Trent Tomengo is a conventional-looking 34-year-old who likes to shake up convention. If conventional wisdom stereotypes artists as bohemians who sloth around in paint-splattered T-shirts and grungy denim, Tomengo shatters the image. An artist who will receive his master's degree in fine arts this month from the University of South Florida, Tomengo often spends his time in front of the canvas in full dress: shirt, tie and 9-to-5 trousers. You see, Tomengo is going places.
A typical day in Tomengo's life begins as he leaves his Oviedo home for classes in Tampa. After class, he's off to paint for a spell at his Tampa-based studio. Most days, he's then homeward bound. But not on "work days," when he heads to Eatonville, where his job awaits as Special Projects Coordinator at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts. That explains the shirt and tie.
As his exhaustive daily schedule reflects, Tomengo is a man with a mission. "I'm a different kind of artist," he explains. "I'm kind of like the Lord's artist, if I can say that." But as was proven by his recent solo exhibition, "At the Cross," at Tampa's Hyde Park Fine Arts Gallery, that doesn't mean Tomengo is painting the typical narrative stories of Jesus, Judas and the usual suspects. Instead, through allegorical paintings such as "The Stoning of Stephen" and the visionary panel series "Sin of Systems" (all of which will be on view in December at the Cultural Center in Thomasville, Ga.), Tomengo raises questions about a tradition of religious imagery that has long been in place, replete with a messiah so blond-haired and blue-eyed, you'd think he was Britney Spears' cosmic cousin.
"`Jesus` probably looked more like Yasser Arafat than anybody," laughs Tomengo, whose artwork specifically challenges the European depictions of Christ.
During the colonization of Africa, missionaries would occasionally bring artists with them to sketch the indigenous people. But the portraits, sent back to the cities of Europe, portrayed the black Africans "as heathens and all these kinds of things that Christians associate with evil," says Tomengo. "It was a constructed view of Africa, instead of an accurate view, in order to justify the colonization tactics."
It was a view that established a subliminal message: Whiteness is superior to blackness. This view undoubtedly contributed to self-hatred among black peoples and the spread of intolerance among whites. But for those who might be expecting a young, angry black man using his art as a receptacle for rage, well, that's another expectation that the artist defies.
Indeed, one is struck by Tomengo's lack of anger. "When I go to my studio, I want to be released. I want to go to a different world -- a spiritual world that recognizes all color and cultures but doesn't necessarily focus on any one of them. It's not about blackness," says Tomengo. "It's about the human condition, what we do to one another, regardless of skin color because there's something that's much higher than us bickering in terms of who did what to you. Let's move beyond it. Let's talk about being human."
Serious-natured but possessing a strong sense of humor -- and a robust, joyful laugh -- Tomengo says that, even as a child, he knew he would become an artist; he just didn't know "how to get there." Hard work and determination proved to be the ways forward. The youngest of 14 children, his family left the small Florida panhandle town of Chipoli for Orlando when Tomengo was in kindergarten. Without bitterness, the artist recalls a father who was "a rolling stone" and credits his mother for keeping the family centered and strong: "She didn't have money to send me to art school but she made sure I had a lot of paper to draw on." Tomengo took that encouragement to heart, spending two years in the military in order to raise the funds necessary to put him through school. Now married and with two children of his own, Tomengo adds the MFA degree to his growing list of accomplishments, which include a certificate in museum studies and an art degree from Stetson University in DeLand.
His intellect and talent are paying off career-wise: This month, Tomengo will become the Hurston Museum's third full-time staff member when he is promoted to program coordinator. In his part-time role, Tomengo was limited as to just how far he could delve into the day-to-day operations of the museum, but with his new credentials, he will be able to branch out.
N.Y. Nathiri, the museum's executive director, says that Tomengo has proven himself with his "excellent work ethic." With the museum since 1995, he has "shown himself to be committed to the mission of the organization," she praises. In addition to his current duties -- such as designing exhibition catalogs under the tutelage of curator Gylbert Garvin Coker, who is based in Thomasville, Ga. -- Tomengo will now research and write grants, coordinate museum submissions and participate in outreach. "His credentials," says Nathiri, "enhance our ability to provide service as an arts organization Ã? we see it as a win-win."
Despite his having to travel out of the area to obtain his master's degree (Rollins College and the University of Central Florida do not offer MFA programs), Tomengo's work has caught the attention of those within Orlando's academic community. UCF art history professor Kristin Congdon applauds Tomengo's promotion at the Hurston, praises his "very scholarly nature" and looks at the painter as an "artist to watch."
The brilliance of Tomengo's "Sin of Systems" series is the marriage of years of scholarship and attention to artistry. Its 12 color-coded paintings form the shape of a stained-glass window. But it's what's inside the shape that can leave a viewer stricken: Tomengo has re-created the hulls of 12 slave ships. He says the conjoining of the images happened by accident. When assisting an architecture student who didn't know how to paint, Tomengo suggested transferring prints to canvas. It was then that he noticed the hull of the ship. One day, with some rare time on his hands, Tomengo transferred the image onto a wood panel, then laid a blue glaze of paint over it. "I stuck it to my wall, stood back and went, Ã?Man, that looks like a stained-glass window.'" For Tomengo, the connection was made. "The histories of the slave trade and of the Christian church are so interrelated that they cannot be separated. And that one image did both those things." When a visitor to Tomengo's studio bought the panel piece, the artist knew he was on to something.
"Sin of Systems" may be seen as both the foundation and goal of Tomengo's work -- a different way of looking at religion and its images. "When it comes to religious imagery, it does not question itself," he says. My work is trying to question what you think you know." So when the artist paints a portrait of Jesus, don't be surprised if you find yourself looking into the face of a young Asian woman. In Tomengo's work, it's "not `about` seeing Christ in everyone, but seeing Christ as everyone."
You could say that Tomengo is in the midst of his own personal and artistic reconstruction. "The mixing up of iconographical images of what people normally expect, that's what interests a lot of people." It certainly interests Tomengo.
But you don't have to be a "believer" to appreciate Tomengo's paintings. If you respond to his work simply because of the lush colors of his palette, that's OK. "`People` are allowed to love them `just` because of that," says Tomengo. "I ain't mad at 'em, it's fine with me."