Struggles of a Christian artist

struggling artist

If you are an artist and a Christian, the odds are pretty high that you will be asked to make a poster for your church. (Okay, pass the tagboard and tempera powder!) When this happens to me, I find myself wishing that there were more ways for the church to use my artistic skills to bring God glory. Nonetheless, there are ways to find encouragement, inspiration and expression for your artist’s heart.

I am a Christian and an artist, and I care deeply about the contributions that we artists can make to the body of Christ. As Christians, our purpose — our “chief end” — is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. From our experiences as artists, we know that God has made us creative people who like to communicate and express ourselves visually. How can we bring glory to God through our artistic skills? And where do we find encouragement as Christian artists?

We need community

Finding a community that creates art is important to me. It encourages me to make art. My wife and I like to host “art nights” in our home. For several years we met with some close friends every Monday night. We called it “Monday Night Art.” The format of our time together was simply to show up with something to work on. We would serve tea and all of us would make art. Later in the evening we would walk around and see what other people were working on. Often, people would offer encouragement or maybe even some informal critique. Creating art with friends — that’s my idea of fun!

Many of us in the group had relationships with international students, so it took on an interesting international feel. There wasn’t an inherently spiritual emphasis to our time, but it always amazes me to see how quickly — and deeply — spiritual conversations result when artists begin to talk about their art.

I’ve also recently joined a community arts group that focuses on marketing art, even though this isn’t my primary passion. Yet it’s a valuable social and networking group. I like to talk about art, or even about marketing art, but by far I love the group that makes art the most. The art created during our “Monday Night Art” is still influencing me.

Books can be encouraging

There are a few books that I have found especially encouraging as a Christian artist. One of my favorites is Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeline L’Engle. Walking on WaterI think of this quote often, “I am an artist for better or for worse, major, minor or mediocre.” I find it helpful to think of art as a calling and a commitment — not a competition, or a way of comparing myself to others.

Another book that inspires me is Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue by William Dyrness, a history of Christian Art from the early church to the present. Visual FaithThis book will give you a good sense of the flow of the philosophical and theological ideas that have affected art and how Christians in the arts have responded to these influences. It also gives a helpful assessment of the state of art today and offers some hope to Christian artists working in these times. It is very important for artists to have an understanding of where they are in history. The art that survives often gives a glimpse into the time period in which it was created. This book will help you come to a better understanding of where you stand in the history of art and what the current climate is for the Christian artist.

Another stimulating book for artists is A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink. Although this book was written from a secular point of view, I found it to be a very helpful investigation of the various aspects of right-brained thinking. I appreciated the discussion about empathy, play, story, and the search for meaning and how they relate to creative thinking.

A brilliant novel that depicts the artist’s struggle is My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. This book is about a boy who is an art prodigy, born into a Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Asher LevThere is deep tension between Asher’s obvious God-given artistic gifts and his culture’s strict teaching about making art. Eventually the religious leader of this Hasidic sect, the Rebbe, intercedes for Asher and allows him to study under one of the greatest living artists, Jacob Kahn, a non-observant Jew. Asher is forced to consider the implications of his gifts as an artist and his loyalties to his family and upbringing. I really enjoyed this book and its sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev.

Communicating a personal message

A few years ago I went to a CIVA Conference (Christians in Visual Arts). Each night about twenty artists would each take five minutes to show slides of their work. The images just flew by, and I was struck by the diversity of self-expression among the group. The art was a variety of abstract, photo-realistic, whimsical, moody, thoughtful, colorful, monochromatic, graphic, atmospheric, conceptual, painterly — and some very disturbing. But clearly, each artist was struggling with what it means to be an artist and a Christian in present-day society. I saw how God had placed something unique in each of these people.

This conference encouraged me to consider what God has uniquely placed in me — through my life, my experiences and the ways God has made himself known to me. I was encouraged to ask myself, What personal message has God uniquely qualified me to communicate? I want my art to be backed up with authentic life experience to avoid being preachy or hollow. As I grow in communicating a more personal message, I’m encouraged when I see other artists striving to be true to who God has made them to be.

The value of a sketchbook

I can’t talk about what feeds artistic creation without talking about a sketchbook. Keeping a sketchbook is the most important thing I do to stay replenished as an artist. In a sketchbook, I record ideas, websites and other leads about inspirational materials. I make lists and prioritize the projects I would like to tackle next. And, of course, I also use it for sketches. Over and over again I find ideas in my sketchbook that I can use for new projects, using it as a tool to evaluate what I should do next.

Take time to reflect

So where can you find encouragement and growth as a Christian artist?

  • Do your art — and pursue what God has called you to pursue.
  • Find a community that is committed to making art.
  • Consider where you are in history and who God has made you to be. What does it mean to be a Christian and an artist in these times?
  • In what ways are empathy, play, story, and the search for meaning part of your artistic make-up?
  • What are you uniquely qualified to communicate?

Finally, ask the question, what does our culture need to hear? Part of the role of an artist is to help people slow down and reflect in the midst of frantic, busy lives. Beauty and Truth do exist. Beauty needs expression, and Truth is often heard best through the arts. As you seek God’s glory as a Christian and pursue your calling as an artist, may the result be great art that will be uplifting to your brothers and sisters in Christ — and fascinatingly thought-provoking to the world.

A final word about making posters for your church: just recently I walked into a church and saw a well-designed poster. This was an amazingly refreshing experience. The church was having an arts festival and the poster was really cool. In the design world, poster design is the fun stuff. It doesn’t necessarily pay well but every designer I know would love the opportunity to work on a cool poster. So if your church does ask you to make a poster, have fun with it and to try to make it the best it can possibly be. Our goal is God’s glory, and our design should reflect that. Let’s give him the best.

— Gary Nauman

What might it look like if the arts were better integrated into the mission of the global church? Read Envision a Future by Dr. Colin Harbinson.