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Being A Religious Artist — Two Open Letter Responses

December 28, 2014

With their permission, I’m posting letters from Aerin Collett and Brandy Cattoor:

Circa winter of 2000/2001, when it was too cold to paint in the garage, I painted in the laundry room instead.

Circa winter of 2000/2001, when it was too cold to paint in the garage, I painted in the laundry room instead.


Aerin: Hi Kirk,

We met once at that Christmas show the church held in the JS building a few years ago.
I’ve been a fan for a long time. Mostly because I see someone painting not only what they love, but images of Christ. This has been my life’s ambition but I have felt held back because of the marketability of the subject matter. But I haven’t been satisfied selling what I’ve been painting. Would I be considered competition, and therefore shouldn’t ask for advice? I could greatly use some.

How do I get started being recognized as a religious painter? What am I looking for in ways of galleries? Are you more successful outside of Utah? How long did it take for you to build enough reputation to have your income sustainable?
I can use any advice you have time to give me.

Thank you for all you hard work and dedication, and for being an example of devotion.

Aerin Collett

Kirk: Hi Aerin. It’s great to hear from you. I don’t know if my advice will be helpful, but I’ll give you my two cents worth:

I welcome your questions. Art is not a competitive endeavor. Each artist develops a unique style and takes a unique path to gather a unique audience. There may be some overlap, but unless you’re persistently and overtly copying another artist’s style, the overlap is not competitive. Whenever I’ve needed advice or encouragement, artists have been generous with their time and knowledge.

Let me take one thing back. Actually, art is competitive, but the competition is with ourselves and against mediocrity. Does your work hold up next to excellent works of art through history in terms of craft and passion? Is it uniquely filtered through your personal lenses of experience, time and place? If you can say yes to these questions, you’re winning the competition.

J. Kirk Richards outside the Fugitive Art Center.

In 2001, we moved to Tennessee. I rented a small, partitioned studio space in an old, musty building called The Fugitive Art Center.

Much of the greater art world is secular, so whether or not to paint Christ and other overtly religious subjects can be a difficult decision. You’ll be shunned in some circles but embraced in others. You’ll be taken less than seriously by some galleries, critics, and museums, but championed in a select few. I had teachers discourage me from painting religious subjects. Put it off, they said, until you’re proficient in the language of painting—an approach which I now see as a mistake. It’s a mistake because there are many languages within painting; and within those, religious imagery is a unique subset. Craft and subject matter go hand in hand. An image of Christ needs certain things that a portrait of my neighbor doesn’t need—or a landscape, or a still life, or a secular figurative painting. Subject matter informs approach. In other words, jump in with both feet and paint the subjects you want to paint most, eagerly looking for aesthetic solutions that satisfy you and your audience.

The question of being recognized begins with the above-mentioned questions regarding the excellence and uniqueness of the work. It’s a good idea to start showing your best pieces in group art exhibits. “Best” here implies excellence in composition and execution, but also the direction in which you want your work to go for future pieces. If you have a painting that worked out great, but you don’t want your future work to move in that direction, it might be a good idea not to show that piece in a high profile exhibit. On the other hand, if you have a piece representative of what you like to do, but it didn’t turn out really great, don’t show it. Chances are it will be rejected from the show (which might happen anyway, art being as subjective as it is) and you’ll be frustrated. Borrow a great piece back from a collector, if necessary, to include it in a show.   I recommend submitting entries to the International Church Art Competition and the Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah exhibit. Also, phone in and get on the list for other exhibit calls for entry at the Springville Museum of Art, the Bountiful Davis Art Center, the Rio Gallery, and any other organization that might interest you. To sum up, regularly enter your best work in group shows.

Amy holding Maegan outside my studio door at the Fugitive Art Center in Nashville.

Amy holding Maegan outside my studio door at the Fugitive Art Center in Nashville, circa 2001.

