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Greg Olsen, Liz Lemon Swindle + More Share What It Is Like to Portray the Savior in Art

Of all the subjects to paint or draw, there are perhaps none weightier than Jesus Christ, the Lord Almighty. Never before has there existed a being as complex as He—who encompasses the complete spectrum of divinity and mortality. He is an advocate and judge, king and servant, brother and friend. He is an advocate and judge, king and servant, brother and friend. He has created countless worlds and has counted each of His creations—even the sparrows. But there are those who have taken on the challenge of depicting the Messiah, including these seven Latter-day Saint artists. Drawing from their personal relationships with Him, they create artwork that touches hearts and brings others closer to their Savior. Here are their insights.

Greg Olsen

Even a Sparrow

“Somehow, through Him, I see myself differently, I see those around me differently, and I see His light in other people and in the world around me,” Greg Olsen says of his experience painting the Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Part of Jesus’s mission was to be a template to show us what was possible in our own lives—to reveal the divinity in each of us,” Olsen explains. He adds that as the Savior went about His ministry, “He was so often revealing the divinity in those around Him and showing us how we should view the world and how we should see ourselves.”

Olsen captures this higher perspective in his painting, Even a Sparrow. To the artist, this painting changes the way he thinks about God's creations. “We really are connected,” Olsen says. “We all have life because of the light of Christ. That’s what permeates all of us; that’s what gives us breath; that’s what gives us life. And that’s in these little sparrows, and somehow that connectivity gives [the Savior] the capacity to be aware, to be loving, to be concerned about even a little sparrow. Every one of us ought to feel assured that He’s connected with you and me, that He’s aware, that He loves us, that there’s nothing going on in our lives that He is not aware of and interested in.”

Find more from Greg Olsen on deseretbook.com.

Liz Lemon Swindle

Image courtesy of Liz Lemon Swindle

It has taken popular religious artist Liz Lemon Swindle time to find peace with her ability to paint Jesus Christ. “In the beginning, I wrestled with all kinds of doubt," she shares. "I would hear some criticism and go into a deep funk. I would compare myself to other artists in the community and feel like I was coming up short.” She continues, “I feel the responsibility I and other artists carry. The images we create will impact generations. Some people form their personal image of Jesus based partly on what our paintings portray. That is a sobering reality.” 

That being said, Swindle also recognizes that “you have to appreciate your talent and trust it. When I started [painting Christ], I was determined to paint the universal Christ. I would run myself ragged trying to please everybody. Then I finally realized that my opinion mattered to my Heavenly Father—that I wasn’t given this talent to represent everyone else’s idea of who Christ is. That’s when I could start painting from my heart and my spirit, because I think our individual spirits have enormous capacity to do more if we will let them.”

As Swindle has continued to paint her Savior, her love and understanding of her role as an artist have grown. She shares, “The first thing I see every morning when I open the door to my studio are the paintings of Jesus on my easels. The room is quiet, peaceful, and safe, as if someone has stood guard over it while I was away. I say that because every night before I go home, I ask Heavenly Father to protect [this space].”

Swindle had a turning point in career and discipleship as she kept track of the special experiences with her Savior that came through her art. “I realized my relationship with Jesus Christ started to change from artist to friend when I wanted to keep those [sacred] feelings close to my heart, not broadcasting them casually. There are experiences I love to share—the trick is knowing what not to share.”

She concludes, “I am the only one qualified to portray my image of Jesus Christ. No one can do that for me and I can’t do that for anyone else. My hope is that what I create will spark others' thoughts on Jesus, giving them the opportunity to begin and nurture their own relationship with Him.”

Find more from Liz Lemon Swindle on deseretbook.com.

Dan Wilson

Image courtesy of Dan Wilson

At the beginning of his artistic career, Dan Wilson concentrated primarily on the technical execution of painting and less on the emotional pull. “I was just painting whatever,” says Wilson, “and it was all about being 100 percent correct in shapes, values, edges, color.” That changed the first time he attempted to paint the Savior.

