As if the Red Iguana weren’t already Utah’s most photographed dining spot.
Now, a giant, scaly-skinned iguana will be installed in the parking lot of Red Iguana 2, 866 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City, giving diners another reason to share selfies on social media.
“I wanted children to come up to it with their mouths open,” Bill Coker, co-owner with wife Lucy Cardenas, said of the sculpture. “I want them asking, ’Daddy, is that alive?’”
The reptile’s size and realistic features are impressive:
Height • 12 1/2 feet, including the 6-foot base the reptile sits on.
Length • 33 feet from nose to tail.
Weight • About 1,000 pounds. Legs and tail are solid, but the fiberglass body is hollow with steel bars for strength.
Color • Rust, orange and cream, the color of “red” iguanas in nature. Its grayish-cream head is typical of an adult male.
Details • 80 epoxy hand-formed spines and more than 120,000 hand-formed scales. In all, Utah artist Stephen Kesler used 600 pounds of sculpting clay for the project.
Name • “Xochitónal” (Náhuatl language): a gigantic iguana in Aztec mythology that guarded the dark watery access to the Underworld.
Project duration • Two years that included the use of high-tech digital technology and low-tech hand sculpting and painting.
Moving a warrior
The prehistoric-looking reptile — which Coker and Kesler called “an old warrior” — is expected to be moved into place before Halloween. It’s so big, it will require a crane and a flatbed trailer, and possibly a police escort.
This week, Kesler is adding the last touches of paint to the piece, which has been constructed in a former fleet warehouse for police and fire vehicles.
Coker said he leased the downtown warehouse from Salt Lake City because it was the only place he could find with doors tall enough to ensure the iguana could be rolled out fully assembled.
Once in place, the massive art installation will be protected with a fenced enclosure. But it will be situated so customers can stand under the massive head for photographs.
The iguana will serve as the centerpiece for a new covered waiting area with benches and a television. Videos will show the restaurant’s history and the step-by-step process Kesler used to create the giant iguana.
It will be one of the few large-scale art installations that exist on Salt Lake City’s west side, Coker noted.
The idea for the art piece was hatched in 2014, after Coker and Cardenas saw a concrete iguana in an outdoor gallery on the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres. “I came back and my first intention was to make it concrete; I wanted it to be indestructible,” said Coker.
While eating a plate of Red Iguana enchiladas and leafing through a local publication, however, he saw an article about Kesler and changed his mind.
“I realized that is the guy I need,” he said of the Utah artist who created the sculptures for Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, including the massive humpback whales. Kesler also created the life-sized giraffe sculptures that greet visitors entering Utah‘s Hogle Zoo.
“I chose Stephen because he likes doing realistic animals, not cartoons,” said Coker, who had previously worked in the movie industry supervising the building of set pieces and large-scale physical and visual special effects.
How to build an iguana
The project became more involved as the two hashed out how big to make the iguana and where to put it. Then came the actual creation, a time-consuming, multiphase process:
First, Kesler hand-sculpted a 1/6th scale model in clay. That was scanned into a computer, to create a full-sized digital version of the iguana.
Then the data were fed into a 3-D milling machine that robotically sculpted large styrofoam blocks into full-sized body parts. The blocks were assembled and covered with 600 pounds of clay.
After Kesler hand-sculpted the scales, spines and other details into the clay/styrofoam iguana, it was taken apart and silicone molds were made.
Finally, the fiberglass body parts were cast from the molds, reassembled, reinforced and realistically painted by Kesler.
The owners wanted the piece to be ready last year, in time for the grand opening of the Red Iguana 2’s new expansion, which included the addition of a large 100-seat dining room and patio. But problems with the local company hired to make the molds delayed the project several months.
Kesler has chronicled the project’s progress on social media and has gained a large following of iguana fans across the country and globe. Today his Instagram account, @stephenkesler_tusk, has more than 32,000 followers.
“The posts of the iguana get three times the likes than anything else,” he said.
Kesler is excited to finally “bring the vision that Bill and Lucy had” to fruition. ”They know what it takes to bring this kind of thing to life,” he said, adding, “I don’t think any other restaurant owners would have had the patience or the understanding to get it done.”
Kesler also is thrilled to be part of the Red Iguana legacy. “I wouldn‘t do this for anyone,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of their food.”