Christopher Marion Thomas is an artist who lives in Houston, Texas. His work, mainly figurative, is full of allegories and Biblical references http://studiocmt.com/. What's more, he paints almost exclusively with his fingers. I wanted to find out what inspires him and keeps him focused on his special mission...
MICHAEL: Hey Christopher, I like the way you balance social themes and artistry in your work. But first, your artist statement ... I love the fact that you speak in the first person and directly with people rather than speaking in the third person. Why did you do this?
CHRISTOPHER: Well, before we get started, I just wanted to thank you Michael for giving me an opportunity to introduce myself to your readers. Thanks. As for your question, I wrote in the first person because I want people to feel my heart. My work is essentially about personal connections and I want people to connect with me and my work on a personal, spiritual and intimate level, not as some distant "Art Jargon Robot." I believe that people can feel true heartfelt sincerity. If I can make a meaningful connection with others, either personally or by way of my art, I think I have succeeded.
MICHAEL: I have my own theories, but who do you think is benefiting from the whole mysterious, art jargon thing? Art speak is extremely unfortunate. What's the point?
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, you're right, what is the point really? If you think historically, you'll find that all jargon, not just "art babble," has been created to keep people out, not to bring them in or as a way to talk to people in your "clan" without others having knowledge of what you are talking about, so to speak. Think of it as the concept of "the other" in anthropology. Keep the others out! I say this with a smile because it's really crazy when you think about it and very counter-intuitive for artists who desire to communicate with a world audience. Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, teachers, artist etc., all have their own languages. I guess it's a part of who we are as humans. It's a way of protecting this thing of ours. Now I did it. I am sounding like a mobster. This thing of ours - sorry about that. Too many “The Sopranos” reruns.
MICHAEL: LOL. What's the significance of “Doxology” for you? Is that the essence of your body of work thus far?
CHRISTOPHER: Wow Michael, are you trying to make me cry? I feel like I'm on Oprah dude! No, but seriously, you are right. I feel like all that I have learned, and my entire life has been building up to this body of work. The "Doxology" series is the work that I have dreamed of being able to manifest for my entire creative life.
You know, I had my first one-man show in Iowa City, Iowa at the age of 21 as a kid from the South side of Chicago (Englewood). Even then, "Doxology" is what I imagined, though I did not have the skill, knowledge, nor maturity to bring it to fruition. At that time, all I could do was draw with graphite and fumble around with watercolors a little bit. I had not yet learned to paint in oils, but even then I longed to paint in the manner of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Henry Ossawa Tanner. I dreamed of painting large scale religious works, inspired by Bible stories and their connection to contemporary life in the city. You know, social issues. About 20 years later, at the age of 40 and after teaching myself the basics of oil painting, I had a teacher who helped me to understand my calling by making this statement, "You want your paintings to do social work." He was right.
The essence of my work is that the paintings operate as social touch point narratives for meaningful connections with everyday people. I want viewers to see themselves in the Bible stories that I paint - as I do. When I paint a picture of Job, it's because I can relate personally to his health crisis, because I battle one daily myself, living with Scleroderma. I also gain hope from Job's story because in the end Job was restored. This hope inspires me more than words can say and if it does this for me, God willing, it can do the same thing for someone else going through a similar situation. Painting for me is my way of sharing this good news, sharing my hope, and encouraging others.
MICHAEL: I see a lot of allegories in your work. How do you balance the commentary with the artistry? I mean, it could get too preachy OR perhaps not work artistically.
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, you are right and there is a fine line between "preachy kitsch" and "poetic artistry." I endeavor to create poetic artistry for people who appreciate art that is built on truth, beauty and high, formal standards. Truthfully, if one wants to get a "good sermon," there are churches nearly on every block, in every city that serve that purpose well. If you want a sermon, go to church. If you want a quality piece of visual art, created to uplift your soul, encourage your heart, engage your mind and sometimes, tickle your funnybone, then purchase my work. It's that simple. I am a painter Michael, and though I consider myself a follower of Christ first and foremost, my calling is to "paint." So I approach my work as such, taking highly formal, conceptual and aesthetic concerns as my standard. On top of all that, because of my chosen subject matter and where it fits into art history, I think the work deserves no less than my very best. I have to "bring the funk," because the artists who came before me in this genre did! Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Henry O. Tanner, those guys could flat out "get down!" If I want to do for my generation, what they did for theirs, I have to bring my "A Game" artistically. That's how I keep it balanced.
