The prime directive: Make something beautiful. An interview with Jim Janknegt

One of my favorite living artists is James Janknegt. In 2017, he kindly gave me an interview for Aleteia about his life and work. Janknegt, 66, who lives in Texas, is currently working on a commission for five paintings for a book on the meaning of baptism. You can find more of James Janknegt’s art and purchase his book on Lenten Meditations at bcartfarm.com.

Jim Janknegt via Facebook

Here’s our interview:

You converted to Catholicism in 2005. What led up to that?

James Janknegt: When I was a teenager back in the 70s, there was a nationwide charismatic movement. I was Presbyterian at the time. There was a transdenominational coffee house at University of Texas, with the typical youth band playing Jesus songs. There was a frat house we had taken over. We had 20 people sleeping on the floor; it was crazy. A super intense time.

What kind of art education did you have?

I went to public high school, and they didn’t teach much about art history. I would look at books at book stores, and that was my exposure to art. We had a rinky-dink art museum at University of Texas, not much to speak of. After I had this deepening of my faith as a teenager, and really wanted to follow Jesus 100 percent, I was really questioning whether it was legit to become an artist. I didn’t know any artist who were Christians, or Christians who were artists.

Thumbing through the bookstore, I found Salvador Dali. The book was cracked open at “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”

Wikipedia/fair use

That still, small voice that’s not audible, but you know it’s authentically God speaking to you — it felt affirmed. Yes, go forward to be an artist and be a Christian. Those are not incompatible.

Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall – James Janknegt

Your pieces move from dark and lonely to radiant after your remarriage and conversion to Catholicism — that shift that you define as going from “diagnostic to celebratory.” But even in the “celebratory” stage, there is drama, even agony, along with ecstasy in your pieces.

Foxes Have Holes/James Janknegt

When I was involved in that youth group, they were very super-spiritual, filled with the Holy Spirit, thinking, “Now we can do everything!”

Summer Still Life/James Janknegt

But we never looked internally to see if there are psychological problems alongside your spiritual life. My dad was bipolar and manic depressive, in and out of mental institutions and jail. I met a woman at that Jesus freak outfit, and we got married. I carried a lot of baggage into my first marriage, that I hadn’t dealt with at all. I went to grad school and my marriage fell apart.

Breakdown/James Janknegt

Getting divorced ripped the lid off. All this stuff I had repressed was all bubbling up and coming to the fore. Questioning not my faith, but my ability to be faithful. Can I hear Him and be obedient to Him and do His will? It was a very dark time.

Jet Station/James Janknegt

When we look at your paintings chronologically, it very obviously mirrors different stages in your life. Is it strange to have your whole life on display?

You take that on when you become an artist. It’s very self-revelatory. It’s part of the deal, if you’re gonna be an artist, to be as honest as you can. I think that’s the downfall of a lot of bad religious art: It’s not technically bad, but it’s just not honest. We live in a fallen world. Bad things happen.

Sudden and Tragic Death/James Janknegt

That’s part of life, and that has to be in your painting. You can’t paint sanitized, Sunday school art.

But you do seem to create art that has very specific meanings in mind. Do you worry about limiting what the viewer can get out of a piece?

There’s a painting I did of Easter morning zinnias. They look like firecrackers; Jonah’s on the vase; in the corner, there’s an airplane.

Easter Morning/James Janknegt

I just needed something in the corner to make your eye move into that corner! People were trying to figure out what it meant, but sometimes an airplane is just an airplane.

To me, the role of art is to make something beautiful. Very simple, that’s the prime directive: Make something beautiful.

James Janknegt – supplied
Bug Tools and Beyond/James Janknegt

It doesn’t have to be figurative or narrative or decorative. But my feeling is: The history of our salvation, starting with Genesis to Revelation, is indeed the greatest story ever told. What’s better? As an artist, why wouldn’t I want to tell that?

James Janknegt – supplied
Nativity Christmas Card/James Janknegt

How does the secular world respond to your works? They are full of parables and Bible stories, but also unfamiliar imagery.

A painting is different from a sentence or a paragraph. Paintings deal with visual symbols. I’m trying to take something that was conceptualized 2,000 years ago in a different culture, keeping the content, in a different context.

