I kept falling back on my patriarchal blessing (which mentioned nothing about being an artist) but promised if I produced where I had the opportunity to produce, doors would be opened to do what I wanted to do.
WOODLAND HILLS, Utah County — It’s taken more than a decade of leaps of faith, frugal living, earnest prayer and hard work, but things are working out for artist J. Kirk Richards.
The soon-to-be 39-year-old Provo native and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has quietly and steadily carved out a full-time art career despite being a one-time college dropout, having long stretches when his work didn’t sell and focusing on Christian imagery, a subject some in the art world don’t find interesting.
“We have been blessed to see a lot of amazing miracles and great things happen,” Richards said while seated in his basement studio, surrounded by large murals and small frames of artwork, with swarms of children playing loudly in the next room. “We planted a seed, nourished it, and it has grown. I’m amazed at how many people I’ve been able to connect with because of my artwork over the last 15 years.”
While most of his work resides in private collections around the country, Richards has contributed to exhibits at the BYU Museum of Art, published books, had art appear in the LDS Church magazines and been featured in many other venues. His unique impressionist style has also been recognized with numerous awards, according to the biography on his website, jkirkrichards.com.
In an interview with the Deseret News, the artist discussed his career path and passion for religious/spiritual contemporary art.
The first seed
Growing up in Provo, each child in the Richards family was expected to learn a musical instrument. J. Kirk Richards picked the French horn and piano, but also harbored a growing love of drawing and art.
“I liked music, but I was restless,” Richards said. “I loved making things with my hands.”
At age 14, he begged his parents to let him trade music for art lessons. They granted his request and arranged for him to be tutored by Clayton Williams, who retired to Orem after a career in advertising and teaching high school art in Los Angeles. Williams was generous with his time and never charged a dime for his lessons. Richards said he gained a better understanding of art design from Williams, who continued to follow his career until his death about six years ago.
As a freshman at Brigham Young University, Richards planned to study something practical, but his desire for a career in art was solidified in a figure drawing class with BYU fine arts professor Hagen Haltern. Richards went home and told his parents he wanted to major in art, then he prayed and received spiritual confirmation.
“I loved it,” Richards said. “From that moment, age 18, I committed to art as a career.”
Two years in Rome
At age 19, Richards was called on a Mormon mission and assigned to serve in Rome. It didn’t take him long to realize he was going to one of the art capitals of the world. Upon his arrival, the new missionaries were taken to a small church near the Colosseum that featured Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses.
“I was immediately blown away by all the artwork there. It seemed like there was a sculpture on every street corner,” Richards said. “I took it as providence that the Lord knew about my desires to become an artist.”
For the next two years, Richards planned his preparation days so he could absorb as much of the famous art and history as possible.
“Having served in Italy, I wanted a Renaissance feel in my work,” Richards said.
Richards continued his studies at BYU following his mission but dropped out at one point, leaving behind a full-tuition scholarship, to study with an artist and LDS convert named Patrick Devonas in Princeton, New Jersey. While he was learning things that would benefit his career, Richards admitted he was “floundering” and unsure of what direction he wanted to take his career.
As the “study break” drew to a close, Devonas encouraged his protege to return and finish his degree at BYU, which he did.
BYU was kind, Richards said. The university not only granted readmission but also renewed his full-tuition scholarship.
His experience with Devonas helped Richards to more fully appreciate what BYU professors such as Bruce Hixson Smith were teaching him. As a result, Richards incorporated many elements, such as classicism, abstraction and impressionism, into his future work.
Two other things also influenced Richards and his artwork at a young age: the religious imagery of artists such as Carl Bloch and Harry Anderson, and a 1977 church magazine article by President Spencer W. Kimball titled “The Gospel Vision of the Arts.”
“Incredible paintings like the ‘Pool of Bethesda’ really drew me to religious work,” Richards said. “This idea that we will have masterpieces come from our (LDS) tradition was really inspiring to me.”
'Leaps of faith'
After graduation, Richards started out by accepting commissions and doing freelance work, but he quickly learned he needed leeway to explore his imagery without doing it for a client. This decision would result in a meager salary for the next few years, but it paid off in the long run.
“I hadn’t determined in my own head where I was going or what my voice was going to be,” Richards said. “I wanted to get away from influences, people asking me to paint certain things.”
He also sought artistic credibility.
“A lot of people weren’t taking me as seriously as I would have liked because I was painting religious work and living in Happy Valley (Utah County),” Richards said. “'That’s easy for a Provo boy to stay at home and paint Jesus, but that doesn’t mean you’re a real artist.'”
Richards and his wife, Amy, moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to live with her family shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which proved to be a fragile time for the U.S. economy.
For the next six months, Richards painted, networked and promoted his artwork in shows and galleries. Attendance at the shows was high, but nothing sold.
More weeks passed. He continued to meet people and display his art, but without sales.
