'Reindeer Man' tracks life of Fairbanks reindeer farmer

Sep 8, 2021

Reindeer farmer George Aguiar and artist Alex Rydlinski have been collaborating on the show for over a year. It follows the life cycle of Aguiar's reindeer from birth to slaughter, in both oil paintings and etchings.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

Alex Rydlinski isn’t just interested in the pretty parts of reindeer farming.

When the Kenai painter decided to shadow and paint Fairbanks reindeer farmer George Aguiar, he wanted to capture all sides of his process.

And that’s what he did, in a series of eight oil paintings and eight etchings of Aguiar and his herd. The exhibit, called “The Reindeer Man,” is on display at Kenai Art Center through the month of September.

Rydlinski and Aguiar say the collaboration took a good deal of both curiosity and openness.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for readability.

KDLL: How did you guys get to know each other? How did your paths cross to begin with?

Alex Rydlinski: So my oldest friend, my best buddy, is a friend of George's. And he started helping out on the farm.

I think a big part of farm life is that you have volunteers sometimes who just help people out with some of the tasks. And I was living in Texas at the time, and Simon started sending me these photos of life with the reindeer. And I just thought it was just the coolest thing. It was really, really amazing. 

And so I knew that whenever I would get back to Alaska, at some point, I knew that his farm would be a place where I could get at least a couple of nice paintings out of. And when I met [George] and heard the way he talks about it, talks about his life and his animals, I realized this could be a whole show. At least one show —  this could be two, three shows worth of material.

It’s such an interesting life. It kind of has this romantic, old-school vibe about it, but at the same time it's very modern. He uses totally modern farming techniques. And it's just an interesting mix.

KDLL: Yeah, George, can you talk a little bit about your reindeer farm up in Fairbanks?

George Aguiar: Yeah. As Alex is saying, it's — I don't wanna say it's commercial farming, but it is. It's, you know, it's animal production.

And my background, my culture is animal production. I'm Portuguese first-generation, and so a lot of my growing up was tied to foods and my culture was tied to food, and then my education went into natural resource management, meat science. And so I had the opportunity to go to Canada about 10, 11 years ago, pick up the first animals. And I'd worked for the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was involved as a researcher and involved in several projects, worked on the Seward Peninsula with the Alaska Natives and the Alaska Native herds.

And so when I was finally able to get my own, and have my own small farm — it was a small farm, you could call it a backyard farm or even a hobby farm at one point — but kind of evolved into this bigger thing requiring, as Alex said, requiring help.

And all my friends, they were all in. I mean, handlings were a big thing. We would, you know, we would party afterwards — eat, drink — and so they were all happy to show up and help. And six reindeer turned to 20 turned to 40 turned to 60.

And so as the farm got bigger, more challenges, more friends involved in helping out with calving situations or castrating or vaccinating. Or, you know, for some people, this is their first experience with animals, large animals like that. And Simon, who we mentioned, who's also a good friend of mine, was also talking about Alex kind of in the background. And we finally met, and Alex was very curious about these things. 

And he asked the right questions. Everybody asks questions about reindeer when they find out I have them. And many times, it's like, ‘How many do you have?’ Or like, ‘How does it feel to raise reindeer?’ You know, there's always some kind of basic questions.

But he was asking the nuts and bolts. Like, stuff that people don't usually ask. Which intrigued me even more, because I was like, ‘This guy gets what's kind of underneath here.’ Like, the underlying things. And he's interested in showing people not just the romantic, you know, fluffy stuff, but like the real stuff.

And so that's kind of when I agreed to to look more into this. And then he wanted to go to the slaughterhouse, and we could talk about that, and that's when I really was like, ‘Okay, this guy's — This is my guy, like, I want to show him what I do and I really want to show him what I do.’

KDLL: Well, how was that, having someone kind of accompany you in those, you know, less romantic parts of the process, like you were saying? Was it at all intimidating to know that sort of those parts of your process were going to be kind of on display, or to let someone in like that?

GA: Very intimidating in the aspect of vulnerability, especially in today's today's age when everybody's looking at this animal welfare component. And you know, if there's one bad picture, one bad scene, one bad experience, you know, that can, with the internet and Facebook and everything else —

But I think the thing is, most of us are doing things the best we can. We're following a very strict moral code with animal welfare and ethics and everything else. Everything we're doing is part of the food process that most people are just scared to think about, right? Like, if you're purchasing meat at the store, if you're buying meat from a local farmer, if you enjoy eating meat, then you are part of this food system, you just don't — you're just ignoring a big part of it, right?

And we have so much animal welfare at play. You have a lot of different types of critical control points in these processes to make sure that the animals are being treated well.

AR: It's true, the only reason this project worked is if George says yes to letting me paint some of these things. And so my initial questioning was like that, that kind of thing: ‘Can I — Is it okay with you if I show the slaughterhouse picture?’

Alex Rydlinski wanted to show all parts of the farming process, like this scene of an animal in the slaughterhouse.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

And he says, ‘Yeah!’ You know, he doesn't see things as pretty parts and ugly parts, he sees them as important, critical parts. And so that's the only reason it worked.

