Friday, September 22, 2017

A Profound Thread in Sacred Art

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Being a commissioned, sacred artist, I am sometimes privy to things otherwise hidden. No, I’m not talking about things mystical, or of private revelations, or voices. I am talking about the back stories of commissions – things sometimes intentionally covered, left undisclosed, or otherwise minimized.

I realize I am sounding mysterious and nebulous, but I am bound to uphold anonymity where it is requested. What I CAN tell the reader is that there is a profound thread that runs through those back stories – one that only becomes visible with experience. For lack of better words, it is a bicolored thread of brokenness and Hope so entwined that it defies unravelling.

The rare commissions are ones that are solely born out of generosity. More often, works of art come to life by the memory of a life cut short, through some deep hurt, or the soiled veil covering this side of heaven. Sometimes, those imperfections are memorialized in the piece itself.

Putting aside images of the crucified and risen Christ, there is one theme that is requested most often – the procession of saints. This is usually, but not always, included in the adoration of The Lamb.

As is typical of our skewed view of classical artwork, we often take these processions of saints the wrong way. Whether because of the richness of dress in which they were portrayed or in the masterful manner in which they were painted, we see them as a crowd of churchly movers and shakers; men and women of high standing; noble lords and ladies of whom we may only deign to aspire. This is not so.

As was depicted in former days is the same now – these are random samplings of whitewashed nobility; the broken; the hurting; those desirous and eager for the return of our Faithful Redeemer. In these processions, we see ourselves and others who share our burdens and faults and sinfulness. We see ourselves in the throng of those whose Hope echoes the desperate question of the disciple, “Lord, to whom shall we go?!”

In every case the Death and Resurrection of our Lord outshines these shadows of multifaceted brokenness with a singular Hope. Without such there would be no point in me completing such commissions. And there would be little to note in the example of a mural realized after the death of its visionary, the example of a Down Syndrome child weekly pondering an image of Jesus surrounded by children, the example of the blind funding an image of the resurrected Christ.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 ArtPrize Piece: “Ambrei as Potamiaena”

Detail of "Ambrei as Potamiaena." Edward Riojas. 2017.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There are promises, and then there are promises. Crossing one’s heart does not compare with, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Neither does a child’s “pinky promise” hold a candle to an adult’s “’till death us do part” variety.

But there is another promise of even greater consequence. Some of us vowed “ suffer all, even death...” Perhaps those words were glibly said as young pre-teens. Perhaps you were an adult when you made that promise.

“P: Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?

R: I do, by the grace of God”

That question and its answer are part of the rite of Confirmation in the Lutheran Church. In spite of the serious tone of that promise, we rarely think the “even death” part will ever come. It’s hard to muster the uglier parts of the imagination while wearing white, smiling at flashing cameras, and knowing there will be cake afterward.

But ugly happens, and it has happened, non-stop, throughout history. Hence, the sober truth of my ArtPrize entry, “Ambrei as Potamiaena.”

Potamiaena was the antithesis of ugly. Little is known of the young woman, but the early Church historian, Eusebius, tells us she was extremely beautiful. Even more beautifully, she was a Christian. But that was circa 200 A.+D. in Alexandria, and Septimius Severus was inciting persecution against Christians. Potamiaena’s double portion of beauty made her a mark, and all manner of ugly torture was meted out to her. Still, she would not deny the Faith – neither under horrible torture, nor at her gruesome end as a Christian martyr.

As Church heroes go, she is way, way down on the list. To my knowledge, there is no icon of her. Potamiaena doesn’t show up in sacred art. Aside from her becoming a patron saint of rape victims, her name is fairly obscure within the Church.

Chances are that Matthew Ayariga doesn’t show up on your list, either. Neither does Perpetua Hong Kimju. Even the name, Rachel Scott, is probably beginning to fade from memory. These names, however, and the rest of a modest list of martyrs that will cascade down the painting’s frame and bleed onto the floor, are written in the palm of the Lord’s hand – and He remembers them. The names come from different continents and cultures. The list crosses lines of gender and age and notoriety. They are from antiquity and from recent history.
"Ambrei as Potamiaena,"
during final fitting of painting
with frame and base.

