El Jardín del Edén

"The Garden of Eden" is John's first mural. It was done in 1974 when he was sixteen years old. The remarkable thing about this first achievement was not his youth, but the fact that he took on a commission of this magnitude without ever having painted anything before. Below is the story of how this came to be -and what was going through his mind.

El Jardín del Edén

John spent six months creating his first masterpiece, an awe-inspiring feat of work from someone who had never painted before -not even a postcard. The mural, done in acrylic paints over four smooth rendered concrete walls inside a temple, was created in a stylised manner reminiscent to a colorful medieval tapestries. It is approximately 2,275 square feet in size, 21 feet at its highest point. Under the radiant tropical sunlight, the mural's bright colours reflected beautifully on the polished terrazzo floors thus creating a mirage effect.

Doors to offices and restrooms within the walls were almost made invisible by the mural. So signs that read "damas" and "caballeros" respectively (ladies and gentlemen) were later added so that visitors could find their way into the restrooms. In this photographs of the mural notice the sign posted for the ladies restroom on a tree at the extreme right of the painting. Only half of the entire mural is shown in the image.

Mural de Lijas

"El jardín del Eden" (the Garden of Eden), John's first mural painting (2,275 square-feet), at age 16. Iglesia Fuente de Salvación Misionera, Barrio Lijas de Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1974. Acrylic paint on smooth concrete. The photograph shows only half.

At the temple's inaugural celebration attended by over ten thousand people, among them government representatives and delegates from 54 churches between Chicago to Buenos Aires, the mural became a sensation. By the time the week-long celebration was over, John had been approached for several mural commissions. At the young age of 16 -and without even wanting to, John Rivera-Resto became a bona fide artist. So how dit it happened? How did a non-artist come out of nowhere to create an awe-inspiring work of art that had the religious saying he was touched by God? Here's the story as recalled by John.

Mr. Johnny Rivera and Mrs. Jesusa Resto de Rivera John's parents in later years -Mrs. Jesusa Resto-Placeres and Mr. Johnny Rivera-Rivera. "My dad was the soul of any party. He was a great story teller and always happy. My mother used to tell him that compared to him, his sons were saints. Now thinking of the way I turned out, that's saying a lot. I miss him dearly every day."

In 1974, John accompanied his father to see a landscape mural being painted on the rear altar wall of their church. The artist was a Columbian missionary who financed his traveling ministry through painting. He had just completed the task and was putting away supplies when they arrived at the site. The mural was a beautiful landscape about 10 feet wide by 6 foot in height begining three feet off the ground so it wouldn't be blocked by a row of chairs positioned against the wall. A waterfall as its central theme. After admiring the artwork in silence for about a minute, John's dad leaned over and whispers just loud enough for him to hear: -"(explitive), I bet you can't do that." John just smile and answered with a slight nod. His father was born with an irrevent streak -which John developed in spades. That was the entire conversation and the subject was not brought up again in conversation.

The challenge stayed with John even if it had been said in jest. So after a few weeks of thinking it over, he visited one the two local drugstores in town and purchased a six-jar pack of tempera paints. Then he went back to the temple one early afternoon when no one was there, and on a white piece of stiffening cardboard that came from a package of women nylon stockings, he painted a copy of the mural. That evening he showed it to his father, who look at it and showed his appreciation with an admiring expletive (John's dad had picked up a few choice English expletives while living in the states). Satisfied with winning the dare, John walked away smiling gleefully and moved to the next of the many things that occupied his mind.

Several days passed. Then one afternoon Reverend Rubén Marín came by for a visit. He asked for John whose immediate thought was -"Am I in trouble?" All that came to mind was his new (and first) girlfriend -Maria Luisa Perales, a teenage beauty from school who favored micro mini-skirts. The church heavely frowned upon relationships outside the faith. Someone ratted him out! But to his surprise (and great relief), the pastor pulled out the copy of the mural he had painted and asked him if he could do something to decorate the new temple under construction. In the heat of the moment telling the pastor that he had never painted before did not cross his mind. What came out of his mouth was -"Ah... sure. I'll go take a look."

