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art

April 03, 2008

The correlation between this post and the interview I posted earlier is entirely coincidental. This is another brief excerpt from Why We’re Not Emergent and one that I’m posting primarily because it made me laugh. My father, a hard-working landscaper, has often wondered aloud why Christians are so apologetic when it comes to artists. Why do Christians give latitude to artists that they wouldn’t give to anyone who works a simple trade? Well, it seems that Ted Kluck has wondered the same.


Almost everyone here looks like Sufjan Stevens—which is to say skinny, hip, and misunderstood. This is something that almost everyone here would probably also consider a huge compliment. Here is Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city that invented conservative, on the campus of Calvin College, the Christian college that is trying very hard to shed the conservative label.

If you don’t know who Sufjan Stevens is, you must, like, live under a rock or something. All kidding aside, he’s the pomo guy that pomo Christian kids have latched on to, much like my college classmates latched on to U2 for being interesting without being too naughty back in the day. Christian music for people who wouldn’t admit to liking Christian music. And he’s also, by the way, a truly great and creative musician.

Sufjan is here to perform this weekend, as well as “engage in an ongoing discussion of Christianity and the arts”—a discussion that has been going for at least ten years now, since I left a Christian college a lot like this one, filled with well-to-do artsy Christian kids trying to “out-dishevel” one another at gatherings like this one. The conference is called FFM, or the Festival of Faith and Music. Its official purpose, I’m told, is to “explore what is worthwhile in today’s popular music scene.”

The event’s emcee is a faculty member at Calvin, who explains that the conference, in essence, is “a profound apology from the Christian community for doing such a poor job of engaging art and culture in the public square.” He adds, “We don’t have a lot of answers.”

This is an apology I’ve heard made several times before, and I’m still a little unclear as to the reason. Is it because churches aren’t displaying art on their walls? Neither are insurance companies, but nobody is up in arms about that. My hunch is that there is this feeling that churches aren’t adequately “supporting” artists (musicians, writers, visual artists) in their midst. However, I don’t exactly see churches “supporting” software designers, salesmen, or farmers either. That’s not the church’s purpose. And it seems that the artists who are making the most noise about “not being supported” are the ones who may not have the talent to really cut it in the marketplace anyway. I don’t know of any working artists (musicians, actors, writers, painters) who complain that their church doesn’t “support” their efforts. Art is tough. Making a living at art is tough. It’s tough on families and marriages. That’s simply the nature of the game.

April 03, 2008

lukas1.jpg

This marks the third interview I’ve completed with artists involved in various disciplines. I first interviewed Max McLean about performance art and then Makoto Fujimura on his abstract art. Today I turn to photography and interview Lukas VanDyke, a photographer I have met at several conferences. Lukas is an exceptional photographer and I enjoyed his responses to these questions. I hope you do too!

Tell me a little bit about yourself—who you are and what you do.

Who I am? I tend to be very introspective and have piles of journals to prove it. So I will keep this short. I’m a Christian, and want to live a life to glorify God. There are two general questions I often ask myself. First, what am I known for right now as I live. And secondly, what will be I remembered for when I die. And for both questions I want the answer to be that I am living/lived my life with the kingdom of heaven in mind. To God be the glory.

Practically I am 26 year old guy who lives in Los Angeles and loves everything about his life. I love living in LA, I love my church, I love my friends, and I love my work. I started out in the Midwest when I was little, but ended up in Los Angeles in 2nd grade. I have been at John MacArthur’s church since then and can’t express my debt to the teachers there for the clear exposition of the scripture and its application on my life. The fellowship, love, and God centered focus of the body of believers I am part of makes me long to spend eternity with them doing what we do every week only free of our imperfections.

