Friday, July 31, 2015

A Lesson from Christian Imagery

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I thought of St. Martin of Tours the other day. Then I thought differently.

My mind was wandering a few days ago, as it is often wont to do, and eventually it hovered over a back-burner project of mine – a collection of Christian symbols that may number 1,000 when I am finished. And I thought of St. Martin of Tours, and his symbol.
"St. Martin of Tours symbol"
© Edward Riojas
(Collection of the artist)

St. Martin of Tours usually shows up on Roman Catholic radars, but not so much on Lutheran screens. According to tradition, Martin was a conscripted Roman soldier. As the saint was riding his horse one winter, he came upon a poor beggar dressed only in rags. Immediately, he unsheathed his sword, cut his own cloak in two and gave one half to the beggar. Historians have tacked on other events in his life and embellishments have been added, but this simple and immediate act of charity is perhaps the one thing for which the saint is known. His symbol is a sword with a cloven garment.

The charitable act of the saint resonates with many. These days, acts of charity can get pretty convoluted. “Service Projects” pop up like mushrooms on some church calendars, drawing folks who want to lend a hand to those in need. You can heft a wheelbarrow or haul concrete in impoverished locations. You can knit scads of little caps for newborn babies. You can put together care packages for children of prison inmates and do the same for poor kids in third world countries. There are quilts to make, diapers to purchase, and mailings to fill. The list is seemingly endless. But needs don’t always show up on a church schedule, and they don’t always happen in third world countries conveniently sporting tropical beaches. Oftentimes there are needs in lack-luster locations. Sometimes a need pops up down the road. Sometimes it slides under the radar, going nearly unnoticed until you re-read someone’s social media post.
“St. Martin of Tours”  12th Century.
(Basel Minster, Basel, Switzerland)

If you think about it, we’re all “projects” in God’s eyes. We may not need clothing to keep us from freezing, and we may not need cash to keep collection agencies at bay, but we all are in desperate need. Without Christ, we are dirt-poor.

The sword-cloak thing seemed so noble a vision to me. And then I thought of another image - Christ hanging on the cross. I thought of His garments being divided and His tunic taken away. I thought of Him in unflattering historical context and not with a covering of modesty as artists have most always portrayed the Corpus. I thought of Him completely naked and humiliated, without privacy and without the benefit of a single grape leaf.

The link between Moses’ bronze serpent and the naked, crucified Christ is closer than we realize. Not only were both hoisted between heaven and earth; not only were they both the remedy for death, but both were also visual abominations. Both were unclean. The early Israelites knew a thing or two about serpents. The Fall was much closer to their existence than it is to our day, and the bronze serpent must have conjured up visions of Satan-turned serpent. Look at an unclean snake for a cure? No wonder many said “No, thank you,” and promptly died. So it was for the dying Christ, hanging as a bloodied, naked, cursed Man on a tree. Even the Father turned His countenance away, and because of it the earth darkened in damning shadows. Many still refuse to look to the Christ, even after His resurrection. Many still die an eternal death.

Rare examples of the naked Corpus: “Crucifix Gallino,” left,
attributed to Jacopo Sansovino [possibly Michelangelo].
c. 1495. (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy)
“Crucifix,” right, Michelangelo Buonarroti. 1492.
(Santa Maria del Santo Spirito di Firenze, Florence, Italy)
St. Martin of Tours gave the beggar half of his own cloak, but our Gracious God does not deal in half-measures. His Holy Charity grossly overshadows that of any saint – Roman or otherwise. Christ was denuded. Completely. In the end, The Savior of the world even gave His life. He was spent. What He gave, He gave entirely for us. While many dared not look at that ugly spectacle on the cross, He was looking out for us all. He was looking to our needs, and provided, as He still provides, all that we ever need – namely, forgiveness and salvation. Without our merit. Apart from our works.

But Christ did not remain dead. He arose to life in order to give us eternal life. Because He lives, we live. And because He gave, we give. We help those in need. We haul concrete; we knit caps; we give of our own blessings to reflect – if ever so dimly – our Gracious Lord.

Still, there is no out-giving The Giver of all good things. We can give to our neighbor, but our hands are always completely empty in futile attempts to bring something to God and to our Salvation. Martin Luther, named in honor of St. Martin of Tours, laid bare this blessed truth in his simple statement, “We are all beggars before God.”