“It was honestly probably one of the first paintings that I put a lot of my emotion into,” Wilson says. But he didn’t stop there. As he continued to try his hand at painting the Savior and distributed the finished products to friends and neighbors, Wilson recognized the impact that these paintings had on their viewers. “The Spirit hit me really strong at that point,” Wilson says, “and I knew that I’m not supposed to paint just to paint, but I’m supposed to be uplifting people with images that can remind [them] of their discipleship, their beliefs—that can remind them of the reasons why they’re living.”

However, Wilson is quick to point out that painting with emotion doesn’t mean he has sacrificed the technical aspects from his training. “When I paint Him, I want to do Him justice; I want to do the best that I possibly can,” he says. As Wilson has worked to interweave emotion and technique, he feels his paintings have come alive. Once, while painting a portrait of the Savior in a crown of thorns, Wilson was checking the details. He recalls, “I was critiquing myself, and one time I backed up and I was looking at my painting, and all of a sudden I didn’t feel like the artist critiquing myself any more. I felt like I was looking at the Savior. And I just felt the Spirit bearing testimony to me that He really did wear that crown of thorns; He really did [perform] all those miracles that are spoken of in the Bible; He really did pay the consequence of my sins. He really did die and take out death.” And though intense spiritual experiences don’t happen every time Wilson paints, he says, “when it does happen, it makes it all worth it. And hopefully, that is an experience that the viewers can get out of viewing my painting.”

Rose Datoc Dall

Where Are Those Thine Accusers?

Image courtesy of Rose Datoc Dall

Rose Datoc Dall sees Christ in the “in-between moments”—the moments just before and after a major event, the moments in which we can see sides of the Savior and His ministry that we otherwise would not see.

“Most of our lives are built up of ordinary moments, not all amazing events,” Dall says, explaining her fascination with the small moments. She has found that in the sea of New Testament paintings, it is often the major events in the Savior’s life that are portrayed. And although she recognizes that those events are certainly worthy of depicting, she fears that they have become commonplace. “I approach [traditional scenes] with a mixture of hesitation and trepidation,” Dall says, “because there are a lot of paintings out there. We see [an image of Christ], we know what it’s about, and we just miss [its significance]. So what I try to bring to it is a fresh perspective.” In Dall’s opinion, this fresh perspective should add something personal and genuine and do more than acknowledge the occurrence of an event.

In her painting Where Are Those Thine Accusers? (pictured above), Dall depicts the familiar incident with the woman caught in adultery but focuses on the scene after the accusers were reprimanded and began filing away. One by one, they leave the woman standing in Christ’s presence as He continues to draw in the sand. “The reason I put Christ in the foreground, writing in the sand still,” says Dall, “is that there’s something nonthreatening about His posture. He’s not lording over her. He’s trying to convey to her that ‘Yes, I am your judge, but I’m a compassionate one.’” With the men fading away and the two striking figures in the foreground, this painting is meant to convey that one-on-one sense. “This painting is about the Atonement,” Dall says. “If you bring all your sins to Him, He’s the one. It’s between you and Him. It’s not between you and the rest of the world. Everything else should fade away.”

Find more from Rose Datoc Dall on deseretbook.com.

J. Kirk Richards

J. Kirk Richard’s painting styles are as varied as they are striking. And interestingly enough, the styles that have garnered the most attention over the years are those that are the least detailed. But Richards has an answer for why this is the case. He shares, “[The] abstract nature [of the paintings] leaves room for viewers to see the art as a symbol and to project their own ideas about who Jesus is and what He might look like. [The paintings remind] us of the role of faith in the process of coming to know Christ.”

