Friday, June 29, 2018

The Writing On The Wall

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Old photos of church sanctuaries are the best. They give us hints as to who worshipped there, and what the parishioners considered paramount. They also remind us who WE are.

The kind of photos to which I am referring come from the heartland of the U.S., during a time when photography was still accomplished by big box cameras. It was also a time when wars hadn’t yet affected the use of Old World languages in this new land of opportunity; when Lutheran church services were frequently in German or Swedish.

While I love to see Gothic Revival altarpieces alongside oil lamps or newfangled electric candles, what most intrigues me is the writing on the wall.

Eons before insipid words like “Live, Laugh, Love” were littering American homes, better words of greater substance often adorned church sanctuaries. That was when painters knew a bit more about their craft than roller covers. Often painters were skilled artisans, creating masterful borders and powerful calligraphy with relatively humble materials. It’s a wonder how anyone in their right mind could paint over such ornate work when sprucing-up was deemed necessary.

I’ve found a few old photos that are real gems. Each one tells us what Lutherans held dear, and some of the photos give an added perspective of worship that is worth seeing. ...

(Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

The chancel wall of First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minnesota , used portions of three New Testament texts. “Behold the Lamb of God!,” John 1:29b; “...Whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross, Colossians 1:20b; and “He is our our peace,” Ephesians 2:14a. The setting of these passages is a cross with radiating lines, which points to the Resurrection.

One notable feature is the somewhat odd position of the pulpit – behind and above the altar. This arrangement came about as a visual protest against Rome, and gave preeminence to the [preached] Word, which, in Roman Catholicism, had become overshadowed by the Sacrament of the Altar. Since then the ‘altar-pulpit’ has fallen into disuse, although some still exist.

Up the road from First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church was Chisago Lake Evangelical Lutheran Church. It, too, was a Swedish stronghold. Its communion rail closely followed the half-circle pattern of communion rails in the Old Country, fairly filling the chancel space and forcing the ornate pulpit out into the sanctuary proper – in Germanic fashion. This half-circle confessed “the heavenly host” joining the Lord’s Table at an unseen portion of a full circle, which symbolically extended outside the church building and into the “church yard”– the cemetery.

Text was added around the arch of their chancel – a favorite place of Scriptural ornamentation. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” is a truncated version of Luke 11:28. Other text and opulent decoration covered the Neoclassical walls.

The much more austere Germanic sanctuary of Zion Lutheran Church, Corruna, Indiana, had a lovely altarpiece, an impressive, elevated pulpit, and a massive potbelly stove. This photo was surely taken for a special event, for the place is festooned with evergreen garland and a banner proclaiming, “The Lord has done great things for us.” Psalm 126: 3a.

Not to be outdone by Germanic Hoosiers, The congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church, Centralia, Illinois, got together for a reunion group portrait in 1927. Little did they realize that the text surrounding the chancel arch, “Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14a, would soon fall out of fashion during a war in which most Americans dared not speak or write German.

Meanwhile, St. John Lutheran Church, Houston, was doing things in its own style, as is evident by this not-so-old photograph of the restored chancel area. It uses, again, the words of Luke 11:28, while a rather striking version of a pulpit-altar commands the center.

If worshippers didn’t get a clue during the Divine Service at St. John, they were given another dose of the Word when leaving the church. Using a combination of old German text and Gothic architecture in an effect that could have come from Bavaria instead of central Texas, home-grown comfort was driven home with abbreviated words from Psalm 121:8 – “The Lord keep your going out and your coming in. Amen!”

Friday, June 22, 2018

Change In The Sanctuary

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When asked to create a piece of art for a church sanctuary, I am always sensitive to the fact that I am introducing change. I note the style of architecture, the placement of furniture, and the permanence of existing furnishings. A sanctuary, after all, is meant to be an unshaken retreat within a world that is constantly shaken. Many congregants have grown up in that church. Some have spent their whole lives attending the same church, and expect to have their own funerals there. They don’t expect major change – even after they’ve been lowered into the ground.
Chancel area of the new
St. John's Abbey Church
(Collegeville, Minn.)

Sometimes, however, I feel as though I am working on a molecular level when a church sanctuary is reinvented on a planetary scale. This was again underscored on a recent visit to the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

We first entered the megalithic expanse of St. John’s Abbey Church, an imposing facade created by an endless train of cement trucks, miles of rebar, and nearly one ounce of common sense. Then we walked a short distance to its predecessor, renamed "The Great Hall."

