Windows on Wonder: An Interview with James C. Christensen


Visit the home of James Christensen and you will find that his walls are full of windows onto some other world. Go to a gallery where his paintings hang and you will find more windows. The worlds beyond those windows hold dragons and dwarves, wise fools and magic fish, homemade spaceships and angels.

Brother Christensen is a professor of art at Brigham Young University and enjoys a national reputation as a fantasy artist. His work has appeared in Time/Life Books’ series The Enchanted World, as well as on many book covers and in magazines. He has served as president of the National Academy of Fantastic Art. His paintings are exhibited in galleries throughout the United States.

Why do you use fantasy so often in your paintings?

First of all because it’s fun, and I love doing it. Also because I agree with Lloyd Alexander, the popular fantasy author, who feels that fantasy is an essential ingredient in a balanced intellectual and emotional diet. He warns of “spiritual malnutrition” if we limit ourselves to a strict diet of reality. He adds that fantasy, unfortunately, has come to be seen as dessert, whereas in a well-balanced life, it is one of the four basic food groups. Without it, we are in danger of believing that the world is so totally ordered and “figured out” that there aren’t any miracles left around the corner.

Madeline L’engle, another respected author, suggests that as we grow up we are taught to surrender our sense of wonder. When we were little we could see angels. We could walk on water. We knew that anything was possible, and yet we’re taught to repress that faith and openness, that willingness to accept things as possible, in order to become adults and deal with the “real” world.

Fantasy is one place where we can nurture our sense of wonder, where we can keep our intuition of the wonderful possibilities life affords.

As children, it was acceptable for us to use fantasy and play to experiment with various solutions to the problems of reality. We explored the possibilities in imaginary worlds where the right and wrong of things were easily identifiable, and the consequences of wrong choices—selfishness, ignorance, jealousy—could be examined, and felt, but tempered in the end by benign magical rules that allowed us to mend our ways and live happily ever after. Our fantasies were also a place for us to renew ourselves, to refresh our souls and give us strength to deal with the real world.

I believe that we still need that oasis of wonder at least as much as we did when we were children.

Isn’t fantasy the opposite of truth?

Not at all. It can be the means of expressing some very profound truths. Fantasy may not correspond to the surface reality of our day-to-day lives, but it often catches a glimpse of a better, deeper reality. As C. S. Lewis proved in the Chronicles of Narnia, it can sometimes capture the most profound truths of all.

You are obviously a very creative person. Can you suggest any ways in which the rest of us can increase our creativity?

Yes, by exercising it. Imagination muscles have to be developed the same as physical muscles. I believe very strongly that just as wagon wheels once carved ruts by traveling over the same road too many times, we make ruts in our minds and then lose the ability to leave them. Life gets to be a pattern, and it’s too easy to follow the old trails. There are familiar answers for everything, so we stay in those ruts, and we don’t ever strike out across the field to find out what’s behind those trees or beyond that mountain. We don’t even need to steer as long as we stay in the rut.

Children make new paths naturally and unself-consciously because their minds are so open. They don’t compare their thoughts to great people’s thoughts or say, “Is this idea as good as so-and-so’s?” or “Is this meaningful?”

As we get older, especially about the time we reach junior high school, we become more self-conscious, and peer pressure takes over. We jump into the rut so that nobody who’s in there already can point across the field at us and say, “What is that idiot doing?” So we stifle ourselves, and ultimately too many of us lose our ability to imagine. That’s a terrible loss because imagination is an intrinsic part of what makes us human.

The next thing to realize is that creativity is not making something from nothing. Creativity is taking information that we already have and putting it together in a new way. Our brain can be compared to a card catalog in a library. When we’re born we’ve got millions of blank cards. In mortality we fill in the cards. And every card is a single perception. Creativity is simply taking the cards and putting them together in a new order or new combination. In order to be creative we need to associate ideas freely and be willing to try unlikely combinations in the hope that something might come of it.

But first, we must have cards in our catalogs. If somebody only knows 50 words, his ability to write a great novel is seriously impaired. The more knowledge you have of as many things as possible, the more cards there are in your card catalog, the more worthwhile combinations you can make. Read books; look at pictures; study science and language and history. The more you know, the more creative you can be.

