One of the many myths surrounding Don’s early years involves his association with a Portuguese sculptor called Agostinho Rodrigues (sometimes written as Augustino Rodriquez). Don’s story is that he trained under this artist and appeared on a weekly television programme with him sculpting wild animals at Griffith Park Zoo.
Searches for information about Rodrigues (using variations on the spelling of his name) have come to nothing.
However, in 2003 a bit more about Rodrigues, Don and animal sculpting came to light. The Rhino art box Riding Some Kind Of Unusual Skull Sleigh included a book called Splinters, a collection of personal photos and other ephemera that had been selected by Don and Jan. Amongst this fascinating collection were three newspapers cuttings from 1951 that finally gave us some background and concrete evidence about the Don and Rodrigues connection.
THEY LIKE ELEPHANTS
Donald Vliet (left), 9 year old sculptor, with the model which won him first prize among students of the Griffith Park modelling classes.
With him is Peter Conway, 5, who won Achievement Award. Both of these young Los Angeles sculptors exhibited models of elephants.
Date: early February 1951
THREE BOYS WIN PRIZES IN CLAY MODELING CLASSES
Awards were made yesterday to clay modeling students at Griffith park Zoo by the City Recreation and Park Department.
Don Vliet, 10, of 3467 Waverly Drive, won first prize with his entry of several clay models.
Second prize went to Ronald Hill, 10, of 2689 Waverly Drive, while 6 year old Hugh Tower, 4940 Lindley Drive, took third prize. About 300 entries were judged.
The models were made by more than 100 youngsters and adults, students at the week-end classes conducted by Agostinho Rodrigues on Sundays between 1 and 3pm.
All modeling materials were supplied by the City Recreation and Park Department.
[picture caption] JUNIOR SCULPTORS – Agostinho Rodrigues, center, instructor of the City Recreation and Park Department clay modelling classes, looks at models with Don Vliet, 10, right, who won first prize in contest and Ronald Hill, 10 who won second prize
Monday 5 February 1951
With his clay model of a polar bear, Don Vliet, 10, at 3467 Waverly Drive, won the first prize blue ribbon in the monthly modeling contest at Griffith Park Zoo yesterday.
It was the second straight blue ribbon for the Invanhoe Elementary School fifth grader, who has attended sculptor Agostinho Rodrigues’ free Sundat art class at the zoo for five months.
Second place went to Roland Hill, 10, of 2689 Waverly Drive, Don’s fellow fifth grader who moulded his spotted leopard under Don’s exclusive direction. Ronald never attended the art class.
Another ‘outsider’, Hugh Tower, 6, of 4940 Lindley Avenue, Encino, won third prize with a group that included a bear, two penguins, two birds and a monkey.
[picture caption] PRIMES FOR NEW LAURELS – Getting a good look at Cleo, a lion cub, who will be the next subject of the monthly modeling content at Griffith Park Zoo, is Don Vliet, 10. Lad holds ribbon he just won and his prize clay model of a polar bear. Head keeper Charles Allen cuddles 5 month old animal.
So, Agostinho Rodrigues was a real person and not a figment of Don’s fertile imagination (although it’s unlikely he’s still alive). He was a sculptor and Don did train with him. Whether this training consisted of more than the Sunday morning sessions for five months at the zoo is not known.
Then, in 2004 one of Rodrigues’s sculptures appeared on eBay. Interestingly, as can be seen, the sculpture is of an animal, a seal. It is signed and dated, 1954.
A year later another of his sculptures, this time of a horse dated 1953, was also sold on eBay. (Unfortunately I’ve lost the images I had of that sculpture – although, I think, it may have been the same one as pictured below).
The claim about the television show has still not been verified one way or the other. No trace of a programme has been found. Even if it did happen it’s very unlikely such a programme would have been recorded. It would almost certainly have been a live show broadcast on a local station sometime around 1951 – 1953. No record of it is likely to remain. Unless someone comes forward who actually saw the show or was involved in producing it, and that’s unlikely now 55+ years on, this is one story we’ll have to take Don’s word for.
In July 2010 I was contacted by Filipe Ornelas whose grandfather had met and become friends with Agostinho Rodrigues in the Azores during the late 1930s. It seems that Rodrigues’ parents were originally from the Azores and had emigrated some time earlier to the USA. Rodrigues visited the Azores to see his parents home town.
As a sign of his friendship Rodrigues gave Filipe’s grandparents a sculpture of a family of penguins … the smaller one representing Filipe’s father who was about 10 years old at the time.
The sculpture is signed underneath and dated 1937. This charming piece is in plaster 33cm high by 22cm wide.
Thanks to Filipe for sharing this with us.
Thanks to Judson Kemsley for sending us a photograph of this exquisite sculpture of a horse’s head. It is signed and dated 1953.
Size: 33cm x 18cm x 10cm. Unknown medium.
Size: 26.5cm x 23cm
Date: unknown (possibly 1952)
The search for Augustino Rodriquez continues … Can you help at all? Do you know anything about him? Do you have one of his sculptures? Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
A few years ago someone contacted the Radar Station as they were also on the trail of Rodriquez and had created a web page showing several of his sculptures. Unfortunately that web page didn’t last long and the person doing it is no longer contactable. So, if that was you and you’re reading this please get in touch again and let us know how your search is going.