Richards is very careful with his style and approaches each painting of Christ differently, feeling his way through. “I hope to capture even a small fraction of the sublime beauty of Spirit of the Lord, to help the viewer feel that Spirit,” Richards says. This intensive process, he explains, “involves digging deep—combining some visual material from the natural world with imagination, with historical archetypes.” Richards requires this imagination in his paintings because, he says, “I’ve never found a perfect model that I can simply copy. There is mystery in spiritual themes that can’t be found in copying nature.”

It is perhaps this spiritual mystery that creates the greatest challenge for Richards when he paints. The hardest part of depicting the Savior, he says, is “imbuing the work with the myriad of feelings and characteristics people hope to see in Him: perfect love, knowledge, wisdom, mercy and justice, strength and empathy, etc.” Though Richards recognizes that people have a long list of characteristics they expect to see in a depiction of Christ, he will sometimes defy those expectations. He explains, “I hope to make people think about Jesus in a different light—to consider things they’ve never considered before.”

Find more from J. Kirk Richards on deseretbook.com.

David Bowman

Image courtesy of David Bowman

After reading 3 Nephi 17, David Bowman was inspired to create a visual representation of Christ’s true personality. “If you read that chapter,” he says,” you get a glimpse of Christ’s personality—who He is and His expressions.” When Bowman looked at different representations of Christ, he felt that Christ was portrayed stiffly, appearing stoic and removed. But this cold, standoffish look was far from what Bowman believed His Savior to look like. Thus began Bowman’s Expressions of Christ series.

“I wanted to put an expression or a look that [emanates] His deeper qualities.” As Bowman drew, he attempted to capture those qualities by zooming in on the details instead of the big picture. As he puts it, “I said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to get an expression; I’m not going to get those big scenes with the waterfalls and the mountains and all those things. I want to get right on the face to catch that expression—and that radiates.’”

One piece in the series, Home (pictured above), portrays what Bowman describes as the joyous and laughing reunion of the Savior with each of us. Bowman says, “I hope that the viewer can get a feeling of Christ’s love, the love that He feels for each one of us.”

It is this connection between the picture, the viewer, and the Savior that has been the deepest blessing for Bowman. As he strives to depict an approachable and multifaceted Messiah, Bowman’s ultimate goal is for his art to be a vehicle to help others relate to their Savior. He shares, “[Working on the Expressions of Christ series] has allowed me to try to be a Christlike help to other people.”

Find more of David Bowman's work on deseretbook.com.

Annie Henrie Nader

Balm of Gilead

Image courtesy of Annie Henrie Nader

In her paintings of Christ, Annie Henrie Nader pays homage to the artistic traditions that have preceded her while also introducing her own personal style. “I wanted to continue that tradition of religious art and to depict contemporary faith with the timeless beauty of Renaissance techniques, symbolism, and colors,” Nader says.

But fusing Renaissance and contemporary styles is no minor feat, especially when combined with the theological weight of painting the Lord Almighty. “Painting the Savior is a really daunting task,” Nader says. “Art throughout time has been how we have come to visualize Deity.”

As she has studied the artists who have come before her, Nader has found that as artists portray Christ, they often show only one side of Him at a time: the divine or the mortal, the resurrected or the suffering. Nader has her own approach: “I personally wanted to show Him both mortal and divine, as one who is fully empathetic toward what we experience in mortality but who is also deeply at peace.”

When painting Balm of Gilead (pictured above)Nader wanted to portray this peaceful and empathetic Savior. She explains, “There are some things in life that people don’t ever fully heal from, whether it’s physically or mentally or emotionally. At the end of the day it will be the Savior who heals us completely, fully, perfectly—there will be no scars left.”

Commenting on her overall experience depicting Jesus Christ, Nader says, “It has been deeply rewarding to study those topics. All of this has helped me to understand a little better the complexity of the Savior and to relate better to Him, to have a greater sense of awe for His Atonement, and to believe more fully that with Him we can overcome all things.”

Find more of Annie Henrie Nader's work at deseretbook.com.

Lead image from Shutterstock
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