The source can be anything. I’ve always read voraciously. Lately, I’ve been listening to books on tape while I paint. Last year I listened to 50 books on tape—all kinds of things. I’m feeding my card catalog.

Have any books influenced your development as a painter?

Many have. When I first read the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis I said, “This person has imagination, whimsy, delight, wonder, exploration, and yet there’s the Savior right at the center of the book. There are metaphors for selfishness, for selflessness, for sacrifice and atonement. There is the gospel put in a nongospel context. And he’s not writing just for a religious audience. He’s accepted out there in the real world.” I found the same thing with J. R. R. Tolkien. This happened while I was in college. The fact that their fantasy was considered as a viable kind of expression gave me the courage to say, “Why don’t I try to do the same sort of thing visually and see what happens?”

Another great influence is the Book of Mormon. I know that it is real and true, but it is also a great epic adventure. There are ancestral swords and directional devices that work and don’t work according to our feelings and attitudes. There are natural disasters and divine interventions and quests and wars and miracles.

You have done several fine religious paintings outside the fantasy genre. Why don’t you do more of that?

The best of my overtly religious painting may be the best things that I paint, but they’re very hard for me to paint because I don’t want to simply illustrate. I have no interest in doing things that are sentimental and one-dimensional. I want my paintings to have layers of meaning within them.

The other reason it’s difficult is that I have very tender feelings on the subject of religion. I have very deep feelings about the gospel and the Savior. What if I put those feelings on canvas and my ability doesn’t reach the level of my belief? Or what if it’s not read correctly by people? What if they say, “That’s not a very good painting?” They’re saying I don’t have a very good belief. It’s too personal to put on the block. It would be like bearing your testimony to somebody and having them say, “So?”

Do you paint just to please yourself, or do you paint for the viewer?

Both. I believe very much that art is for people. It is a communication medium. A painting is not complete until others have seen it and responded to it. My paintings are meant to excite the imagination and invite the viewer to become a participant in the creative process. And so while much of contemporary art repels and confronts the viewer, I try to entice him with detail, fantasy, and a lot of fun things that will make him want to stop and look. And then hopefully he keeps going down through the layers of the onion, and finds out that the more time and thought he’s willing to put in, the more is revealed. Some people just like to look at the designs and the doodahs and the costumes, and other people will pick their way down through it and get meaning. And the fantasy allows that to happen very easily because I’m not constrained by gravity or location or costume or anything real.

Once involved, the viewer not only discovers, but actually helps shape and create the meaning of a piece, making connections and discovering echoes of shared experience. If his interpretation goes beyond my original intention, I’m delighted. Not only has my work been the catalyst for a creative experience, but the painting itself is enlarged. I like the idea that art is a “trigger,” a point of departure for the viewer. I want to give him enough stimulation, enough “raw material” that he can take off on his own fantasy. I want to activate his imagination.

Do you have any advice for young artists?

I think the most important thing is to believe in yourself, and then pay the price. It does not come easily. You have to work for it and not lose your vision, because nobody makes it right off. It’s only through dedication and persistence that you eventually prevail.

I also think it’s essential that our spiritual side be developed along with our craftsmanship. Fifteen years ago I had a conversation with Elder Boyd K. Packer. He said, “As an artist what is your concern?” and I said, “My problem is that I watch the non-LDS artists paint 50 paintings a year and I paint 25 because I have made a commitment that I will seek first the kingdom of heaven. I will be active in the Church, and so I’ll be Young Men president and take my kids around to collect fast offerings and go to Mutual and go home teaching and all those things that eat up one’s time, while other artists can paint twice as much as I do. And because the more you paint the better you get, they just keep on outdistancing me.”

He said, “Why do you fail to recognize that with the help of the Spirit, which is what you’re spending all that time being active in the Church attempting to obtain, you can accomplish more in 10 paintings than another painter can in 30 or 40? It’s not the quantity of paintings, but the quality of the spirit within you that will move you to do good work.” And his words just went right to my heart.

