Q&A with Miguel Rodriguez

Meow Wolf collaborating artist Miguel Rodriguez uses creativity as a means to investigate being human.

Miguel Rodriguez is an artist and educator living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Rodriguez utilizes a figurative pop style to create large works of art. He is a multi-disciplinary American Artist; sculptor, educator and friend. He is best known for his sculptural works and is a mentor and Adjunct Instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, (UNLV) teaching ceramics.

Miguel Rodriguez wearing a NASA space shuttle t-shirt, standing in a classroom with paints on a shelf to his right and art projects on a table in front of him
Miguel Rodriguez at the University of Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Fawn Douglas.

He’s standing by his work table in his ceramics classroom, cool and collected with a glowing smile. The scent of damp Earth is soothing. The room is not only a comfort to my senses but so is he. Miguel Rodriguez beams kindness, presence, and a way of speaking that pulls you in.

I had the joy of conversation with the artist recently as we took our time going back to the start. I met Miguel over 15 years ago, he was a ceramic arts instructor for the City of Las Vegas New Directions Youth Arts Program. My daughter participated, and I was a volunteer facilitator. The City connected with the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe through this arts program and we held workshops at the Tribal Multi-Purpose.

Miguel, what can you tell me about the City of Las Vegas New Directions Youth Arts (NDYA) experience?

It was really amazing. I worked for NDYA at the Paiute Reservation but also the youth correctional facility way up in North Las Vegas. I worked with a group of six or seven kids, and also at West Care. I did a ton of stuff around town, it was a really wonderful situation. It was weekly, we were making those little people, little tiny people out of clay. Just in general, teaching all age groups has always been really fun for me. That whole experience was really wonderful. If that program was still around, I would 100% still be working on that. It was really inspiring for me to work on that level.

Sculpture of two faces looking in opposite directions, one wearing a shirt and tie and the other wearing a jacket
Photo Courtesy of Miguel Rodriguez.

There are a lot of the youth that are really feeling this medium for the first time, to get their hands in some clay or to be able to shape something with their hands and make something out of nothing. And I think that just the act of that can be really transformative.

Clay is such a foundational medium. Not just for artists that are becoming artists. It's a medium that allows you to investigate so many different foundational aspects of art. But also, foundational in terms of your humanity and using your hands to make things. It's really just so primal just to squeeze something then have it hold its form and then to continue to work it and realize that, "I don't have that much control over it," and then try to work it more. It's one of the ways that we know about human history. Almost every culture has some sort of relationship with clay, right? And because it lasts so long, even if it's broken in the forms of shards, it leaves this really lasting indelible historical reference that we can also judge ourselves by. I think it's really fascinating. I love clay.

I was really blown away by just how many sculptures you have in the City of Las Vegas or Clark County. What are your favorites and why?

My favorite public art piece is the Gato Gigante, the one that's in front of the Winchester Dondero Community Center. A collaboration with Alexander Sky.

Gato Gigante is a large jaguar head in multi colors in the median of a street in Las Vegas
Gato Gigante sculpture in Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Mikayla Whitmore.

That's mine too! Gato Gigante is a large jaguar head in multi colors, tell us more about it.

Yeah. I love that piece so much. Foam carving is really interesting in general because the process is almost the exact opposite of clay sculpting. It took me a few years to really wrap my head around working that way, but I feel like that piece in particular, especially when you look at some of the structures around the mouth, tongue and the teeth. All those things, the way those worked out, that process it's really satisfying to me.

Up close of Gato Gigante, a large jaguar head in multi colors
Gato Gigante sculpture in Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Mikayla Whitmore.

You’ve been a really important arts figure at UNLV and in the City of Las Vegas in general. Your work is shown in galleries across Las Vegas and beyond. Your work is commissioned by various casinos, organizations and private collectors. Is there a constant about your work?

The Wetlands Park, that was one of my first large commissions through Clark County. I love those park animals. I think they're really funny. They're very humorous. I love the fact that they're almost solid concrete, they're going to be there, unless someone takes a bulldozer to them, they're not going anywhere! There's a rattlesnake, a toad and a beaver. I love animals. I love science, nature definitely. They've always filled me up, informed me and inspired me. They gave me a sense of awe, ever since I was a little boy, especially animals, anything with animals, and anything to do with science in general.

Tell us more about one of your main collaborators, Alexander Sky.

Sky, he was my primary. We both worked together on Gato Gigante and it's always nice having someone who you can trust and has an emotional relationship with the piece itself, also informing the piece as we're working on it. It was awesome. I remember the first thing that we worked together on was probably like 10 years ago. It's around the time that he started working with Alex Huerta and Eddie Canumay with 3 BAAAD Sheep. I had a pretty small commission with Emergency Arts to do it. We like joking, constant silliness, craziness, buffoonery, but we're also working at the same time and it makes it really fun. So since then I've worked with him on several other projects and he helped me out with Meow Wolf alongside Clarice Tara.  

Miguel Rodriguez wearing a yellow hard hat and a face covering in an area under construction at Omega Mart in Las Vegas, NV.
Miguel Rodriguez at Omega Mart in Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Francesca Searer.

Every time I walk up or down the back stairwell at Omega Mart, I'm transported through a part of the storyline. You don't have to be into the story to love the work though. The cascading strokes of rainbow colors that switch and dance with the lighting are absolutely gorgeous. Can you tell us about your process for that?

First of all, it's probably one of the longest design processes I've ever been part of. I love science fiction and I've always loved the sort of juxtaposition, sort of the bait, if you will, between science fiction and fantasy. I wanted to create something that's so much of the aesthetic and the story line behind what's happening in Omega Mart. It is very science-fantasy to me, and that's all good and it's really fun. So in my mind I was like, "I kind of want to twist this. I want to come from a science fiction vantage point." And so that's why for me, the color spectrum, just the rainbow colors in general, there's so many different levels to that in terms of how Western society views the rainbow, and what it means in terms of diversity.

Mural of a man looking into a microscope with a comic book feel to it, by Miguel Rodriguez at Omega Mart in Las Vegas, NV.
Mural by Miguel Rodriguez at Omega Mart in Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Francesca Searer.

There was a very purposeful statement. Just a basic image of a scientist, looking through a microscope, but at that scale, that sort of epic scale it becomes very heroic. It's cascading colors and there's all sorts of movement but there is an order. There's a very fine order that, because I made it and the process that I went through was very, very orderly. And juxtaposing that with the craziness was purposeful. I was trying to create almost like a cathedral kind of space. When I was making it, there's always a part of it that's just purely visual, like I want to make something that's pretty, and also there's a little bit of humor to it as well with the little tadpoles that are flying around. The tadpoles and the scientist are both examples of things that are deep and inspiring to me. I love the place.

Miguel Rodriguez painting a large coy fish on a wall at Omega Mart in Las Vegas, NV.
Miguel Rodriguez painting at Omega Mart in Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Francesca Searer.

To view more of his work, check out his website or follow him on Instagram at @miguelitisimo.

About Fawn Douglas

Fawn is an artist, activist, and mother who resides in Las Vegas, Nevada, and works with Meow Wolf as a Cultural Engagement Specialist. Indigenous knowledge, passed on through storytelling, influences her work, as cultural heritage bridges her people's history into contemporary times.