Artist Feature: Diego Marcial Rios
By Perlita R. Dicochea
Diego Marcial Rios has built a decades-long career as both artist and activist creating politically charged paintings and resurrecting art forms rooted in indigenous Mexican cultural and spiritual traditions. Two pillars of his life, art and social justice, stem from his family’s involvement in agrarian movements in México and migrant farmworker advocacy in California as well as his first encounter with Hombre del Fuego (Man of Fire), the iconic fresco by José Clemente Orozco in the ceiling of the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara, Jalisco, México. Now based in the S.F. East Bay, Rios recalls deciding he would be a painter the day his father took him to see Man of Fire — he was three years old.
To date, Rios’ work has been shown in Ireland, Bulgaria, and Japan and has been featured in hundreds of exhibitions in the U.S. I asked Rios a few questions about his recently completed piece, “Borderline Demon,” an acrylic on canvas that depicts Donald Trump, and his approach as an artist.
D: Can you tell me about “Borderline Demon” and what message you want to convey?
R: The sardonic imagery depicts Donald Trump with red horns and a tail. The Trump figure stands on the head of an undocumented Mexican immigrant. The angel of death rests on the arms of Trump. The wings of this demonic angel are detailed with skeletal faces and a diabolical mask of Mitch McConnell. It’s part of a series on Trump. I don’t normally do series, but I feel compelled to because of this President’s complete mishandling of everything and many people are suffering for it. Trump demonizes Latinos so I demonize him in this painting. He doesn’t work based on facts and he is so particularly destructive.
D: What drives you to paint and create art?
R: Two things are behind my work: A strong subject matter and my social justice work outside of the artwork. So, I bitch about a lot of things and I also fight for social justice. Most art does not touch on strong issues. Most artists aren’t willing to get off their ass and change something. I wake up at 5:30am every morning to work full time. I was at Catholic Charities for fourteen years working with displaced workers. And now I’m in the field of social services. I also teach and give workshops on mask-making and other art forms and I illustrate books.
D: How do you describe your approach as an artist?
R: My work is contemporary Mexican American surrealism expressionism. It’s actually not a label I created for myself — society gave me these titles. So, what the heck, roll with the punches.
D: Can you tell me more about your training?
R: I received my B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Fine Art and History. At the time I was more into history than art. Then I earned my M.A. in Fine Art from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I use traditional fine art methods and I’ve also studied methods used in the past, primarily methods brought to Central America and I studied the way the media was adapted. I’ve researched sugar skull-making, piñata-making, mask-making. I’ve learned beyond my formal schooling by reading a lot about these art forms and reaching out to a lot of Mexican artists.
D: What are you working on next?
R: I’m working on an acrylic painting about COVID-19. A lot of my work deals with life and death and in this painting I depict the virus as a death angel picking up people. Trump will be in it, too.
Ancient myths and legends intermingle with today’s issues to inspire the intricate art of Diego Marcial Rios. He creates explosions of color and texture in paintings, masks, woodcuts, and book illustrations. Inspired by Latin history including Aztec and Mayan symbols, Rios celebrates life, explores death, and confronts social and economic justice relevant today. His fanciful and provocative style is honored worldwide in museums including San Francisco’s Legion of Honor. Rios works daily on new creations. Over the last three decades, Rios’ paintings, woodcuts, and masks have been included in more than 500 exhibitions in the USA, Asia, and Europe. His dynamic work is featured in a number of Museum Collections including the Laguna Beach Museum, Laguna Beach, CA.; Museo National De La Estampa, Mexico City, Mexico, and in public collections including the San Francisco Mission Cultural Center, C; Harriet Taubman Gallery, MD; and the Irish Arts Council, Belfast, Ireland. Rios conducts an ongoing series of very popular workshops including Sacred Heart/ Mask-Making in the Mexican Tradition in Berkeley, CA, and Mask-Making for Carnival in San Francisco, CA.
Learn more at https://diegomarcialrios.com