Finally, when things were at their lowest point, a woman who had won the lottery purchased one of his largest pieces and business took a positive turn.
“This was the biggest trial of faith because I had been painting for months but I didn’t want my in-laws to think I was a deadbeat son-in-law,” Richards said.
After two years in Nashville, Richards had developed a non-Mormon clientele with his religious art and the couple returned to Provo with validation, which favored art sales in Utah.
Business was increasing, but trials persisted. Richards and his wife had begun raising a young family when the economy tanked in 2008. People didn’t want to spend money on art, he said, and there were more months with zero sales and questions about a career change.
“We were trying to figure out what we were going to do. We talked about it a lot. 'Is this good for our family long-term?'” Richards said. “I decided at that point this is essentially what I needed to be doing.”
Richards stopped investing time in hobbies and devoted all his spare energy to painting, and it made a difference. He went from producing 20 paintings a year to more than 100. He enlisted the help of a few studio assistants and increased his production to as many as 200 paintings a year. He also landed a deal with Deseret Book that expanded his audience, among other promising opportunities.
Through all the "leaps of faith," Richards said, living a frugal lifestyle, having determination and trusting in the Lord brought his career to where it is today.
“After a decade of plodding along, finally things started breaking open for me. Opportunities became bigger and more widespread,” Richards said. “I kept falling back on my patriarchal blessing (which mentioned nothing about being an artist) but promised if I produced where I had the opportunity to produce, doors would be opened to do what I wanted to do. I have fallen back on that promise a lot.”
Family and music
Richards appreciates the flexibility that comes with being his own boss because it allows him to spend time with his wife and four children when he isn’t in his studio producing art.
“Balance is hard. I’m not a particularly balanced person, but family is important,” said Richards, who has continued the same tradition from his own youth of waking up early to read scriptures and practice instruments with his children. “I love my wife and kids more than my artwork, although sometimes I have to be reminded to show them that’s the case.”
Richards is especially grateful for his wife, who shoulders most of the family responsibilities, keeps the books, coordinates with galleries and does some painting of her own. She gives him plenty of space to paint, he said.
“We met because she loves art,” said Richards, who met Amy in an art class at BYU. “She doesn’t give me a lot of feedback. I rarely ask for it. She is just encouraging, positive and leaves me to my own devices.”
Richards also enjoys serving in his local Latter-day Saint ward as choir director.
“If you walk through our living room, you will see a lot of singing praises, saints-and-angels kind of paintings. We have choir practice in this room,” Richards said. “A lot of my paintings are about worshipping through music.”
In his blog at jkirkrichards.wordpress.com, Richards wrote that electing to paint Jesus Christ and religious themes can be a difficult decision because "you will be shunned in some circles and embraced in others."
While he acknowledges that most of the art world is not interested in Christian imagery, for Richards, the decision was easy.
“If I had to make the decision today, it would be the same,” Richards said. “It can be hard to find the same opportunities that other artists may have but fortunately, I’ve had a great client base of private collectors that are interested in the drama of the spiritual journey. That’s whom I have relied on.”
Richards delights in painting religious and spiritual themes because they hold his interest and communicate inspiring gospel messages such as healing, community and divine intervention. In many ways, his artwork is a way for him to express prayer and acknowledge his reliance on the Lord.
“Those are the images that have meant the most to me," Richards said. "Those are the things I care about the most. I want to be in that tradition of sacred artwork.
“I need the gospel. I need the Atonement in my own life. I think we desperately need an understanding of God, of our divine potential. We also need his intervention in our lives. I’ve felt that keenly as an artist trying to make my way. Even in practical terms, financially, I’ve felt a dependence on divine intervention. I’ve seen that my leaps of faith were rewarded.”
Promise to share
Dallan Wright, a category manager of fine art at Deseret Book, has worked alongside Richards for almost five years. He describes the artist as "quiet, unassuming and humble" as well as "creative and business-savvy."
"If you want to make a career of being an artist today, you need to learn from Kirk how to do that," Wright said. "He is probably doing the best of any artist I know right now."
Wright said Richards produces newsletters and hosts fun events at his home and other locations. He sends his work to art galleries and enters museum shows. He maintains a website and uses social media.
"He's prolific. He gets people to follow him and want to see him succeed," Wright said. "People are buying into him."
When asked for tips for marketing one's brand as an artist, Richards shared three basic keys.
The first key is to always do the best work you can.
"It doesn’t have to say 'I am incredibly skilled,' but do the best work that is emotionally true to you," Richards said.
Second, let other people know about it, such as by using the strategies Wright mentioned.
"Some artists are afraid to do that, but there are a million ways to let people know about your work," Richards said.
Finally, be generous in sharing your knowledge, especially with colleagues and aspiring artists.
"I made a promise to God early on that if he would help me figure out how to be an artist, that I would pass that along and teach others where possible," Richards said. "I think if you recognize where the gifts come from and are eager to impart what you learned, good things will happen."