5ft Woodcut Tribute to the Stockyards

red hog silhouetteIt started with an invitation

tiny woodcut hog face

…to participate in a 40 x 60 Woodcut Challenge! (Actually, it started with an inquiry about whether or not there were still any openings to participate, and thankfully, they’d seen my work and welcomed me to take part).

40 x 60 Challenge?red hog silhouette


Hoofprint Workshop “…invited twenty artists to each carve their own 40in×60in woodblock, to be printed on canvas and displayed together at Hoofprint Workshop’s opening reception for the Woodcut Challenge Portfolio. A majority of the artists are Chicago-based; many live and work just blocks from [their] studio in Pilsen….” (And the Pilsen neighborhood, I discovered, is very close to the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where, you guessed it, the Union Stockyards used to be. But more on that later).

female pig dominates little male by climbing onto his back

Bigger female (gilt) bullies littler male (barrow), showing him who’s the boss. Pigs (and hogs) play rough, constantly challenging who’s in charge. They were always picking on that little guy on the left you see here, and he always fought back (if not, he surely would’ve been killed early on). He was injured multiple times, and by the end, though no longer limping, had a huge, disfigured cauliflower ear.

As with any print, for me, there has to be an idea or story behind it. And for this portfolio/event, I needed it to have something to do with Chicago. So the searching, dreaming, planning, sketching, dreaming began and lasted most of the summer while I shovelled chicken manure (“My Summer of 100 Chickens”—a letterpress book to come no doubt); tended the vegetable gardens; watched the turkeys grow from cute little clingy poults into big, curious toms and hens; and fed treats to the little pigs knowing that in a few months they’d be huge lumbering hogs (*NOTE: A “pig” is under 100lbs. Anything bigger than that is called a “hog”). It was a summer of more-than-the-usual-amount-of farm chores and lots of planning and dreaming about woodcuts and linocuts.

As I gazed at those mischievous, lip-smacking, playful, bullying, frolicking pigs in the pasture, I thought of swine, pork, bacon, Chicago?, slaughter, pork bellies, omnivorous beasts, gentle giants, pig farmers, primal cuts, pork diagrams, the old farmer warning me “Don’t you ever turn your back on those hogs. People have disappeared you know…,” and again the inevitable slaughter, slaughter houses, and then, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle…I wonder where that took place?…Chicago? And then, there it was: The Chicago Union Stockyards.

b/w photo of Union Stockyards 1947

Union Stock Yards, Chicago 1947 by John Vachon, Farm Security Administration. Licensed under Public Domain via Wiki Commons

red hog silhouetteThe Yards

Research into the Yards, and Sinclair’s book revealed that some of the history was bleak indeed—around the turn of the century when he wrote the book (1906) it was dangerous, unhealthy, debilitating work that paid little. But at some point it changed and as a young fellow told me (whose Dad had worked The Yards) at the opening reception of our show, “there was good work there.”

Since Sinclair had already done the bleakest period of the slaughter houses, I figured I could still make the connection between my heritage breed Berkshires and the Stock Yard. Looking at old photos of the area, the practices, the railroad’s stock cars unloading shipment upon shipment of hogs, there, I could see the Berks—heavier and more lard-type than the modern-day variety, but the markings were the same. Got it! One of my Berks would be the star of the woodcut—bigger than life, a tribute, an homage to the hog—harking back to a different time when you could raise hogs for a living and a large percentage of the population made a living working in the Yards.

And then, The Poemred hog silhouette

More searching online revealed the connection to a poem, Chicago by Carl Sandburg.(*poem at page bottom) It reinforced everything I was reading about Chicago and The Yards during my research into the stock yard business and city during the first quarter of the century. The title, simply “Chicago” began with a first line that was so perfect, I couldn’t have made up anything better if I’d tried:

“Hog Butcher for the World,”

When asked about the meaning of his poem, Sandburg stated that it was “.. a chant of defiance by Chicago… its defiance of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. The poem sort of says ‘Maybe we ain’t got culture, but we’re eatin’ regular.’

More text for the woodcut.

Text on woodcut reads: Hog Butcher for the World..."

The ideas were coming together.

red hog silhouetteAnd now, the models

My pigs aren’t trained. They’re not circus pigs nor pets, so photographing them is always a bit of a crap shoot, especially when they get close to 300lbs. And the model I needed for this woodcut had to be a big guy (male, barrow, yes, because they are a little bigger than the female/gilts). I was waiting for that thick, muscular, hill-like neck-into-back; the thick ankles; the filled-out cheeks and wide face with multiple chins below it.

hog sticks out tongue, photo by S.V. Medaris

“Look ominous!” I demand. “I need a scary hog,” I pleaded. “You’re a legendary man-eating monster!!” I cried. And this is what he gave me.

You don’t get that with a 4 month old hog. You get it right before they’re off to slaughter—best if you wait a little too long and accidentally don’t call to schedule ’till the meat locker’s schedule is already filled up past the prime date you had picked, and you know you’ll be dealing with hogs a bit past market weight (market weight is ideally 270lbs). These guys were just over 8 months old when I took them in.

So, you’ve got these 300+lb hogs, excitedly grunting and rushing towards you and the treats you’re carrying (apples, hard-boiled eggs, whatever’s on hand), and you try not to get run over in their haste to eat the most and the fastest so no one else gets any…. And then you start photographing. It takes a lot of patience and backpedalling and feeding and putting my palm on their foreheads, gently pushing and saying “wait!” and backpedaling, and putting one hand just over their upturned snout, as they open their mouth to smack lips and try to reach your fingers….meanwhile your other hand is click click clicking photos, hoping something will be in focus and the right angle. Hundreds of pics later, you sit down at laptop, download the pics, and go through them, and find that you’ve got the angle all wrong—none of the pics are right.

hog, mouth open attempts to eat photographer's fingers (off-camera)

Bet you didn’t know that when you look at a pig or hog from below, it looks like they’re smiling—their mouths naturally turn up. Now you know. And why all of the photos of these “smiling” beasts wouldn’t work for my vision of a great big scary or at least ominous-looking creature. This guy is trying to nibble on my fingers. They love to just mess with/munch on things, people, rocks, gates, mud…. “Nom nom.”

Do oversred hog silhouette

So you delete all the recent shots off the camera, go back out later in day, when the light is right, again, and start all over. Treats, coaxing, pushing “Look ominous!” you plead, “I need a scary hog!” you cry. “You’re a legendary man-eating monster!!” you beg…..

And you get close to something that will work.

Next up: Carving

Part 2: getting the image on the block, prepping the surface, carving, finishing the block, and the final print (or skip ahead and see it in it’s entirety at Hoofprint Workshop’s store).

Read Part 2…

For now,enjoy the poem that inspired the woodcut:

red hog silhouette

Chicago by Carl Sandburg, 1916

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your
painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: yes, it is true I have seen
the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women
and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my
city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be
alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall
bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted
against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his
ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked,
sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

6 thoughts on “5ft Woodcut Tribute to the Stockyards

  1. I am eating this up like a thick slice of sizzling bacon… 🐖 !!
    The artistic process and images are awesome. I love the text in your piece! Thank you for sharing this! Made me smile…

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