Artist of the Month: Matt Clark’s Amphibians, Minotaurs, and other Christian Art

Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Religion and Visual Art. Read other perspectives here.


matt clark chicken headshotMatt Clark, 39, is a teacher, print maker, and freelance illustrator who lives in Florida with his wife and growing family (they are expecting baby #7 in a matter of weeks). This interview is one of a series with religious artists. My questions are in bold.


You are Anglican, and make secular and overtly religious art; but on your website, you say, “I don’t believe art has to have biblical subject matter to be Christian.” Can you explain how your secular work is Christian?

Flannery O’Connor writes these stories about murder and mayhem, tattooed people, circus freaks, raging bulls . . . and you realize she’s writing about Christ the whole time. That’s the way I’m looking at my artwork — alligators, fish, saints, Moses, birds, whatnot.

matt clark fish print

I figure if God made all these things, I don’t know that we’re to draw a distinction between natural and supernatural.

matt cleark blessing of dimetrodon

El Greco was always showing heaven intruding on earth, with no clear distinction between where one stops and another begins. The scraps I feed my chickens, the bugs they dig up, they transform that into an egg. That’s magic!

matt clark chicken stare

I don’t want to sound like a pantheist — you can’t worship just as well on the golf course as in church. But I don’t like to draw sharp lines between religious and other art. Who I am is a Christian, and everything I do will be that Christianity.

It seems like your “overtly Christian” works are about making religious figures and scenes relatable and human.

matt clark st. alban

Do you see that as a form of evangelization?

I do. C.S. Lewis talks about how we don’t need more Christian apologists, but we need more books on mechanics, physics, and medicine, written by Christians, so people realize, “Oh, Christians are doing this.”

matt clark dogman

Growing up Baptist, we did more than our share of knocking on doors. It’s probably the worst thing in the world. It’s much better to live out my Christianity, and have that life move into other people’s lives. This is how we witness. I don’t ever want to make propaganda artwork. I’m perfectly willing to talk to people, but I get really itchy around propaganda.

matt clark moses aaron miriam

Since you teach at a Christian school, do you ever get any pushback for portraying or studying nudes in art?

matt clark furies

Well [laughs], the administration frowns on using nude models in elementary school. But talks about nudity with my children come early, as we go to the beach. It is Florida.

In art school, we had lots of nude models. We were doing a three-hour pose, and I remember idly wondering if the model had any tattoos. Then I realized that I would know, because she’s naked in front of me.

Some artists abuse their work and make nudes pornographic, but I believe there’s such a thing as chaste nudity. In paintings of the Madonna and Child, Jesus is almost always naked, showing His genitals on purpose, really in the flesh.

matt clark madonna and child line drawing

It’s very affirming of the Incarnation to show nudity in that way. Nudity doesn’t equal evil.

Rembrandt takes this tendency [to pornographize the nude] and he uses it. Bath Sheba is a full length nude, sitting down, right after her bath. Her maid is drying her feet. It’s very, very lovely. You see she has a note, and there’s a look of sadness of her face, and you realize that’s her summons to the palace.


Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

She’s beautiful, she’s ritually clean, and now she’s going to be defiled in a profound way. You’re in the place of David. Rembrandt is saying, “Look at this beautiful nude — but look at is as David looked at it.” He draws attention to your own tendencies to dehumanize people.

When you draw humans, they look a bit like animals, and when you draw animals, or skulls, or dinosaurs, they look human.

matt clark dinos

 It seems like you’re constantly asking, “What is man, anyway?”

I do always ask that question. That’s why I love science fiction so much. “What’s human, what’s not human?” is the question they always ask.

matt clark satyr and robot

The robot cyborg always ends up being more human than the protagonist. So what makes us people?

matt clark minotaur as sinner

The first time I questioned this was in the Louisville Zoo. There was this gorilla, and I noticed his ear looked just like mine. I made the leap to looking at his face, and realized he was looking at me. I said to my wife, “He looks really unhappy” — and then he threw his fist at the glass and ran away.

matt clark katydid

We’re brought up to believe that animals are machines, only good as resources to be exploited, but I think that’s a terrible thing. I have some kind of relationship with the animal as a creature. That’s what it says in The Screwtape Letters: We are amphibious, animals, but spiritual as well. A creature, but immortal.

matt clark humilobites

I suppose it’s a way for me to work out the Incarnation: What He’s done is good, very good; in fact, so good that He’s going to become a little baby to a scared little girl in a Roman backwater. I haven’t worked it all out in my mind, but somehow all the dirt and plants and animals and rocks and sand and water . . .

matt clark stick

He liked these things so much, He wanted to be not just overseeing it, but involved in it.

matt clark wasps

And it seems like you are inviting the viewer to do just that: not just view, but get involved. You also write a lot about your work, which not all artists do.

