A letter to Christian Artists….

Dear Artists

I am a follower of Jesus and I am an artist. I am mostly a painter although I write a bit and work with video from time to time. I have been creating my whole life and truly believe it’s my calling in the world. I have no big fancy degrees that validate my expertise… just years of being an artist and working intensely at that craft. Over the last two years I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with Ecclesia Church in Houston, TX as their Artist in Residence.  In my two years of working at Ecclesia, I thought I was going to write a book about art, church, and being an artist in a church. But now, I don’t even know if I need to write a book. If I was to say anything to artists who are Christians and who are in the church, here’s what I’d say:

 1. Love the Church.

I know the church is a confusing place for you. They don’t know what to do with the journey you’ve been called too. Most churches don’t have any kind of art culture. And if they do make strides in any artistic endeavor, it is bound up in creating easy-to-understand-beautiful-things and trying not to offend anyone.

I get it. I’ve been there. Still there. It’s a hard tension to live in, between the honesty you feel compelled to convey and the seemingly sterile safetyness that the church organization seems to promote.

But we can’t get around this:

The church is the body that God wants to work through in the world and the bride that Jesus wants to marry.

You are meant to be in a community of believers. You are called to be there. You must love this body, for all its warts and faults. Now I’m not saying it has to look like the modern American Church, large or small. But it has to look like something of a community living life together as they journey to be obedient to the living King Jesus (see the book of Acts). You are called to that. Do not forsake it.

2. Obey your Father

On the other hand, stop looking to the church organization for some kind of parental approval for the things you’ve been called to. You need to be obedient to your Father in heaven and what He is calling you to. Discernment of these endeavors should certainly be discussed and prayed though in community, especially if you are going to admonish others. But the organization church is not free in the ways you are to create the things that need to be created. The organization is just that, an organization. And although it claims to follow after the living Jesus, they also have to pay bills, salaries, and mortgages. This means they need people to attend, and people to tithe. And if anything comes up that is seemingly offensive and off putting to their tithing attenders, even if it is out of love and obedience, their response will most always be to sensor and silence. Basically, organizations are not free to risk in the ways that artists are. That subject is in another that must be written…

Your calling as an artist is to awaken the viewer/listener/reader. This can be done in quiet intimate ways or loud confronting ways. As well your technical skills, your tools are honesty, empathy, and bravery. Your path is to bring about your work in the most truthful way you can. It may not fit in the context of a church service or to hang on church walls, but that was never the goal anyway.

That’s my two points. Love the Church, but be obedient to what God calls you to do. If I had to give any vision to how this looks lived out, it’s best revealed in the sharing of two stories.

 One…

Last year a great musician and friend Derek Webb called me and told me about his next album he was working on. It was an electronic instrumental worship album based on the Lord’s Prayer… and he was calling it “Feedback”. Along with the music, he wanted to have a visual accompaniment, something you could look at while listening to the music and meditating on the words of that prayer. Photographer Jeremy Cowart had already lended some abstract photographs to the project and Derek wanted me to create 9 corresponding abstract paintings. So I did. Here’s a video of that journey…

Along with that, filmmaker Scot Brignac created a short film that corresponded to each one of the songs in his movie Self Sabotage. Check out the trailer….

So what has happened here? One artist, who had a vision about creating a musical piece based on the prayer given to us by Jesus himself, invited other artists to create with him. I mean it wasn’t as pure art idealistic as that. There was totally a commercial element to it all…. and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you create as a profession that’s just the reality you live in. But because of listening, creating, and inviting, a group of Christ following artists were able to bring out something new based on something ancient. We brought forth a body of work to be used to help us and others meditate on the out-workings of the Lords prayer in our daily lives. It was gift given to the Christian community… free to do with whatever they want with it.

It became much more than a record. It’s a pilgrimage in a way.

A prayer made into music, imagery, and film… all because of an invitation.

Two…

I have 3 friends in Seattle who are all musicians. All of them are in their own bands, and all of them are worship leaders at different churches. And they all know each other. One night, they separately all went to the same Sigur Ros show. If you don’t know, Sigur Ros is an Icelandic band who sings in Haplandia (a made up language) and has a very ethereal sound. There music is amazing and very divine in my opinion. Here’s my favorite video of their’s….

