"The Journey of a Christian Artist"
My life journey was guided by two very significant events which I believe were signs from the Holy Spirit—a visionary dream and a near drowning. When I was working as an assistant scoutmaster at a boy scout camp in Wisconsin at age 15, I dreamed a very vivid dream, more like a vision. Suddenly I saw Christ, larger than human lifesize, resplendent in a radiant white garment. He was standing in front of a white castle-like building among the clouds. I was terrified! In a very calm and reassuring voice, He said, "Do not be afraid. Follow me!" He then vanished. For over a week, I was afraid to sleep at night. I didn't understand what He wanted me to do. It took me many years to realize that I was meant to create art in His honor.In the summer of 1958, I was employed as a bellman at Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone Park. At age 22, I was in top physical condition from carrying bags up many stairs. Employees on our day off went to a grassy place along the Fire Hold River, a mountain stream warmed by geyser water. We floated down the fast moving river and into a cascade. The current sent us to the base where our bodies swirled in a whirlpool and then ejected us to the surface. I teamed up with someone else, who shot free of the whirlpool. But this time I was trapped under the water, coming up twice. Then I was pulled under again. I became totally exhausted and thought it was my time to reach the "other side." It seemed like a place of peace and rest. Then in another calm voice, I heard, "No. Not yet. Do not give up!" At that point, I had a sudden burst of energy and managed to reach the surface. Now, at last, I saw blue sky and puffy white clouds. I smelled the aroma of the pine trees. God still had plans for my life.
My father was a house painter, sign painter, gold leaf artist, and decorator of Catholic churches in the upper Midwest. We lived in an 1880s farm house with cracked and uneven walls, which he covered with rough applications of plaster. I saw many images in these walls and drew pencil lines around the shapes. He never criticized me for doing so. My artwork was accepted an an early age. His work in gold leaf influenced me later to use gold leaf in my work.
Our house was in a run-down neighborhood which was later destroyed to build a ramp to Highway 52 on the West Side in St. Paul. Across from our home was a large wooded hill with a stream flowing throught the valley. Next to the stream was a neighborhood dump with a sign that stated, "NO DUMPING $10 FINE." My father would not allow us to dump there, but what a treasure trove it was! We found material to build shacks and rafts to float on the back waters of the Mississippi. In the spring, my neighbor and I raced tuna cans to see which would arrive first at a large culvert under the highway. I am still drawn to dumps and dumpsters for treasure. Although we lived near the St. Paul City Dump, I was not allowed to take anything from there because it belonged to the dump master. I learned that lost and discarded items can still have value. This concept became important as I began to use found objects in later artworks.
From the beginning, my art has dealt with a message. When I was eight or nine, my art featured football players being carried off the field on a stretcher. During WWII, I drew navy men showing their missing limbs. These ideas may have been my first step in portraying the suffering of Christ on the cross.
Occasionally, an old man would drive through our alley in a rickety wagon with an aging horse, singing out, "RAGS. NEWSPAPERS!" We thought he was foolish, but it was my first lesson in recycling. As an adult, I became an advocate for recycling. Next to our home was an elderly German Jewish man who lived in a house without electricity or water or an indoor toilet. A member of our Evangelical Church always tried to convert him, but my mother daily carried two pails of water over for him. She was an example of Christian duty and love. His house was filled with many books and boxes, mostly cigar boxes filled with small pieces of junk. He allowed me to look in the boxes, but I was not allowed to touch anything. Here was an adult who attached sentimental value to junk, and it sowed the seeds of an interest in old and interesting items.
During World War II, the city of St. Paul had an all-city request for citizens to place any old metal, even rusty metal, on a street intersection to be melted down for the war effort. With great reluctance, I donated my metal pedal car (which was too small for me) to the pile. (In today's market, it would be worth $500.) Up the hill, I noticed that one resident had his backyard filled with rusty metal which he had not donated. With patriotic zeal, I "removed" his rusty metal to the community pile. He recognized the junk and spoke with my father, who told me to return what I had taken with an apology. The neighbor realized that I had not returned one piece of the metal. Again, I returned with another apology. I learned that every piece of metal has worth, and every human being has worth.
At Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I carved an abstract oak torso of a crucified Christ. I didn't understand why I had carved this figure, but it seems to emerge from the wood. Years later, I carved it into a more realistic crucifixion.
After losing my two-year teaching position in Austin, Minnesota, I was lost, and my fellow art teacher, lone Bell, recommended that I study for my master's degree at Mexico City College, later called University of the Americas. It was here that my life and my art changed.
The school was located ten miles up into the mountains on a very narrow dangerous twisting road. Several times, I saw Mexicans crawling on bloody knees on this road down to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Many wooden crosses marked numerous deaths along the way. I was deeply moved by those crude homemade wooden crosses. The humble devotion to Mary influenced me to incorporate her image into my artwork.
During my studies of art history at the University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and the University of the Americas, I became aware of the many artworks that were religious in nature. I was struck by contemporary 20th-century artists who illustrated Christian motifs. My thesis in Mexico follwed biblical themes, and was called, "Man's Capacity for Good and Evil." One of the pieces in my thesis was Adam rising up from the earth in a Mexican mountain scene. It was an early example of my use of pumice and glue.
I was influenced by the muralist movement in Mexico. Diego Rivera impressed me with his social justice and nationalistic causes. In 1963, I painted "The Great Cause." The message in this piece shows that unruly crowds have driven off the doves of peace through nationalism, racism, civil, and religious wars. This was my first attempt to use a found object, the cover of a glue bottle, for a sun. I also built up the surface of the work. When I returned to the United States, I thought I should follow the current trends of Pop Art and hard-edge painting. This was during the Vietnam War, and my work during this time was often politically based.
In 1964, I painted "The Twelve Disciples Visiting Colonial Mexico." It features disciples in priestly robes (with some wings), and a multitude of crosses, a dove, a cup of wine, a peacock, and a fish, all symbols of Christianity. A brown Christ on a plank of blood presides over all. This painting is meant to convey a deep sense of mystery.
During the next period, my work became more abstract and included landscapes and sculptures. I was drawn to the work of Rouault and Chagall and the found object art of Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. My work during this time used frequent large pieces of metal and wood.
In 1989, I created a life-size Christ on the cross, called "He was Crucified and Died." It was made with a piece of driftwood and a rusty shovel for a breastplate. His face was molded with a wax normally used in bronze casting. This was my effort to show the agony of the crucifixion. Using discarded and broken items, the art portrays Christ's acceptance of our flawed and rejected lives, and the transformation through his death and resurrection.
In 1996, I had an exhibit at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul. The curator, Cindi Beth Johnson, asked me to return with a show only of crosses. From that time on, crosses have been my main focus, using found objects as my medium. A current artwork, created in 2015, "Peace," brings together the elements of built-up surfaces, painting, found objects of wood and metal, a message of Christianity, and a sense of quiet mystery.
Theses crosses are not mere ornaments, nor should they be worshipped. In the process of making them, I find a force in them that I could not achieve alone. In my artwork, I have tried to obey Christ's command to "follow" Him. Although I have taken different paths in my life and work, I now feel that I have found my calling as a Christian artist to make crosses.
1. Peace, in the inventory of the artist
2. Twelve Disciples, in the collection of the artist
3. At the Foot of the Cross, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis
4. Christ in Two Flags, Luther Seminary, St. Paul
5. Crucifixion, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis
6. Good Friday, Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis
7. His Spirit, in the inventory of the artist
8. Viet Vain, unknown
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