Drinking in the chapel: Saint Arnold Brewing raises a glass to six Houston artists
As a 9-year old living in Brussels when his father worked overseas for Procter & Gamble, Brock Wagner was “dragged” to every museum and cathedral in Western Europe.
“I always got excited at the really gory paintings,” said the Saint Arnold Brewing Company owner.
But he liked depictions of Venus, too, and years later, he appreciated art so much he considered making it his career. He became an investment banker instead, pouring his creative urges into serious home brewing. Wagner opened Texas’ first craft brewery in 1994 with former partner Kevin Bartol.
What goes into Saint Arnold’s cans and bottles matters most, of course — cask ales and malty, hops-heavy beers; but Wagner also built his brand identity on an artful attitude. He has hired artists to design the labels for his seasonal brews, fill the tasting room and brewery compound with murals and create a fleet of more than 20 art cars.
Saint Arnold’s new Beer Garden and Restaurant, located adjacent to the brewery at 2000 Lyons, gives local artists yet another canvas. The building’s center is flanked by six alcoves with dramatic vaulted ceilings where Wagner gave six Houston talents carte blanche.
Carlos Hernandez, Gonzo 24/7, Nick Papas, Robynn Sanders, Matt Schott and Jeffrey Szymanski embraced the project with, well, gusto. Four included Saint Arnold imagery in their work, although that was not required. Even so, their installations, which Wagner calls chapels, are full of surprises — including several custom tables. Guests may want multiple rounds to fully imbibe.
Architect Natalye Appel delivered the cathedral-inspired building Wagner wanted, with nice daylight inside from clerestory windows and a bar that might be construed as an altar. Wagner said he tries not to cross sacred lines, in spite of naming his company for the patron saint of brewers. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re celebrating beer,” he said.
The co-founder of Burning Bones Press, creator of Saint Arnold’s Santo branding and several of the company’s art cars, Carlos Hernandez imagined his “Honky-Tonk Freakout Circus and Chapel” as a colorful gallery for three masterful, distressed-looking silkscreens with a bit of hand painting.
The print of a pedal-steel player had sat around his studio for a while. That inspired two new silkscreens. One utilizes portraits — members of a marching band in their cowboy-themed uniforms — from a vintage high school yearbook Hernandez found at a thrift shop. Those pieces are both framed.
The big, central silkscreen on canvas combines imagery of a skeleton, vintage wig ads and a sexy, catlike performer. There are grommets at the top because Hernandez originally wanted to hang all three prints loose. “It’s more like a circus banner,” he said.
While he didn’t feel the need to depict the brewery’s namesake saint, he did research cathedrals. “They have all these hanging shrines. One thing led to another,” he said, pointing to the black pennants that hang above the table. “I didn’t want to do anything Day of the Deadish, because I did that one can, so everybody thinks that’s what I do. But I did think about religion, and got really philosophical about it: Why would there be a devil if you don’t have God? You gotta have both.”
The wall’s central eyeball image pays homage to Hernandez’s lodge. The big wishbone he painted on the table is a personal signature, too. “It’s mysterious,” he said. The vivid wall designs depict African masks and show his love of patterns. But really, he just wanted it all to be fun and weird, “almost like something you’d see at a carnival.”
Gonzo 24/7’s pop-arty shapes are a familiar sight on murals all over town. He also has a long history with Saint Arnold: He tended bar there early in his career, created the Art Car IPA branding and has done several of the Saint Arnold’s art cars.
His chapel, “Vibrant Times,” was inspired by that and other shared experiences. “There’s a lot going on, different layers,” he said. “One thing we all have in common is time and cycles.” Layered pathways in his design intertwine all the way around the space. At first glance, they look like the tentacles of a busy octopus. Gonzo said they reflect the energy of the people sharing moments there.
The five colors of the pathways relate to the five basic brew elements — yeast, malt, hopes, water and fire — another process that involves time. Gonzo painted the table to match, so a guest might actually imagine being inside a barrel where all the elements are blending. “This is the vessel, but people complete the cycle,” he said.
This chapel also pays homage to aerosol work. “I wanted to bring a lot of what I do on the streets indoors, still have that energy and the authentic look of my roots,” Gonzo said. While he didn’t paint a Saint Arnold figure, the purple background alludes to the divinity.
“Vibrant Times” is Gonzo’s most abstract work to date. “Usually what I do is more literal,” he said. “For this, I wanted to go deeper. I wanted people to get the impact of the colors, be able to absorb that. Really appreciate the dynamics.” If guests connect all the dots, great, he added. “The most important part for me is for them just to enjoy being in the space.”
An Orthodox iconographer who has made art his ministry for many years, Nick Papas moved to Houston from Pittsburgh seven years ago with his wife, to be near grandchildren. He has painted churches all over the U.S., but painting for a brewery felt “more than weird” at first, he said. “It was a huge conundrum for me. I wrestled with it a long time.”