In the painting, the figure portraying Potamiaena holds a palm branch – an age-old symbol of martyrdom. Likewise, a garment of white also identifies her as a martyr. Fifteen square yards of fabric were used to wrap the model in a hooded toga – ignoring Potamiaena's soiled, short life, and pointing to a greater, everlasting one. Perhaps most significantly, her feet and palm frond do not touch the ground.

When I was taking photos of the model, Ambrei, for the painting, I remember pausing to ask her if she was smiling. I did not, after all, think a smile appropriate for the subject of martyrdom. Ambrei assured me she was not smiling. I shot photos of other poses, including the much-used noble attitude of looking upward to the light, but I kept coming back to the original pose.

The notion that this young woman does not avert her gaze, but matter-of-factly addresses the viewer with innocence and honesty, took hold and gave direction to the painting. Ambrei’s gaze drills into the viewer. In photographic parlance, she “ate the camera.”

I doubt that Potamiaena ever made the same promise that some of us made – she simply let her "Yes" be "Yes," and her "No" be "No." Her words – whatever they were – carried no less honor and yielded the highest sacrifice.

With Ambrei portraying Potamiaena, it is almost as if she is asking the question of us; as does the noble army of martyrs; as does Christ Himself: “Do you intend to continue steadfast...?”

It is only by the Grace of God that one can respond, “I do.”


"Ambrei as Potamiaena" will be hosted during ArtPrize by DeVos Place Convention Center, 303 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids, Mich. The piece is located at the south end of the building. ArtPrize begins Sept. 20, and runs through Oct. 8.

Friday, September 8, 2017

ArtPrize From Both Sides of the Brain

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I realize that not everyone who visits this blog can visit ArtPrize. The art competition that grew up in my backyard is quite unlike any other – whether in the U.S. or any other part of the world. Being a relative newcomer to the global art scene, ArtPrize suffers from growing pains, but already this thing is a giant.

Once upon a time, I created graphics for a local newspaper group, and ArtPrize was my baby. There were times when my interpretations of raw data gave me insights into the event that even ArtPrize staff didn't have. What follows is a brief visual exploration of ArtPrize, ala Riojas style, that gives a hint at the scope of what is still an unknown event to many Americans. For a deeper explanation of ArtPrize, you can read a post from the Art Curmudgeon archives.

Numbers can be boring to artists, so I've superimposed Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" over the history of artist/venue participation to give you a better impression. (See what I did there?)

The slightly-convoluted ArtPrize prize purse evolved when elitists complained about trends in the original public vote, so the event is now bi-polar, with elitist jurors carrying as much weight as the pedestrian public. Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" questions both sides and their respective ideas of "fine" art.

The size of the ArtPrize purse means nothing unless it is compared with other globally-respected art prizes. How appropriate that Gilbert Stuart's unfinished "George Washington" (yes, the one used on U.S. currency) supports the data.

The original boundaries held us captive with more than enough art. Then special interests and deep pockets got in the way. The politics of art can be worse than, um, politics.

Source for all graphics: and The Art Curmudgeon research.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Archaeology of an Altarpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It wasn’t exactly a Velociraptor tooth, but I knew I was on to something.

I recently deconstructed an old altarpiece and, in doing so, reconstructed a bit of history. It began months ago, when I agreed to take a dusty, old altarpiece and its companion Baptismal font from a parsonage basement, thus saving the sanctuary “furniture” from certain demise in a county landfill. In exchange, I also agreed to clean and reframe the central painting, and give it back to the church. While not very attractive to me, the painting of a Resurrected Christ held enough historical significance for the congregation to warrant preservation.
Back of the altarpiece's central section.

Thus I began to ponder the filthy altarpiece, and how best to take it apart. Feel free to imagine me with pick and shovel, dental tools, and a horsehair brush. Okay, so I had a pry bar and a hammer.