Galleries? It took me seven years before I made a gallery connection that lasted. It’s easy to think: once I get into a gallery, my problems will be solved, because the gallery will take care of all promoting and selling, and I will focus on painting. My experience has led me to believe this approach works for very few artists. It’s better to think of a gallery as one of many tools at your disposal. In fact, if you can find success without a gallery by setting up your own solo shows/small group shows and selling online with websites and social media, it’s much more likely a gallery will hear the buzz surrounding your work and ask to represent you. Once that happens, your work to promote is not over—I can’t tell you how many sales I’ve handed to my galleries to keep momentum going, much to my wife’s chagrin.   Often the collaborative efforts between the gallery and the artist are necessary to make progress happen. Having your own personal client base will facilitate an easier transition to working with a gallery. My short list of things to look for in a gallery: the staff is excited about my work; they respect my artistic vision; they pay me in a timely manner; they’re honest; they don’t try to own me—in other words they’re content to be one of many baskets my eggs are in; and bonus points if they’re located outside my home town where I prefer to do my own selling. My short list of artist responsibilities toward a gallery: create work specifically for the gallery and don’t sell the work before it gets to the gallery; commit the work for a set period of time and send your personal clients to the gallery to purchase those works during that time period; send the transaction back to the gallery if a gallery client comes to you personally; try to avoid underselling the gallery by keeping your personal retail prices comparable to gallery prices and avoiding deep discounts.

Most of what I do is in Utah, though many of my clients are outside of Utah. I ship paintings regularly to Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia. I just shipped one to United Arab Emirates. This out-of-state clientele is partly the result of the unglamorous practice of occasionally taking my show on the road—setting up makeshift art shows in acquaintances’ out-of-state homes. I’ve gained friends and clients through these types of shows, making it well worth the trouble. I’ve typically done one of these road trips per year.

How long did it take to have a sustainable income? Amy and I kept our expenses low from the outset, so I could spend my full-time work hours painting. We lived in a basement apartment for two years and rented out the top of the house to cover rent. We lived with Amy’s parents for the two years that followed. We did whatever we could to not spend money while I figured out where my style was going and what I wanted my art to become. I was making art full time but producing only about twenty paintings per year. There were moments of financial strain, but we made it through. We even made it through the economic recession, at which point I felt financial pressure and put my hobbies aside to really focus on painting. Soon I was finishing one hundred paintings per year, and then two hundred. Many of the paintings were small and quick, making it easy for me to finish them and easy for others to afford them. And when a big painting sold, it put us that much further ahead. Hiring studio assistants helped increase my output and my focus. I’ve been a full time painter for fifteen years, and things really started to take off when I started producing more, about five or six years ago. But those first ten years were essential, because they established a foundational client base and work history.

Amy and Maegan in my rented studio space at the Fugitive Art Center, Nashville.

Amy and Maegan in my studio at the Fugitive Art Center, Nashville.

I apologize for my somewhat scattered responses. I hope there is some useful information in here somewhere. There are other articles on this blog–though somewhat dated–with more information, such as a calendar showing what I regularly do as a career artist, information on pricing work, etc.

Aerin, I wish you success! Let me know if you need clarification on anything I’ve mentioned here. Also, if you’re interested in free master classes, group feedback, workshops etc, please visit the educational part of my website

God bless!


In 2009, the Springville Museum hosted a solo exhibition of my paintings.

In 2009, the Springville Museum hosted a solo exhibition of my paintings. Photo credit Jed Wells.

Brandy: I’m an artist in Denver. I’m wondering if you could give me some advice. I want to put together a series of works centering around the plan of salvation. I’ve made a prototype, but have much more work to do, and hope to exhibit or display in the church here in Denver, for investigators and members (basically the public). Do you have advice on doing something like this? I plan on elaborating on the pre-existence, birth, earth, death, fall, veil, Jesus Christ as the savior, judgement, etc. I feel like eloquent drawings would be suitable as a finished product. Thinking to do them in large scale. Anyway, I’m seeking advice on planning, execution, places to exhibit (would a church allow this, for non-profit?), and a delicate way to show the human form, yet not hide it. Anyway, I’d appreciate any thoughts. Suggestions on the prototype, etc. I’d really appreciate your advice. I’ve followed your work for a few years, have a nice print in my home, and appreciate your approach to art.

Kirk: Hi Brandy. Sounds like such a cool project! I’m so excited to see what you do. You’ve hit the nail on the head–the hard part may be finding a place to show the work. There are potentially elements that might make the work great artistically, but disqualify it from exhibiting within a church building. In the end, you’ll have to get permission from local church leaders, and it will pretty much depend on their judgment. My recommendation is to make the work as moving as possible–envision the most powerful images you can, execute them impeccably–make sure the lighting feels natural and dramatic, make sure the figures are well rendered, even if it’s loose. In short, make great images free of external concerns. Don’t make it for a church building. Make it powerful for all of God’s children. Once the work is done, a place will appear (though it may take continued effort) for you to exhibit the work. I’ve always believed that if I did great work, the place to show it would appear.

