Tell me about your artistic journey. Why did you switch from being a figure painter to making these abstract landscapes?
This is a good question. I used to create very representational work, mostly images of the human form that had a deeply symbolic quality. Many of these pieces were inspired by my wife’s Chinese culture. I created these pieces for years.
Then, I lost my job… and I lost the next one… and then the one after that. Three job losses during a recession is a difficult thing to go through. But for me, it was more than that a simple job loss story because I lost my jobs because I was suffering from depression and anxiety from trauma. I worked for 15 years in mental health, a decade of which I was a psychiatric social worker in a psychiatric hospital. I worked on a unit characterized as a “high violence” ward. Many of my patients struggled to stay on their medications, and some of them didn’t have good responses to the medications that are currently available. In other words, they couldn’t get free of their symptoms, even on medications… which meant that many of these people lived lives in fear of the the voices and visual hallucinations they experienced.
While most would never hurt anyone, some would try to protect themselves by acting violently. I was hit so many times by patients that I developed PTSD. Along with making it hard for me to concentrate on doing mental health work, my symptoms of PTSD made it hard for me to be alone and still long enough to create. Therapy took a long, long time. Slowly, I began creating again, and it took years to begin to tolerate being alone in my studio for the long stretches of time needed to make the larger paintings which used to bring me such joy to create.
As I started recovering internally, I found I did not want to create any more pictures of the human body as I had in the past. It was as if I didn’t want to think about my body and what had happened to it. I needed to think about something else, but I didn’t know for a while what that “something else” should be. So I spent a lot of time trying to fill my time, and ended up taking lots of long walks. In time, I sensed God again, especially when I walked in the forests around my home, and this was the subject matter I was drawn to most. These portraits of trees and forest images soon became abstractions as I began to leave the visual subject matter behind and focus more and more on capturing the sense of God’s presence with paint, which was my intended subject all along.
So, in a sense, I am learning to paint all over again. Being able to recover the ability to create and being still in God’s presence is hard for me some days still, but it is so good to experience as well. I am beginning to sense God’s presence again as I paint, and when my body is painting, it is like my mind is free to be with God in ways that I find difficult when I am concentrating on details or things happening around me. Call it hyper vigilance or call it distraction, when I fall into the rhythm of painting, my mind feels free, and I feel in communion with God again. When I paint, I sense that I am closest to being the person God initially created me to be. I remember what it feels like to be me.
That is quite journey. Do you ever share that publicly?
Yes, I give talks on my own art, as well as many presentations on worship. Quite often, these stories about brokenness season those talks, but the only reason I feel comfortable talking about these things is because I am held by a good God who has a plan for humanity.
I hear you talking about God, but why do you call your artwork “Christian art?” I don’t see any Biblical scenes depicted in your work.
I believe that what makes a piece of art “Christian” is not what it is about, so much as who the creator of the artwork is. The Christian faith is about a relationship, not a quality, subject, or an aesthetic sense. Artwork which is created by an artist with a Christian world-view can be called “Christian” art, even if it is not an illustration of a Biblical story. Since most of my paintings are about my relationship with God (as this is my overarching subject), the word “Christian” is one of several terms I use to describe my work. It would be equally true to describe it as “abstract” or moving towards a “drippy and runny” quality. All of those words describe various aspects of the work, its spiritual content, its subject matter, and its surface quality respectively.
My latest work uses acrylic paint which is diluted or thinned with various fluids to create atmospheric and textured surfaces which for me are a visual representation of my tactile awareness of the presence of God. This kind of sensory-translation is difficult for me to describe with words, but easier to describe with paint. Since the work is entirely about visually depicting the sensory experience of my relationship with God, it is perhaps more Christian than my earlier figurative and symbolic work that had more representational content.
You often talk about art being prayer for you. Do many artists have this kind of experience of prayer while creating?
I can’t speak for all artists. For myself, I believe that many artists have a greater or lesser awareness of a “prayerful quality” when they create. Most artists grow quiet while working and lose track of time, qualities which many people experience while engaging in contemplative prayer practices. Some artists also describe being moved by urges they cannot explain while creating or having inspiration from their “muse.” Personally, I believe that the Holy Spirit could be influencing some of their ideas, but this is something which each individual artist would need to discern for him or herself. I do find that artists who find it difficult to engage themselves in a regular habit of verbal prayer, when introduced to the idea of praying non-verbally through creating, find themselves opened up to an entirely new way of speaking to God that feels natural and freeing at the same time.
Why do you explain your work in writing? Shouldn’t art speak for itself?
A work of art does speak for itself. Often it is said that art does a good job of asking questions or causing people to contemplate. Therefore, to understand a painting well, you must look at it for a long period of time. Sadly, most people only glance at a work of art for a few seconds before moving on to the next piece. This is not long enough for a work to speak powerfully, unless it has no subtlety to it. Most paintings are intended to be objects of contemplation, which reveal their richness over a period of time. In our society which is inundated with moving images, it is an unfamiliar practice for people to be still and reflect on something unmoving for a long time. So in this way, I think technology-saturated cultures have lost some of their ability to perceive visual images in a meaningful way. Similarly, in many Protestant churches, which have been void of images for nearly 400 years, there is a general lack of visual literacy. This has left many Christians without the skills needed to understand, appreciate, or be moved by visual art. For these reasons, I find that assisting people in viewing my paintings by using words has been beneficial for helping people discover the meaning and value of my work which some may initially find difficult to understand.
How do I get a piece of your art?
You can visit one of the galleries which sell my art by clicking on their links found on the “links” page of this website or you may also choose to contact me by email on the “Contact Info” of this website. I also do commission work for individuals, corporations, non-profit organizations, and church ministries. You may contact me directly if you are interested in learning more about this.
* Please note: If you are interested in my art, please only make purchases from the galleries listed on my website. There are galleries which I no longer work with who continue to sell reproductions and digital images of some of my early figurative work (before 2007) without paying the contractual royalties they are obliged to pay for these services. They do not inform me of these transactions, which is why I no longer participate with them. If you have seen copies of my artwork being sold, projected electronically, or reproduced in magazines or books, please be courteous enough to notify me. There are some royalty-free images of my work on the website for the Calvin Institute for Worship which you may download and use at no cost.
I want to talk with you. How do I do that?
If you wish to contact me about my art or about the content of this website, you may do so by going to Contact.