Tony Rodrigues is enjoying a helluva run. In June of 2016 he was commissioned to paint a mural at Deutsche Bank in downtown Jacksonville. He sidestepped the currently nebulous, “formal” gallery scene of North Florida and opted to hang his December 2017 show, Funny, It’s Not Funny, in the more street-level environ of Rain Dogs. This past April, he was the juror at the Juried Student Annual Exhibition at University of North Florida. In July, he was invited to be the visiting artist for the students of Jacksonville University’s MFA program. Rodrigues also remains a “first call” art installer for the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville as well as local private collectors. During this blizzard of activity, Rodrigues continues to churn out a series of impressive paintings, works that hone his skills in creating 2-D images fusing top-end representational art with his mildly coded, if not cryptic, content.

This past year, Rodrigues was recognized for an aspect of his creative life that is equally crucial. Much is said about arts in the greater community. Yet Rodrigues has been involved with a program that is surely leaving more of an “invisible” legacy than some one-shot endowment or specious public art, affecting a community that is sequestered away from society.

For the past 20 years, Rodrigues has been teaching art to incarcerated inmates. Every Monday and Wednesday, he heads into the John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Facility (PDF) in downtown Jacksonville to teach both art history and hands-on art making to 10 juvenile delinquent boys. The program is one of many under the auspices of the Cathedral Arts Project.

“I’ve really learned to just improvise in doing this because everyone is at a different level,” says Rodrigues, of his two decades of teaching the inmates. The faces of the students sometimes change or become familiar once again. Some kids are put in lockdown, others are released and then re-arrested; others he never sees again. “It’s not really a sequential teaching experience like if you were teaching high school art classes.”

As he isn’t allowed Wi-Fi access in the facility, before each session, Rodrigues loads up his tablet with images that span the history of visual art to show the students. “Having the iPad has been really helpful. It was a big security clearance to bring in art books. So with the tablet we can flip through imagery and art history references.” While teaching, Rodrigues tries to foster greater enthusiasm toward the inmates “pure attraction” of certain images. Then he helps guide them through painting in that style. Most recently, Rodrigues and the students honed in on emulating the works of the German abstract artist Gerhard Richter. “At that level, we’re really going deeply into color and texture.”

Abstract painting is a big hit; particularly after Rodrigues introduced a screen painting squeegee into the mix. “They really enjoy using the squeegee to create these large swaths of paint and I think it’s as much that they’re experiencing the kind of ‘happy accidents’ and improvisation that can occur when you’re making art.”

Along with the intellectual knowledge and tactile experience of art, Rodrigues is also passing on principles like patience, trust, and commitment. “Sometimes it just comes down to telling them to let the paint dry,” he laughs. “But they also learn from each other since the more experienced guys show the newer ones what to do and they’re also learning about planning things out.”

The pieces can be viewed in the classroom where regular classes are also held, and have received a positive from the facility staff and teachers, as well as the other student inmates.  

In 2017, Rodrigues and his students created and curated the exhibit County Missives, featured at UNF’s Lufrano Intercultural Gallery. Along with local media attention, the program and Rodrigues have been given the thumbs up by the State Attorney’s Office for an implemented idea that successfully mixes up advocacy and empowerment, and surely a shot of hope, for these youths. In May, Rodrigues was again recognized for his efforts, winning the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville’s 2018 Art Educator of the Year Award.

“Of course it’s flattering,” he says of the award. “But I really gotta give it up to Cathedral Arts Project. They make this all possible.”

Rodrigues in front of the John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Facility (PDF) in downtown Jacksonville. For the last twenty years the artist has been teaching art to incarcerated juveniles. // Photo: Cole LoCurto

One benefit of his experience of teaching the inmate students has been an unforeseen influence on his own work. “I think it’s affected my own studio practice, since I ask them to do things that I wouldn’t do in my work. I never allowed myself to be that comfortable with free abstraction since my work is more representational.”

Even some of the pieces from last year’s Funny, Not Funny show featured the influence of his “demonstrations” to the inmates turned artists. “I used similar techniques from the classroom with layers on top and these goofy cartoon characters.”