Vocation wise I actually do a number of different things. I am currently the Senior Network Analyst at The Master’s College. I’ve worked there consistently for the past 7+ years. However, ever since I opened my photo studio I have cut back my time there to give me the chance to shoot more. I love the impact I am able to have at the college and it is definitely a ministry which is worth ones time, but I also have a passion for photography. When I am fully engaged in a shoot the whole world around me disappears and it almost feels like magic. I guess it’s the thrill and passion of creating art. I love the experience. Which would lead one to ask what I shoot? Mostly I do fine art wedding coverage and couples portrait sessions. But I also do enjoy the abstractness of doing the cover art for various bands and other musicians. It’s a charge listening to the music and attempting to create images which define the music without sound. I also do some family portraits and free prayer cards for any missionaries who ask me. And within the major categories of what I do one of my favorites in conference coverage. I cover the Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church every year, I also cover the Resolved Conference, and have done coverage at Steve Lawson’s church. And recently I got asked to start doing coverage for Ligonier Ministries and have emails to potentially do a few others. I love the conferences because I love meeting new people, and being able to help in any way with the impact these conferences have on the world.

Tell me how you came to be a Christian.

When I was five my Dad explained that if I were to die I would go to hell, and then explained a basic gospel. I repented and prayed a prayer to God. After that point all through my childhood I remember seeing consistent fruit in my life. I think I probably became a Christian at the point. However, I did still have a lot of doubt all through grade school and junior high. I prayed the prayer of salvation almost every night. I think this was probably because although I had an understanding of the tenants of gospel I couldn’t clearly articulate it with scripture. It wasn’t until I got into a small discipleship group when I was in junior high that I became surer of my faith. In small group we systematically went through some different core truths. We discussed God and who He is, memorizing verses such as Gen 1:1: and Acts 17:24-27 showing God is the creator of the universe. We talked about man and his sins and memorized Rom 3:23, 6:23 and other such scripture related to our total depravity and inability to come to God. We dived into Christ’s death and redeeming work on the cross in John 3:16 etc… And finally we talked about how man through nothing in himself can accept this gift and memorized Eph 2:8-9. We also practiced role play situations and learned how to clearly articulate this to others. It was a wonderful experiencing bringing me to a more scriptural based understanding of my sanctification. I also learned the 5 points of Calvinism and their scriptural basis in junior high. This clear teaching at an early age built a foundation for the growth and struggle for sanctification I have seen since then.

How is photography a form of art?

lukas3.jpgPhotography is an art in one sense of the word in that it requires skills on a multiplicity of levels. The creation of fine art images requires technical speed and skill with the camera. It assumes understanding of the complexity of color and light and how to use and bend such to make an image bleed with color. It necessitates an ability to understand and capture or evoke emotion from the subject or situation. This is followed by the process of fine-tuning the hues, saturation, and overall feel in post processing. All of which is just a brief synopsis of the complex mental and emotional process which goes into the creation of images. In the above definition of the word “art” my aim is to create images which, I hope, will take on an objective quality of excellence.

But overlying the technical aspects of image creation my internal validation stems from a different goal. I think the following really defines photography or anything else as art. I strive to create images which bring people into a realm which they have not yet or currently are not experiencing. I want to introduce them to a reality outside the mundane, bending their emotions, and driving them to an action which otherwise may have never caressed their mind. My passion draws the fibers of my inner being to produce, create, and define people’s conception of reality with the truth of things which exist outside the mundane of their world. In the case of fine art portraiture this might be as simple as conveying expressions of love or joy between couples in a beautiful way. However, in the case of international photos essays I bleed to show people the existence of the church, and people’s lives around the world. A life exists within the people I photograph. A life behind their eyes. Yearning hearts exist beyond the stereotype we throw at one another. Though the appearance of a person I photograph often shows their personal manifesto towards life, it isn’t always fair to classify every individual within that social group as one holding to those ideals. Are they not still people? I want to bring the world beyond their conception of the ordinary into the unseen and unheard and unspoken of.

Is photography your only artistic outlet or do you enjoy creating other kinds of art as well?

lukas4.jpgAlthough I would consider myself weak in the area, I do enjoy writing. For the same reason as I love photography, I love creating visual pictures that move people to see the pleasure I find in so many things.

