Scott Erickson had what Christian painters may consider the world’s most desirable job as official “artist in residence” at a large Houston, Texas, church. He was paid and given some respect and a place on the weekly worship team. How often does that happen?
From 2009 to 2012, Erickson painted live, onstage during services for Ecclesia church. Each week, he conceived and finished five 3 x 4 foot paintings in only an hour each to illuminate the teaching and worship. Works may have reflect Erickson’s own spiritual journey but still generally referred to something Ecclesia was experiencing as a body at the time.
Erickson’s work for the church is youthful and simple, with clean lines and an exquisite design sense. An example is “Annunciation” with a neo-First Nations design that appears to be overlaid with Art Deco elements. Some resemble ad-copy with lines of text or iconic symbols used to communicate ideas to the congregation. Many are done with street art techniques, such as his beautiful rose window simulation inspired by the London artist Banksy. A few paintings are so exquisitely designed and executed that it’s difficult to believe he tossed them off in an hour.
What does an artist in residence do for a church? Far beyond merely weekend paint-a-thons, he served on leadership teams, administered pastoral care for the art community and designed artists’ retreats and gatherings.
Erickson sums up his time there as “progressing a visual culture” of everything that the church is experiencing, learning, teaching and praying. He explains his vision for us. “So everything we did as a church – our sorrows, our joys, our accomplishments, our failures – I was there to make sure that there is some kind of visualization of that story.”
A contemporary “Book of Days”? Collective prayer journals in other tongues? Or is live painting in church just another form of worship that we haven’t received or understood too well yet? Erickson doesn’t address that directly, but he has some thoughts on the place and purpose of Christian artists in general.
“Your calling as an artist is to awaken the viewer/listener/reader,” he observes, whether through a quietly intimate or loudly confrontive manner. Erickson advises that the tools of a Christian artist are “honesty, empathy and bravery,” as well as technical skills and excellence. Echoing a major biblical theme that also occupied prophets and preachers, he encourages us to “bring about your work in the most truthful way you can.” The painter acknowledges truthful or confrontational art may not always work within the context of a church service, but that shouldn’t necessarily be an artist’s goal.
Yielding to the critical comments of random church members drains creative people, placing them under a pending fear of the judgments of man and destroying confidence. Shouldn’t we do better for artists and creative types, who incidentally make up at least 6 percent of our population?
Somewhere there’s a balance between needs for authenticity, respecting gifts and avoiding deliberate offense in the church. This is the hair-thin high wire Christian artists are forced to walk if they engage their faith as a subject – but especially if they dare bring their offerings to the steps of the church.
“I am a follower of Jesus and an artist,” Erickson boldly proclaims. Creating his entire life, he believes it’s his “calling” in this world. “I have no big, fancy degrees that validate my expertise or seminary degrees but years of working intensely at my craft,” he adds. Is that good enough for the church?
It was for Ecclesia. I asked Erikson how he managed to come upon such a jewel of job. As is often the case, it was who he knew or, rather, who knew him. Pastor Chris Seay was acquainted with Erickson and so impressed by his art that he created the position ex nihilo, “artist in residence,” specifically for him. Seay gave Erickson a platform to see how both the congregation and artist would benefit and edify each other. When Erickson left last year for Washington state, the position left with him.
Not every Christian artist is called for the challenge of live painting as part of a worship service. Take the word of someone who tested it herself after an invitation at my own small church. Being a slightly introvert studio artist who prefers to be closeted away in my silent haven, I was totally unprepared for the experience.
It’s something between an unscripted improv performance and private worship, only surrounded by crowds. The making of eloquent, silent speeches. Then there’s the logistics. A painter with only an hour and large, empty canvas must squat and leap about (particularly if you haven’t arranged your equipment well). Content and quality while under the gun is the important thing, though. For that, the painter listens to singers or sermon while distilling the essence into pleasant, relevant compositions and not getting distracted – even by trumpets, dropped microphones or shrieking children. Also, you should be praying or otherwise spiritually attuned.
I take my hat off to Mr. Erickson for succeeding so spectacularly at what is almost a new media, at least for the church. “Experiential art” is making art in public spaces, often in collaboration with musicians and speakers. The painter has co-created for nonprofits such as World Vision and even appeared as a live painter at weddings.
Erickson rarely uses a cross because he finds “as a symbol, it doesn’t inspire thought anymore. It’s become decorative.” Instead, he recovered traditional Latin and Greek church phrases and ancient symbolism. Goldfinches represent the passion of Christ, and the staff is the Good Shepherd’s crook. Rams, lambs and the Greek cross are incorporated into his contemporary pieces, mixing the venerable and “holy” with pop culture.
Claiming that “most churches don’t have any kind of art culture,” Erickson laments many have no idea how to respond to artists or their callings. In spite of tensions and rejection that many artists have experienced in the church, however, he reminds us to remain with the community of believers. “The church is the body that God wants to work through in the world and the bride that Jesus wants to marry,” he exhorts us. Echoing his own testimony, Erickson claims that we are also “called to be there” and must love and not desert the church.
Specifically, Erickson was called to love the church as an unofficial grief therapist while at his post. Ecclesia had unexpectedly lost a young woman to cancer who was part of the ministry, and many were gripped by grief and shock. Pastor Seay pondered how he could better minister to his congregation in such a time. Could it be through the arts?
Ecclesia had supported the arts before, but Seay launched an impressively revamped program of worship using poets, writers, videographers, painters and others. The church was zoned as an art gallery. It was a type of spiritual art therapy for the congregation with Erickson dead center in the middle of the efforts.
It changed his vision on the purpose of art in the church.
“The main reason for doing what I did at Ecclesia is that art helps us to rise above our pain,” Erickson recalls of that tragedy. “The American church stresses how to be happy and joyous very well, but we didn’t know how to help people grieve.” Ecclesia commissioned writers, musicians and poets to write complete liturgies and prayers for mourning, although the church originally has Baptist roots.
Seay’s church is situated in an art-loving community and frequented by a younger demographic. While traditional churches may not be standing in line to host costumes parties for the dead (as “dead in Christ”) or other Ecclesia activities, the church is a missionary outpost reaching into our culture. And where the culture is, there are the people.
View Erickson’s work and thoughts at ScottEricksonArt.com.