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Scoop on ArtPrize

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When it comes to art, they say bigger is better. Maybe. Maybe not. But when it comes to art competitions, it’s hard to argue with ArtPrize. It is big enough to attract artists from around the world. It is big enough to host more than 1,500 entries, and it is big enough to turn the heads of movers and shakers in the art world – and I do mean “world.”

But here’s the thing: It won’t mean diddly if you’ve never heard of the competition or if you don’t know how it works, so consider this your inside scoop.

“But, dearest Curmudgeon,” you ask, “What qualifies YOU to expound on ArtPrize?”

I may not know a ton about the economic side of the event or the wrangling of benefactors and brains it takes to pull off such a behemoth of a competition, but for years I have attacked the event from lots of other angles. Yearly, I mine for information and visually relate that knowledge to the readers of MLive Media Group (, a major newspaper group. For a time, I did a bit of art reviewing of the event, and I participate in ArtPrize as an artist. It’s also in my back yard. I have become intimate with it all – beauty marks and bunions included.

ArtPrize is more of an organic thing than some realize, and whatever subtle changes come along each year affect major portions of the competition. Still, there are some constants. Sort of.


Apparently, they are meant to be ignored. Originally, the border was a rigid rectangle of streets surrounding three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. All venues were located within that area. A couple of years into the event and the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park were included as part of ArtPrize territory. Never mind the fact that they are miles out of bounds. I know the Gardens are a hefty patron of the arts and are a national hot spot, but perhaps the planet Pluto should be included, too, if it ever gets colonized by artists. Oh, and a second venue popped up out of bounds for this year’s competition. See what I mean about boundaries?

An “Open” Competition

I put that word in quotes because ArtPrize will certainly take your $50 entry fee. Oh, you wanted to compete? Not so fast. First, you need to “connect” with a venue. This part is nerve-wracking for artists. It’s like sending out resumes into a void,  hoping to be hosted by a venue, while the days tick away toward deadline. And being an open competition doesn’t necessarily mean it’s open to YOU. Some swankier venues go searching for their own artists who otherwise couldn’t care less about ArtPrize. Those same venues have artistic reputations to uphold, and they don’t want commoners or serfs spoiling their hallowed walls, thank you very much.

A Prize Purse bigger than the Zeppelin

This is part of what makes ArtPrize successful. And ridiculous. The purse is huge. The total yearly purse hovers around $500,000, but it can grow well beyond that, based on other prizes and grants that get thrown into the mix by outside benefactors. Other art competitions with reputable names dot the globe – The Turner Prize, The Kandinsky Prize and The Carnegie Art Award, to name a few – but ArtPrize came out of nowhere with cash enough to dwarf them collectively. Yes, the carrot is big, and that’s what makes artists scurry out of the woodwork and head to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in mid-September.

More than the Carrot

If an artist comes to the event with only a prize in mind, he is a fool. There is much more to ArtPrize than money, and I don’t mean hob nobbing with cyan-haired women or hanging with people who use the word “esoteric” with abandon. This is a rare chance for artists to see their adoring masses face-to-face. Even if you can’t draw to save your life, SOMEone will love what you do. It’s a good bet that at least one day out of the two and a half weeks will give cause to feel good about your art – whether that means painting like nobodies’ business or replicating the Sistine Chapel ceiling with dryer lint. (Yes, it’s been done.) The fact is: This is by far the most you’ll ever get out of a $50 entry fee – if you end up in a good venue.

Good Venue/Bad Venue

Location, location, location. An artist once hauled his crap all the way from Germany, and then proceeded to piss and moan about his venue and the lack of attention his piece got. He didn’t do his homework. Just because a venue is in-bounds doesn’t mean crowds will throng there. Some venues get a hundred thousand viewers or more during the event, and some will get a few score. There are so many pieces to see – too many, actually – that patrons will go to larger venues in close proximity  and ignore smaller, scattered venues. It’s common sense. And who wants to go into a restaurant to look at a nice piece hanging over table #10, where someone is relishing their Sauteed Duck Foie Gras? Not me. More common sense.

The Public Has the Vote. Does not. Does Too.

