Friday, October 28, 2016

Who is Scaring Whom?

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The advertising has been at a feavered pitch for weeks now, and half of us seem terrified. No, I’m not talking about the upcoming election. I am talking of things that go bump in the night.
“Jesus and the Gadarene Demoniac”
15th Century woodcut.

What once was a fairly tame affair on All Hallows’ Eve has jumped the tracks and now brushes awefully close to the demonic side of things. Haunted houses, haunted forests, and haunted corn mazes are now the paranorm, promising to scare the heebie-geebies out of everyone, and reducing macho football players into screaming girls. Ghouls and zombies and demented clowns come out of the woodwork faster than 10-lb. bags of candy corn.

For some reason, everyone likes a good fright. It’s that morbid curiostiy; that strange, little nook in our brains that actually wants to be scared. Even the diciples thought Christ was a ghost as he walked on the water, until He calmed them with the simple words, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” One wonders if any in the sorry group were actually a bit let down knowing there was no ghost.
“Victorious Cross”
© Edward Riojas. 2016.
(Collection of the artist)

Folklore and secular traditions have long since taken Holy Scripture down a dark alley where terror and fear dance with demons. But The Word is unmoved. Movies like “The Exorcist” spun threads off men of the cloth, unnerving viewers and clergy alike. And yet The Word is unmoved.

The real question is: Who is scaring whom? Brilliant minds behind the new Lutheran Service Book intentionally gave the hymn number 666 to “O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe.” It’s a nod to the Truth, and not simply a vain attempt at doomed heroics.

Perhaps one of the most telling verses in Scripture occurs when Jesus confronts a Gadarene man posessed by a demon called Legion. Even the name is given for our benefit in Mark 5, for we know that Christ does not have some insignificant imp in front of Him; this is hell spewn on the earth; this is our every nightmare. Yet when confronted by The Lord of all; the soon-to-be-victorious Lamb of God, this demon-posessed man utters fear that out-does our own.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”

Recognizing The Christ is one thing, but what we do with that simple knowledge is quite another. The Epistle of James puts a sharp point on it when it declares, “ You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!”

Fear, therefore, is something to be owned by the hoardes of hell and by Satan, who has a sphincter where his pie-hole should be. Fear is not ours to own. We have a Savior who has taken our guilt and shame to the cross, hoodwinked hell itself, and rose victorious to new life so that we may follow in His trail.

This side of heaven, Satan still lurks in the shadows. This side of heaven, storms still gather. The darkness can breed anxiety and fear. The children of God, however, are comforted in even the stormiest days of life, when Jesus assures us, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Friday, October 21, 2016

En plein air

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I’m not a huge fan of eating al fresco, especially when it means going out on the town. The idea of wearing sunglasses when addressing an entrĂ©e does not appeal to me. I don’t think I should have to endure wind or bugs or diesel fumes just so I can sit in a plastic chair under an umbrella and eat a $15 salad. The same logic should apply to leaving a perfectly good studio to paint in the out-of-doors. It should.

I made my first foray into the elements to paint on a not-so-perfect day. Perhaps I should have waited for a totally sunny day with a slight breeze – you know: The kind of breeze that smells like one of those little pine tree cutouts. It was, in fact, a windy day. The clouds were ominous, and it started sprinkling in a sideways sort of way. I held my only brush in one hand and a flapping palette in the other. My leg was hooked over the easel’s center support so it wouldn’t fly into the next county. But I made an ugly, little painting in spite of it all.

“Plein air” painting is suddenly all the rage. Again. I think it’s French for “I walked through a half-mile of mud to this spot and all I can think of is Cheetos.”
Two artistic powerhouses crossed paths while painting en plein air.
“Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood”
by John Singer Sargent. 1885. (Tate Gallery, London)

Perhaps it’s the artsy-fartsy title that makes it so trendy, but in reality plein air painting has always been done. Painting outdoors, at one time, was done to bolster work executed later in the studio. An artist would make a relatively quick color study of a landscape, then spend oodles of time on a much grander version in the comfort of a studio. It wasn’t until the dawn of Impressionism that artists saw painting en plein air as an end in itself, and not simply a means to a greater end.

There is a golden nugget within that concept. The freshness of painting on-site cannot be duplicated in the studio. It simply can’t. The same is usually true of live drawings – the spontaneity of recording a moment in all its rawness is, in itself, the real beauty.

Plein air painting is no longer limited to a solitary artist lugging a compact easel into a lonely setting. There are group excursions and competitions and trips abroad to do nothing more than paint outdoors. Of course, the lure is not found in places like the farmer’s field behind my house. That’s why the missions of California, for example, are a prime destination. Oh, and don’t forget dull locations like the French countryside. And Portugal. And Spain. And Italy.

There is something annoyingly attractive to gathering art supplies and going outside, no matter where that may be. Like camping, it forces the artist to be choosey about what is absolutely necessary for the excursion. One cannot drag the kitchen sink out into the woods. The same holds true for all 900 brushes that might be lurking in a studio. I took one brush along on my first attempt. I took two on the second try.

I’m now thinking about a much larger brush – one that keeps a sharp edge so I can use it like two brushes. It might look like I’m seriously considering yet another trip into not-so-forgiving elements among bugs and blowing dirt, just to paint a mediocre image. In fact, I am.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Monumental Tokens

Copyright © Edward Riojas

To the bosom of Sarah be this Image confin'd
An Emblem of Love and Esteem:
Bestow'd by a friend desirous to find;
A place in that bosom unseen

It was June 1, 1824, in Charleston, S.C., yet 192 years hence we know Thomas Robson had butterflies in his stomach. His eye was set on Sarah, as was his heart. They might have been strolling down a wooded path that day. She might have slipped her hand into his. Perhaps it was then that he reached into a breast pocket of his waistcoat to retrieve the miniature token of his affection.
“Thomas Robson” [front, left, and verso, right]
Henry Bounetheau. 1824. 2 x 2.375 inches.
(Courtesy, The Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, S.C.)