Let me know how it goes!


What Good Is Art?

May 31, 2014
Lux Condivis, detail, by J. Kirk Richards

Lux Condivis, detail, by J. Kirk Richards

When I finished college almost fifteen years ago, I was, perhaps, overconfident. ‘The world out there desperately needs what I have to offer,’ I thought. ‘Especially the religious art world. I’m destined to be God’s gift to this community. I’m going to change the world.’

Ha ha!

It didn’t take long for me to realize that not everyone was in love with what I was doing. Some people frankly disliked my images, which was disheartening, frustrating, but perhaps for the best: humbling. I managed my expectations and learned to appreciate the small but growing fraction of the population that paid attention to my developing body of work. Lucky indeed, I came to realize, is the artist that finds even a small audience who cares.

Fifteen years and a thousand paintings later, (I just celebrated my 1000th career painting! And yet,) sometimes I wonder. What good is art? What value am I bringing to the world? Is it worth it? Is it making any difference? There are so many real issues in the world. The vast oceans of power and circumstance forever undulate, carrying some people great distances and turbulently swallowing others. At great cost, a few brave individuals offer themselves as sacrificial lambs for the cause of justice and right, while many are content to ride where the tide takes them.

Temptation, detail, by J. Kirk Richards.

Temptation, detail, by J. Kirk Richards.

Where does my small voice fit in to the great ongoing drama of the human race? Without pretending to have arrived at an overarching response to these questions, let me offer a few thoughts:

1. Art brings humanity. I credit one of my heroes, Gary Ernest Smith, for recently reminding me of this idea. Art brings humanity. In unique ways, art in its many forms reminds us of our potential–that we have so much more capacity to fulfill the measure of our creation. We’re reminded to be compassionate, empathetic, and merciful–not reminded through preaching, but rather through feeling. Good art, good performances, good writing, remind us that the world is full of opposing forces, and that choosing the right is not always an obvious or easy task. Good art can take people with vastly differing ideals and lead them to agreeable conclusions—enable them to feel the same feelings. Art reflects life; and good art doesn’t shove a message down the proverbial throat, but raises profound questions and suggests possibilities—the way that life does. Good art doesn’t dictate our thoughts, but rather stirs emotions within us and makes us want to change–to take chances, to forgive, to make the world a better place. Even the most simple painting or poem has the capacity to make us see anew—to understand God’s hand in the every day. Art brings humanity.

Save Me From My Demons, by J. Kirk Richards

Save Me From My Demons, by J. Kirk Richards

2. Art creates a safe place to deal with the dark. Bad things happen in life–so bad, for some people, they can’t talk about it. They keep it bottled up deep down inside. I’m no psychologist, but even as a young student in public school, we were taught the idea of catharsis, of the purging of emotions—an idea as ancient as Aristotle. Art (film, theater, literature) evokes within us a wide range of emotions. Often the hero undergoes dramatic events that may outweigh the seriousness of our own experience. And yet those events echo our own comparably small experiences with parallel emotions. To internalize exaggerated emotion through vicarious artistic experience allows us to understand, overcome, and perhaps communicate about our own emotions and experience. Art is a safe place to deal with the dark. Of course, as parents, we naturally feel protective of our children. We want to shield them from the dark by over-censoring their media. And yet, we often don’t know what pain, shame, embarrassment, fear, and any number of other emotions they may be hiding. To shield them from art that deals with these emotions is to deprive them of catharsis. To shield ourselves from great art is to deprive ourselves of healing and understanding. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be judicious about what media we feed our children–Amy will tell you I refuse to watch movies that straddle suspense and horror, and I’m not keen on violent video games. Too much censoring, though, may be like putting a band aid on the surface of someone suffering from heart disease. Life inevitably brings emotionally deep wounds that can benefit from deep catharsis of emotion. If in our own lives we don’t experience these deep wounds, art can help us understand the wounds of our fellow men, women, and children. Art creates a safe place to deal with the dark.