John Rivera-Resto, age 11 John, seen here at age 11, was a voracious reader and his fertile mind capture knowledge like a sponge. He read anything and everthing that captured his fancy, including books about painting and theatre. This helps explain in part how he was able to take such a huge undertaking without any prior experience. On the other hand, he has always been an incredibly fast study.

A while later, reality set in. But he was intrigued. What had just happened? He soon discovered that his father had shown his small painting to his grandfather -don Andrés Rivera, one of the church leaders. Don Andrés was a no-nonsense type of man who commanded everyone's respect. And he adored his first if "sometimes irreverent" grandson. He was convinced that John was favored by God. He himself had taught John to read and write before he went to school and in school John had been a prodigy, a straight "A" student whose test scores were nearly perfect as were the assessment tests from the Department of Education. Several times school administrators had asked John's dad in vain to skip him to a higher grade.

John showed further proof of his hidden talents by producing plays for the church and writing his own material since the age of fourteen. He even had a group of volunteer drama lovers who constructed sets and costumes guided by the detailed sketches he provided. And even though he was shy and felt slightly awkward by the attention (yes, there was a time when John was painfully shy), that never stopped his energetic grandson from taking on new challenges. And so this proud grandfather showed his grandson's painting to the pastor, and the pastor praised the Lord because his prayers had been answered! One of the largest temples in the island of Puerto Rico was being built and there was not enough funding for decoration. So the pastor thought of having John do something -like perhaps a couple of small landscapes to hang on the walls.

John had other ideas. He visited the site and produced a scale drawing of the walls. This was easy because he was already proficient in architectural drawing and his family had a construction background. Then he gave careful consideration to the subject. What was expected was some sort of landscape like the one in the old temple (Pentecostals do not do religious imagery). But in his mind he was seeing all the beautiful murals created by the Renaissance masters he greatly admired. One of his hobbies had been spending hours with a magnifying glass studying photographs of these works of art in minute detail. So in his mind he began to project ideas on the walls that he would enjoy seeing as a viewer. But the one thing he never gave much thought in his methodical mind was the fact that he would have to be the painter. This realisation came much later.

A week later he met with the pastor and showed him the drawing of the walls with a garden setting drawn with a fountain pen over a sheet of tracing paper. What he proposed was to paint all the walls surrounding the altar with a painting of the Garden of Eden. Since the line drawing left much to be desired, John described his idea in detail and showed the pastor a picture brochure from Longwood Gardens in Pensylvannia. A friend had visited the gardens while on vacation and had brought home the brochures. The photographs of the beautiful cultured gardens sealed the deal. The pastor loved the concept and approved the project. They immediately scheduled a day to go buy supplies. In the excitment John forgot to mentioned one crucial detail: that he had never painted before.

John Rivera-Resto high school graduation, june 1976, age 18 A very clean-cut John graduates with High Honors from Ramón Power y Giralt High School in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, June, 1976.

Late that night realization and fear hit him like a sledgehammer over the head. But he kept it to himself. He never even discussed the issue with his parents. In his mind there was only one solution: he had to learn how to paint -like really fast! So he did what he always did when confronted with uncertainty -he dove into books. Anything and everything he could lay his hands on in the school's library would do. But there wasn't much. Lots of art books but very few how-to-paint books for him to learn from. He didn't know any artists either. There was no one he could ask for tips and advice. He was on his own. Oddly, this state of affairs made the entire thing more exciting for him. This was a challenge!

The ride to the arts supply store was a quite one. The shy teenager had very little to say. Just think about it. He and the reverend were in totally different universes. So he looked thoughful and silently prayed that the pastor would not ask too many questions. John had prepared a list of materials to at least get the project started. He read that artists were using "acrylic" paints, but he had never seen any of it. So at the store -the only art supply store in the region- he told the owner he needed supplies to paint a mural... that he might do in acylics. This was enough to get the saleman going and doing all the talking, showing him his selection of products and describing in details their pros and cons. Before the hour was up, they had bought the entire inventory of paint and other needed supplies which amounted to the grand sum of eight-hundred dollars! In 1974 money, that was a lot!