When did you first discover your abilities in photography and your love for it? Have you received any formal artistic education?

During high school and in my first year of college I had tinkered with a point and shoot camera and I guess someone liked my work and asked me to shoot their wedding. All of a sudden something snapped in me and I decided to go all out. It’s actually a lot of really amazing stories which would take to long to write here. But in the course of a few months I started working for another wedding photographer and ended up with a good set of professional equipment and was shooting like crazy. I took a few basic classes to learn how to shoot manual, use studio lighting, and some journalism related classes, but for the most part it’s just been thousands of hours of work. Looking at other images and absorbing the feel and what I like about them. Doing intense criticism on every aspect of my own work looking for any area I could improve, and adjusting pushing myself and learning. I shoot around 200,000 images a year right now. I love it!

How do you seek to bring glory to God through your art?

Well I think anyone from custodial to the corporate executive can bring glory to God through their work. It’s working with fervor, with excellence, with diligence, with a love for those around us which shines the light of Christ. But aside from the above I specifically seek to bring glory to God through art by building bridges from the mundane to the passionate. God has given each person an allotted amount of time in life. We all have the choice as to how we use this time. I strive to show images which make people want to act. It’s actually been really amazing over the last few months, I have been see how emotional God has created us, and really starting to understand more the joy, sorrow, and passion we can live our lives with. God has given us an amazing world.

Which of your photos or series of photos are your favorites? Why?

lukas2.jpgA few years ago I went to Berlin, Germany for a couple months to do some work with our missionaries over there. While I was there I started a project photographing extremely close face shots of the beggars all around the urban center of Berlin. A year later I did a second series of beggars in the heart of Mexico City, Mexico. I took all these images with a wide angle lens from within 18 inches of my subjects face. These are by far some of my favorite images. They are context free portraits of people’s eyes. All of these eyes have a story behind them which I don’t know now nor will ever know. They are representative of lives filled with love or hatred, dreams or despair, hope or misery. Each has a story, each has a reality, and each has a need for a savior. I currently have an entire wall in my office filled with 16x20 inch prints of this series. But I love any image which has emotional passions, from images of prayer meetings in the mud brick slums of Brazil, to a crowd of anxious Russian seminary students leaning over Rick Holland to hear about the Word.

What are your hopes and dreams for your photography? Do you hope to build this into a full time occupation?

My hope would be to use something I love to further the Gospel of Christ. Right now this is a two part goal. One I want to be able to impact people for ministry through visual images. Second I like it because it gives me the flexibility to volunteer my time for missions for months at a time when the need arises. And obviously those things don’t generate any income, but I LOVE shooting weddings, and portraiture, and commercial images also. So for now it is just expanding what I do in every direction!

February 03, 2008

Golden Fire

A little while ago I conducted a brief interview with Makoto Fujimura (makotofujimura.com). Fujimura is a New York-based artist who deals with a kind of art with which I have little familiarity. I first heard of him through an article written by Phil Ryken in which he describes visiting an exhibition featuring Fujimura’s work. I was intrigued by the examples of his art I saw through the internet and asked if he’d be willing to answer a few questions. He was kind enough to comply.

When did you first discover your love for art? Did you receive any formal artistic education? Who are your greatest influences in your art?

I grew up in a creative home (I was born in Boston, and grew up bi-culturally between Japan and US), my father being a research scientist, and my mother being a creative educator. Art was always part of my life, but it was not until I was in high school that I realized I had to protect my creative time, or it will be taken from me. I studied art in college (as part of a double major at Bucknell Universtiy), and received Japanese Governmental scholarship and ended up for six and a half years at a prestigious Nihonga program at Tokyo National University.

What kind of art do you primarily create?

My art is based on medieval technique and method of Japanese art now known as Nihonga. If you come to my exhibits in NYC, you will not only see paintings, but also video installations. I also do collaborations with musicians, and recently I became the first artist ever to paint live on stage at the Carnegie Hall. But I see my art as part of my life, my writings, my effort to help our church plant activities in NYC. To me, “art” is not just the product of what I produce, but the process of revealing the core of my humanity.