I first looked at the back – the mostly-likely entry point for the Gothic-arched canvas. A horrible make-over job, probably of 1920s or ‘30’s vintage, left its scars. I mean, who would want to brush over stained wood with cream-colored paint? Is wasn’t a very careful job, either. Paint dripped off the Gothic details and down the inaccessible back. A large wooden panel covered most of the back, but, curiously, two different sets of nails weren’t enough to keep it against the frame – something held the panel away so that the nail shafts were visible.

Things became more clear when I started prying the large panel away. It was nicely “glued-up” lumber, and its hidden surface, facing the back of the painting, was stained and varnished. My original hunch that the painting was not original proved true. The large panel holding the painting in place was actually intended to be visible within the Gothic frame. A few small holes hinted that a small crucifix was probably mounted centrally on the panel.
With the back panel off and canvas exposed.

There was also an odd light fixture just above the peak of the arched opening. It was old enough, but it certainly wasn’t original. Frames of this style easily date to the mid- to late-1800s, and electricity was a novelty, at best.

The painting was now accessible with the panel off, but it was in a sorry state. To begin, the canvas was poorly stretched. Its stretcher frame was less than minimal – even when accommodating a Gothic arch. Its construction had been compromised and it no longer even stretched the canvas. It was a wonder the canvas itself was intact.

The stretching job indicated that it was probably done by an artist of middling abilities and less notoriety. Copper nails were not used, and the nails that were used were set at random intervals. The corners were not tidy at all. If the artist himself didn’t treat his work with dignity, neither did time.
Poor condition of the stretched canvas.

The painting surface was covered by countless years of dust and all manner of insect droppings and who knows what else. I know enough about art conservation that important jobs should be left to professional restorers, but I also knew the painting was no Rembrandt. Professional restorers use a combination of restraint, voodoo-like chemistry, patience, and even their own saliva to accomplish things. I opted, instead, on a simple, but decisive approach.

First, I used a clean, soft brush to repeatedly rid the surface of the obvious dust and dirt. I vacuumed the back of the canvas. (Restorers, feel free to pull out your hair.) Then I carefully used purified water and a brush on small areas to clean the oil painting bit deeper. I was sure to wipe any excess water so that it dried quickly.

There came another “Aha!” moment when I addressed the insect droppings. Prodding with a very small chisel revealed that, apparently, the church at that time could not afford a candle snuffer. What I originally thought were droppings were, based on the location and spatter pattern, candle wax. Smoke from candles can be bad enough for sanctuary artwork, but over-zealous blowing of candles does not bode well for artwork just inches away.
Candle wax, paint line, and date

I had been trying to date the altarpiece at every turn and found only carpenter’s markings – that is, until I removed the painting. Not-so-careful painters left a line of cream-colored paint around the edge of the canvas. Paint even partially obscured the signature of the artist, M. Madsen. When the canvas was pulled out of the frame, however, what was hidden by the frame edge came to light – below the artist’s signature was the date, 1908.

A simple timeline can be constructed from my little exercise of removing a sacred painting from its frame. The altarpiece was originally a darkly-stained, wooden affair with Gothic details. A simple cross hung on its large, central panel. That was in the late 1800s. Some time shortly after the turn of the century, Madsen was asked to create a painting of the Resurrection to replace the crucifix and panel. Electricity was available, so a light was added to illuminate the painting. New tastes in decor later dictated the altarpiece be lightened up, and it was given a makeover with cream and gold paint.
In the 1950s, a much nicer altarpiece was purchased and installed in the church, and the old altarpiece was removed to the parsonage basement. It stayed there for 60 years or more.

The upgrading and removal of such things may seem of little consequence. After so many years few people remember. But one elderly woman did. As the altarpiece was being loaded in a rental trailer to make the trip to my house, she told the pastor that she and her husband were the last couple to be married in front of the image of the Risen Christ. For that simple reason alone, the painting is going back to its proper home.