#398: The Steelworker’s Mermaid

November 12th, 2014

On Lake Michigan at 41st Street Beach, a mermaid suns herself by the water.

Carved in stone, she stretches, her arms thrown back, her hair trickling out in rivulets from a peaceful, strong face. Both on and part of a limestone boulder that once kept the lake and land separate, the mermaid acts as resting spot for weary joggers, curiosity for beach-bound children.

And for 14 years, no one knew where it came from.

On Monday, we met sculptor and former steelworker Roman Villareal. This is the story of how he hid a mermaid in 1986.

‘A mermaid is not political’

Doing a show at Hyde Park with artist Jose Moreno, who was visiting Chicago from Mexico, the pair talked about collaborating on a guerilla piece. Soon joined by artists Fred Arroyo and Edfu Kingigna, they decided to make some of Villareal’s sketches of a mermaid into a sculpture by the lake.

“A mermaid is not political, not social,” Villareal said. “Nobody could ever get mad at us for making a mermaid.”

They picked a spot in Burnham Park, just north of 39th Street along Lake Michigan, where four levels of rock act as revetment, keeping the park from washing away into the water.

Villareal said his next task was to con his 15-year-old daughter Melinda into being the mermaid.

“So we needed a model. So I told her, ‘Hey, you know what? Naah, forget it.’ ‘What?’ She was a contrarian, so you had to start off telling her, ‘No, you can’t do this.’ ‘Do what?’ ‘Well, I’m going to get somebody else. You won’t be able to sit still.’ ‘Sit still for what?’ ‘Well, we’re going to do this.’ ‘I can do it!’”

Melinda laid down on the rock in her street clothes to get the form right, the artists sketched her out. They started the carving that afternoon.

‘Nobody asks too many questions’

It took nine days, showing up in the morning and working late.

“Broad daylight, right in front of everybody because something about Chicago, nobody asks too many questions,” he said.

“We were into our fifth, sixth day that a police lady for the first time — she was having her lunch, a coffee and spotted us and she walks over and goes, ‘What are you guys doing?’ But by that time most of the mermaid was already out and she goes ‘Oh, that’s beautiful! Who commissioned you?’

“And we’re going, ‘Oh, well, this is kind of like a project on our part that we just want to kind of help beautify the lakefront and we’re just kind of, you know.’ And she left us alone. She congratulated us.

“And after a while another police officer came and another one and another one, but nobody ever really said too much to us.”

On the ninth day, la sirena was complete. The four artists left. The mermaid became a secret spot known only to the locals.

‘The equipment was coming near’

The mermaid stayed a secret until 2000, when the Army Corps of Engineers started fixing up the Lake Michigan shoreline in an eight-year, $325 million revetment restoration.

“The last time we went to see her, we were quite concerned because all the equipment was coming near her,” a woman named Gail McClain told the Chicago Sun-Times, which ran a story on the mystery mermaid.

The story ran a few theories. It was carved by a lovelorn sculptor, working alone at night. It was part of some long-forgotten 1800s mansion, torn down and tossed as landfill in the lake.

Meanwhile, the actual artist was sitting a few miles away in a VA hospital. And Melinda Garcia-Villareal, the mermaid herself, was working across the street from the Sun-Times offices.

On her lunch break, Melinda crossed the street with the photos to show the newspaper where the mermaid really came from.

The mermaid’s origins revealed, the community asked the park district to save the mermaid from the Army Corps’ restoration. The park district removed the statue in 2004, putting it into storage. In 2007, a group of students in a community internship program worked with the artists to restore the mermaid and place it in Bessemer Park, by 89th Street in Villareal’s home community of South Chicago.

It was moved to its current home in 2010.

Now the mermaid sits by the water. Now you know where she came from.

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