Well a few days after the show the three friends were together and they were discussing how great the show was. What they found is what had stood out to them most of all was how profoundly spiritual the concert was. They even felt like it was one of the most spiritually enriching experiences they had ever been to. These are Christian worship leaders asking why was it so profound? And why wasn’t there anything like that in Christian worship? They wrestled with this idea for many weeks until finally one of them said, “Well, maybe we’re supposed to make it.” So for the next year and a half, every Tuesday night they got together and tried to create the music they knew should exist.  Now this wasn’t sponsored by their churches. No elder board gave them permission and their blessing. They just did it. They went into that place together to try to ease the tension they felt in their spirits. And a year and a half later, they had a body of work. The first event they put on was called the Urban Hymnal. They held it at St. Marks Cathedral, one of the biggest most beautiful cathedral-like churches in Seattle.  They also invited visual artists to bring artwork based on a theme and display it on stage with them. The evening was a worship service but it was unlike anyone attending had ever experienced. The songs were long and crescendo-ing. There were times of corporate silence. It was the manifestation of what they had believed should exist in worshiping God…. and it was profoundly impactful. They kept writing new songs over the years and had 3 more Urban Hymnals, all including art installations and held at visually stunning sacred places. The next move for them was to move it from just a performance night and into a band and now this group is called the Opiate Mass.

Here’s a video from a performance they did during the advent season….

I Heard the Bells from scott erickson on Vimeo.

Here’s what I see.

In both cases, Jesus-following artists are given a vision of something that should be created. It doesn’t come through a board or a committee (not saying it can never come that way), it comes out of their walk with God. At this point, nobody is throwing money at them to bring this idea into reality. It’s just up to them if they want to put in the hard work to make this vision into reality. Perhaps along the way that journey includes other people to work with, but I would propose that this community is based less on a specific organization and more about spiritually connected community one has fostered in ones life.

Then when all the hard work is done, the artists bring out there creation. It is given, as a gift really, to whoever wants to partake in it. This is when I see the church, the organization, supporting it or not. They may not like it. They may love it. They may even want to give money to it, through buying the artwork, or as in the Opiate Mass’ case, give them grant money to keep pursuing this artistic vision.  But this is only after the artist(s) have done the hard work of creating what hasn’t existed before.

If you are an artist, God loves you and has made you to be an artist. Not cause he needed filler giftings in the world’s population. But because creating is a Divine activity, and he wants the Divine to be seen and experienced in the world. You are called to be a part of a church, a community of believers serving the living King Jesus. You must be in that. Mega-church. Home church. Whatever your fancy. You are called to be together. But you have also been given another calling as an artist. And in that calling you must be obedient first and foremost.

God is good, but He is hardly safe.

God is kind and loving, but He is hardly sterile.

Artists are often said to be like prophets. Prophets in the Old Testament were called upon to speak when the king and the spiritual leaders of the nation were no longer being obedient to the Lord and were breaking their covenant with Him. Prophets were used to call that out and to call the people to repentence and restoration.

I don’t know what you’re calling is, and you may not either. But if you seek Him, He will show you.

Be brave. Be honest. Be skillful. Be obedient.

(Can’t wait to see what you make.)

Your friend, colleague, and fan….

Scott


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About scotterickson

curator of awesomeness scottericksonart.com
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28 Responses to A letter to Christian Artists….

  1. JohnO says:

    As for churches not understanding/appreciating the use and place of art in the life of the Church – I think you should check out some of the more liturgical places (Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic). I too come from a charismatic/evangelical background and understand that is where your perspective is drawn from. Frankly I am shocked they would pay for an artist in residence.

    • scotterickson says:

      true john
      i am speaking from a mostly protestant experience. the orthodox and catholic churches have kept arts around for a long time.
      this post is less about churches and more to artists who are in church communities… who feel called by God to produce art and yet are in spiritual communities who don’t welcome their participation.
      but i appreciate your post…. and i am too shocked that someone pays me to make art.
      : )

  2. Tim Bertram says:

    Thanks Scott! My name is Tim , and I an artist. Good stuff & I have found that churches are often afraid to have painters in because they are not sure about us & they are not sure how their congregation will respond. But, after they invite us & they witness God speaking thru our media, it opens up so many people to the creative arts.

