James C. Christensen carries a sketchbook and plenty of pens with him. He never knows when a phrase, a moment or a problem he’s mulling over could inspire a sketch.
It could happen in church or a school faculty meeting, or simply when listening to others. But those sketches many times became the basis of his paintings.
In his recent book, “Passage by Faith: Exploring the Inspirational Art of James C. Christensen” (Deseret Book, $34.99), the 70-year-old artist details the background and symbolism of dozens of his paintings, including ones he created early in his career.
Many of his paintings have an aura of whimsy or an element that doesn’t quite logically fit in, like the fish floating at head-level behind a rower in the book cover image “Passage by Faith.” (Fish float in the air in some of his other paintings, as well.) In “Poofy Guy on a Short Leash,” a rather rotund man floats like a helium balloon over a woman’s shoulder. A tree grows out of a man’s back in “The Fruits of Adversity.”
“Fat People Are Hungry Inside” is one painting he did during his “college and post-college days.” The piece explores how appearances don’t often tell the whole story and how we should be careful about judging, whether it’s others or ourselves.
For those familiar with his more notable works, the acrylic, Magic Marker and oil pastel piece almost seems created by a different artist.
“It was when I was trying to figure out my art,” Christensen said.
But it’s indeed his.
Another early piece is a self-portrait, appropriately titled “Old Self-Portrait.” It’s from a time when Christensen was out of college, teaching art at a junior high in California and had time-consuming responsibilities from his callings as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the time, he had sideburns and longer, darker hair.
“Well, I was kid,” he said. And the experience he shares he considers revelatory about his goals and realistic expectations on his time.
Other works include several series he has done, including the “Hortus Conclusus” (“The Enclosed Garden Series”) and his “Winged Words” series that has printed words, usually in Latin.
And then there are paintings with angels and many other religious works, including “The Widow’s Mite,” “Ten Lepers,” “Lehi’s Beheld the Fruit” and his three depictions of “Gethsemane.”
“I’m an artist who happens to be Mormon,” he said. He’s never tried to hide his faith from artist groups who have invited him to speak. “They’re going to find out I’m LDS.”
One of his favorite pieces is “The Listener,” which shows a man sitting calmly with his eyes closed while there are many other people and noises surrounding him in what could be a loud cacophony of sound.
In this painting, “more is better and even more is better,” he said.
“Every character is about something,” Christensen said.
He had this particular painting up on the wall while he served as bishop for a young single adult ward (which he has done twice, once in the 1970s, and once recently in Orem).
Many times when he would counsel with others, he would ask them to look at the painting in an effort to help them see to whom they were listening to.
One of wife Carole Christensen’s favorites is “The Nest,” which shows a young couple starting out in life. Their boat is a nest of twigs, and the husband has a concerned look on his face as he tries to paddle.
But if he painted it now, after many years of marriage, what would it look like?
“She’d be in the back paddling,” James Christensen said.
For Christensen, art hasn’t been something he could do on demand.
“If I force it,” he said, “it fails.”
He would sketch — he’s up to Vol. 59 in sketchbooks — and from those ideas would come the paintings.
When he was an LDS bishop, he got a sketchbook that was black and formal-looking to use as he sat on the stand.
“Then I got busted,” Christensen said with a smile. “The next week on the back of the program was a box titled ‘Bishop’s Doodle Area.’ ”
There are times when the paintings help him work through an issue.
“I use these (paintings) to solve problems for myself,” he said. “They’ve been very personal pieces.”
One of his paintings, “Twilight,” shows a couple carrying a much-older couple on their backs. It was inspired by the time when he and his wife, Carole, cared for her parents for four years.
The painting shows the older man giving his wife a flower — symbolizing how love endures.
Not everything in his paintings is symbolic, like the fish on a string in “The Burden of the Responsible Man.”
“It’s not pondering the meaning of existence,” Christensen said. “But what is he going to do with it?”
Christensen’s “home art studio” has moved around from the dining room to the garage to an unfinished basement, which he shared with a gerbil.
Now he has a dedicated studio above their multicar garage.
“I hope at the end of my life,” Christensen said, “I’m not judged by a single painting, but by a body of work.”
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