James Janknegt – supplied
Two Sons/James Janknegt

It’s almost like translating a language, but with visual symbols.

I have a definite idea of what I’m trying to get across. But you [the viewer] bring with yourself a completely different set of assumptions and experiences, and I have no control over that. I don’t want to.

 

James Janknegt – supplied
Holy Family/James Janknegt

When I look at a painting, it’s a conversation. I’m talking into the painting, and the painting is talking to you.

James Janknegt – supplied
Grain and Weeds/James Janknegt

Part of the problem today is that we do not have the same visual symbolic language. In the Renaissance or the Middle Ages, the culture was homogeneous, and symbols were used for hundreds and hundreds of years. If I put a pelican pecking its breast, no one [today] knows what that means. We’ve lost the language. So it’s challenging.

Are you inventing your own modern symbolic language? I see birds, dogs…

You kind of have to. It’s a balancing act. In art school, they say, “Just express yourself! You’re painting for yourself; it doesn’t matter what everyone else gets out of it.” I’m not doing that. I’m trying to communicate with people.

 

The Wise Bridesmaids/Janknegt – supplied
The Wise Bridesmaids/James Janknegt

Tell me about the state of religious art right now.

People complain about how there’s no good religious art.  But there’s a lot of good art out there; you just have to search for it. I feel like I’m hidden away, in this weird place between two cultures, but they are out there.

Saint John the Evangelist/James Janknegt
Saint John the Evangelist/James Janknegt

In our time, people who collect art aren’t religious, and people who are religious don’t collect art. And for an artist, in the Venn diagram, you’re in the place where it says “no money.”

If you could just find an artist you really like and ask them if you could buy a piece for your home shrine.

The Visitation/James Janknegt-supplied
The Visitation/James Janknegt

If every Catholic could buy a piece of art from a living artist, think how that would impact your life, and the life of the artist. You could give them a living.

James Janknegt-supplied
Divine Mercy/James Janknegt

Your farm is called “Brilliant Corners Art Farm.” Is that name a reference to Thelonious Monk?

It is! But it also has a hidden spiritual meaning. Honesty is the light. If you’ve got brilliant corners, then the whole room is lit up.

I Will Make All Things New/James Janknegt-supplied
I Will Make All Things New/James Janknegt

You can find more of James Janknegt’s art and purchase his Lenten Meditations book of 40 paintings based on the parables of Jesus Lenten Meditations at bcartfarm.com.

My interview with James Janknegt of Bright Corners Art Farm

In case you missed it, here’s my interview at Aleteia with Catholic artist Jim Janknegt. Fascinating guy, incredibly powerful work. I wish I could have made the interview five times as long.

Catholic Artist of the Month: Neilson Carlin

Here is the third installment in a series: Catholic Artist of the Month.  Rather than constantly kvetching about mediocre, sentimental art by Christians, I’ll be featuring artists who are doing it right.

This month, I’m delighted to present Neilson Carlin, whose Holy Family image, commissioned for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015, was recently unveiled by Archbishop Chaput.

Carlin’s work has been widely exhibited. He specializes in commissioned sacred work, and has been training art students for many years at Studio Rilievo in Kennett Square, PA.

Although he was raised Lutheran, Carlin says that when he was young that he wanted to be a priest. But it wasn’t until he was preparing for his marriage that he really considered joining the Church. Here is the conversation we had earlier this week. My questions are in bold.
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Tell us about your conversion to Catholicism.