The word “signifier” is gabbed about in the visual art world as much as terms like re-appropriation, repurposing, and, alas, poverty. It’s a $20 word that is simply referring to a symbol. Rodrigues’ work lifts symbology to the level of aesthetic mysticism. A deft representational artist, his canvases are imbued with figures, animals, logos, even a dying Bugs Bunny, that are born from every influence, era, and place; from the lofty classical to the snickering low class.

Four elements floating on the spatial plane can invoke one idea or theme, only to splinter back into their respective meanings. Speedy Gonzalez screeches in delight as a jet launches from the tarmac. A wolf chomps down on a floppy teddy bear as a stylish young woman, decked out in a track suit and shades, looks onward. A nodded-out Lindsay Lohan is embedded with a sacred geometry symbol.

In some ways, Rodrigues controls the audience’s emotions, holds them hostage even, long enough to free the viewer to make their own judgment call. What is happening here? What just happened? Yet for any arch-contemporary qualities, which Rodrigues almost casually offers, his work is also populist. He is a blue-collar artist comfortably at home between the white columns of art institutions. His reference points are universal, zapped across the canvas with multimedia materials in a wholly personal way.

Currently on display at the UNF Gallery of Art through early December, Frail History and Future Regrets (When The Past Was What It Used To Be) features an expected 33 pieces of varying sizes.

The new works include recurring motifs of “scavengers” such as jackals and coyotes. “On some level it’s about art history eating itself,” he laughs. “But it’s also touching on the idea of the Native American idea that the coyote is the wise trickster, or ‘Wile E. Coyote.’ You know, they now believe that coyotes survived the Ice Age. And I have them surviving this place of dead strip malls and office buildings, kind of our future history in the making. They’re lurking entities, waiting for their chances.”

A piece from a recent installation at Chomp Chomp in Avondale. // Photo: Josh Wesselowski

These new works seem to relish in the collapse. “Some of the classical imagery is broken and missing limbs. You can make of that what you will: collapsing empires, all empires fall. Our own democracy is based on Greek ideas and it also touches on commerce and business. People get a pass with, “He’s a businessman,” where it’s okay to do bad things in this country if you’re successful.”

Rodrigues keeps it way local with the piece, Pontiac Ruins, a kind of elegiac study of an abandoned, former car dealership on Atlantic Boulevard. In addition to acrylic and latex paint, crushed marble is mixed into the work, amplifying the echoes of the Greco-Roman era. A red Pontiac Fiero is parked in front of the white columns of the dealership, with images of an old-school bong, an Atari-era Asteroids flying saucer, and a couple locked in congress. The latter image is nicked from neon sign sex images.

“A lot of it comes from a collision of themes from the intersection of the Internet and Instagram and an overall anxiety and unpleasantness,” he says, of these current paintings. “Read the comments section on anything and there’s an overlying anger and the comments almost immediately turn ugly.

If you clear away all of the awards and hosannas, Rodrigues is all about the work. All of the aforementioned accomplishments are the result of his tireless efforts at being an artist, rather than an educator or advocate. Those opportunities are commensurate with his reputation, experience, and singular worldview of being a locally-based painter of undeniable force.

With this latest exhibit, Rodrigues continues to evolve his ideas of irony and paradox, adding new characters and locations into his already expansive galaxy, beefing up the colors and textures that give them life. In our current vernacular, the word “meta” has turned into a spitball, aimed and fired with no meaning; soon to crumble away. Yet Rodrigues’ work is inherently meta; it forces reference points to the point of destruction, then forcing them to rebuild into new images and ideas. The fact that this can occur while looking at a single painting of his is both remarkable and rare.

“I’m always anxious about the work because I’m constantly scrutinizing and over-scrutinizing it. I’m always hyper-aware of avoiding that kind of ‘zombie formalism,’ of having gratuitous amounts of impasto paint or paint lines dripping and these dramatic brush strokes. This even applies to the source images. Is that legit? Is that sincere? Because in my case, that’s what I’m really shooting for.”

Frail History and Future Regrets (When The Past Was What It Used To Be) runs through December 7 in the UNF Gallery of Art, Founders Hall/Building 2, 1 UNF Drive, Jacksonville 32224. Parking is available at the Fine Arts Center Garage/Building 44 ($5 fee for parking); unf.edu/gallery.