I always appreciate when people explain things, or obscure the proper things. If you write clearly, you can think clearly. I want to think more clearly.

matt clark dream

Have you ever started thinking more clearly through the process of creating art?

Back in college, I did this big piece on Romans for my senior thesis. It was 36 or 40 feet wide. I worked 40-50 hours a week for a couple of months on this one drawing. All I did was think and look and I started to see the whole book as an argument that St. Paul was making. This was at the University of Florida. There was no bashing of Christianity, but no one cared. They just said, “This is a neat drawing. Wow. It’s really big. I like the way you did this . . . Oh, Brian, I see you’re wearing your tutu in this one!”

matt clark batman gets bored with his own drawings

I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Am I making a giant prayer, telling God something He already knows? Who am I making this for? Did I think it would be like a big [religious] tract?

matt clark nimrod

I put myself in the drawing. I realized that the audience this drawing was for was me. The Bible isn’t something I need to yell out to other people. I’m learning these things for me, as a work of sanctification. Artists aren’t immune from their work. We’re part of the audience.

matt clark self portrait blue


Mother and Child: A Christmas Gallery of Original Art

Merry Christmas, everybody! I offered up Midnight Mass for all of you, especially for anyone who is lonely or grieving or in pain today. Thanks for another wonderful year of company.

Over at the Register today, nine artists have graciously shared their lovely Madonna and Child artwork with us. Here is just one, by 16-year-old painter Noyuri Umezaki:


Christmas art Umizaki


Check out the rest here.

Catholic Artist of the Month: Matthew S. Good

Here is the second 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. Last month (okay, it was two months ago! June was . . . rough), I had a wonderful conversation with Timothy Jones.

This month, I’m featuring Matthew S. Good, 31, who lives and paints in Hickory, North Carolina. His paintings are moody and intense, reminding me of Rembrandt, and it took several weeks to find a time when he was available to talk. I was somewhat nervous, expecting a reticent, brooding artist type. Instead, I was delighted to find myself chatting with a cheerful, self-deprecating fellow with a quick wit and a thick Southern accent.

Good has been apprenticed under Benjamin S. Long IV for several years.

Good’s work can be found at, and he blogs sporadically, mostly about the technique of painting. He has a large collection of studies in storage, and intends to list more of them on eBay.

Here is part of our conversation. My questions are in bold.




Have you always known that you wanted to be an artist?

I’ve always drawn. When I was about twenty, I saw Raphael and [Flemish Baroque painter Anthony] van Dyck, who are heroes of mine.  I bought a bunch of pigment for oils, and made about three hundred terrible paintings. I had no formal training; it was just trial and error.

What is the thing you’ve struggled with most as you improve as a painter? What did you really need to learn?

An understanding of anatomy. Drawing is all about how light hits the form. If you don’t understand the form you’re looking at, you can’t understand what’s going on.


That’s a big thing [Long] pushes: learning anatomy, and just drawing.  A lot of great painters that hardly draw anymore. Even if you go to restaurant, you should draw people when they’re not looking. Draw, draw, draw; practice, practice, practice; patience, patience, patience.



It looks like most of your training has been private.

I never went to art school. I’m in a personal apprenticeship with Benjamin S. Long IV. He’s renowned for his true frescoes. The first one was in Italy, in Lucignano, where he lives half the year. It was a memorial to one of his friends.

There are thirteen or fourteen frescoes here in North Carolina. It’s the highest concentration of frescoes outside of Europe.  The one I helped him with was three years ago. I helped grind colors, get the plaster ready, clean brushes.



How does that work, being an apprentice?

I work with him on a weekly basis with oils and drawing. He doesn’t tell me how to do anything .  It’s helpful to work on your own as much as you can; but it’s really helpful to have him there when you get into a bind. “Look at this, see how bad I am!” His whole thing is that you never use photographic references; use models.



I notice that a lot of your models don’t look like privileged people. They look like they just got off work, or just stepped out of a bar.  They have tattoos.



They’re all my friends! It’s important to me to paint my friends. There’s a whole variety of people I paint, and I don’t choose one type or another.

Well, they look like lovely, wonderful people! But I mean that you show all of your subjects with a great amount of dignity.



That’s very important to me. Rembrandt is the top. One thing I really love about his work the psychology in his paintings. Peasant, aristocrats — he painted them all with dignity. No person is more important than the other.




That emphasis on people’s dignity seems very Catholic to me. You are Catholic, right?