And so when I was there, he was worried about how I was handling it. So he says, ‘How do you feel, you alright?’ I said, ‘Well, how do you feel?’ I’m trying to get to something real, trying to see what that feels like for him. He's raised this animal for 10 years, maybe.

GA: Alex actually brings up a really good point. That was the moment, too — so he came, I was like, ‘I'm gonna show this guy the slaughterhouse.’ That is the most vulnerable place, that is the most real place for me, you know, that's when all of your inputs cross. You've got all the production stuff that went into this animal and made it to slaughter, but then you have the retail component, you have the slaughter guy — that's where everybody kind of crosses paths.

And after this animal was killed, you know, was slaughtered and everything, he wanted to know how I felt. And he was, like — I'll never forget that — he was like, ‘This animal was alive, and now it's not, and like, you're here, and you're part of this, this was your world.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it sucks.’ Like, it's no fun, but this is why we do this, you know?

And I love my whole herd. And I understand that in order to keep that whole herd going, there are these decisions you have to make. You have to punch off the cull animals. You have to punch off the production animals. That favorite cow that you had, she's either gonna die in the field, a natural, maybe not so great death, or you can punch her off after her prime and cull her from the herd.

So those are just part of the decisions and maintaining this whole herd. 

KDLL: I'm kind of curious, too, how the answers to those questions, and what you saw in that regard, Alex, played into the work. Lke, how do you take these really philosophical kind of questions and answers, and then incorporate them into a painting in a scene like this? How do you work with that?

AR: Well, it's difficult. These are things that I make a lot of sketches and work out a lot of possible scenarios.

I remember my first slaughterhouse idea was going to be in the freezer, when the meat is hanging there, and it was going to have a beef carcass on one side and pork and the reindeer, and it was going to be a picture about how the reindeer sort of fit into the larger scheme of food in Alaska.

I did a lot of prep for that, that was going to be the picture. And then as I'm looking at it, I said, ‘This wasn't the most important feeling that I got when I was there.’ The most important feeling was seeing all that blood on the floor. 

And honestly, for me, from my perspective, I was kind of trying not to step on it. So in the picture, you'll see one guy sort of watching his feet.

And I think that's the in for people that aren't, you know — everyone else in the painting is professional. They know what they're doing. And then there's one guy that's sort of walking around, he’s a sort of misfit. And to me, that's the in. That's people that aren't used to it.

But yeah, that’s what it's all about, is trying to find whatever that feeling is, whatever that emotion is, and trying to transfer it to other people.

KDLL: Well, we've been talking a lot about the slaughterhouse. And there was a quote in the statement you made on the Kenai Art Center page that I want to read and ask you about. 

You said: ‘I was initially concerned that my pictures might end up too safe, with too little at stake, like so many thrift store farm paintings. Those concerns disappeared on my first fact-finding mission, when I accompanied George to the slaughterhouse.’

I think that's really interesting, and kind of referencing those old school thrift store farm paintings like you were talking about — can you elaborate on what you meant by that?

AR: I'm not interested in paintings as decoration. So, if there's nothing at stake, if it doesn't make you feel something or it doesn't make you think about anything, I don't understand why somebody would want to paint it.

And so some of the feedback I've gotten from the show is, ‘Who is this slaughterhouse painting for? Who's your target market? Who's going to buy this? Who's going to put this in their house?’

And I realized that that's a painting that is very difficult to sell. But if you take that away, what do you have? What is the show? What are you left with? It's such an important piece of the show and it's such a perfect metaphor for the way people think about farming in general. They just don't think about that part. But without that part, what do you have? You don't have the rest of the pictures.

So yeah, I mean, I think there's a couple of sweet pictures: George taking care of a calf inside, feeding it with a bottle. And then there's a couple more sweet images, because I'm not trying to exclude beautiful things, either. But the show’s trying to get to something real. And if, if it's real, then there's a light side and a shadow side.

KDLL: George, what is it like to see yourself in these paintings, as the subject?

GA: It was really strange at first. I mean, the first picture I saw he sent me, I mean, I couldn't — I don't even know what to say, cause, I mean, people want to draw things — they come out, they look at them, they take some pictures. And I have worked with a photographer that's really good and sold some of the prints.

But I've never had somebody that just, like he was saying, he was so — his mission was to make sure everything was portrayed accurately, right? If he had to get even how the animals are held, he's like, ‘Hey, is this how it's held?’ And when he said that, I was like, ‘Actually, no, it's more like this.’ And I sent him a picture, and he’s like, ‘Oh, that makes more sense now.’

And so when I saw all those things on a painting, and I was like, ‘Whoa, that that looks like me, I know who that guy is.’ — [it was] flattering, like it was kind of like this moment of like, ‘Are you sure people want to see this?’ But then it was also like, ‘Well, this is really good.’

And when I started seeing the process, and more paintings coming, like it started being a thing, I wanted to see more, but I also wanted to kind of be surprised by them as they came out.

So I don't know. There's a wide array. There's some pride in there. Of course, it was like, I get to share the real — everybody wants to come out during calving season and see the cute little babies. But this guy wants to show everybody the whole deal, you know?