Originally, ArtPrize was based solely on a public vote to decide which piece was the crème de la crème. It was a cool idea, but votes began leaning toward “pedestrian” taste – you know: Crappy art. So elitists pushed to have jurors, too. Folks with art credentials a mile long and poor taste got to make their picks based on “cutting edge” esthetics – you know: Crappy art. Anyway, at this writing, entries get prizes from the public AND judges, meaning the big Kahuna prize has been watered down a bit.

The big Kahuna

Let me state it here: I won’t turn down the top prize if, by some humongous miracle, I happen to win it. That being said, it should also be stated that the biggest carrot is just plain stupid. Nothing ever came out of ArtPrize that is actually worth that much money. To wit, one need only do a bit of research to see what REAL art is fetching. Honestly, it’s possible to snag a piece done by one of the masters for less cash than ArtPrize has under their sofa cushions.

ArtPrize is Edjamacational

No matter how you spell it, ArtPrize is a great learning experience. Not only is it good stuff for artists who enter, but it’s even better for folks who don’t know much about art, and it’s also great for kids. Thankfully, local schools take advantage of the event. Most mornings and early afternoons are jammed with students running amok, trying to amass collections of artist’s business cards, while their teachers feebly attempt to explain foreign concepts like “composition” and “DON’T RUN!” Mid- to late-afternoons are filled with the baby stroller crowd and older folks. Evenings fill up with hipsters, college students, blue collar workers, and well-heeled folk headed to the symphony. And then there’s always the quirky convention crowd – grown adults racing around with scavenger hunt lists, trying to find art or get artist’s signatures. Weirdies.

The Art

At one point I coined the name “KitschPrize.” It still holds for some pieces. Anytime the Ripley’s Believe it or Not folks come around – and believe me, they shop at ArtPrize like it’s an outlet mall – you know things can get out of control. Photo reproductions done with a million sequins. Or corks. Or push-pins. Or Rubik's cubes. Been there, done that. I’m waiting for packing peanuts and elbow macaroni. Oh, and did I mention large? This isn’t the place for miniatures. Anything larger than NASA’s rocket assembly building might be considered by a venue. And if you can’t get paper large enough for your same-scale drawing of planet Earth, simply scotch tape it together. Or use Gorilla Tape. Or penny nails. No one will notice. Not even the judges. Oh, and “Art” has expanded to include music and street performers trying to act like hideous statues, but I’m not going to even talk about that.

Don’t Miss it

I have plenty of negative things to say about ArtPrize, but don’t let my curmudgeonly words dissuade you from coming to the event or entering as an artist. I have far more positive things to say about the event, and it would be silly to dismiss the competition as not being worth the time or energy. I mean, where else can one see thousands of artists baring their souls and displaying months of effort for all to see? In many cases you can talk with the artist, who will be working the crowd for a few votes. This year I will again be among them. I’ll probably be handing out piles of business cards with a voting number, and schmoozing with anyone who wants to stop and ask about my piece – even cyan-haired women. So please consider this an invitation to join the ArtPrize masses spilling into the streets. Give yourself a heavy dose of art, and, if you find me, see what an Art Curmudgeon can do. If you simply cannot make the trip to Grand Rapids, then go to and get a good taste of the event, take a peek at this year’s art, and read a little about the artists.

The Art Curmudgeon, aka Edward Riojas, will be showing his piece, “Under Slottet Bron,” at DeVos Place Convention Center, 303 Monroe Ave. NW, during ArtPrize. His piece is considerably smaller than NASA’s rocket assembly building, and is not made with macaroni. Darn.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Kingdom of Heaven

Copyright © Edward Riojas

At first, the painting seemed rather ordinary.

Then I became unsure if the image was heretical, or simply odd. I had a growing suspicion that it wasn’t normal.

It is sort of like the Church. The Kingdom of Heaven must make those outside of it scratch their heads in puzzlement. The Kingdom is an odd picture filled with peculiar folk and reigned by an unlikely King. On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much to it.

So it was with my painting. Perhaps it was my hesitation that caused me to put the little painting away in a closet – out of sight and out of mind. There were other things needing my attention. I was busy. I have a feeling many people would do the same with the Church – just get it out of the way in order to focus on other things.

The closet door closed. Months past. Then a year, and more months.

A young lady asked about the painting gathering dust. This family friend asked an innocent question about a work that, for years, hadn’t seen the light of day.

