Friday, September 27, 2019

Talking Ed

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Apparently, I have something to say.

I used to be extremely quiet – just ask anyone who knows me. When I was a child, an older brother sometimes teased, “He doesn’t talk,” when visitors came to call. That point, however, becomes highly debatable if you now ask those close to me. The once-overly-shy kid can be a chatterbox.

Without promoting myself as a public speaker in any way, it seems a growing number of folks think I have something to say. I will assume it has nothing to do with the timbre of my voice, the smoothness of my delivery, or any presence I might exude. On the contrary, it has everything to do with the subject worth presenting – sacred art’s place in the sanctuary and how my work fits into that picture.

I've given talks before, but for some reason speaking engagements have been ramping up this year. Beginning in early January, I gave a couple of formal presentations at the Calvin Symposium on Worship. (Yes, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.) In late spring I gave an informal presentation to the KCAD Christian Fellowship at Kendall College of Art and Design. A few days ago I gave a similar presentation at Christ the King Lutheran Chapel on the campus of Central Michigan University. My presentation will be bumped up a couple of notches November 16, when I will be giving an expanded presentation at University Lutheran Chapel on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

This gentle escalation of talks is preparing me for an event that, Lord willing, will happen sometime next summer in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It’s a bit too early to spell out exactly what that will be, but the intent is to expand the presentation further yet so it spills over multiple days.

What is most exciting about all this is the strong desire – among confessional artists, Lutheran pastors, and laity alike – to educate on the subject of sacred art within the Lutheran church. For countless reasons, a great chasm has formed between how church art was viewed in the Old World and how it is viewed in the New World – and an ocean is the very least of reasons.

Hopefully, these presentations will begin to correct some long-held misconceptions, and will point, once again, to the usefulness of art in the Church. Hopefully, the shy, little child of my youth will yield to his elder self, who definitely has something to say.

Friday, September 20, 2019

ArtPrize Off Year

Copyright © Edward Riojas

What if somebody threw an ArtPrize and nobody cared?

That is becoming a valid question. The question most asked, however, is, “What is going on with ArtPrize this year?”

For those of you who don’t know, ArtPrize – now held every other year – is an art competition with a prize purse of half a million dollars. It draws thousands of local, national, and international artists, and thousands of entries come under scrutiny for both a public vote and a jurored vote. Hundreds of thousands of people descend on downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., for two and a half weeks beginning in mid-September. It used to be an annual event, then things started getting a little tired.

The powers-that-be decided the event should be a biennial thing, and the in-between years would be a different, but related, animal. Hence, the debut of this year’s Project 1. Technically, it isn’t ArtPrize. In spite of lots of media hype, a lot of folks are still asking, “What is going on with ArtPrize this year?”

I could be ornery and declare that I don’t know and I don’t care, but that is an oversimplification. What I do know is that I’m not alone in feeling drained from participating in ArtPrize. It takes a massive amount of energy to create something eye-catching and spectacular, and do so every year with little return on the time investment. I certainly don’t want ArtPrize to go away, but the break is a welcome relief.

This year’s Project 1, however, is not wholly a cause for celebration. While ArtPrize was once the darling of the Visual Arts – drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and associated disciplines – the event has been slowly eroded by performing arts in the guise of the visual arts. Project 1 nearly ignores the visual arts, focusing instead on performing arts. Only a handful of commissioned pieces have been installed in public spaces this year.

Photos from Project 1 show a little art, lots of folks with microphones, and [I’m being generous here] modest crowds. I know I am sounding disgruntled, but I dare say folks will share my sentiments once they dig into the goings-on of this year’s event. Perhaps “pissed” will suit you better.

You see, Project 1, in its great wisdom, decided to showcase London-based Drag Syndrome, among other performances. Perhaps Project 1 wanted to display patronage of international “talent.” Perhaps they felt the need to educate the pedestrian public about “culture.” Perhaps simply showcasing the visual arts was not enough. But really, no one should be forced to think that a show of Down Syndrome drag queens is art! Unfortunately, now I know what’s going on with ArtPrize, and, yes, I care. Enough of this crap already! You’re 11 years old, ArtPrize – it’s time to grow up!

