Friday, January 24, 2020

Little Boxes All In A Row

The poplar sides roughed out.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

To be fair, the first one was not little. In a spur of the moment decision, I blurted out that I wanted to make my Dad’s casket. Perhaps it was my way of grieving. Maybe it was one last project of which I thought my Dad would be proud.

At any rate, I tackled a woodworking project with little to go on except the inner dimensions of a vault and the outer dimensions of a casket liner insert. That first box had to be strong enough to hold an adult and, with my heavy-handed building skills in mind, it had to be light enough to be carried by [only] six men. And, pardon the pun, there was a deadline.

Armed with lack of sleep, I shopped for lumber while store employees were hyping it up with their morning pep rally. They had no clue that their first customer was grieving and was about to begin the somber task of building a box for a man.

Fast forward a few years. There was a still-born death in the family of a friend, and the grandparents of the child were distraught over the fate of the body. Would a shoebox suffice? Was that irreverent? Was it even legal? I stepped forward and offered to build a small casket. That casket would serve as a model for successive boxes – I just didn’t expect the next one to be for my own grandchild. And then another.
The roughed out top and bottom fitted to the sides.

Creating these little treasure boxes – for that is what caskets and vaults are – is an act of caring of the most intimate kind. While working on them, I run my hand over the unfinished wood, knowing that it will touch the body of a fellow redeemed. I consider the box joints, knowing that the tiny joints of that infant were considered by the Lord while it was still growing in the womb. I look at the finish, and wonder if a thing so destined for hiding displays the love of a grandfather. For hours on end, this is the path my grieving takes for the least of these, my brethren.

What a stark contrast there is between these little boxes in a row and the bodies of children for which no boxes are made; for which no grieving is given; for which convenience is bartered for a life. Lord have mercy.

Here we could simply cry for the mountains to fall on us, but we do not grieve as others do. Being a peculiar man of a peculiar people, I strongly considered removing the quilted casket liner that I also made, folding it, and placing it back in the box. What a confession is made by simply folding a burial cloth and setting it to one side! We mourn here in time, but we will rejoice there, in eternity, where such cloths will have no use, and where boxes, both large and small, will finally be emptied of their treasures – including little Matthias John.

The finished casket. The poplar box is black-stained poplar. The cross is hand-rubbed ribbon sapele. The five brass, cap nuts
represent the five wounds of Christ. Four of them cap threaded rods passing through the box sides, holding the lid in place.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Apostolic Symbols: The Sharpest Tools In The Shed

One of several symbols
for St. Bartholomew

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Let me preface this post by conceding the Apostles probably didn’t have a cushy life. I doubt any of them considered legal action when they were slandered. Or when they were thrown out of the synagogue. Or worse. Being given the title of “Sent one” in Jesus’ time meant that you also made Satan’s most-wanted list.

That being said, tradition sometimes gets out of hand, and this is true with the Apostles and their lives. I recently started work on a project for Ecclesiastical Sewing which will be based on the Apostles. My chief source for imagery is “Church Symbolism,” a book by the respected F.R. Webber, who was a Lutheran pastor of considerable artistic skill. His collection of recognizable symbols is well-rounded, and many more symbols not visually included are given mention in the pages.

What becomes clear is that, based on their symbols, the Apostles met some very sorry ends, indeed. Sure, you will see the crossed keys of St. Peter. You might see a rooster symbol for him, too. Then you see an upside down cross, and things get ugly.

One of St. James’ symbols is a sword. One of St. Philip’s symbols is a spear. St. Bartholomew has a scimitar – and flaying knives. St. Thomas has a carpenter’s square, but there is also a spear and a quiver of arrows. St. James the Less has a fuller’s bat (I had to look that one up, too), some stones, and a saw. Not to be outdone, St. Simon has a saw, a boat hook, a couple of oars, and a halberd. St. Matthias overkills things with a glaive, a battle ax, a spear, a sword, and some rocks. Overkill, indeed.

This unwieldy collection of sharp tools and weapons points to a rather convoluted history of the blessed Apostles. I was always under the impression that they were all martyred, save John. This view is probably the most popular, but by far the most unlikely. The apostolic symbols point to a collection of rather unreliable histories, legends, and hearsay. “Histories” were based on sometimes-dubious stories handed down through an oral tradition akin to a bad game of telephone. One might also surmise that some stories were invented to enhance the devotion of a given Apostle. No one, after all, wants to venerate a saint who dropped dead from high cholesterol. There is no symbol for that.

Hence, some histories relate that an apostle was thrown from a parapet, then stoned, then, after reviving, was run through with a spear, and finally was sawn in two for good measure.

In fact, Holy Scripture does not mention how most of the apostles met their ends. Only James the Greater is spoken of in the opening verses of Acts 12. Although counted with the original apostles, we simply won’t talk of Judas Iscariot.

Interestingly, the early Church recognized only Peter, Paul, and James the Greater as being martyred apostles. Perhaps even more interesting, some theologians place John the Baptist among the martyred apostles.