The first day at the site was a glorious day! The new temple was located in a rural setting and the warm Puerto Rican landscape was bright with summer colors (it was January but it's always summer in a tropical island). An old tubular scaffolding had been provide for the project and John even had an assistant. Armed with his sketch and a packed lunch he climbed on the scaffolding, sat on the platform, and promptly panicked! His mind went blank. He opened a jar of paint. Back then acrylic paint came in one-quarter-gallon size glass jars. The paint had the consistency of toothpaste and the strong ammonia-like smell almost made him vomit. This was not good. For two days he made charcoal marking on the walls and pretended to draw while construction crews looked on. In his mind he was thinking about leaving town, changing his name, and avoiding the family embarrassment.

country scene mural by john rivera-resto, 1973 This is John's third mural at his grandparent's house. It was done in acrylics over smooth concrete in 1973. It is 5-feet wide. There are no photographs of John's second mural: a more ambitious church mural than his first one and almost just as large but completed in only six weeks during school break. The client, the reverend Fermin Resto, wanted the painted garden and landscape to smell like flowers, so John mixed rose-scented oil into his paint mix for the rose garden. This proved to be a huge hit. There was no one to tell him what he could or could not do so he experimented with every new project.

On the third day he took an early lunch break. He layed on the platform, closed his eyes and tried to relax. He may have dozed off. But then it hit him! A thought. He got up, prepared a paint mix and began marking areas on the wall. Then he told his assistant to start painting them with the mix. Twenty minutes had not passed before the pastor rushed to the site. It was clear that he had been running because he had fair complexion that turned ruddy red with exertion. Someone must had been keeping tabs on him. John acknowledged him with a silent nod. The pastor looked at the assistant painting dark patches on the wall. Then, after he had caught his breath, he ask John: "Junito, is everything alright." And John calmly replied: "Everything is fine." Six months later the murals were completed -one on the right side of the altar and a mirror copy on the left side. When the terrazo floors were polished to a mirror-like finish, the reflected colors of the murals in the bright tropical sun looked like a mirage. The effect was stunningly gorgeous and this was all people talked about. John was satisfied but he had enough with painting. A painter he was not; time to move on.

baptistry mural by john rivera-resto, 1974 This is a very bad photograph of another mural in a baptistry from that period (he painted over one dozen church murals). But the image provides a good idea of how John's abilities were progressing from painting to the next. This mural was done in two days in 1974 since he could only work on weekends.

Unfortunately, clients kept coming with offers of money when cash was the currency of choice. John was still in high school and was also enrolled in evening classes at the seminary and planning theatrical projects in his spare times. This only left the weekends and holidays. So he selected the largest size project (he charged by the square-foot), regardeless of subject, and learned how to paint fast. These murals were John's schooling. In a few years he did over two dozen of them in temples, schools, and several private homes. What's more, he also painted before a large audience. But he equated the experience to theatre and greatly enjoyed the exchanges with the viewers. This mitigated the fact that he did not care for the painting and that the smell of the paint still made him sick (John has always been very sensitive to smells). But he developed a working method that work well for him. Because of his limited time, he planned every mural like a play before opening day. And so the execution of a mural became simply a matter of skilful mechanics, almost an unconscious process that bored him the longer it took to complete a job. But regardless of his distaste and weariness, one could never guess it from the finished work.

John Rivera-Resto, age 19 In 1977, at the age of 19, John migrated to the city of his birth -Cleveland, Ohio, to pursue an arts education. Things did not exactly worked out as expected. But that's another story.

In July of 1977, at the age of nineteen, John moved to Cleveland from Puerto Rico to study art at Cooper School of Art. His admittance portfolio was pictures from the Garden of Eden mural. Ironically, after a disappointing year at the University of Puerto Rico's Humacao Regional Campus, his skills as a painter became his ticket into the great adventure he always craved -literally, visiting all the places he had read about in books and seeing all the artworks he had long admired.

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