Tell us about how you came to know the Lord.

My new book River Grace (will be available via www.iamny.org) accounts for my journey to come to faith in Japan while as a graduate student. My wife had a lot to do with it. It was triggered by the experience of creating beauty but that same beauty exposed my emptiness within.

Eric Liddell, the great Scottish Olympian and missionary once said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Even in something as simple as running he felt the pleasure of God. Can you identify with that as you create works of art?

Absolutely. It’s the most intimate, worshipful experience to be alone in the studio and paint. I also resonate with Liddell, as I, too, feel that passionate call to share the love of Christ with others and be used to build the City of God.

Have you ever thought about what art will be like in the new heavens and new earth? Do you suppose you’ll be able to continue to create art for God’s glory for all eternity?

All the time…Art taps into the glory of the transcendent, and earthy, realities of the new heavens and new earth. Good art (whether created by Christians or non-Christians) should produce a longing for that reality.

Which of the works you’ve made so far are your favorites? Why?

I have a few paintings that I see as seminal works, such as Sacrificial Grace series in ‘98, exhibited at Dillon Gallery in NYC. I also did a series of works based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, as a response to 9/11 (I am a “Ground Zero” resident), and my most recent called Golden Flames painting is one of the most important works for me.

How do you seek to bring glory to God through your art?

By being faithful and resourceful to investment in refinement of the gifts given to me, to use my creativity to contribute to community around me. I believe that art is inherently is of and from God (remember that our God is THE Creator), though we twist the gift of creativity given to us. So if you are involved in creativity, you dwell near the heart of God. Of course that does not mean we have personal relationship with the Creator and thereby being able, via the Holy Spirit, to enjoy God’s presence that is revealed via our creativity.

Still Point

What are your hopes and dreams for your art? As you look to the future and allow yourself to dream a little bit, what would you like to see happen with your art?

I do want to be the best artist that I can be, to represent God’s grace in the world in my life as well as in the world. My effort to advocate for artists have grown into the International Arts Movement, a not-for profit arts organization that has a headquarter in New York City and chapters in Japan and elsewhere. We believe that God desires to re-humanize the world via the arts and creative expression, and we want to create a home for folks wrestling with deep issues of art, faith and humanity. Re-humanizing the world is a big, ambitious goal, and yet a goal that God calls all of us to participate in.

You may wish to learn more about Makoto Fujimura at makotofujimura.com.

January 21, 2008

A short time ago I had the opportunity to interview Max McLean. You may know McLean as the narrator of the Bible in the ESV, NIV or KJV or as the narrator of the audio version of The Valley of Vision. He has also released recordings of several Christian classics and has been involved in many stage productions. Most recently he has starred in a production of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in New York City (with the production moving to Washington this April). You can learn more about him at listenersbible.com.

My particular interest in interviewing McLean was in understanding how his genre of art—performance art—can bring glory to God. I also wanted to understand how being a member of a local church impacts his art.

Tell us a little bit about yourself—who you are and what you do?

I was born in Panama City, Panama and came to America via New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty at the age of four. The first thing he had to do was master the English language. Due to Dad’s military career, ‘home’ included many places across the continental United States, the Far East, and Europe.

Currently, I live in New Jersey just outside of New York City with my wife of 31 years, Sharon,. I have two lovely daughters Rachel, 27 who is married and lives in Long Beach CA with her new husband (she was just married last month) and Julia, 26, who lives in Hoboken NJ.

Sharon and I are members of Redeemer Presbyterian Church where we serve as fellowship group leaders and serve communion. I also lead the scripture reader’s ministry there.

Tell us how you came to be a Christian

It was in 1976, soon after graduating from college. I grew up a nominal Catholic and was quite interested, though frightened by the thought of God, when I was young. I made a clean break from anything to do w/ Christianity after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation when I was about 14. I dabbled a bit in eastern mysticism but nothing serious.