3. Art can recognize and be thankful for the good. I love something Will Smith said a few weeks ago: “The thing is to make sure with your art your art is a gift to people to help their lives be better and to be brighter[…]it’s like you’re trying to help people just get through a day[…]” Amy and I have collected a number of works by other artists. I love the spirit of the artist within each piece. I love the beauty of these works. They help me get through the day. They help me love life. Art can recognize and be thankful for the good.

So, what good is art? And more specifically, What good is your art? May I suggest your art is one of God’s many gifts to the world? The difference it makes may seem small. You don’t know what darkness your dear friends are struggling with. You don’t know that strangers you’ve never met have been moved by something you created. You don’t know what catharsis you’ve facilitated for the overwhelmed, or what empathy you’ve encouraged in the comfortable.

Fifteen years of painting has taught me that what we create doesn’t hold meaning for everybody. But for those lucky enough to pay attention, our art means the world.

2014: The Year of Making Art

December 30, 2013


If you’ve wanted a jump-start to do more painting in 2014, join me for a free painting demonstration on New Year’s Day. The demo will be broadcast live beginning at 1pm MST at

Here’s a list of materials I’ll be using:

-A panel to paint on, lightly sanded and coated with gesso
-A mirror (we’ll be working on a self-portrait)
-Brush cleaner
-Paper towel or rag
-Palette loaded with paint. I usually use Rembrandt brand, but you can use whatever you’ve got. My colors are, from left to right: raw umber, transparent brown oxide, burnt sienna, raw sienna, Naples yellow, titanium white, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium orange, cadmium red deep, permanent madder deep (or alizarin crimson), ultramarine blue deep, and black. If you don’t want to get all of these colors, you can get by with burnt sienna, raw sienna, white, and black.
-A variety of brushes: a cheap chip brush, a few larger bristle brushes, a few fine sable brushes, and a fan brush.

See you in 2014!


How To Treat Your Studio Help: A Message from Kirk’s Art Assistant

November 18, 2013

Today I’m turning my blog over to one of my studio assistants. At the risk of incriminating myself, I’ve asked Brooke to tell us what makes for a good employment experience for a studio assistant or intern. Here’s Brooke:

Brooke working on Triumphal Entry in the studio.

Brooke working on Triumphal Entry in the studio.


Hello! My name is Brooke Mann, and I just graduated from Brigham Young University majoring in Illustration. I’ve been working part time here with Kirk in his studio for about 7 months now, and I have really loved it. Let me tell you what makes it most enjoyable for me . . .

1. A Variety of Projects

Obviously, any person who chooses to work as an assistant to an artist does so because he or she loves art. And I do! I love it. It is so fun for me to work in a place surrounded by beautiful art – paintings, drawings, sculptures, and book illustrations. School was a great place to keep learning and keep getting inspired, but work provides a place for that now. It’s great to be around art that inspires me and teaches me about what I can do better. Artists are always encouraged to look at new art, study the masters, visit galleries, find out what they like and don’t like, etc.

Professor Monstro, by Brooke Malia Mann

Professor Monstro, by Brooke Malia Mann

If you want to keep your art assistants happy, expose them to all sorts of art projects. Most human beings I know love variety. We love broadening our horizons, learning new skills, and trying new things. It makes us feel good and well-rounded. I love it when Kirk has me doing all sorts of things, not just art. I’ve learned how to edit video and prepare artwork by working with wood instance! (I feel seriously cool now that I’m a girl who can work saws and lots of tools.) I struggle a little when I am doing the same, tedious assignment all day.

2. Learning and Practicing New Skills

Another wonderful thing is the practice. Kirk lets me work on paintings before he puts on the finishing touches. He also lets me sketch them out at the beginning and then clean up and prepare digital files at the end. All of this is wonderful practice that may be a little different from what I do on my own art at home. Artists have to be constantly (seriously constantly!) practicing to keep their skills up. The more you practice, the more naturally it comes and the skills get engraved into you. For example, honestly, I used to struggle with photoshop because I didn’t use it broadly enough. However, since working here, I’ve been practicing so much that I don’t think I will soon forget how to use the tools. I feel very confident with it.

