Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Remembering James C Christensen

Two Angels Discussing Botticelli- By James C. Christensen.

Some people say seeing is believing. You know, "I'll believe it when I see it". What if the opposite were true? I will see it WHEN I believe it? In Latin, it is "Credendo, Vides". Believing is Seeing.

Around the time I earned my undergraduate degree in illustration, I had the pleasure of walking through an exhibit of paintings titled Winged Words by famed fantasy artist James C. Christensen. I was fortunate enough to peruse the works alongside the artist himself and he kindly explained each piece and why he was or wasn't happy with each one. Among the paintings were several in which he had painted Latin phrases. Jim explained that the hardest part was finding someone who knew Latin who could translate accurately into Latin what he wanted to say, so he could translate it back in the title card for the viewer to understand. I asked him why he just didn't just paint the words in English. "I don't know" he replied, "It just seemed more meaningful that way." Christensen's paintings can be described in many ways but the most common description is magical. But I think that all the trappings of magic were just a facade for the underlying meaning. A vehicle, if you will, for him to communicate his message. And I loved his messages.

James Christensen with dear wife Carole

I woke up Monday morning to the news that James C. Christensen had passed away at the untimely age of 74.  Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened at the news and I spent all day wrapping my brain around the loss. To me, Jim was more that just a brilliant artist known for his intricately painted fantastical scenes filled with elves and trolls and magically levitating fish. Jim was my friend. As I read the many tributes and reminiscing posts about him, I realized that Jim was everyone's friend. He had a beautiful way of making you feel important and necessary in HIS life, which I think was one of Jim's true gifts. I write this not to give a chronology of Christensen's work or accomplishments, which are legendary. But simply to celebrate the man I was blessed to rub shoulders with and learn from. His techniques and motivations are well chronicled elsewhere. I want to remember him today for the truths he left embedded in my life and the imprint that will linger with me forever.

Low Tech

I was first introduced to the artwork of James Christensen when I was still in high school. I had only recently come to the realization that it was actually possible to draw and paint for a living. I poured over whatever publications I could find featuring amazing art and was particularly drawn to the work of artists like Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta and the Brothers Hildebrandt. Right there in the mix was this guy named Christensen who painted all sorts of quirky characters doing odd things, like flying a spaceship cobbled together from a flashlight, an eggbeater, powered by corroded Energizer batteries, all while wearing only a bomber jacket and a gas mask. I was hooked. I had never known that art could be so delightfully offbeat.

I also soon discovered that all of the artists whose work I so admired were illustrators. Jim preferred to call himself a painter who paints things that don't exist, but I think he fits nicely in the illustrator category. I decided this was what I wanted to do and the illustration program at Brigham Young University was the perfect fit. It also happened that this painter of floating fish which I admired also taught at that institution. I continued to follow Jim's work reveling in the new treasures he had dreamt up. His creativity, fueled my earliest efforts in illustration.

The Widow's Mite

Eventually, I got to meet Christensen when he showed his work in one of my illustration classes. I didn't realize when I enrolled that Jim actually taught painting and drawing in the Fine Art Department, while all the illustration classes were taught in the Graphic Arts Department. In  a completely different building. On the other side of campus. Finally, I figured out that I could take some elective classes in the Fine Arts Center, including a drawing class taught by James Christensen. To this day, that class remains one of my favorite undergraduate experiences. Jim was a mesmerizing storyteller. He could keep you on the edge of your seat spinning yarns or whimsically sharing anecdotes.

Lawrence Tried Not To Notice That A Bear Had Become Attached To His Coattail

I wish I had taken time to write down a few specific things, but what matters to me most is how I felt in his class. I was entertained, but more importantly, I always felt both challenged and encouraged. I was pretty confident drawing what I saw in front of me, but Jim would come in and throw a wrench into the system on a weekly basis. At times we would all tape a sheet of paper over our board and blindly draw underneath it, looking only at the model. Or he had us test our memory by looking intently at the model. Then the model would step down and and we had two minutes to draw what we remembered.
The Responsible Woman

Once, all easels were placed facing away from the model, We would look,  turn away to draw, and then look back to see if we had captured anything worthwhile. These methods were all, to an extent, exercises in frustration for me. I had never been forced to draw this way. I had never tested my memory like that. One day we even did figure drawing roulette where everyone would draw for two minutes and then rotate clockwise and draw for two minutes on the next person's page, adding or fixing, until we all made it back around to our own pages. It made me see the model from 360 degrees and the subsequent drawing of the same pose was much better. I began to see drawing in a completely different way.

Man with A Lot on His Mind

The final in that class included an exercise in drawing a head "out of your head". Jim wanted us to draw as realistically as possible in both front and profile views. I was convinced mine was a disaster yet Jim assured me that it was a decent effort and not to beat myself up. Jim always had a smile on his face and was always someone you felt better after having been around. I loved that drawing class and was sad I never got another chance to take a class from him.