  3. I’m not shocked, you’re a magnificent and discerning colour-bard, but would you still be doing it if they didn’t pay you? Would you still hang around Ecclesia and do all the same things you do now but for free?

    • scotterickson says:

      well… i wouldn’t have moved to houston and i’d still be living in seattle….so that’s an element to your answer. but i was doing things like i was doing up in seattle so i’d say yes. being a creator is first and foremost. i would wait tables again to make sure i had time to do the things i sensed i needed to do.

  4. AsherC says:

    Great read. I feel that my inclination is to ‘use’ a church community as a platform, and what I have found is profoundly different. The church community Ecclesia that I belong to has been so much more. It has been a community journeying with me. It has been a community that looks at my life and calling and loves and supports that. I think many church communities ask first how can the artist benefit ‘us’ opposed to how can we serve our brother and sisters.

    I am grateful for the church that loves me back.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    -Asher

    (disclaimer: Scott is the artist in residence at Ecclesia. I have provided my response in authenticity and unsolicited.)

  5. Good stuff Scott…. I love that we live in a time when the gatekeepers are losing power, so that nearly anyone with a creative bent can offer their work to the world. Of course, this democratization also means that a lot of worthless crap is being gobbled up, which brings me to your point about commercialism and creativity. I’m terribly grateful, as a writer, that I don’t live by my book sales. Some have the skills to brand and market themselves, but I’ve neither the interest nor the time. The downside is that I don’t sell as many books. The upside is that I’m not checking my Amazon sales numbers every other day to see how I’m doing. We who have visions to create need to just get on with it (see “Ignore Everybody” and “The War of Art”) Keep up the good work Scott… and we need coffee in raincity sometime soon

    • scotterickson says:

      thanks richard.
      appreciate your thoughts and friendship.
      coffee for sure. maybe after christmas. that’s the next time i’ll be around.

  6. canalways says:

    thanks for this post…another (hard) thing about the prophets were that they were often ignored or nobody listened to them. So maybe if you’re an artist/prophet you could be part of the church community and still ignored or not taken seriously and that would fit in with the way prophets have often been treated….like an artist could love the church and be obedient to God and not be encouraged and that shouldn’t be a surprise….not sure, just typing out loud and late at night

    • scotterickson says:

      good thoughts…. even if they are late at night.
      being a prophet is a tricky thing. if someone says they are, they are probably not. i don’t have an exact answer to your thoughts, just think that all things that are communicated/created in community should be done with love, wisdom, and humility.
      thanks for your post!

      • canalways says:

        no probs mate….and it is tricky to do what you’re called to do. Not sure how what I’d think if I’d witnessed Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple (for example). Would I have thought it was loving, wise or humble? peace

  7. Weston Hine says:

    Just sat down and read this entire entry and watched the corresponding videos. Seriously, from artist to artist standpoint, I’m super encouraged by what you’ve said and more importantly what you are doing. Thanks.

  8. evan says:

    This is resonating with me as a recent convert to the Orthodox Church (the lens in which I am seeking Christ) and as a graduate student at RISD. I would love to be apart of whatever you are doing and join this conversation; my thesis work is beginning to delve into this realm. Thank you Scott for sharing your experiences!

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  10. scotterickson says:

    here’s a message from Zadok, a member of The Opiate Mass, on the real story of how they came together….
    “Tara and I had just released albums in our respective bands and were out getting coffee to discuss the shortcomings and grievances in our creative endeavors: music in church was too often bland and simple, while music in clubs was too often dead and pop. we wanted to take the best of both worlds and create something that was both meaningful and enjoyable to perform. it was our indulgent desire to make something that mattered to us and play in spaces that felt like God–who cared about being cool or understood or important or recognized. Compline–the weekly Gregorian chant concert at St. Marks–was the model. but we would employ modern instrumentation and sensibilities. I don’t think Tara or Mark had seen Sigur Ros at the time of our inception (I know Mark has seen them since, Tara, I’m not sure). they were indeed part of the inspiration, but only insofar as their content and concert experience were ambiguously spiritual and large.”