When I began to date my wife, Sharon, I knew she grew up in a strong Christian home and was a regular churchgoer. I didn’t understand it but since I was interested in her I would go along from time to time. She introduced me to some of her friends who were studying the Bible together. I felt compelled to attend one of their sessions which was unusual because I would never be interested in that. They had a guest teacher the night I was there, but I remember not being that engaged by the teaching. But I was drawn immediately to the scripture passages being read. I believe it was from Galatians 1. I remember the words of the text hit me as passionate and forceful. I had not been confronted by the power and insight of the Bible prior to that. From that moment God began to work in my life and convict me of my sin. At first I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t. Then I read John’s Gospel - in one sitting. As I read it, I could see and feel it in my mind’s eye. I thought Jesus was going to come right out of the pages of the Bible and take me with him. At his crucifixion I was in tears. But after the resurrection appearances, an inexplicable joy just overwhelmed my whole body. I knew this story was true and that my life would never be the same again.

When did you first discover your abilities in acting and your love for it? Have you received any formal education in this discipline?

I started acting in college as a way of overcoming my fear of being in front of people, sociophobia. I think people recognized my talent but they were also aware of how raw I was. I also needed a lot of voice work. My plan after college was to do post graduate work at a drama school in London. My “born again” experience which happened in the intervening months, did not derail those plans at all. In fact, I was more energized than ever. I knew God would use it, though I wasn’t sure how. I completed my post-graduate work in theater and then did some work on stage in Great Britain, New York and in regional theaters.

Within two years I was married with a child on the way. Before long I realized that an actor is really nothing more than a hired hand. His job is to brilliantly communicate other people’s ideas regardless of their intent. It was both demanding and unfulfilling. At the same time, God was calling me to Himself. He let me know that “you cannot serve two masters.” So I was compelled to leave the theater and acting altogether.

That left a huge void in my life. I didn’t know what I would do. To fill the void, I became much more active in my local church. My pastor preached the Bible with conviction. He also invited outstanding guest speakers to come in on a fairly regular basis. So I was exposed to great preaching and Bible teaching from the pulpit and also on tape. I found myself being so moved by the insight from their sermons and the conviction in their voices. The way they connected with the Bible and were able to inspire and exhort others was absolutely riveting. There was so much power coming out of their personal devotion to the Word of God.

This encouraged me to study the Bible more closely and gave me the desire to go to seminary. While at seminary I had an epiphany that would redirect the course of my life. A key faculty member discovered that I had a theatrical background and he encouraged me to use drama in ministry. At that time, drama in the church was starting to get some attention. But it was mostly sketches to illustrate sermons. I wasn’t motivated to go in that direction. Rather, the Lord inspired me to do something different. ‘Why not use the skills and techniques developed from acting and the theater, integrate it into what I had learned from preachers and teachers, and apply all of that into word for word dramatic presentations of the Bible?’

Well, it was an event waiting to happen. From the first time I presented the Bible in this way the impact was immediate and profound. Since then God has provided opportunities to present the Bible of all ages and across the religious and cultural spectrum in live presentations, on radio and on television to hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people.

That led to recording the Bible in three different translations (NIV, ESV & KJV), a radio ministry called Listen to the Bible that airs on 675 radio affiliates worldwide and doing one person shows of Mark’s Gospel, The Acts of the Apostles and Genesis. Over the years I’ve worked with and trained other solo artists who have gone on do such books of the Bible as John, Exodus, Revelation, and Daniel among others. Currently we are producing a stage adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters that opened off Broadway in New York City [and which is moving to Washington in April]. And we just released a new recording called Classics of the Christian Faith that includes The Conversion of St. Augustine (from Book Eight of His Confessions), Martin Luther’s Here I Stand, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and George Whitfield’s The Method of Grace. The idea is to introduce these extraordinary works to a contemporary audience.

What is Fellowship for the Performing Arts?