Your Plaice or Mine?

I graduated and a couple years later I jumped to full time illustration. When I was in Provo, I would try to drop by the department and talk to my professors who were all now becoming my colleagues and friends. I had just landed my first picture book project travelled to campus to take reference photos of one of my professors, Richard Hull. While there, I decided to drop in and see if Jim was around. I found him busy in a painting class but he immediately ushered me outside and down the hall to his office to show me what he was working on. Entering the outer office, he paused and asked if I had a copy of his book. Greenwich Workshop Press had released "A Journey of the Imagination" a year or so previously, but I had not been able to justify the forty dollar price tag. He promptly cracked the cellophane off of one and dedicated it to me. I sheepishly said, "you can't do that". Jim laughed, smiled at me and said "Yes, I can. And I just did" as he handed me the book.

I cradled my new treasure while we looked over his new work. More books followed and I had occasion to get a couple of them signed to me as well. His dedications were always personal and heartfelt. I treasure those books. Since then, I have had several of my own books published. I often take pleasure in making unexpected gifts of my books to special people.

Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself back on campus during BYU's Education Week. My book "The Touch of the Master's Hand" had been released a few months prior and I was scheduled to sign copies at the bookstore. As I found my table, I realized it was directly across from Jim's where he was signing copies of his new book "The Voyage of the Basset". Well, Jim would have none of that and promptly moved my table across the aisle next to his. In fact my table fell ahead of his so that the line had to pass right in front of me (and my book) to reach him. I know he did this on purpose to get me a little more exposure. Jim was never intimidated by anyone else's success. In fact, he fostered it. We spent a delightful two hours chatting and signing books together. I am sure quite a number of my sales that day were due to Jim's thoughtful gesture.

During that signing, I also expressed interest in getting into the art print market. I had seen how well Jim was doing and felt like it might be a good time to dip my own foot in as well. Jim graciously introduced me to Greewnich Workshops' head folks and I had a short affair with the fine art print market. During the time I worked up paintings for possible prints, I got the chance to visit Jim at the his cabin near Sundance ski resort. Affectionately dubbed "The Cottage", Jim would often work there to be free from the distraction. Visiting was like stepping into one of Jim's paintings. It was a place lovingly fashioned in an Old English style but with lots of fantasy touches that I am sure sprung straight from Jim's imagination.

There was the sculpted fireplace mantle and the bronze flying fish weather vane topping the turret room above his studio space. But my favorite part was the secret bookcase door that separated the studio from the rest of the cottage. With the flair of a magician, Jim swung the bookcase aside and we entered the rest of the cottage. He toured me around as we chatted and then returned to the studio where he looked at my work and I looked at his.

The Fablemaker

I was transfixed as I gazed around at shelves lined with skulls and trinkets and all sorts of bits that inspired his work. He showed me the tiny collection of Dungeons and Dragons figures that he painstakingly painted for fun. After a bit,  Jim jumped up and said "come on, it's time for my walk". We proceeded out the door and up the hillside, through groves of golden aspen trees. He explained that he liked to get in a walk at least once a day. In addition to the exercise, it gave him time to think, time to dream. That was typical Jim. He was inviting me into his inner sanctum, allowing me to traverse his sacred spaces with him.

Once Upon a Time

Evening Angels
Fantasies Under the Sea
Over the years, I kept in touch with Jim and we would run into each other at shows or guest lectures or signings. I remember once we were at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah to see some plays at the Utah Shakespearean Festival when we ran into Jim on the edge of campus. Jim had created several posters celebrating the works of Shakespeare and was there signing his latest.  We had a great chat and Jim ended the visit by wishing me good luck and that it was great to see me.

Touching the Hem of God

In the fall of 2014, I volunteered to organize a show titled "Lost In Fantasy" at the Loge Gallery in Salt Lake's Pioneer Memorial Theatre. I had created the poster for their production of Peter and the Starcatcher and the gallery director thought it fitting that a fantasy themed exhibit run concurrently with the show. As curator, I could hand pick the participating artists. Of course Jim was at the top of my wish list, but I knew he was busy and I might not be able to secure his participation. When I got Jim on the phone, he admitted that  he normally would decline such an offer, but replied, "For you, I'd be happy to be included. Let me know what you are thinking." I explained that I didn't want him to go to any effort, and that I would take whatever he had already framed and available. I would even pick up and return the art myself.

White Faced Fence Walker- 1978

Falling In Love Again- 1981

He thoughtfully pulled out a rich mix of early work, fine art prints and newer paintings that showed a cross section of his long and storied career. Jim's paintings were a fantastic anchor to the show. I was honored to hang my works alongside his.