MICHAEL: How do you start a painting? Do you begin with a concept of what you want to paint or do you stand in front of the canvas and start painting something that takes shape?
CHRISTOPHER: I am a lover of books and just about every thing that comes through me creatively starts with the written word, whether it be the Bible, poetry, current events, biographies, historic literature or even children's books sometimes. I have uncovered some truly profound knowledge through Dr. Seuss, E.B. White and Robert Munsch or maybe that's just the kid in me talking. Ah, what the heck, I just like the pictures
No, seriously, I am a voracious reader and some of my personal favorites are by Steven Pressfield, David Bayles, Langston Hughes, Malcolm Gladwell, Joyce Meyer, Charles F. Stanley, C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers and of course, the Bible. None of these have pictures by the way. You know, that's unfortunate.
Oh, I almost forgot, in terms of process, my practice is very design-driven. I design every aspect of my pictures from the painting, ground up. I want my works to "communicate" a definite message, so every stroke points to something important and helps to support the overall intent. After my design and underlying structure is working for me, then I let loose with my intuitive approach to laying paint.
MICHAEL: Do people have to see your paintings the way that you do? What if they see something else in your work?
CHRISTOPHER: This is a great question Michael and one that I am elated to answer, because I think the answer shows something special about my work. The short answer is an emphatic, "No." Others do not have to see the work as I do. That's what's so engaging about viewing and collecting my work. Each viewer takes away something special and unique within his or her own personal viewing experience. I have been told by collectors, friends and from people that only know my work from seeing it online that my work has emotionally moved them for various reasons. Some have noted the Biblical subject matter, others my technique (I primarily paint with my fingers), others the mood or color harmonies, some the layered meaning, still others simply because they think the work looks beautiful or "cool" (whatever that really means).
Either way, I am okay with it, just as long as the work resonates with your soul or emotions in some profound way. God knows my intentions and art historians will define my oeuvre, so I don't worry about this at all. I merely need to keep painting. Also, because I know that my life and work will be studied by many, I keep good records and will leave behind "bread crumbs" for the art historians to follow. I learned a long time ago to "start with the ending in mind." It's going to be easy for them to write books and produce movies about my work because I have everything, and I mean everything, documented already and I have spent my lifetime doing so. That's why I try to tell people, invest in me now, while my prices are still reasonable because I am very serious about this thing called art. Think about the people who had the opportunity to purchase Van Gogh during his lifetime, but did not. Now their great-great-grandchildren could not earn enough money in their lifetimes to even buy one of his lessor works at auction. I'm just saying...
MICHAEL: You primarily paint with your fingers? You mean your fingers holding a paintbrush, right? No one has ever said that to me. How does that work?
CHRISTOPHER: Yes Michael, my fingers. Like a child finger-painting. Let me explain. As I stated earlier, I started out drawing with graphite pencils and instead of using tortillons, I would blend the values and create transitions with my fingers. This is not unusual and is quite common for many artists, but what is unusual is that I never stopped using this technique no matter the media. I moved from graphite to pastels, still using my fingers exclusively, from pastels to Cray-pas, from Cray-pas to Caran D'ache and from Caran D'ache to oil sticks. I created art and an artistic career for nearly 20 years, like a child, finger-painting, without the aid of brushes. For many years I thought I was crazy and the only artist to create this way, until I found the work of a painter/illustrator named Marshall Arisman and read that Titian had used his hands (fingers) to create his works - though he did not use his fingers exclusively like I'm used to. In fact, I only learned to use tube oil paints and brushes a few years ago.