Perhaps they met months before, by chance, at a society ball – he paying a compliment and she demurely blushing. Or perhaps he was the gentleman who happened to guide her up the granite, street-side step and into a waiting carriage. She would have slipped had he not bolted from a knot of friends and rushed to her aid.

We may surmise details of the romance, but one thing is sure: In spite of its size, Mr. Robson’s token of love for Sarah was no small thing. The suitor commissioned Henry Bounetheau, a leading artist living in Charleston, to create a portrait in miniature. The artist did so using watercolor on ivory, a common medium for the genre. The painting was set into a watch-like case, and on the verso a sentiment and the pre-determined date were engraved around a bezelled glass compartment holding an artfully-braided lock of his hair.

Miniatures had long been used in Europe as a means of taking along fond likenesses when travelling. As the craft developed, the portraits changed from being something displayed on a table to something worn as jewelry; an adornment worn close to the heart.
“Eliza Izard” [front, left, and verso, right]
Edward Greene Malbone. 1801. 2.375 x 2.875 inches.
(Courtesy, The Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, S.C.)

Charleston became the epicenter of the miniaturist phenomenon in America, where high society and European taste could support artists with enormous talent. Unlike much of early American portraiture, Robson’s likeness was executed with great sensitivity to the sitter’s features. It must be assumed magnifying lenses were employed in the 2 3/8 inch-tall painting, or else miniaturists surely went blind at an early age.

Another miniaturist master, Edward Greene Malbone, created a tiny portrait of Eliza Izard almost 20 years earlier than the Robson likeness. Eliza was, at the time of the sitting, yet unmarried. The portrait, along with several others, were commissioned by her parents at the price of $275. Her portrait was executed in watercolor on ivory, set in a case, with its verso containing a delicately arranged lock of hair. That wisp of hair is a work of art in itself, especially the filigree knotting at its base.

Her portrait is slightly more romanticized than that of Robson’s, but the intent was clearly to make the most of her femininity and not promote the frankness of a masculine counterpart who would be master of a household. The gentleman who might receive Eliza’s miniature would be enviable, indeed.

As in other examples of the genre, these two show an extremely intimate part of the sitter. Engraved sentiments and faithful likenesses are one thing, but locks of hair are real enough to make us regret looking at a thing intended for none, save one so dearly loved. In the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, a large collection of these miniatures creates a compounded sense of invasion into the most intimate thoughts of those whose heartaches are long forgotten. The lace has since faded; the stiff collars carefully put in boxes. But even in this we are consoled, for we know Thomas Robson wasted neither time, nor money when he commissioned the artist. Sarah became Mrs. Robson the same year she was given the miniature.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Surprises of ArtPrize

Copyright © Edward Riojas
"Bright Maples" by Martha Fieber

ArtPrize never fails to surprise me. No, I wasn't surprised by the final pieces that were put there by popular vote. Neither was I surprised by the juror’s picks, nor was I surprised by the hooey that came out of their pie-holes when it was time to justify themselves. I wasn't surprised by the number of people who claimed they “can’t even draw a stick figure.” I wasn't surprised by folks who used their smart phones to photograph ... photographs. I wasn't even surprised by those who gushed over my use of color – this, while wearing sunglasses.
Detail of "Bright Maples"

I WAS surprised by the gems that went unnoticed, and by the gems that DID get noticed. Out of three of my personal favorites, one was a finalist and another was a short-lived contender. The last piece didn’t show up on anyone’s radar screen.

“Bright Maples,” by Martha Fieber, didn’t have one of those snazzy titles or an artist statement to wow the jurors. The tiny fiber piece was hard pressed to gather notice – until viewers took a much closer look and realized every leaf in the piece was a French knot. ‘Maples’ was, indeed, a delicate surprise.
"Morning Sun" by John Hubbard

Another favorite of mine was “Morning Sun,” by John Hubbard. Another lack-luster title, but immense skill showed through economy of brush strokes that harkened to Canada’s Group of Seven. It was small, but very fresh, and that was a nice surprise.

One of my favorites that did make it to the finals was “Moan,” a fiber piece by Katarzyna and Monika Gwiazdowska. The Polish twins took the lowly craft of Stitchy McYarn Pants and surprisingly elevated it above the stratosphere. Never mind the amount of work involved, or the distance covered to simply ship the piece, or the fact that the twins didn’t kill each other in the process – the real achievement was taking something so convolutedly complex and restraining it within elegant simplicity.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of ArtPrize was meeting like-minded artists from vastly different backgrounds. There was the Ukrainian artist who approached me again this year. We chatted like old friends, and kidded each other about flaws in our pieces. There was the interior designer-turned-artist; the model-turned-artist; the mathematician-turned-artist; the scientific illustrator-turned-artist. The common link we shared was the passion for our work and the striving to improve technique while visually communicating.
“Moan,” by Katarzyna and Monika Gwiazdowska

Next year’s ArtPrize, of course, will have surprises of its own. There will be new art and new faces. For my part, I will be bringing something new to the event, but I’m not about to tell you just yet. I don’t want to spoil that surprise.