Tree World Trilogy- Book Cover Art

Guardian of the Woods- 1998

Around the same time that I returned his work in early 2015,  I had occasion to visit with Jim at the BYU Motion Picture Studio where he was painting murals for the soon to be completed Provo City Center LDS Temple. This massive undertaking occupied an entire sound stage as each panel was around twelve feet high and forty feet long. He was in his element, painting breathtaking scenes of the creation and nature alongside a few trusted artist friends. Jim took time to show me progress on each panel and describe what was going to happen in the unfinished areas.

One Light
Sometimes the Spirit Touches Us Through Our Weaknesses

On the walk back to the parking lot, I lamented the rough stretch I was going through with not enough work or cash flow to sustain my family. He was kind and encouraging and left me with this thought. "It will be alright" he said with his trademark grin. "You are talented and you work hard. You will figure it out." Then he told me of his own struggle with cancer and his hope to beat it and keep on painting. " Artists are survivors." he said "We have careers because we stick it out, right? You'll be fine."

The Listener

I listened. I believed. We weathered the down time and kept moving ahead. the reality we saw in front of us eventually grew closer to the vision we dreamt of and we pulled through. Jim taught me many important lessons in art and in life, but I think the one that sticks with me the most is that Believing is Seeing. You have to have the faith before you see the miracle.

Journey by Faith

Thank you Jim Christensen for that gift. Peace to you as you traverse the heavenly realms, my friend. Until we meet again.


Gissel Escudero said...

Great post, thank you. He was such a wonderful artist, I not only admired his works, but also his words (in the book A Journey of the Imagination, one of the best gifts I've ever received). Hugs!

Carol said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about James C. It was wonderful for me to read and learn more about him as a person. I have admired his work and taught 3rd graders about him using the video he produced showing the castles and how he used the wonderful old things there in his imaginative work. Your tribute was super.

TLC Workshops said...

Thank you for the lovely tribute Greg. I had Jim as an instructor for his Aqueous Media class at BYU. I learned some about painting, but learned a *ton* about how to think, and ways of 'being'. He touched so many lives for good.... Will miss him.

Spencer said...

Greg you are fantastic and I am sure you will make it. We are survivors.

Greg Newbold said...

Thanks for the kind words everyone. I went to Jim's memorial service on Saturday and it was such a celebration of his life and goodness. Sure there were a few tears, but mostly laughs and feelings of gratitude for having known this wonderful person and artist. He will be greatly missed by all who had the privilege to call him a friend.

TomHart said...

Greg, thanks so much for sharing your memories of Jim, a wonderful painter and clearly just as wonderful a person. To be honest, although I'm sure I had run across his fantastic work, I have had the major exposure to it since his passing, thanks to your article and others. But I haven't been successful in finding a description of his techniques, or even a clear indication of his media preference.

Greg Newbold said...

TomHart- Thanks for the nice comments. As for Jim's technique, He painted strictly in acrylic for many years and developed some interesting techniques which he used for getting some of the textures you see, particularly the organic splotches and swirls that appear in his backgrounds which he swirled on with a milk-like consistency of paint that would hold bubbles. When it dried, the bubble textures remained. He painted on panels mostly, rather than canvas because of the rigidity of the surface. the panels were primed and then the drawing applied. He would then progress through many layers of washes and opaque paint, building up the surface to the final highlights and details. Later in his career, he would work the painting about 80% finished in acrylic and then add final layers in oil paint after sealing the surface with a medium like Liquin. Certain effects achieved in acrylic would remain visible while other things like smooth sky transitions and flesh tones would be worked in oil. The "crackle" effect he used quite a bit in his later work was done with a Lefranc & Bourgeios crackling varnish with an aging wash over the top after it was dry. Regardless of the many layers and mediums, he called the finished product an "oil painting" because of the negative perceptions that "acrylic" and "mixed media" seem to have in the fine art world. He was always trying new stuff and progressing. Probably why his stuff just kept getting better. I'm sure there are others who could better describe his techniques, but that's what I saw and learned from him.

TomHart said...

Greg, thank you deeply for your very detailed description of his technique. That's so much more than I expected or hoped for. Also, I meant to say earlier that I'm sorry for your loss. It's obvious how much Jim meant to you, and I have to believe that he valued your friendship just as much.

Greg Newbold said...

You are welcome, and thanks Tom for your condolence, Jim will be missed by many. Thankfully, we have the memories and his superb artwork to inspire us moving forward. Jim had a way of making you feel important and I don't think it was a facade. He just liked people and if you were in, then you were a friend for life. He once mentioned me by name in an interview for BYU Magazine in regard to how he felt about his student's success. He certainly didn't have to do something like that, but he did. Such a great guy.