One glimpse of the interior of the original St. John’s Abbey Church begs so many questions, the first of which is: Why did someone feel the need to abandon a place of such exquisite beauty? The original sanctuary is filled with imagery that screams, in specific terms, the majesty and glory and power of our Lord. The newer sanctuary just ... screams.

Original chancel of St. John's Abbey Church,
renamed "The Great Hall"

While drastic, St. John’s reinvention of itself isn’t an isolated case. Strange things can happen when under the guise of “upgrades,” “improvements,” and “makeovers.” I know of a church, for example, whose members felt compelled to reorient the axis of their sanctuary – simply for the sake of tradition. The original chancel became a raised platform for choir and organ console, and the new chancel area became a pinched place midway to the back door.

Even the church in which I was baptized was not exempt. The Church Extension Fund-thing was implemented after ushers tired of putting folding chairs down the aisle. A giant sanctuary was built next to the old, with a courtyard and adjoining classrooms, and the original, beautiful sanctuary was given a dropped ceiling as part of a 1970's makeover. The growing pains reversed themselves, church attendance fell through the floor, and the church eventually – and painfully – was un-dedicated as an LCMS entity.

Change may be inevitable, but stupidity needn’t come along for the ride. More than carpeting color; more than the stiffness of pew cushions; more than brass fixtures in well-designed lavatories, strong consideration must be given to any sanctuary so sought after by hurting and repentant sinners. Then the sanctuary must be given more consideration. And yet more. This place of worship is, after all, The Lord’s house – not His garage.

Friday, June 15, 2018

In Step With Ecclesiastical Sewing

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I half-expected Carrie Roberts to speak with a British accent. That’s what can happen when collaborative efforts go on for months and years on end, without so much as a business phone conversation. Carrie and I have always corresponded via e-mail when working together on some of the most exceptional paraments and vestments on the market.

My wife, Mary, and I arranged a brief, first-time meeting with Carrie on the tail-end of a vacation to visit family. While en route, we passed though the hinterlands of Minnesota, where roads meander among pristine lakes, and where church signs are occasionally spelled out in Swedish or Norwegian.

We finally met up with Carrie at “Studio B,” located in the basement of her daughter’s house. Such is often the case with small enterprises, when space requirements and limited budgets necessitate some creative thinking.

Bolts of brocade, stacked floor to ceiling in a tidy rack, waited in one room next to photography lights and a mannequin. Another room was dominated by a humming, but dormant, embroidery machine. A third room was clearly the main work space, and on its massive table lay proof that Ecclesiastical Sewing is no small potatoes.

Green frontals and chasubles in various stages of completion covered the table. They were the first items created using designs from the new “Sanctified Set,” which are meant to be used during those parts of the the Church year sometimes referred to as “Ordinary Times.” Some of the pieces I saw are going to this year’s Higher Things Conferences across the U.S., but ordinary they are not.

Even though I designed various embroideries for the new set, Carrie, in her usual fashion, pushed the designs beyond their original limits. The embroidery machine – dubbed a “dinosaur” – can certainly do a simple stitch and be done with it, but Carrie considers the alternatives and chooses specific stitches that make the most of threads and natural light – this, so that gold threads shimmer; so that mundane colors glow. For a single, large design, the embroidery machine can run for 12 hours or more. If the result is somehow imperfect, it is set aside and re-embroidered.

But the high standards of Ecclesiastical Sewing are not evident simply in the warp and weft of fabric, the trimming of stray threads, or in the maximizing of materials’ potential. A great deal of thought goes into the confessional embroidery images so that they, too, are subject to scrutiny and change. Being something far more than just pretty or handsome puts Carrie’s products in a category far above what is found in most vestment catalogs, and our collaborative efforts will continue to move in that direction.

My first project with Carrie was in the final tweaking of the Luther Rose brocade – loomed in the U.K., and an exclusive product of Ecclesiastical Sewing. Some sort of unofficial record was apparently set when the design was ready for weaving inside of three months instead of the usual two to three years taken by large design houses. Besides a degree in fashion design and a career in the same, Carrie has also completed courses from Britain’s Royal School of Needlework via offerings at Colonial Williamsburg. She has diligently researched and resurrected techniques that once were the norm in cloistered Europe.

But, no – Carrie does not have a British accent.

Friday, June 8, 2018

“O That My Words Were Written”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It sometimes takes thick skin to be an artist.

This will be my eighth year in ArtPrize, and every year panic sets in when I send out requests to have my piece hosted by a venue. It’s very much like sending out resumes, with seemingly every ounce of experience and talent on the line. The clock ticks away as venues consider mountains of requests from a larger mountain of artists. Time passes and no one responds. Self-doubt creeps in. Self-worth looms in the corners of the mind. And still the clock ticks.