“Is it done?” “Did you ever do anything with it?”

I had nearly forgotten the painting. Her question caused me to pull it out of the closet. I pondered the image, dusted off the panel, took a photo of its bluish under-painting, and set the thing on my studio easel.  Then I posted the photo and a few descriptive words on Facebook.

That post immediately lit up with action, eventually receiving nearly 10,000 hits and 141 shares. While it was getting hits, the painting was apparently hitting home for many. Since the work’s completion, I have heard a few stories of the pain it softens; of the comfort it brings, so I’ve decided to share it here, along with the original explanation posted when the painting was finished...

"The Parable of the Buried Treasure," by Edward Riojas. 2013. (Collection of the artist) Copyright © Edward Riojas

“The Parable of the Buried Treasure”

Here is a view of the completed painting. This small painting is something I started after pondering the parable of the buried treasure in light of Christ’s love for us.

I couldn’t get around the idea of the field being a cemetery, with its scattered stones, and the man – Christ Jesus – coming to claim his hidden treasure. “For joy, he sold all he had and bought that field.”

Holy Scripture sometimes contains the most understated truths. “All he had” was his very life, given for us, “Not with gold or silver,” as we are told, “but with His holy, precious blood.” So that Man pulls out a treasure with His pierced hands. The wounds are permanent, but His crucifixion and death are not.

The painting points to Holy Scripture with another finger: It illustrates just how much we contribute to Salvation – nothing. We were dead. Not only were we dead, but we were dead in our trespasses. If that were not enough, we were bound in Satan’s chains. We were in a box from which we could not escape.

Yet Christ calls us His treasure. The English language helps us in this scenario – the words “coffin” and “casket” are derived from the same words that are used for containers of wealth. Furthermore, “vaults” are used to inter this wealth.

What points to Christ’s love for us is not only His payment for our sins through His sacrifice, but also the reality of what He considers valuable. He treasures not gold or silver, but the sinful, the lost, the dregs of humanity, the rotting, the forgotten, the discarded for convenience, the destroyed by design, the consumed by disease, the consumed by conflagration, the consumed by woe. This mess of ugliness He treasures. Not only did Christ Jesus give His all for it, but He also enfolds it in His arms and holds it to His breast.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Symbols Gone Wrong

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Just as some words change in meaning over time, so do some images. Visual symbols, in particular, can be affected by the course of history.
The Girls' Club's periodical. That was then.

Such was the case with the truly American institution, The Girls’ Club – a spin-off of the Ladies Home Journal. During the early years of the last century, way before the Nazi’s even thought of coming to power, The Girls’ Club had the swastika as their symbol – even publishing a monthly magazine by that name. Of course, they borrowed the sun symbol from – of all places – ancient India. No matter. History is not kind, not even to wholesome, young American women networking to sell magazine subscriptions. No one needs to re-hash the image. It is, and always will be, associated with evil, with dictatorial rule, and with modern-day knuckleheads and pea-wits. There is nothing nice about that ancient Indian symbol anymore.

Recent history has once again foisted another ancient symbol to the forefront. Like The Girl‘s Club logo, this particular example has been pressed into service by a rather unsavory bunch whose collective mouth far exceeds its members. However, unlike the Nazi’s usurped symbol, the image to which I am referring is much more ancient, and it was created by the Designer of the cosmos. In that sense, it is Holy with a capital “H.” The symbol is, of course, the bow of The Lord – the rainbow.

That first rainbow was placed in the sky by The Lord as a reminder that He would never again destroy the earth by a flood. It is not as though He needs a reminder, but we constantly do need to be reminded of this Holy promise, not to mention a flood of other promises by the same Word. That post-apocalyptic promise was given to us by our Loving Father as a comfort in this fallen world, and it had nothing to do with gay pride – unless, of course, you consider one of the reasons for the flood in the first place.

I have read attempts by some to justify the rainbow’s use by the gay community. The arguments are sieve-like at best. I often get the feeling that the use of that symbol by the gay community is used to taunt The Lord’s Holy restraint. Is it reminding us of God’s promises? I think not.

Listen, folks: Let’s not mess with God’s intellectual property. I know there wasn’t an FBI seal with a warning against piracy hovering in the sky when it was first unfurled, and I know The Lord won’t unleash a legion of winged lawyers to smite you, but don’t think for a moment you are being cunning or clever with Him. You are not. His unquestionable judgement is being reserved out of reckless love.