Friday, September 13, 2019

That Which Lies in the Mirror

Detail from the "God's Own Child Mural." 2019. Edward Riojas
(All images Copyright © Edward Riojas. Images may not be reproduced.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I don’t need to go far to be reminded of sin’s consequences. That sort of thing crops up in nearly every piece of art I create.

A case in point are some of the figures in a current project, the “God’s Own Child Mural,” destined for St. Paul Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Out of more than 70 figures, mortality stared at me from a single face. In the mural, an elderly man shuffles behind a procession of sinner-saints. He could easily be me in a couple of decades. Or less.

The Fall not only created  a mess of Biblical proportions, it also made a mess of “lesser” things. In spite of what usually rolls off the tongue, aging is NOT a normal part of life. It wasn’t meant to be so ugly. It wasn’t supposed to be so debilitating. It shouldn’t be part of a ghastly, downward spiral.

Detail from the "God's Own Child Mural."
So the face before me was painted with wrinkles and age spots – attesting to the degeneration of muscles and degradation of elastic skin. In its place, the cartilage of ears and noses continues to grow – sometimes in ridiculous proportions. Bones degrade and dissolve so that the back refuses to hold up the shoulders and head. Senses fail. Hearing loss, cataracts, and macular degeneration wreak havoc. Youthful minds become hidden behind gnarled countenances and aching joints. Often, youthful minds simply dry up and blow away.

But to be honest, I don’t need a painting to remind me of all this. All I need is a mirror.

The affects of the Fall, however, are not exclusive of the mature or aged. Infants can die in the womb. Some are born broken. Toddlers die. This is neither natural, nor part of some morbid “circle of life.” Sin, Death, and Satan suck.

But thanks be to God, we have a Redeemer in Christ Jesus, who has changed things mightily. He has taken our sin on Himself, put Death to death, and has defeated the hellish knucklehead, Satan. This should be abundantly obvious in the mural – even more so than an image of an elderly man. In spite of the reality of our condition; in spite of the reality of aging and illness and death, the realities of Christ’s cross, our redemption, and eternal life far outshine that which lies in the mirror.

Friday, September 6, 2019

An Artist’s Prayer

(Photos courtesy of the Art Curmudgeon)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I’ve often thought it would be wonderful to have a prayer, specifically by and for artists, that could be a daily anchor for my vocation. I’ve often thought that I should sit down and compose such a prayer. Maybe it would be based on some of the great collects. Perhaps it would be patterned after the Lord's Prayer. The notion of doing such a thing, however, seems naive and trite and contrived.

One doesn’t have to search very far to find examples of artist’s prayers. And, um, yes, a good share of them are naive and trite and contrived. Some are so flowery in prose and nebulous in content that they seem exercises in creative writing. Bad bits of fiction they are.

Others ask for ridiculously-stupid things. I ran across one prayer by an artist-type in which the general gist was akin to, “Father God, .... please let me nail that guitar riff on Sunday...” One can almost hear the Divine amplifier feedback in answer to such supplications.

Some carry on in meterless poetry with so many words that the prayer says nothing at all. It asks nothing at all. In the end, it IS nothing at all.

Thankfully, some come close to the mark. The prayer “For church musicians and artists,” listed in the Lutheran Service Book (CPH), has a close cousin in the Book of Common Prayer. I’ll let greater minds determine which influenced which. The LSB’s version reads:

“God of majesty, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven, be with Your servants who make art and music for Your people that with joy we on earth may glimpse Your beauty. Bring us to the fulfillment of the hope of perfection that will be ours as we stand before Your unveiled glory; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

The prayer comes close, but it's more of a prayer FOR artists, and not BY artists. The difference may seem slim, but as one who creates art for the Church, I’d like to ask for something more than just a glimpse of the Lord’s beauty, even if that is a noble and righteous thing.

For the time being, I suppose I’ll keep nagging the Lord with my simple and honest supplication that simultaneously begs what I need and hints that my labors might benefit others in the Kingdom. The prayer isn’t very eloquent and its grammar is questionable. It certainly isn’t flowery or poetic, but it’s been on the top of my studio easel for a long time. For many years it has been on the tip of my tongue.