We needn’t get squeamish, however, if we spy a sinister saw in a stain-glassed window that commemorates an apostle. Inaccuracy has morphed, over the years, into identifying symbols for some of the most beloved saints in Scripture. And while Scripture itself may describe them as being "not many wise," yet the Church has counted them among the sharpest tools in the shed.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Birds and Bees and Church

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Settle down, this post isn’t about THAT. It does concern what happens when creation and The Creator come together in one place.

Yesterday I finished “blocking-in” a series of four paintings destined for a chapel in Wausau, Wisconsin. The panels are now entirely covered with paint, but are far from finished. It is the second piece on which I’ve worked that features a large chunk of wildlife. The former was my first major sacred piece, which hangs in the sanctuary of my own church, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

That first piece, “The Te Deum Polyptych” takes the phrase, “We praise Thee O God,” and runs with it – or gallops with it. The ancient hymn begins with the overarching theme of praise, at which point I painted a representation of saints and angels and, yes, assorted animals. They run the gamut from resplendent and Kosher to smelly and unclean. There are bison and bugs (yes, a praying mantis) and even the odd molecule. They all face the Creator and praise the Word that spoke them into existence.

The newest piece, for Zion Lutheran Church, might be something akin to an tableau from an old museum of natural history. It gives a strong nod to the native flora and fauna of Wisconsin, and is intended to act as a set of windows overlooking Wausau's beloved mountain. There are sandhill cranes and loons, muskie and whitetail deer, sumac and trillium, and even a trilobite – the state fossil.

This could have easily gotten out of hand in a fluffy tribute to all things furry. Instead, the frames of the paintings will rein in the wildlife with excerpts from the Venite. A trilobite, for example, might seem to brush awfully close to the knucklehead Darwin, but it’s presence changes entirely when coupled with “In His hand are the depths of the earth.”

Every creature in the piece looks toward the Zion Altarpiece, an earlier work of mine. The last panel of the piece, however, takes an unexpected turn with the presence of an African lion. Obviously, that type of lion isn’t native to Wisconsin, but this one lays down with the Lamb, in reference to Isaiah 11. The passage also mentions a cow, which flanks the lion. And yes, if you must know, the cow is appropriately a milk-producing Holstein – for all you die-hard cheeseheads,

Friday, January 3, 2020

2020: What’s Coming on the Horizon

Page spread from Kloria Publishing's "Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice," to be released in April, 2020

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Okay, folks, you’ve had your break from the Art Curmudgeon, but the fun is over and it’s time to get serious.

My absence was due to a perfect storm composed of a post-Thanksgiving Day rush on print orders, an intense, “little,” art promotion that benefited a worthy cause, and a crappy cold that netted an antibiotic regimen. All of that is now in the past – except for the antibiotics.

We are now in a new year with a new bundle of possibilities and hopes. However, before we get all weird and begin dropping stupid puns like “Having 20/20 vision,” let’s be a bit more cautious and bring the Lord along with us into the New Year. I don’t want to say I will do thus and so, only to be divinely rebuked with, “You fool!” Our plans are always integral with what the Lord has in store, so if He wants to take me sooner than later, then a few projects will obviously be left for others to complete. That’s just the way it is.

As long as I am able, however, the ever-evolving project roster will cause me to stay focused, and I will continue to crank out pieces this side of heaven. So here is what’s going on:

I am currently working on a series of four paintings for a repeat client. The piece, based on the Venite, will hang in the chapel at Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, and will play a secondary role to the Zion Altarpiece, which I also created for the chapel.

I’m also working on a secular entry for ArtPrize. The now-biennial event gave me a much needed rest last year, but it’s hard to stay away from such a competition when it’s in my own back yard, and this fall the event returns in all its tarnished glory.

If you were paying attention a few weeks ago, Kloria Publishing gave a soft reveal of a book, "Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice," that is slated for an April release. I finished the project nearly a year ago. Besides Kloria’s book release, I will concurrently release several new prints based on the illustrations.

Even though I have started to decline some book projects – my sincere apologies to those affected – I will be working on a few assorted publications that have either been languishing on back-burners or are from repeat clients. I don’t feel I can drop book titles just yet, but I’ve been collaborating with Rev. Michael Holmen, Rev. Evan Scamman, and Rev. Tyrel Bramwell on diverse projects.

I’ve also been working with Rev. Nathan Sherrill and Rev. Timothy Frank on music publications for the fledgling David’s Harp RSO, and illustrations for a third book are in progress. On a side note, I’ve been enlisted in an artistic advisory role with David’s Harp, which may well expand my involvement beyond illustrator.

I will also continue to collaborate with Carrie Roberts of Ecclesiastical Sewing. My hand will be seen in certain large “sets” of paraments/vestments, and I will occasionally work on custom designs for some of her clients.

There are also several large projects looming in various stages of approval from clients and prospective clients. These come from far-flung corners of Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and various parts of Texas. I am also being kept in the loop on developments in Sri Lanka.

Not one to allow my mind to go slack, I also have two or three non-commissioned projects in mind for completion this year. As if I need something to do.

None of this is being mentioned in order to toot my own horn. Rather, it is a wake-up call to the mountain of work that is staring me in the face. There is much to do and little time to waste, which brings me to the harsh reality: It’s time to wrap up this post and get to work.