Drawing on faith: Portrait of a Catholic artist

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Dylan Benton
Rita Tomanek poses for a photo next to her collage, Going Home, during the Fall Gallery Walk in Iowa City earlier this month.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — One of Rita Svoboda Tomanek’s first forays into art was doodling a set of praying hands in fourth grade. “It actually turned out really good, but I was scolded by the teacher for not paying attention” in class, she recalled with a laugh.

Now in her 80s, Rita’s love for art and the Catholic faith remain etched on her heart. Several of her pieces are on display at Iowa City Senior Center as part of the city’s Fall Gallery Walk. “I feel it is a ministry for me to get my work out there, honoring Christ and trying to present God to the world, for those who are willing to look,” she said.

The early period
Rita, a member of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City, can trace her interest in art to that moment in elementary school, but “I never remember not loving Jesus.” In high school, she received instruction from an art teacher at Mount Mercy College (now University) in Cedar Rapids. “Folks knew I was really interested in art and they were supportive.” Her shining moment in high school was winning the “Most Popular Vote” award at the All-Iowa Fair for an oil painting of a crucified Christ. The fair took place annually at the Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids from 1936 to 2006. “Do you think that (religious art) would win these days? I doubt it,” Rita said in an interview with The Catholic Messenger last month.

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As she approached graduation from Regis High School in Cedar Rapids, Rita struggled to choose between religious life and marriage to her sweetheart, Robert Tomanek. She confided in a priest who served as a counselor and teacher at Regis. “He said, ‘Well, why don’t you go to college for a year and then decide?’ Before I walked out the door, I knew what I was going to do.”

She attended college out of state for a year and then returned to Iowa. She married Robert on Aug. 12, 1961, at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Cedar Rapids. They later settled in the Iowa City area and Rita took some time off to raise the couple’s three children before enrolling at the University of Iowa to finish her degree. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture, painting and photography in 1980, the same year her daughter, Lisa, graduated from high school. “We had a joint party!”

A brush with the Holy Spirit
Over the years, Rita has experimented with a variety of mediums, from oil and watercolor paintings to collages and sculptures. Though not all of her work is religious in nature, she often sees God’s hand in it. The more she looks at her finished works, “the more I see (elements) that I didn’t put there on purpose… sometimes I feel like it’s the Holy Spirit putting something in that I wasn’t aware of at the time.”

One of her favorite pieces is a collage she made for a friend grieving the loss of her father. The collage was based on a vision the friend had: “The sky opened when she was looking up, and out from it dropped silver and gold strings that could be (interpreted) as souls dropping down. In the center was what she thought was a Christ figure. There were figures on her left that she said felt like relatives. Then she felt a whoosh of wind that threw her up to the figure of Christ, and as soon as that happened, everything closed up and turned black again.” Rita gave her friend a print of the work, “and she just wept when she saw it.” Since then, Rita has made additional prints of the piece, entitled “Going Home,” noting that it resonates with people grieving the loss of a loved one.

Another favorite piece is a billboard commission she received after massive flooding in Cedar Rapids in 2008. “It was a painting of people coming together with tools to help repair things after the flood.” She made it a collaborative project, setting up space at a farmer’s market and giving people in the community the opportunity to paint sections of the artwork, now displayed in The Bohemian restaurant in Cedar Rapids.

Rita has also done restoration work — primarily crèche scenes, Stations of the Cross and statues — for the three Iowa City parishes. Some downtown galleries told Rita they do not accept religious artwork; she continues to create it and finds places, like the Senior Center, that support her subject matter.

Portrait of a family
Being an artist hasn’t brought Rita fame or fortune, but that was never the point. She loves creating and bringing joy to others through her work. “I give away a lot of what I make,” she said. Her husband shows his support by making shelves for her artwork and helping name the pieces. “He encourages me to do it; when we had our house built 28 years ago, he made sure there was a studio for me.”

Most of Rita’s grandchildren have dabbled in art to varying degrees. Nick Chalkley’s multimedia artwork is on display alongside his grandmother’s at Fall Gallery Walk. He said spending time at his grandmother’s art studio growing up sparked his interest in art and some of his pieces incorporate original drawings Rita made in the 1970s.

Granddaughter Dylan Benton, who considers herself more of an art enthusiast, recently designed a website to showcase Rita’s artwork. “She sees beauty in anything and everything,” Dylan said. “She has the eyes and brain of an artist and is always thinking of how she can create something out of nothing. She is fascinated by the human body, by the emotions we produce as humans. And, she loves her faith very much; she shows that in everything she does.”

To see Rita’s artwork, go to https://www.rstomanekart.com/ .


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