Friday, August 23, 2019

Of Color

“The chief function of color should be to serve expression.” Henri Matisse

Working drawing of the 'God's Own Child' Mural. Edward Riojas. 2019. Finished size will be 5' tall by 24' wide.
(All photos courtesy of the artist. Copyright © Edward Riojas. Images may not be reproduced.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Being of a peculiar breed, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when artists wax eloquently – or obsessively – about color. For some artists, color is a delicious dream. For others, it is an elusive reality. Yet other artists sometimes ponder over it in unnatural places – in Claude Monet's case, on the face of a dead woman laid out at a funeral.

Color, however, can serve other purposes beyond the kind of expression to which Henri Matisse was alluding. In church, for example, most can tell what Church season it is simply by what color dominates the chancel. Those specific colors were developed throughout the history of the Church and have meaning attached, even if we jostle each other over violet or blue or [gasp!] rose. And there are yet other purposes for color.

A current project for St. Paul Lutheran Church, Council Bluffs, Iowa, makes use of color in a mural based on Erdmann Neumeister’s hymn, “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It.” In what is becoming a favorite visual theme among clients, a large body of saints processes across the mural. The client made it clear early on in the project that this procession of saints should truly reflect the spectrum of God’s children. Hence, the use of color was made to serve a deliberate purpose.

Detail of the mural in progress.
There aren’t only representations of buttoned-down, Germanic Europeans. There aren’t simple, token delegates of African descent. There is such a variety of facial types and ages and stylistic lifestyles to guarantee the viewer that, yes, God’s children come from every walk of life and every corner of the earth.

What struck me once the painting was under way is that every figure in the mural – no matter what ethnic origin – was painted with warm colors. In artistic parlance, the warm umbers and siennas and ochres used in human flesh are often called “earth colors,” because the pigments used to produce those colors often come from different types of clay.

This simple fact is profound, if only we allow it. Adam was formed of the dust of the earth. “Dust you are, and to dust you will return.” There is great humility in knowing we are only as good as the dirt beneath our feet.

Thanks be to God that there is another group of colors in the mural. Beneath the earth tones is a flood of blues, greens, and other cool colors. These colors change the way the figures appear beneath water. That life-giving water issues from a Baptismal font, washing over the procession of saints, and finally bears them up in the resurrection of the flesh.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Things Unseen

The unfinished base. (Photos courtesy of the Curmudgeon.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Artists are rightly squeamish about showing a piece before it’s finished. Like writers, artists often wrestle with their work, and it isn’t always pretty.

I imagine the same is true of many occupations. We appreciate a good sermon, for example, but are often oblivious to the struggles of Greek and Hebrew classes that go into it. Most of use aren’t really into jots and tittles. So, too, are we glad when a plumber pays us a visit to correct some life-threatening problem. Few of us bother to consider the trade school involved just to deal with other people’s “stuff.”

On a far different plane, we are also ignorant of the massive Spiritual happenings behind our physical world – the heavenly battle against Satan and his hordes; the divine wrangling to work out things for our good. In spite of our curiosity, I doubt many of us have a real desire or the fortitude to witness that sort of thing this side of heaven.

I’m currently working on retro-fitting a wooden base for a processional crucifix. The processional was not behaving nicely, and I was tasked with adding stability. To accomplish this, I made a slightly larger base plate of the same material to give the existing base a larger footprint. I also added ten pounds of bar steel. The steel, however, will remain hidden. As in many things, what is not seen is of greater consequence and carries more weight than what will be immediately obvious.

Concealed steel weights in the wooden base.

Friday, August 9, 2019

On The Walls Of An Old Church

In the sanctuary: Working on Matthew 11:28
(Photo courtesy of Rev. Seifferlein)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Lord provided a background of an evening thunderstorm rolling through Wisconsin farmland. I was perched on scaffolding in an old church sanctuary, mahlstick in hand, and staring Scripture in the face. It was a little bit of heaven.

I had come to Adell, Wisconsin, to work on-site at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. While I prefer to work in the studio, a select few projects demand that I travel. When recently asked to paint blocks of embellished Scripture on church walls, I took the opportunity to play the part of an itinerant artist – if only for a couple of days. I elected to sleep in the cavernous underbelly of the old church building so I could work late, rise early to do the same, be not too much of a bother to anyone, and then go home.

Living as an itinerant artist was more commonplace in the days of our great-great-grandparents. The decoration of fledgling Lutheran churches in America were sometimes jobbed out to artisans with skill enough to paint walls, create decorative trim, and embellish spaces with Bible verses. Often that was done in German. Always it was done by hand.

Getting a taste of the life of a travelling artist was pretty much limited to bedding down on a hard floor, climbing scaffolding, and working in the solitude of an empty sanctuary. My gracious hosts, the Rev. and Mrs. Seifferlein, had loaded the church kitchen with enough food for an army of artists, and a battery of electric fans kept the summer heat at bay. Itinerant artists of the day did without such luxuries.
In the Narthex: Completed excerpt from the Te Deum
(Photo taken by the artist)

I relished working long hours in the relative silence that was punctuated by children’s laughter somewhere outside, bells chiming out hymns at Matins, noon, and six, and the evening thunderstorm. That sort of wealth does not exist everywhere, and it is worth finding.

It is good, too, to appreciate things of long ago. When we did without internet; when things were slow, but deliberate; when convenience was rare, families gathered to hear the Word of God preached in all its purity and loveliness, and they did so in a building that was designed with the Lord in mind instead of praise bands and air-conditioned comfort.

While in Adell, I was offered a peek into the nuances of an old country church. I was shown were the two entrances once were – one for the men and one for the women. I was told that the recently-refinished floor had worn more on one side of the sanctuary – presumably from the hobnailed soles of men’s shoes. I was shown curious channels and holes carved into the window sills – features that drained condensation when frost began to melt on the window panes. I was shown the original bit of clear glass in an otherwise stained-glass window in the bell tower – a peep hole so an elder knew when to toll the bell at the arrival of the funeral hearse.

No old photos exist of the interior of the church. Like many churches, extensive remodeling of the sanctuary took place in the 1940s and 50s. That was when old altars and ornate altarpieces and "outdated" pulpits were all fair game. So, too, were sentimental, old photographs. I took great satisfaction, therefore, in knowing that what I came to do was in keeping with an earlier time, and knowing that some still appreciate the inherent beauty contained in passages of Scripture.