Fellowship for the Performing Arts (FPA) was incorporated in 1992 as a means to support my work of expressing faith through the dramatic arts. At the time I was on the road perhaps 150 to 200 nights a year and it was a tough way to live or to fulfill the vision God was calling me to. By starting FPA I could raise support, put my self on salary and be more strategic in fulfilling my vision.

The first thing we did was produce the NIV New Testament that has since grown into the Listeners Bible line in the ESV, KJV and NIV translations. Then we launched the daily radio program and last we started producing our dramatic presentations of the Bible into theatrical events in secular and collegiate venues in New York and around the country.

How do you seek to bring glory to God through performance art?

At the root of Christianity is the admission that this world is not what it ought to be, and at the heart of being a Christian is the confession that, “I am part of the problem.” Our vision is to select literature from the Bible and the treasury of Christian history that help us to see our predicament; and to move us toward a more humble understanding of ourselves and a closer relationship with God. For the theatre our vision is to select stories that explore how and why consequential choices are made, and to produce those stories in a manner that engages diverse audiences.

The great theatre critic, Harold Clurman, who started The Group Theatre in NY in 30’s and who really revolutionized the acting profession as a legitimate agent for social change wrote “make them laugh…and while their mouths are open pour truth in.” Of course he was referring to a political ideology that was important to him but the premise of the argument stands. In fact in rehearsals recently the director game me similar advice w/ regard to telling The Screwtape Letters ‘tell the story and the ideas will emerge. If you focus on the ideas you will lose the story and the audience.” Good advice.

In the biography at your web site you make it clear that you are an active member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Has being a member of a local church contributed to your understanding of your role as both a Christian and as an artist? How has being a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in particular helped your faith serve your art (or helped your art serve your faith)?

Well, in NYC with the idolatry of work and self glory so prevalent having a church community that preaches humility and working for the peace and prosperity of the city; “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” Proverbs 10:10 is absolutely critical. Redeemer, being an urban NYC church is filled with artists of all disciplines. It has at least two full time staff persons dedicated to serving and disciplining artists to grow in service and grace. Redeemer’s vision is committed to prayer, evangelism, social justice and cultural engagement through intense interaction w/ the gospel. And that rubs off if you are more than just an attendee. Being involved in small group leadership is grounding. So yes, Redeemer is a motivating, inspiring, correcting and challenging place to be if you are called to work as Christian in the arts.

You provide performances in which you combine narration and acting to bring dramatic expression to the Bible. What value does this kind of performance have? Can this help people come to a better understanding of Scripture?

I think so. Scripture says in Romans 10:17, faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ. Capturing that essence is the uniqueness of our ministry. Much of the Bible’s content was originally communicated orally. Jesus wrote no words that have been handed down to us. In Gal 4 Paul writes “how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone.” He wants them to hear his voice too truly understand the energy and weight behind his words. Just like a well written sermon is not really energized until it is spoken so is much of our understanding of the Bible. There is a level of insight that emerges when you hear the word that is often missed when you read it. Our desire is that our presentations not be an end in the themselves, but rather a catalyst that encourages folks to devote daily time in God’s Word.

What are your hopes and dreams in regards to your career? What roles would you like to play? What books or other content would you still like to record?

In terms of hopes and dreams I don’t believe I think that way. I am interested in fulfilling the calling God has for me. Working on The Screwtape Letters and getting Lewis’ amazing thoughts across in such an inverted, back handed way has been thrilling. I absolutely loved working on Martin Luther’s Here I Stand CD and would love to expand that into a full length theatrical production. I think Luther’s story is immensely appealing, contradictory, almost operatic in scope and touches on so many elements that still inform our world; not the least of which is grace and his understanding of the gospel. I definitely would like to see if we could tackle that story. As for the classic’s series. I loved working on Augustine and Edwards and would enjoy finding other great works of the past for CD recording. Currently I’m looking at recording a condensed version of Wilberforce’s Real Christianity and a representative sermon form Charles Spurgeon.