The Rising Ward: Robert Riojas

The Rising Ward
Summer Studio Work-in-Progress: Robert Riojas III

by Stephanie Cheung, Photos by Stephanie Cheung

Sitting by the mosaic table outside House 2511, Robert speaks like the breeze that is fanning the oppressive heat. From his smile and eyes, one can tell he is very much contented. Having been making art as something therapeutic for both himself and the people around him, the junior at Texas Southern University finds the experience at Summer Studios remarkably rewarding: “It puts meaning into what I create.” 

Robert discovered his passion for wood a year or so earlier. He had a studio, but rising rent made it difficult for him to keep the space. Wood sculpting, however, cannot be accommodated just anywhere. Summer Studios thus provides him with a much appreciated platform to focus on a practice that he really wants to pursue. That the program is not a competition is also reassuring for him. “I don’t need to compare with other people. We are here, all working together, and I can focus on what I want to do.”

The aspiring young artist is seizing the opportunity to drill on his craft, and also connecting it to something dear to his heart. Raised in Houston's Heights, Robert is a neighbor of Third Ward. He has seen its changes in close proximity and is encapsulating his feelings for this place in his art. A work-in-progress is a geometric wood collage. The materials were scavenged from nearby construction sites. Composed of reconstructed fragments, the piece seems to freeze this moment of change in time. The wood will be dyed in mahogany, like the petrified timber of the old shotgun house in which the work will be exhibited. It is titled How Ironic

“Change is not necessarily a bad thing,” Robert hopes this can also be a moment for Third Ward to thrive. He calls this series The Rising Ward. A piece similar in form to How Ironic, nonetheless in full colors, is titled 288 Explosion and celebrates the energy on this side of the 288 Highway. The wood pieces are painted with his interpretations of the vibrant daishiki, as a tribute to the African American culture in the neighbourhood. Robert draws his inspiration from personal experience with the culture and its traditions, and he asserts its significance with graffiti-style boldness. 

In the coming week, Robert will work on the final piece for the set: a panel painting will be cut up; reconnected in a system of rings and ropes, the scene can be restored if viewers give it a pull, or it will remain in wreckage if no one does anything to it. “It puts them to a test”, says Robert, referring to what people can possibly do in the current state of development, as well as for a step further in an artistic career this experience has set forth for him.  

About Stephanie Cheung

Stephanie Cheung is a Hong Kong based curator and writer. She is Lead Curator of the non-profit Make a Difference Institute, an Asian platform dedicated to building a creative civil society. With a fellowship grant from the Asian Cultural Council, she is currently researching on socially engaged art in different cities in America.