After more than 15 years as a successful self-taught artist-illustrator, I decided to pursue a formal art education at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I did this because, my father only had a third grade education and I wanted to see if I had what it takes to compete with the best illustrators on the planet. So at the age of 39, I entered Art Center and graduated in 2012 at the age of 42 with my BFA in Illustration/Painting. I am the first in my immediate family to graduate from college. It was at Art Center that I learned how to use a brush, though I never told anybody. The real value that I gained there was confidence and personal validation. Now I know in my heart that I am as good as the rest and better than the best. As for my specifics of oil painting with my fingers, you are going to have to wait for the movie like everyone else Michael. I will never tell this because I believe it is my special gift from God. I can tell you this; it is unlike anything you will ever find on YouTube, and no one does it like me.
MICHAEL: Why do you think God has given you the gift of artistry? What does art do in the world?
CHRISTOPHER: My belief is this, like everything in creation, every Being, gift, talent, treasure and thing, has been created to give God glory and this includes all forms of art from A to Z. We were made to give God praise and artists have a special calling, as I have read.
In the Book of Exodus, Chapter 31, God gives Moses special instructions for the calling and purpose of the first craftsman-artisan mentioned in the biblical narrative, Bezaleel. Bezaleel along with his fellow craftsman and helper Oholiab, were gifted and equipped to build everything that the Lord had commanded them. It is my belief that this is my calling as well - "To build everything that the Lord commands me to build.” It's that simple.
I once was asked in an interview, "how do you choose which biblical reference to paint or illustrate?" My answer then and now is the same. They choose me, not the other way around. My work is simply, "building" everything that the Lord commands "ME" to build. I cannot speak for other artists, but this is "my" belief and "my" process. I believe I have been given the gift of creativity and artistry, because the desire of my heart is to wholeheartedly give God glory in and through my gifting.
MICHAEL: Given all of that, you know, the art world often seems at odds with art and artists themselves. What do you think about the art world/art market and how they function today? What would you change?
CHRISTOPHER: Frankly, I would not change a thing, because the change is taking place as we speak. The first will be last and the last will be first and you reap what you sow. I just need to keep painting, and not grow weary. Everything else will take care of itself, in due season.
MICHAEL: Yes, He will take care of it. What function do you think art serves?
CHRISTOPHER: As for what art does in the world, that's like asking, what does water do for a body. The answer is endless. What I want "my" art to do, and how I want "my" art to operate is another question all together. As for me and my art, I want it to praise the Lord. It is my prayer that my work would be a fragrant offering to Christ and that it would please Him first and foremost. Like Picasso, I would like my work to be a weapon of war and a double-edged sword to all those who are haters, malicious copycats, liers, naysayers, discouragers and thieves. That it would serve as a reminder that God uses the weak and the foolish to confound the wise. As well as serve to edify, exhort, encourage, teach, warn, uplift, heal, inspire and fill with hope all those who are lovers of truth and beauty. I usually get what I pray for.
MICHAEL: Finally Christopher, art remains a mystery to so many people who feel that they practically need a PhD in art history to understand art and have a relationship with it. Your thoughts?
CHRISTOPHER: I'll answer this question by asking one. Does one need a degree, a PhD, to understand the beauty of a calla lily or have a relationship with a beloved friend? No, you just need to love and be open. Your heart, mind and body will let you know if you are in a room full of friends or foes. You gravitate toward your friends and you are aware of your foes, but you don't bring them home with you. Ultimately, because a foe comes to steal, kill and destroy. Don't be deceived, a foe wants to hurt you.
Well the same can be said about art. If a work of art resonates with your inner being, if it challenges your views for your betterment, like a good friend does, you feel alive because you viewed it. You may be in a room with a friend, and you know who your friends are.
MICHAEL: Bravo Christopher. You are why I interview artists.
CHRISTOPHER: Thank you Michael for the opportunity. I pray that this interview is a blessing to those who take the time to read it. Continued success.
Check out Christopher Marion Thomas at http://studiocmt.com/