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  12. samo4prez says:

    word. great things spoken in the great battle of art/church/community/creating. i have written a lot in the past on very similar subjects and i myself have had some of my most intimate moments with the creator at a sigur ros show, sitting in front of basquiats work while listening to miles davis etc etc. truth in beauty is ours as followers of jesus whether it was created by someone who follows his teachings or not. and this itself; for us that know him, makes beauty in creation even more awe inspiring. we need to connect down the road for sure. conversations await.

  13. Tati Vice says:

    Scott, your words are indeed inspiring. I’ve been toiling with these questions about my calling, what to do with my art. I guess this is simple: if I seek Him, He will show me.
    Thanks for your wise and insightful words.

  14. Kyle Steed says:

    “organizations are not free to risk in the ways that artists are”

    Thank you Scott for this letter. I needed it. I am really looking forward to meeting you sometime in the near future.

  15. Jaron Latona says:

    Scott, I actually have to take issue with something in this post: the idea that you don’t need to write a book. Well, maybe that’s true, but I think that if you did, it would be well received. For my part, I grew up hearing that art was a fun hobby, but had no real value. When I expressed an interest in studying art in college, my parents shot it down before the words were even out of my mouth…literally.
    Sure, I could go my own way and get scholarships, grants or loans – and I did – but the point is that my parents, who I love and respect, essentially told me that art is not worth investing in. It was essentially of no value – simply worthless, junk, etc. It has taken a long time for me to get over that (haha, like I’m not still trying, right? Go heart ring.), and God has played a huge part. But reading your words, experiences, and stories, and seeing your videos, as well as hearing the stories of others has also helped more than you or they will ever know.
    I guess all I am saying is thanks, thank you so much, and if you change your mind, I’ll be first to pre-order your book on Amazon.
    Cheers.

    • scotterickson says:

      jaron
      thanks for these words. not to over spiritualize it but i’ll write the book if I’m told to write the book by Someone. it may come about…. i think there is just a lot more life to live and experiences to have.
      i appreciate your words though. our parents have some weird idea that factory/data entry jobs are what makes you money…. and that’s just not true. creative work and creative artists are what employers are looking for now a days.
      a great read about this is Daniel Pink’s book “a whole new mind”. it’s the book that helps explain to your parents why being an artist is what is going to get you a job now a days. you should get this book.

      are your parents christians or people of faith? there response to art not being important is an uninformed view of scripture. maybe that will be what the books about in some ways……

      anyway, thanks for your words. i’m just a guy trying to make it work. i need the support.
      thanks

      scott

  16. Kim says:

    Wow. Really good stuff! I am so glad I stumbled across your blog… the things you are talking about are very much in line with the questions I have been struggling with lately. I recently had to relocate to a small town and a new church and am struggling to find a way to be involved, but at the same time I am wondering if maybe this is one of those times when I have to make my own space rather than waiting for someone to make it for me.
    Thanks for sharing!

  17. kristenmark says:

    I feel rather late entering this conversation, considering this post is months old. But I think the truths in your letter, Scott, need to be told and retold to the church, and to her artists. I am just beginning this journey and I have a lot to learn, but I long for the story of “us versus them” to be rewritten between artists and the church. Thank you for calling us into community. Thank you for also calling us to honesty, empathy and bravery. Maybe that place of tension, between our art and our context, between our individuality and our community, is exactly where we are called to live and create. Maybe. Like I said, I’m new to this. But I am encouraged by people like yourself that have travelled further up the trail and are writing letters for the rest of us. Thank you.

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  19. Thank you Scott for sharing this letter. I liked the small snippet shared on g+ but this was inspiring even more so as I try not to pigeon hole myself into just visual art but music and dance as well. Each has it place in worship and in life. I don’t know what God is calling me to do with my art or art based business, but I am encouraged that if this path is His, He will bless it and grow it. I am extremely intrigued by your work in Africa and would love to know more about that project and journey. Can’t wait to see more of your work!

  20. Molly says:

    God used this to pierce my heart. Thank you for speaking truth and encouragement.

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