original article appeared in the August 18, 2020 edition of the Tri-City Voice
At the age of three, local artist Diego Marcial Rios knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was living in Guadalajara, Mexico, and his dad, a professor at the university, brought him to see Hombre del Fuego (Man of Fire) by Jose Clemente Orozco, a bold fresco that depicts the emancipation of the human spirit, adorning the cupola of the Hospice Cabanas (now a museum). It is often referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas.” Rios’ fate was sealed.
Some 50 years later, Rios has established himself as an internationally renowned artist whose work has appeared in over 500 exhibitions worldwide. His pieces are featured regularly in public collections, including the Museo National De La Estampa in Mexico City and the San Francisco Mission Cultural Center. He also teaches local workshops on making paper mache masks and sugar skulls, two traditional Mexican art forms that he hopes to keep alive. And on top of that he has numerous speaking engagements throughout the year.
If you would have asked a young Rios about the importance of his artwork, he would have just laughed. “Here I was, this poor Mexican kid, and all of these important people were coming to my house to visit – a NY Times art critic, the head curators for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the DeYoung Museum, and so on. I thought it was incredibly funny. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how important my art was to people.”
Like Orozco’s 57 murals that adorn the walls and ceiling of the Hospice Cabanas, Rios’ art captures a social idealism that shines light on religious and political horrors. His whimsical work often incorporates Aztec and Mayan themes of life and death and has been dubbed “contemporary Mexican American surrealism expressionism.” In addition to paintings, Rios has mastered woodcuts, illustrations, masks, pinatas, and sugar skulls.
Rios is the first to admit he has been lucky. He didn’t like school, but his drawing skills were already advanced by 5th grade, when he landed a job illustrating magazines for a publishing house in Berkeley. He was awarded a scholarship at UC Berkeley where he received a BA in Fine Arts/History, followed by an MA in Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. All of his education has been paid for through his art.
Like Orozco and other artists such as Diego Rivera (after whom Rios is named), it is Rios’ desire for social change that drives him. A recent painting entitled “Borderline Demon” shows Donald Trump with red horns and a tail standing on the head of an undocumented Mexican immigrant. Rios is also working on another piece showing Donald Trump with dragons coming out of his suit, and a snake with Trump’s face on it. Says Rios, “I’m doing that to evoke a certain feeling, that’s for sure! To promote discussion. Some people call it agitation propaganda. It’s not all peace, love, and roses, man!” Rios judges the success of his artwork by the number of angry emails he receives.
Social activism runs deep in Rios’ family. His parents walked the picket lines during the anti-war movement of the ’60’s, bringing young Diego with them. They were there with Cesar Chavez during marches of the National Farm Workers Association. As a result of this upbringing, Rios is not merely content to create art and hope for social change, but is actively involved in bringing about that change himself, working for a branch of the social services in Alameda County where he tends to homeless and displaced people. Says Rios, “At least I’m helping humanity in some capacity instead of just bitching about it on paper, which is what most political artists do.”
Rios is also practical. Even though his art career blossomed at an early age, he decided to study law as a backup. He worked in criminal law for ten years and was also a private investigator. His family was skeptical of his dreams of becoming an artist until they realized he could make a living at it. He settled down in Newark 20 years ago with his current wife. Says Rios, “I love, love, love Newark. It has that small town feel.”
Since COVID-19 hit, Rios has had little to do but make art – he is currently working on a piece entitled “COVID19-Trump” that depicts the virus as a death angel. His classes and speaking engagements have all been cancelled, to be replaced by the occasional Zoom call. His teenage daughter, Ramona, was planning on attending NYU this fall but that is now on hold. She is also an artist.
Says Rios, “I feel bad for the younger generation. They’ve inherited a dying planet. But ultimately I have faith in humanity. Eventually truth and justice prevail. And it will this time. Of course, waiting for it to happen is no fun. It will take a lot of work, will, and sacrifice, but we’ll work our way out of it.” At this Rios giggles impishly, his eyes alight with mischief, as if to say “Until then, watch out for me…”
Learn more about Diego Marcial Rios at http://www.diegomarcialrios.com