Recently, even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, the city of Seattle decided it would be a good thing to change normal “ladder crosswalks” to rainbows. Maybe they were trying to be clever. Maybe the residents have a strong affinity for Fruit Loops. Maybe their heads are filled with unicorns and marshmallow fluff. Maybe the city is going for the “After the storm” image. I doubt it. The gay minority is simply being loud and obnoxious, and baiting their trap with moronic catch-phrases like “Intolerance” and “Homophobia.”

In spite of what is written here, we needn’t fret or react beyond earnest prayer. The gay community may be able to project a rainbow on the White House, but they can in no way begin to replicate The Lord’s design or detract from it. What is interesting in  Seattle’s case is that the crosswalks, while in your face at street level, are dwarfed by a greater symbol they encompass when viewed at a greater altitude. The simple, black, intersection of two roads, forming a cross, is yet visible from the heavens. And THAT is an image worth remembering.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Studio

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Las Meninas,” by Diego Velázquez.
1656-57. (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

It’s an artist’s office. It’s the place serious artist’s call home when not working al fresco with a portable easel, wonderful weather and a goofy hat. I’d love to say that the Bohemian in me often takes my canvas down to the Tropics or some English meadow, but the reality is that I hate bugs and dirt blowing into my fresh paint. Besides, my large panel would probably sail off the easel and put a nasty crease in the nearest BMW. I’ll stay indoors, thank you very much.

This means I rely heavily on a studio space while creating art. It must accommodate my artistic needs.

Throughout history, artists have often gravitated toward rather large studios. Back in the day, if you were a well-known artist and had several students or assistants, it would necessitate an even greater space. Paintings like Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,”  Gustave Courbet’s “The Painter’s Studio,” and Horace Vernet’s “The Artist’s Studio” give peeks into those spacial environs of years past. The viewer is often privy to a casual tableau of unfinished canvases, nudes, clothed sitters, children, pets, the neighborhood dwarf, fencing matches, horses and, presumably, basketball hoops, bleachers and popcorn stands.
“The Painter’s Studio,” by Gustave Courbet.
1855. (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Today, fortunate artists might work in a swanky, reconditioned warehouse with exposed pipework, original brick walls, floor-to-ceiling windows and ample space to spread out bad ideas and lousy artwork. But I’m not jealous.

Originally, my wife and I bought our place because it had a well-constructed barn that could hold a to-die-for studio. Oh, and we bought it because of the above-ground pool. And everything was painted slate blue. All very important selling points. After a time, I built a stairway ascending to one barn loft. Then I constructed a much nicer ascent to the opposite loft. Later, I added posts and beams. The 18-foot ceiling would have had hammer beams, lots of windows and a lot less bat guano. I made a Gothic door to that lair with hammered metal fittings and hand-leaded glass. That was then. A full-time job, a family, a house in need of repairs and incoming commissions sort of put that all on hold.
“The Artist’s Studio,” by Horace Vernet.
c. 1820. (Private collection)

I now work in a modest space. It’s a 10-by-10-ish upstairs room in the house. In that area I have two wall easels, a large studio easel, a drawing board, two small tables and two stools. The walls are stacked with all manner of junk, and there is a small closet packed with art and art supplies. There is also a large filing cabinet and an even larger cabinet. Oh, and don’t forget the portion of the room that acts as a hallway. It’s tight.

I nearly laugh every time someone wants to visit my studio. I once used my daughter’s four poster bed as a drying rack when working on a 2-by-160 foot mural. Another time, I had to push up a portion of the dropped ceiling to accommodate an eight-foot-tall painting. That stood on the floor.
The door to a once and future studio
(Photo courtesy of The Curmudgeon)

But I produce the work, and that is the real blessing. I’ve learned that I don’t need much – even space – to bring my ideas to fruition. I have managed to create a 1,200 square-foot mural in a room one-twelfth that size. When working on a 2-by-3 foot painting, the same space seems such a luxury. Still, I sometimes look longingly at the loft in my barn. But mostly I don’t. Which brings me to the bottom line: At some point, every creative type must choose between working in a showcase and producing work that is worthy of the same. The choice is obvious.