Brooke adding gold leaf to a series of Angels for the Beehive Bazaar

Brooke adding gold leaf to a series of Angels for the Beehive Bazaar

3. Give Feedback

Teach us and give us advice. Sure, it’s good to let us ask questions, but we don’t always know what questions to ask! You have great value because of your experience. We want to learn from you. Kirk is a nice guy and always compliments what I do. I would be happy to hear some critiques from him every once in a while. If he told me what I could be doing better or if he said, “try it like this,” then that would also be preparing me for the harshness of the real world. [“Side note–sorry Brooke. I’ll work on that.” – Kirk]

4. Connections and Opportunity

Enabling me in my own career makes me motivated and excited to work for my boss’s career. I love my job. Kirk asked me what he could do to help me and I mentioned publicity. One of his suggestions was this blog post, which helps both of us. Hopefully some of the information here will help you too.


Illustration by Brooke Malia Mann

Here’s a link to my own art. It’s very different from Kirk’s (I do almost purely stuff for kids), but I think that’s why work doesn’t burn me out. Please take a look! And of course, keep following Kirk too.

Brooke Mann

Everything I Ever Learned About Art

November 4, 2013


People ask me all the time, ‘Do you teach lessons?’ ‘When’s your next workshop?’

I feel some tension about teaching. I like to teach. I promised God if He’d help me figure out how to make a living as an artist, I’d pass it along through teaching. But still, tension. I haven’t been good at developing a consistent teaching effort. I like my privacy in the studio. At times, students don’t seem serious about learning, and motivating them doesn’t come naturally to me. Plus, I think it’s important for young artists to learn from a variety of artists rather than becoming a disciple of one. And it seems the most serious of young artists teach themselves by looking at art and often disregard what their teachers have to say. And can you really pull genius out of someone? Is it something that’s either there or it isn’t? So, tension.

But a couple of things happened to me recently. First, I was asked to present on teaching via the internet at the Dixie Business of Art in Kanab, (which, by the way, is this weekend–so come.) That made me think, ‘I guess I’d better do some teaching if I’m going to present on it.’ Second, I had someone come show me their work after having taken an online course I offered through I was so impressed with the progress she had made in her painting skills through taking the course, and I was encouraged. It made me remember so many victories with so many students in my past.

imagelesson1aWell, if you’ve been following my Instagram feed, you may know about my new project–documenting everything I ever learned about art. This promises to be a slow and painstaking project for me. If you click on this link, you’ll see in the left hand column a long list of demo videos I plan to create and post online. I’m reaching back to the beginning, and choosing exercises I did way back when I was young that still have some bearing on what I do as an artist today. Much of this content will not be new or groundbreaking. I hope, however, to build a progressive group of exercises that build on one another to take a young artist (of any age) from fundamentals to eventual freedom of expression. I hope to focus on principles and general techniques in order to give artists a lot of tools, both in discipline and expression, so they don’t become copies of me, but rather find their own paths. I remember when I finally had enough skills to accomplish what I wanted to in a painting. It was like I could finally breath.

If you decide to delve into some of my new demo videos at, and you make it to the end of a video, you’ll see how I really feel about teaching–and more specifically about the teachers who taught me. They truly opened my eyes and pulled out whatever latent genius there might have been in a young, stubborn, and sometimes less than responsive art student. I’m so grateful for their patience and expertise.

And now I’m going to motivate you. You CAN do it. Push past those mental blocks. It’s worth it. Most artists give up or fall into a rut way too early. All it takes to go further is to work harder and be more persistent and try new things. Most people don’t. You can. Absolutely you can.

So when is my next workshop? It’s right now, on your computer. New videos are free for a week or two once they are posted. And if you’d like to be notified of live workshops, please email me at jkirk(at) and I’ll put you on the list.

So You Made A Bad Painting?

October 6, 2013

It seems like there are a few superstar artists out there who never make a mistake. Every painting, drawing, or sculpture seems flawless–perfect strokes, perfect gestures, perfect anatomy; perfect temperatures, perfect manipulation of the picture plane, plus a composition to die for.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be that good. Why do I even try? What’s the point of making art if a lot of what I create is far from perfect? People will see my mistakes. I probably shouldn’t put my work out there until the day I don’t make so many mistakes.

If you’re like me, you’ve had these thoughts run through your head many times. And those impulses can be useful. Being your own toughest critic can push your work to new levels of creativity and craftsmanship. Carefully placing your best work in public shows can drive expectation (your own and your clients’) and open career opportunities again and again. But it’s easy to let those impulses get the better of us. We all know artists who put off promoting their own work because of self doubt until finally their dreams of an art career fall by the wayside.