And [I felt] a little vulnerable, like we kind of mentioned, but overall very positive.

People have asked like, ‘What's next?’ And it’s like, that's up to him. But I'm happy to share whatever else. He’s in.

KDLL: You mentioned the creative process. And I am curious about that. 

What was the timeline of you doing this work? And how did you decide which colors you were going to use and how you were going to shape this collection that seems to work really well and in tandem, all these works with one another?

AR: So first of all, I'm just sort of obsessed with all the Old Master stuff. That's my go-to place. I love Titian and Rembrandt and Goya and all these old guys. 

So I only typically use four colors. It's black, white, red and yellow.

And these paintings I actually started — we had about a year to do it. And like we've been talking about, I wanted it to be, as much as possible, empirical. 

So, calving season doesn't happen till early April. And the show opened [in Fairbanks] in August. So that picture was the last one to go, the last one to be started because I didn't want to start it until I saw it, until I witnessed it.

And you can see that painting in the show is the least finished. That's just kind of the way it goes. But we're working on it for about a year, once we decided to really get locked in. 

And I worked most of the paintings up actually in black and white first. And I use a lot of paint, so there's a lot of heavy black and white texture and then color. Mostly glazes at the end.

KDLL: So, reindeer are kind of — there's something mythical about the reindeer. Did the form of the reindeer call you as an artist kind of in itself?

AR: It did later. So, somebody said that, when I started this project, somebody said, ‘Oh, you must really be into reindeer.’

I didn't care about reindeer. If he was a pig farmer, the show would have been called ‘Pig Man,’ which almost would have been better.

But spending time on the farm, I really, really got into reindeer. I mean, they're so cool. Just the fact that males and females both have antlers. They expend the energy every year to grow these massive antlers and then drop ‘em. The differences in when the antlers drop and what they do, how it changes the hierarchy. Their eyes turn blue in the winter, which is like some ‘Dune’ stuff. I mean, it's really, really cool.

And then culturally — like the Finnish culture and even like Christmas, they're just this kind of magical animal.

'Reindeer Man' is up at the Kenai Art Center through the end of September.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

GA: Yeah, that warms my heart listening to him talk. Like, he gets it all right. 

The only thing that disappointed me a little bit is he didn't get off the couch when I went to do one of the calf checks in the middle of the night. But, you know, he was there, he got to see a birth and I saw him, you know, he looked  pretty comfortable, so I thought, ‘Let him be.’ 

KDLL: The show was designed for Fairbanks. And now we're getting it down here in Kenai.

Can you tell us a little bit about the show itself and its evolution? You know, from Fairbanks, and now being here? 

AR: Yeah, so actually, I applied to a call for entry, or an application for an exhibition in Fairbanks before I ever met anyone at the Kenai Art Center. it was right when I got here, they had an open call. And it seemed like at the time, there was so much time, like, ‘Oh, this is so far into the future, we're gonna easily pull this off.’ And then of course, those things creep up.

So yeah, so we were set to do the show in Fairbanks in August. And once the board of directors at the Kenai Art Center saw it, they knew, if possible, they wanted to put it on here. But we were thinking, you know, 2022, something like that.

And then we had a change in schedule. September's typically our harvest auction. And we had to cancel that due to COVID concerns, because it's one of the biggest events of the year, and it's based around a dinner. So they weren't sure how they were going to make it work with masks and all that.

So we cancelled the auction just a couple weeks before we needed a show. And I said, ‘Well, this show’s coming down, I could literally put it in my car and put it in the building.’ 

And I'm really grateful because I'm happy to do this now while we're still in it, rather than dig it up after a year and sort of re-enter it.

KDLL: What do you hope people take away from the show? Or, what do you want people to be paying attention to when they go see the show?

GA: I think for me, I hope they enjoy it and they see just the realness like we've been talking about. Like the behind-the-scenes and what goes into —  you know, especially now, even with this COVID and with just where the economy's at, people are looking more into some type of subsistence, some type of backyard farming, And the commitment that that takes I don't think is often always — we're so used to this modern world where we can get what we want by going to the grocery store.

And so just to see the realness of it and to see what it takes to have a small farm. If you're curious about that, maybe it'll intrigue some part of you to ask more questions and to find that animal or that livestock species that's more properly fitted with your lifestyle.

Because a lot of people dive in headfirst to these things, and then they find out ‘Wow, this doesn't really match my lifestyle.’ And so many of those things can be avoided, I feel like, with a little bit of more forethought. 

But mostly just to enjoy [the show]. Like, I look at those paintings and I just enjoy looking at them.

AR: My goal is kind of always the same. It's just that people spend some time with it. You know? They take a long time to make, they take a lot of planning and a lot of thought to kind of craft this, the paintings, and then also the way it's curated around the room, there's sort of an order by season, and there's little descriptions about exactly what's happening.

And if people just spend some time with it and it transmits some of those feelings of some of those scenes, and if they think about it down the line, that would be a huge plus for me.

“Reindeer Man” is up at the Kenai Art Center through the month of September.