Then he saw his triptych as a kind of Gideon Bible, like the books that used to be stashed in hotel rooms across America. “I wanted to be provocative, although it probably doesn’t come off that way to anyone else,” Papas said. For example, he depicted Saint Arnold on his knees in the central panel, with a humble attitude, in an intimate moment of prayer. “He’s always portrayed regally, as a bishop. I wanted people to think in a new way about this character. There’s a message: This sublime beauty doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” The side panels illustrate the miracles that sprang from the saint’s humility.
Papas doesn’t mind that most people will simply see the room as beautifully decorated. “If it has greater depth for just one person, that’s OK,” he said. He also loves that what happens in a restaurant is communion, with all that implies. “Communion, community and communicate are all from the same root word.”
He incorporated a few “secrets” into his painting. The biggest attribute, as he sees it, is the crucifix that is the center of the main panel. And he painted the words to a Psalm of blessing as an “engraving” inside his depiction of Saint Arnold’s famous ring.
He also had fun with the ceiling. “I love dark blue or black backgrounds in icons but can rarely get away with it,” he said. “Other clients are afraid of it; they want light and bright. But it’s so powerful. I jumped at the chance to do that.”
Robynn Sanders also created the branding artwork above the restaurant’s bar. Like most of the guys, however, she also has been affiliated with the company for a while. Seven of its art cars bear her signature, including the gorgeously graphic ’59 Caddy, with its morphing patterns.
She continued the Caddy’s design to create the stylized aesthetic of “The Beer Goddess Room,” which is aglow with patterns. Sanders’ installation shines powerful light on the ladies, in their beautifully decorated gowns, amid a garden of magical plants that all seem to be waiving in a breeze. Saint Arnold is there, but he’s not as complex.
“I needed a way to idolize the four basic ingredients of beer because I was just continuing with the Cadillac theme,” Sanders said. “Beer drinkers love women. We all do, so it was a pretty simple decision to have a beer goddess-themed chapel. In antiquity, women were often praised and cherished by being depicted in art.”
Cute critters also populate her painting. But deft touches at the top make her environment feel like it might truly be a chapel. Sanders has painted a fair number of ceilings for residential mural clients, but vaulted ceilings are rare. To make the most of the opportunity, Sanders set an elegant mood with an all-over rose pattern, stenciled in gold over a field of red, accentuating the architecture with black trim. That, in fact, was her starting point. She painted the ceiling first so everything would tie in.
Being the only woman invited to create a chapel did not influence her design, she said. “I think it’s hard to look at someone’s art and tell if they are male or female. It’s just about the art.”
Matt Schott’s bold, minimal chapel is the only one with a table that’s also completely artist-made, custom built of cherry and black steel.
If this installation looks slightly elegant biker dude, that’s no fluke. “Really what I do is make bikes,” Schott said. His custom bicycles are works of art that perform for serious athletes. He also has made furniture and architectural objects; and he created four of the murals at the original Saint Arnold’s compound across the street. His installation hints at all of that.
Rather than paint murals, he made plasma-cut icons of steel to display within black frames on each wall. One depicts the elements of beer making — a sheaf of barley, a leaf of hops and a drop of water. The other very efficiently illustrates the three legends of Saint Arnold with symbols for the story about the mug that never ran dry (a mug brimming with foam), the saint that stopped a fire by making the sign of the cross (a flame), and the saint who threw his ring into a river, only to see it return in the belly of a fish (a plain band).
Schott’s central relief depicts Saint Arnold as he appears in Saint Arnold’s Icon series branding. The installation, fittingly, is titled “ICONS of Beer.”
Schott set the framed works within blue walls, a color he chose because it was regal and bright. He added a reflective glow with a gold ceiling, “because you see ornate, gold-leaf ceilings in cathedrals,” he said. “There was too much space to do a true gold leaf.” But frankly, the plainer application suits the space.
New to the Saint Arnold clan, Jeffry Szymanski brought an interest in Renaissance-inspired realism to his chapel, along with painterly techniques he has developed during more than 20 years as a custom muralist for businesses, schools and homeowners. (One of his recent projects involved painting 7-foot-tall letters and an even larger mascot on the closed bleachers in a gymnasium.)
The characters of his lush “The Beer Garden of Eden” are costumed, with faces drawn from real life (Szymanski seems to have beautiful friends) and an abundance of exotic animals and plants. He didn’t want it to look like a standard garden. “All the types of animals that normally wouldn’t get along, get along here. A lion is often a Christian symbol of Christ,” he explained. A snake and an apple are included, of course. His choice of flowers also suggests an out-of-this-world, “more heavenly type garden experience” that carries through all the way to the ceiling.
“It was fun acknowledging the vault but also breaking it and making it look transparent, as if you’re looking past it into the sky,” he said. The sky is awash in the yellows of bright sunlight through clouds. “Yeah, I like the vibrance,” he said. “Lighting is really important to me, in all my work.”
Szymanski’s painting replicates a mural in a grand hall, with a faux marble wall at the bottom. While religious art normally isn’t his bailiwick, he had fun playing up the saintly theme and the church-style structure. “It gave me an opportunity to do something different, but change it up from just being totally classical,” he said.