When my own bad work gets me down, I remember two things:

Leonardo da Vinci's John the Baptist in the Louvre.

Leonardo da Vinci’s John the Baptist in the Louvre.

First, a visit to the museum of the Louvre. One of the paintings there, of course, is the Mona Lisa–arguably the most famous painting in the world. As I worked my way through the museum crowds to catch a glimpse of the painting, the critic in me expected to be disappointed. It couldn’t possibly be everything it’s cracked up to be. And then I saw it. It was perfect. Unbelievably perfect. Wow, Mr. Da Vinci! How did you do that? But down the hall is another painting by Da Vinci: a painting of John the Baptist. I saw it and it didn’t move me. Not that it’s horrible–it has some of the same marks of genius, the brilliant sfumato that make the Mona Lisa such a standout piece. But the figure of John the Baptist seems to lack structure and understanding of anatomy, and the finger ends on such an abrupt point as to lead the eye to a black hole. It seems ghostly and makes me think Da Vinci spent all his time on the face–pasting the feminine visage he painted on previous works into an otherwise bland composition. It made me wonder, how could the quintessential renaissance man, the creator of the most famous painting in the world–how could he have also created THIS? Well, there could be a lot of reasons, and I’ll resist the urge here to venture a guess. (And you may disagree with my critical analysis of the painting.) That said, my point is: Leonardo Da Vinci had a bad painting. Probably many. And this wasn’t one of his early paintings. It was one of his last paintings. BUT he also had one of the most perfect and celebrated paintings in the world. That gives me hope.

The second thing I remember is an interview I once saw with Brad Pitt (and this was a long time ago, so I hope I remember it correctly.) When asked about working with Edward Norton on the movie Fight Club, Mr. Pitt talked about what an excellent and consistent actor Edward Norton is. In contrast, Brad considered himself to be hit and miss. One take might be totally off, but another take might bring just the right result. What a relief! Someone as successful as Brad Pitt owns inconsistency. And aren’t we glad he persists in his career regardless? I am glad.

A favorite art teacher once pointed out that work of Bouguereau, worshiped by many as the most skilled painter to ever paint, was relegated to a back corner of many museums. And, according to my teacher, rightly so–because above all, the skill of Bouguereau’s work often overshadowed its content. In a time when painters were taking up social causes and revolutionizing art for art’s sake, Bouguereau was simply being the most skilled. He represented the pinnacle of a tradition that would soon become irrelevant to the art world around him. Now I fully expect this idea to bring down the ire of many contemporary academicians and classical devotees. And I’m convinced that Bouguereau’s work will only become more popular and revered over time. AND, I don’t think my teacher was urging his pupils not to develop skill. Rather, he urged us not to court skill at the expense of meaningful content and experimentation. How many slick works of art without error or risk have fallen into obscurity? Many. Just because a work is perfect doesn’t mean it is moving–doesn’t mean it will rally the human soul. Searching and experimenting are important ingredients. And searching breeds inconsistency. Experimentation breeds bad work in search of the best work.

So you made a bad painting? Well, you’re probably on the right track.

Defense Against the Dark Arts (Or, why Harry Potter and Carl Bloch should not make temple art)

June 23, 2013

Background detail from Bloch's Pool of Bethesda.

Background detail from Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda.

Let me preface all statements in this post by saying my intention is not to murmur. I believe true sustaining of leaders means contemplating, praying, sometimes struggling, and sometimes voicing an honest opinion; and I guarantee, the feelings outlined in this article are felt by many faithful artists.


A friend recently made a comment in a church meeting comparing the dark experience of European cathedrals with the light experience of LDS temple worship. I’m sure he didn’t state it even close to the way I heard it, which was ‘light art by our people, good; dark art by other people, bad.’ This is particularly painful to me, because I aspire to create works of art as moving as those by Bastien-Lepage, Georges de la Tour, Rouault, and countless others whose works draw pilgrims from all over the world precisely because they are so moving.

Foreground detail from Bloch's Pool of Bethesda.

Foreground detail from Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda.


