11/17/2020 ASHLAND, Ohio – It was an interesting mix of skills that landed Joshua Risner in a job that required just that.
Risner, who worked as a sign painter and owned his own design firm before coming to Ashland University with an idea he might like to study graphic design, ended up as a decorative painter and portrait painter who currently serves as the Michigan State Capitol Artist in Residence and State Capitol Master Decorative Painter.
And now, Risner said, he hopes to share some of his expertise with up-and-coming art students by offering a two-week residency to study with him. “I love Ashland,” he said. “If a job opens up there, that’s the only place I’d teach.”
For now, offering a residency to AU students is a way to give back to the university that started him on his path to Lansing. Ideally, he said, a student would train with him in a specific area of interest and could return the following year, along with another student coming for a first-year experience.
“So I could actually help the art department,” he said. “It’s like being part of the school.”
It also can serve the department in two primary ways, according to department Chair Dr. Daniel McDonald. “It will give us a tool for recruiting serious art students, and it will give us a teaching tool to develop those students in ways we simply couldn’t otherwise,” he said. “Undergraduate residencies like this one … are nearly unheard of. The opportunity to work one on one with an accomplished artist in the manner arranged for this experience will really be a game changer for the right students.”
Risner was 30 when he arrived at AU with a plan to study education. But then, he said, he took a drawing class with (now retired) art Professor Charles Caldemeyer. Then came a painting class.
Risner’s career path was about to take a turn, as he majored in studio painting and printmaking, with a minor in art history.
(Caldemeyer) and McDonald “recognized I was different and pushed me to another level,” Risner said. “The whole experience was good.” So good, in fact, that gaining entrance to graduate school was not an issue. “The AU art program really prepared me and it was all based on my portfolio from there,” he said.
McDonald recalled Risner as a confident student who challenged himself and the students around him, but didn’t shy away from criticism. “ I could be down-right ruthless in my critiques of his work and how he wrote or spoke about it,” he said. “He dutifully accepted my criticism, altered his work where needed, or educated himself to the point of letting me know where I was missing the mark. I loved every bit of that interaction.”
Risner landed at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. And his wife, Jill, who earned an MBA from AU, found a position on the faculty at Calvin University in the same Michigan city. Maybe, Risner thought, he would teach painting which not only had history within the discipline but also, he said, “had a tremendous amount of growth in it.”
He did teach – as an adjunct professor at both KCAD and at Hope College in Holland, Michigan – until he saw an interesting job posting in an arts publication, one that involved working at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing. Turns out, Risner said, the position – as the capital’s master decorative painter -- “was the perfect job for me” and only an hour away.
The 1879 building, designed by architect Elijah Myers, is one of the first such structures to feature a cast iron dome. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992. The upkeep of the structure involves a lot of the signmaking-type skills – stripping paint, decorative painting techniques and faux finishing --Risner had prior to his time at AU.
But when he mentioned during his interview that he also was a oil painter who enjoyed creating portraits, Risner found his job expanding. “The Statehouse has a really good collection of portraits,” he said, and now four of his works – three former Michigan governors plus William Webb Ferguson, the state’s first African-American representative – have joined those ranks.
And just days ago marked the quiet unveiling of Risner’s portrait of former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who preceded current Gov. Gretchen Witmer. It was a challenge to land the job, he said, though he’d met Snyder four times. “I got a proposal in front of him,” Risner said, and sent him a small painting, but heard nothing. Then his wife’s Calvin University students helped out with the creation of a video outlining the reasons why Risner was the artist for the job.
The portrait painting process can be tortuous, but rewarding, even though Risner admits he’s his worst critic. “It’s good until it’s over and then I’m like, ‘oh, I could have done better’,” he said. Still, he said, “when you start painting portraits, that’s your legacy. I’m not going to be forgotten.”
That Risner has landed in this unique career is a testament not only to his talent, said McDonald, but also to his passion and commitment to his craft. “What we always hope to find in any student is a desire to be excellent in every way, even if excellence is a long-shot. More often than not, even the student who comes to us with a talent level that doesn’t quite measure up to his or her peers, but that is willing to dive headlong into the enterprise, surpasses the talented ones in due time,” he said. “Josh brought both the talent and the drive.”
Ashland University is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University (www.ashland.edu) values the individual student and offers a unique educational experience that combines the challenge of strong, applied academic programs with a faculty and staff who build nurturing relationships with their students.###