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My parents became involved with Evangelical Christianity, and I believed a lot of stereotypes about Catholics: Mary worship, idol worship, that the Mass was nothing more than vain repetition, that it was a dry, dead, man-created religion.
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After college, I started going to Mass with my wife[-to-be], because I wanted to hang out with her.  The parish was authentic, with on-fire Christians.  There was a profound spirituality. The year before we got married, I went into RCIA, not to become a Catholic, but because we were going to raise the children Catholic. I wanted to at least get from the horse’s mouth what I was vowing to do.
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Was there any one issue that especially bothered you about the Church?
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The authority issue was the last hurdle. The parish priest was an accountant, and the deacon was a lawyer. The two of them had the right background for my personality. They would systematically, in a cool, rational fashion, answer anything about history, and send me looking to read more, never sending me off without something. They took me to the end of reason where faith begins.
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Two weeks before Easter 2000, my heart had to finally break. I had to get down on my knees and get over it, get beyond the issues I had with the Church. My head was in the Church ten years before I ever joined. I didn’t realize that the things I wanted to do as an artist had a place in the Church.
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You had established a career as an artist by this point already?
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Yes, I’ve been a professional artist since 1992. After doing nine years of commercial illustration, I recognized I had big gaps in my skill set. I was confident I had the ability to draw, with pen and ink — I had wanted to be comic book illustrator. I had oil paintings in my head, but didn’t have the technical ability, so I opted for watercolor.
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I met with a teacher in the West Side of Manhattan, Michael Aviano. I took a class, and within thirty minutes I knew this was what I was looking for. Now I teach classes based on what I learned from him.
carlin the calling of lazarus
It’s the Atelier movement, an old-school intensive curriculum that takes you through all the basics.  You come into someone’s studio and work directly under them, rather than getting that four-year degree. I spent five years with Aviano, learning painting and composition. The training made me confident I could move into other areas.
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Like what?
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Like portrait commissions, the gallery market, larger scale oil paintings. Also, in the mid-90′s, there was a shift in the illustration market. The entire commercial field took a hard turn toward the computer. But I like the smell of turpentine.
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By the end of the millennium, I had transitioned out of illustration and into gallery work and teaching. When I got some time, I would do sacred work that meant something to me. Portraits of Christ, paintings of the Eucharist.
carlin surrender at gethsemanecarlin ordinatio
A lot of your gallery pieces are not overtly religious, but they look pretty incarnational to me.  Some of your still lifes, especially, are really sensual.
carlin triplets
carlin redhead
Melon
I thought, “Hide the kids; that is one sexy melon!”
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Thank you!
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Then there is “Sacrifice,” with juicy meat and some very cruciform bones.  To my Catholic eyes, it’s obviously a Catholic painting. What was going on there?
carlin sacrifice
I’ve had great relationship with secular galleries, but I felt like I had to be in the closet with paintings.
Reconciliation of Contraries
They didn’t think there was a market for religious art. They wanted floral paintings, still lifes, and landscapes.
Blooms
I was making a living, which was better than some, but I didn’t want to end up being 65 years old and still doing this type of work. As much as I loved illustration, there were other things I wanted to do. And part of me still wanted to be a comic book artist, with full-scale, multi-figure, narrative paintings.
carlin pope saint pius x
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the Holy Family icon for the World Meeting of Families.
carlin holy family
The faces of the adults are full of apprehension and worry, but Jesus looks very determined, and His foot is off the stone, as if He can’t wait to get going.
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I was trying to convey the centrality of Christ in the family.  I don’t care for maudlin, smiling representations of the Holy Family. Joseph and Mary were real people with real concerns.  They were concerned about Him, but He was the rock. They had to look to their son for the promise of what He would do. All the elements of the painting bring you back to Him. He’s the center of the piece.
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How did you choose the models? 
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Mary and Jesus’ faces were the one thing I felt some stress over, getting it just right. Some people are saying that they look too Jewish, and some people say they look too Northern European.
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I guess that means you did something right!
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Technically, I knew I could carry it off. The Bishop was happy with the design, the architecture of the cathedral was incorporated. But I had some sleepless nights because I wanted to make sure they were presented in a way that was respectful. A student of mine does icon writing. She said to pray about it, and allow it to come forth.
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Is there a lot of pressure when you’re doing a religious painting? You don’t want to convey something spiritually misleading.