The Church is making an effort to put more original art in temples. That’s super exciting! I’m in love with this idea. As an artist who has repeatedly promised to consecrate my talents to the Church, this seems like an ideal opportunity to exercise those promises. I have, in fact, received several letters, emails, and phone calls inviting me to participate in this effort. “If we could,” they say, “we’d have Carl Bloch paint all of the art in the temples.” My heart beats faster and I imagine the possibilities. And then I hear the details. Apart from the fact that all images made for temples are restricted from being reproduced and offered to a wider audience, there are a number of artistic requirements that make my blood boil, and partly because they would disqualify even the great Carl Bloch. Let me outline three of those requirements here:

Foreground detail from Bloch's Pool of Bethesda.

Foreground detail from Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda.


This means no loose or washy backgrounds, no simplification of form, no reducing to principle or symbol. When I was contemplating submitting a proposal for a temple painting, a hero of mine and temple art veteran assured me “you’ll have to overpaint and noodle the life out of it.” Okay. Maybe those were the words I heard and not the words he said. But pretty close. Now take a look at the three details from Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda. Amazing how abstracted and simplified they are. I bet most of us hadn’t even noticed the guy on his hand shoes in the lower left corner of the painting. And it’s pretty bold of Carl Bloch to leave the man under the blanket so underfinished. Bold and moving, precisely because it heightens the tension between sickness and health, between light and dark.


First of all, why would an artist do this? Let me just give a few quick thoughts. Silhouetting Christ in shadow brings a feeling of reverence, much like not showing His face in the movie Ben Hur shows reverence. Depicting Christ in shadow is a compositional device used by artists to take away distracting details and heighten the importance and drama of the scene. It also allows light to emanate around Him. It doesn’t mean He’s evil, or the source of darkness. Surely He who descended below all things and experienced the greatest emotional and physical darkness might be depicted in the shadow, representing His connection to all mankind by virtue of His suffering and atonement. One of my favorite pieces from the recent BYU Museum of Art show of Carl Bloch’s work was his Daughter of Jairus. Notice how Christ is depicted mostly in shadow, and how this allows the light to emanate from around him.

Carl Bloch's Daughter of Jairus

Carl Bloch’s Daughter of Jairus

Now take a look at this Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt, not to mention this popular painting of Christ walking on the water. Perhaps the former example might come off a bit spooky in the estimation of some, but the device itself is strikingly gorgeous:



In other words, the person must be healed and happy–not anticipating the healing. The storm must have completely passed. The following reasoning was explained to me (by a dear friend, I might add, and champion of my work:) ‘People come to the temple to seek peace. Often they are going through some struggle in their life, and so we want the art in the temple to bring them peace.’ My concern with this idea is it disqualifies any atonement painting, not to mention two of our favorites, Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda and his Daughter of Jairus. Note particularly in these two paintings, how the tension, the anticipation of being healed, is what makes the paintings so powerful. If, as my friend suggested, we come to the temple to seek peace and healing, won’t we relate to artwork that explores the anticipation of peace and healing rather than work that barely acknowledges any suffering? Think of the symbols in the endowment. The ones that move me the most refer specifically to Christ’s suffering. I am moved to hope by pieces when I look at them and say “I’m trying to get to Christ. I’m in need of healing. That’s me in that painting.”

According to Mormon teachings, our spiritual journey is one of experience, opposition, and learning. Indeed, if we’re meant to grapple with problems of eternal and universal scope and learn to be as God is, why would we want to reduce everything to a nice, happy, light package? Because of my title (which was really just a writing device to get your attention) I feel slightly duty-bound to mention Harry Potter here. Those stories are dark and full of tension, and yet they effectively communicate the idea of grappling with problems of good and evil. No story, least of all the story of the great plan of salvation, can be adequately addressed by only depicting the end of act three. All of the standard works, including the Book of Mormon, are packed with conflict from page 1 all the way to Moroni’s promise.

Carl Bloch's Pool of Bethesda

Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda

Okay, okay, okay. So you ask, but is the temple the right place? We don’t want the art to distract from the thing of real importance–the individual spiritual experience. And I agree. I went to the Nauvoo temple, and was quite distracted by the murals because they were painted by six heroes of mine. I couldn’t focus on anything else, I was so enamored with those murals. The flip side of that is, I get distracted by bland and mediocre paintings in temples as well. If I have to be distracted, please make it an excellent distraction!

Now you know what a state I’m in. Please forgive me if I have offended in any way. My hope is simply to get everyone to think more analytically about art, and perhaps to see things they haven’t seen before. As for Harry Potter and Carl Bloch, there may be more appropriate places for them aside from the temple. Perhaps the BYU Bookstore.


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