men in South Chicago who were steelworkers. I was fortunate enough that I had odd goals in my mind,” Villareal said. “Art was my savior because I was able to concentrate a lot of my energy into my art projects.”

The Mill

Villareal was born in 1950, raised at 85th and Green Bay in a neighborhood called the Bush. He was, he said, born at the entrance to the steel mills where his father and almost all of the men in the area worked.

“The men who were living in that situation didn’t have time to teach their children that there is another way to live other than blue collar,” he said. “You were expected to go right into that mill.”

In high school, Roman started running with the Royal Knights. It was a time when gang fights meant fists, not guns.

“When you were a gang member in those days, you did a lot of parties, dances with the girls, this and that. That was the top priority for us at the time,” he said.

To keep the 17 year old off the streets, Roman’s father got him a job at the mill. Immediately after school, Roman would head to the steel mill for a 3-11 p.m. shift paying $1.25 an hour, or about $8.90 in 2014 dollars. It was good money.

“Up to a certain point, as long as you were living at home, especially with a strong Mexican culture family, the majority of the money went to the family. Because at the same time, the family was supporting people in Mexico.”

“Even though we were barely making it, they had it worse.”

Fortunate Son

Villareal was drafted in 1968. He went through training, but through a combination of luck and working the system, he never was shipped to Vietnam.

During this time, he started learning more about the war and becoming more political.

“We were completely ignorant of what was going on because we were street kids. We were having so much fun being on the street, that we didn’t pay attention to the newspaper. We didn’t know what Vietnam was. We didn’t hardly even know who the damn president was at the time because that didn’t concern us. We were having too much fun,” he said.

He received an honorable discharge in 1970, but later got a letter telling him he was ineligible to re-enlist. “Could not conform to military life.”

He and his wife did some traveling before going back to Chicago. They started a family. Roman returned to the steel mills.

“When the mills closed during that period, I decided that I was going to be the master of my own fate. I was no longer going to depend on any damn body for anything,” he said. “It was over for me.”

Dada at the bar

Self-taught through library books and with the support of his wife, Maria, Roman began making his lifelong interest in art a passion.

“I would go into a neighborhood bar and I would start talking about everything I was doing. They would look at you like you’re a wacko. Who in his right mind in the ‘80s is going to be reading about Dada? They’re steelworkers. They don’t give a shit about that. All they talk about, sports, sex, whatever this and that. But nobody would ever discuss about the theory of art, the revolution, Impressionism. But this is what I was full of.”

He found more of a community with ex-soldiers from Vietnam who returned to the neighborhood with a broader perspective and, in some cases, degrees.

“I never got a degree, but I did go and attend certain classes. Because a lot of times, in the early years of the Art Institute, it was more lax, right? So I would go in there and, say, a really famous artist was there and they were doing a lecture. So you go with your friends.

“I did a lot of visiting with friends who were at the Art Institute to the point where they thought I was actually a student.”

Roman started entering — and winning — local art contests. He and Maria, who is also an artist, worked fairs, festivals, shows, any place that would have them.

“We are survivors in the art world. I don’t think we’re middle class,” Roman said. “I just think we’re survivors. Period.”

Under the Bridge

Today, Roman paints and sculpts. He teaches. The city placed one of his sculptures (the odd backstory of which you’ll read on Wednesday) along the lakefront.

He’s got a studio at 100th and Ewing filled with gasping, glowing, colorful, reaching paintings and sculpture by him and other artists looking to tell the story of South Chicago.

Under the Bridge, it’s called. The Chicago Skyway snakes overhead.

“The art world is survival of the one who rides the longest,” the steelworker said.

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