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That’s where I rely on the priest I’m working with. I haven’t been raised in the Catholic tradition. Who can follow 2,000 years of history? Once I presented a sketch of Christ the King. I had looked at all these paintings, but it didn’t click with me that the hand of blessing was always the right hand. The liturgical design coordinator had to correct me.
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When you’re doing a commission for a church, you must be thinking, “People are going to be looking straight at this for a whole hour, week after week.”
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Oh, yes. The current piece I’m working on has twenty saints in twelve individual panels, in preexisting marble niches, six on the left of the tabernacle, six on the right. It’s going to show the Communion of Saints.  I’m trying to create a porch where they’re existing.
carlin communion of saints panels
It’s a difficult design challenge. I want it so that, when someone comes up for Communion, the perspective is gauged for that. The perspective will make sense once the Host is in your mouth, so that all the saints are joining in the feast of the Lamb with you.
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For the Holy Family portrait, I wanted people to feel like, when you’re in the cathedral, they’re sitting there with you. There is a high degree of realism in the fabric and especially in the hands where they touch each other.
carlin holy family detail
But I didn’t want people to look at the figures and find them so real, you could meet them at the gas station. I’m always trying to separate the model from the painting.
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I know you’ve done a lot of portraits of saints, though, that are supposed to be recognizable. But I’ve seen saint pictures that are just slavishly accurate copies of photos, and they aren’t art, exactly. How do you handle this?
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I arrange the figures in original compositions, get them costumed, and then use a photograph [of the saint] and put that head on the model’s body, and reconfigure the lighting in my head. I get a good, solid line drawing, and then put the photo away and work from the line drawing. I don’t try to make it look like a photo.
carlin mother theresa
 If the photo is in front of me, I’m going to try to get every last thing in it, but that would anchor the piece too much in matter. If I put the photo away, that allows me to find some balance between the ideal in my head and representing what’s in the photo.
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I think the current interest in photorealism, cultivating the ability to copy everything within your visual field, has its root in a revival of 19th-century materialist philosophy. But I’m cultivating an incarnational aesthetic.  I used to think that being able to copy what was right in front of my visual field was the peak. But you get there, and you think, “What now?” A whole lot of people can be trained to do that. I’m looking for more.
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What are you looking for? 
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The Baroque period resonates with me the most: that Caravaggiesque dirt under the fingernails. He painted those figures from someone, but you don’t feel like it’s a model. It’s real, tangible, and exists in space, but it’s not slavishly copied from what’s in front of him.
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For instance, most of the art depicting Gianna Molla and Miguel Pro are straight up copies of photos. Instead, I tried to create a narrative, show them engaged, show some of their attributes.
carlin gianna molla
Do people sometimes get things out of your paintings that surprise you?
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All the time. People find things that I didn’t intend. Like any work of art, a painting isn’t journalism. It’s poetry.
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Who are you favorite artists now?
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Right now? Guercino, Guido Reni, and Tiepolo. Michelangelo, of course. Raphael, of course. They get back to my roots as a comic book illustrator. The first time I went to the Met in New York, I saw a Guercino, “Sampson Taken by the Philistines,” with that muscular back. It was loaded with figures, so much action, and oodles of figures and colors.
carlin guercino samson philistines
The first thing I thought was, “It looks like a comic book panel.”
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How about artists working right now? Who do you like?
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For secular artists, a young guy named Adam Miller, a superior draftsman who does a lot of multifigure work. His compositions are extraordinary.
Steve Huston does beautiful figure work.
Donato Giancola does top tier illustration. He’s a painter and designer extraordinaire.
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For sacred art: Anthony Visco is a sculptor from Philadelphia. He’s the whole nine yards in one bundle, a real renaissance man: architect, teacher, sculptor.
For painters, Raul Berzosa is my new superhero. He completed a ceiling I couldn’t believe. He’s such a young guy at such a high level. It’s mind boggling.
Cody Swanson is another contemporary secular artist, another powerhouse.
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Any advice for artists who would like to work for the Church?
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Make sure what’s in  your portfolio is what they will want to see! I had only a few pieces of sacred work in my portfolio, but it was enough to catch the eye of Cardinal Burke. That’s what allowed me to take it to the next level.
carlin communion of saints sketches
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A gallery of Carlin’s work, information about commissions, and more can be found at his website, NeilsonCarlin.com.
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This is the third in a series of interviews with Catholic artists. Previous installments:
Matthew S. Good
Timothy Jones
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Are you a Catholic artist, or do you know one who would be available for interview? Send me a tip at simchafisher[at]gmail[dot]com. I am especially looking for sculptors, photographers, architects, and painters who are doing non-representational work.