Of course, just being spiritual isn’t enough by itself either. It’s by growing in both areas, making our skills and our spirit grow side by side, that wonderful works of art in music or literature or painting or whatever medium will be created. I try to tell my students at BYU not to compartmentalize. We cannot separate our spiritual development from our artistic development. We must work at both.

I don’t think being a member of the Church inhibits anybody from getting out there and succeeding in the world. I’m pleased when somebody comes up to me—as they did recently when I was at a show in California—and says, “I don’t understand your work. I’m delighted by it, but I have a feeling that you’re keeping a secret, that there’s something going on that I don’t know about. You know something that I don’t—something good.” It pleased me to think that somehow a little of that showed through. Essentially the gospel is what makes the difference. People find it refreshing to meet somebody positive.

Now that you seem to have more or less “arrived,” what is your next great challenge as an artist?

I think that every serious artist reaches a point in his career when the question is no longer, “Can I paint this thing? Do I have the skill and mastery of technique to accomplish this idea?” After years of study and experience one develops the ability to paint anything. Then the more difficult and frightening question arises: “Do I have anything to say? Am I just a highly skilled technician or do I have something significant within me to share?” I think that you have to believe that you do in order to keep working. Whether you really contribute anything will not be resolved until after checkout time.

[illustrations] “In my paintings a fish usually symbolizes wonder and wisdom. I often paint a fish floating in the air to remind the viewer that this is a new reality, that there is magic in the world.”

[illustration] The Burden of the Responsible Man. “At the time I painted this I felt overburdened and overwhelmed by how much everybody expected from me. I felt as if life were taking everything I had and not giving much back, just dangling a carrot to keep me going. Even this man’s pet is a hedgehog that needs to be fed and taken for walks, but is too prickly to offer warm cuddlies in return. But he’s a responsible person, and so he keeps plodding on. That’s the point. I just kept plodding on too and things got better. I discovered that my burdens were really blessings and challenges necessary for my growth. In the meanwhile, painting this helped me deal with my feelings.”

[illustration] The Widow’s Mite. “This piece combines fantasy with biblical history. It’s based on an actual incident from the life of the Savior, but it’s painted as an allegory. The rich men are dressed in fantasy costumes symbolic of wealth and luxury. These costumes echo Hebrew dress, but I made no attempt to be historically accurate. The widow’s rags glow more than the opulence of the people around her. She is radiant because of her willingness to give all that she has to the Lord.”

[illustration] The Invisible Door. “The door is death. The beach is heaven. The large stone head represents divinity. The hunchback is a symbol of everyman and his ‘burden.’ Is he looking at the beach through a glass wall, or is he facing a wall mural with something unknown beyond? As he moves toward the door, the owl, symbolizing earthly wisdom, starts to disappear, and all he has left is his faith.”

[illustration] False Magic. “Wherever there is true magic and true wisdom, there is somebody trying to counterfeit it, just as Satan counterfeits everything that is good and true and right. Can you see the wires?”

[illustration] The Endurance of Beauty. “I once said to a friend, ‘I’m glad that the Egyptians and pre-Columbians didn’t feel that cellophane was a good medium for their sculpture, because basically all that endures of their civilization is their art.’ He said, ‘Well, there’s a beauty to fragility also. That’s what makes butterflies magic.’ So out of that came this painting. The Olmec head represents the permanence and majesty of art. The butterfly dissolving into golden droplets symbolizes the transient beauty of the ephemeral.”

[illustration] A Sinner Fleeing Judgment. “This is an allegory about a person who has put all his heart into his possessions, represented by his clothes. Now the moon has turned to blood, and the Judgment time is coming. He looks a little bit like a bug, searching for a rock to hide under. But he can’t move very fast because all of his worldly possessions are weighing him down.”

[illustration] Sisters. “This painting portrays two sisters, one affluent, the other poor, each of whom attempts to do good with the resources available to her. The rich sister holds a strawberry, a medieval symbol for good works. The poor sister has a little white violet, symbolizing humble faith and hope. Heavenly Father doesn’t judge us by how much money or talent we have, but by what we do with what we’ve been given.”