I have loved art for as long as I can remember.
When I was in elementary school the nuns would let me have a couple hours in the library alone just to draw. I still remember drawing a large cardinal which I copied from a photo. My parents encouraged me – my dad always liked art and even drew a comic strip which the local newspaper published for a short time. My mom and dad signed me up for oil painting lessons at age 12. And incredibly, they saved the first painting I ever did and gave it to me 40 years later. Here’s a photo of it.
What is amazing is I still often gravitate to the same colors in my paintings today. They saved three other oil paintings I did when I was 12 or 13. Here is another one – a copy of a Vincent Van Gogh portrait. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it at the time, but I signed my own name to it.
I loved my high school art class and my teacher, who called me “Al-troh-JHAY” in a French accent instead of “Al-TROH-gee,” and had me paint a mural which hung in the high school foyer for many years.
I majored in art education in college – a prof told my parents to require the education part, so I would be able to get a job after college. At first I tried to avoid teaching after college, so I moved to Philadelphia, worked in a cheesy art gallery as a framer, and lived in a cockroach infested basement apartment where I painted inconsistently. After trying to get some galleries to carry my work – one did take a couple but they didn’t sell – I got discouraged, moved back home and lived with my parents, feeling like a failure.
God used all that though and not long after that got a hold of me and gave me faith in Jesus Christ.
A couple years later I went to grad school and got my masters in painting. As a grad student, I had a studio in an old house on campus with other art grad students. I can remember talking to some fellow art majors about Jesus, and some of my profs probably thought I was a bit strange.
I got involved in a bible study that eventually became our church. Then met my future wife, Kristi while in grad school. After getting my masters in painting, I took a job as an itinerant elementary art teacher, traveling among 5 schools. During that year of teaching Kristi and I got married, and moved into a pretty crummy apartment, where I was still able to do some painting.
Well, one thing led to another (you know how that goes, Hitler was rejected from art school and one thing led to another and WW2 started) and I became a pastor in our church, and God had me do that for the next 37 years.
Over the years I painted sporadically. We had kids, so I did art with them while playing “Hoedown” by Aaron Copland. But I didn’t paint all that much. Being a pastor and a husband and a dad didn’t leave me with a lot of time to paint.
Fast forward…Kids are grown, out of the house, and my wife and I would have my father, in his late 80’s, over for dinner every Monday night, then we would watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. At the time, my Dad had been painting for a number of years – he painted birthday cards for everyone in our church and all his relatives and friends. He painted like 30 cards a month. On the back of his cards he would write “Cool Cards – Sold Only in Prestigious Art Galleries.” People loved them. They’d frame them and hang them in their homes.
One night I said, “Dad, you like to paint. And I’d like to get back into some painting, so why don’t we do this. Every Monday, after dinner, instead of us watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, why don’t we go back over to your house and paint together?” So we did. We’d go into his dining room where he had a table set up for painting, I’d put on The Rippingtons or Chuck Mangione, and we’d paint. Usually within about a few minutes Dad would say, “Well, got my first one done.” And I’d say, “Dad! I don’t even have all my paint on my palette yet.” He loved every card he painted. He’d hold each one up and say, “Look at this one. That’s a real purty one, ain’t it?” And I’d say, “Yep Dad, that’s a real purty one.”
So every Monday night we’d paint. Month after month. Then a couple years into it, Dad had to go to the hospital – can’t remember what for – and was there for a week. The doctor said he could go home as long as someone stayed with him. So I took some vacation days, stayed with dad and decided I would have a painting marathon, and see how many paintings I could do in a week. Dad didn’t require much care so I could paint from morning to night. Now I was really back into painting.
Around 2012 I decided to take a big risk. I went to a local art gallery/coffee shop and showed the manager some images of my work. I was pretty nervous. But she liked them and invited me to bring some into the gallery. It was so exciting. And amazingly, some of my paintings began to sell.
A year later, I had a book made of my paintings, got up my nerve again and went to Pittsburgh, hoping to get a gallery to take my work. I fully expected to be rejected a lot of times, but figured if I went to enough galleries, one or two might take a painting. Someone had recommended a particular gallery so I started there. A woman who worked there looked at my book, then enthusiastically called the woman who owned the gallery over. They wanted to know if I had any of my paintings with me. I did, they were out in the van with Kristi, who hadn’t wanted to come in to see me rejected. They enthusiastically took a number of my paintings. I couldn’t believe it – the first gallery I went to wanted my work!
While looking at my book of paintings, the two ladies asked me some questions. After a couple questions about my schooling, they asked, “Do you do this for a living?” “No,” I said, “I’m a pastor.” I’ll never forget the look on their faces. I can’t remember what they asked after that, but I am so glad for how painting has brought me into contact with lots of unbelievers.
A friend of mine who is in a large church once said to me, “I think it’s really good that you are painting and showing in galleries, because our pastors tend to get ‘siloed’ – they are so involved in caring for the people in our church that they don’t have much contact with unbelievers.” I am so grateful for how painting has brought me into contact with lots of non-Christians. I have had a few discussions over the years with the gallery owner in Pittsburgh about Jesus. I know they have been curious about me, for once when a couple from our church was in the gallery and mentioned to the owner they were friends of mine, she asked them, “What kind of a pastor is he? Is he a fire and brimstone preacher?”
Another time, after the gallery gave me a wonderful opening and a one-man show, one of the ladies said to me, “This was my favorite opening we ever had, because your friends (people from our church who came) were SO nice.”
At the gallery in my home town, one of the male baristas introduced me to his boyfriend, who said they really liked my paintings, so I had the opportunity to give them a painting. I love showing unbelievers the love of Jesus, because many times they aren’t expecting a pastor to be loving toward them.
I’m so grateful the Lord got me back into painting again. He gave me the opportunity to spend time painting with my Dad before he went home to be with the Lord. I’m so grateful for those memories. Another reason is because in painting I get to reflect in some small way the glory of the Lord. The world is full of his glory and beauty and in painting I try to capture that in some small way.
I’m grateful because a local brewery displays my paintings and I have gotten to interact with lots of people who wouldn’t come to our church.
Another reason I’m grateful is because when I’m painting I completely forget about myself. I’m completely absorbed in the process. Painting is like solving a puzzle. I see a spot that needs a touch of light blue. I need to add a highlight along the horizon. I need to add a few brush strokes near the upper left. And so on. I’m not thinking about any problems or concerns. I’m just in the moment, to get a bit cliche. (At least I didn’t say, “At the end of the day, it is what it is”).
I don’t always get to share the gospel with people – “Well, you see that burnt umber represents our sin, and cadmium yellow represents hope.” Nope. But I get to interact with people who often know I’m a pastor and a believer in Jesus. And people are watching us believers. They want to see if our walk matches our talk. This past week, I got to teach an all-day painting class at the local gallery and one of the students mentioned I’m a pastor. I loved getting to encourage and serve the students who took the class.
I have so much to be grateful for, and painting is just one more blessing. And I’m also grateful Vincent Van Gogh hasn’t been around to sue me for signing my name to a copy of his painting.
Top image: Rooster painting I did at age 12 or 13