I sent out 12 requests to venues this year, representing an “A” list of ideal venues, a respectable “B” list, and a hodgepodge “C” list. I was rejected by 11. I never heard from the last one.

For the first time, however, I was approached by a venue that was nowhere on my radar. Its location is far off the grid, and will get only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of visitors some venues enjoy. Yet I am grateful.

Cornerstone Church is arguably the best fit for this year’s piece, “O That My Words Were Written.” I sent requests to two other church venues, but one of those is too wrapped up in social justice to bother with Holy Scripture. The other may be more concerned with cutting-edge beauty.

Even when considering my habit of juggling different subject matter, this year’s entry is very different. The word of God takes center stage in my piece. There are no striking figures in the painting. There are no cute visual devices; nothing hidden to find. The background is dark and contains brambles reminiscent of tattered angel wings. A single stone megalith bears words written in Germanic blackletter characters. If fashion was used to describe artwork, “Goth” might cross the viewer’s mind.

Without the darkness of this world, with its disappointments and downfalls and shortcomings and ugly horrors, joy would seem as fluffy as cotton candy. But joy is much more substantial. In this piece I have partially given what Job could only pray – that his words would be written in stone forever. When all that he had was lost; when his friends chided him for his sins; when his children were taken from him; when his property was gone; when his health was in shambles; when his wife urged him to curse God and die; when he seemingly had nothing left, still he confessed he had everything – a Redeemer that lived. In his words were real joy, and we claim his words as our own.

We pray that the Word will have free course, that the good and gracious Will of the Father be done, that the Spirit will speak through us at the appointed time, and that the Gospel of Christ Jesus will spread to the ends of the earth. Perhaps thousands will not see this year’s ArtPrize entry. Perhaps, however, there is but one visitor somewhere out there who might chance upon my piece during ArtPrize, and perhaps that one person is the one who needs to read this small excerpt from the Book of Job. If I have done well by the Word of God, then I have done well, indeed.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Process of Elimination

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When asked how he accomplished his masterpiece, “David,” Michelangelo famously responded, “I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.” One must wonder which Michelangelo was speaking – the eloquent master who affected so much of Renaissance art, or the smart aleck who had a knack for giving offense.

Subtractive sculpting uses a bass-ackwards way of thinking, and Michelangelo gave a hint with his oversimplification. In its most pure form, in which a large block of stone or wood is finally reduced to a thing of beauty, there is no way to erase a mistake. Gluing a piece of over-zealously-gouged wood back onto the piece is not a good option. Doing the same with stone is an impossibility. In that regard, a greater deal of forethought goes into subtractive sculpting than its additive counterpart.

“Corpus” was recently installed at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It’s worth seeing a few photos of the process to appreciate what goes into – or rather, what is taken away from – a simple piece of wood.

Because it is extremely hard to find a single piece of wood large enough to work subtractively, I initiated the project with a bit of additive sculpting. The Corpus proper would start with four pieces cut from the same piece of basswood.

Arms would be bolted to the torso, and the head would be glued and screwed to the front of the torso. It was critical to make the joints as tight as possible, yet accessible enough to accommodate disassembly and reassembly for shipping and beyond.

Because basswood – a wood commonly used by carvers – is extremely soft, hanger bolts with substantial grip were employed to hold the arms in place.

Once the body blocks were constructed, lines were drawn on the blocks indicating the general form of the finished piece. Roughing out was done with power tools, including a drill fixed with a Forstner bit and a saber saw. Large gouges were also used. Throughout the “wasting” process, it was imperative to keep in mind the unseen visual limits of the finished surface.

Once rough wasting was complete, a different power tool came into play. My weapon of choice is a professional Dremel tool, fitted with a flexible shaft and foot pedal. Various heads can be used, including a carbide shaping wheel. Wearing a good respirator is a must. The tool works at such high rpms that it throws fine wood powder by the bucket load.

As work continued, smaller amounts of wood were subtracted. The head went through a metamorphosis in which different facial types replaced previous ones. As in drawing or painting, the slightest changes in facial features create a different likeness, but unlike those two disciplines there is no going back.

Areas that would have the most detail, such as beard and hair, were left for last – subtleties of the skin had to be first smoothed.

Because wood is susceptible to damage where extremely delicate details and grain of the wood are concerned, the thorns of the crown – cut from the same wood – were shaped and fitted into sockets.

Specialty hardware that replicated rough-cut spikes was used to secure the Corpus and its accompanying tabula to an existing cross in the church chancel.