Yes, I am. I’ve done commissions for churches, but I don’t put a lot on my website about liturgical art. I love my faith, but I am a sinner. I struggle with my faith. This is the big thing:  I believe in loving absolutely everybody. Some of my deepest friends are from all faiths and walks of life. I don’t select only Catholic for friends.

Is there any particular kind of religious art that you especially enjoy?

I love all religious art. It’s in a public space, you don’t have to go into someone’s hallway to see it. And there’s a narrative to religious art, which is just the pinncacle of art, for me.



Is your family artistic?

No, I don’t know where it came from. I drew with my friends as a kid all the time. Michelangelo is the first artist I really loved.

What did your parents think when you said you wanted to be an artist?

They love it. A lot of my artist friends’ parents hate the idea, but my parents are very proud of me. My parents are both Protestant, very humble religious people. They have never tried to tell us we have to make a lot of money to be successful.

I’ve been making a living as an artist for five years now. I scrape by. I do travel to Italy!



Who are some of your favorite artists who are working now?

My favorite living painter, Ben Long, paints the life around him. He does large frescos, multi-figured paintings, and he doesn’t doctor it up. He paints life solely from observation, and he has a humble approach to the world around him.

I also love Steven Assael, who is not religious.

And I’ve never met him, but Neilson Carlin does religious work on a great scale, very beautiful work.

Do you see any kind of return to the kind of art that you enjoy? It seems like people are getting tired of ugly and bland things and are thirsting for beauty.

Believe me, my fingers are crossed.  John Paul II and Benedict have talked about bringing back art into the Church. It does seem like there’s a growing interest.

A lot of us are very anxious to return to the traditions of the church. I’m not militantly opposed to Vatican II, but traditional settings more reverent. Modern spaces aren’t thought through the way they used to be.  “Traditional” doesn’t necessarily mean repeating the past word for word, but I don’t see why we have to disregard thousands of years.

What kind of work would you most like to be able to put your name on?

Any sort of narrative from scripture or from the saints. This is something I would really like to get into. It’s hard doing it on your own. I don’t have much resources for models. Just doing paintings for churches would be my dream job.

But you weren’t raised Catholic.

I was raised Lutheran. In high school, I didn’t know if I believed.  It must have been when I was 19, I went on a little journey: Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal. I wasn’t even sure if I could go to Mass, but I went, and I could see something special was going on.  I got some library books on Catholicism, and appreciated the theology.

Ten years ago I converted. It’s a beautiful. I love the Catholic Church. You don’t hear much about sacraments in protestant churches, but it’s the most important thing we’ve got here.





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.

Catholic Artist of the Month: Timothy Jones and the Art of Gratitude

Today begins a new 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.

I am delighted to begin with Timothy Jones, an award-winning American realist whose photorealistic oil painting “Tempus Fugit” was just named a finalist in the BoldBrush Painting Competition.  He graciously spent an hour talking to me while he was still in the throes of final exams at Chesterton Academy, the private Catholic high school in Minneapolis where he teaches art.

My questions are in italics. All the paintings featured, and more of Jones’ work, can be found at his online studio and at Fine Art America, where many pieces are for sale.


So, what’s your favorite color?

For the longest time it was blue, but recently I realized it had changed, and now I prefer green — a natural, mossy green. I don’t know what that says about me. I grew up in Alaska, which is very cold, blue, and kind of stark, beautiful in romantic landscape way. But moving to Arkansas as a teenager,  there was just a wall of green. I didn’t really appreciate that at first. It took a while to settle into that. And it was just steaming hot.

How long does it take you to finish a painting?

I don’t keep close track of the hours. It takes from a few days to a week, depending on how thing go and how much time I have.

A lot of it is just kind of staring at it. You kind of collect yourself, let things suggest themselves, or just walk away from it for a while, then come back and see what you have.

Do you work on more than one painting at a time?

I should! It would be a good system, because I do work in layers. But I focus on one painting at a time.


It would be great for my production, to do more than one at a time. Collectors like to see consistency. They like to group things thematically. But I always feel like I’m just learning to paint, because I’m trying out different things.

What’s something new you’ve tried recently?

The last couple of paintings have been done in a style that’s been around for a few decades, called hyperrealism.  I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I wanted to try. There are certain aspects of it that appeal to me — strong shadows; detailed, meticulous work.

Tempus Fugit

In a lot of circles, what’s popular now is impressionism. You do more with color, you appeal to the emotions, use expressive brushwork. I love that.

Water Lilies at Moonrise


Winter Mist


Hyperrealism — is that the raspberries


and the chokeberries?


Those take more of a macro view, with a more contemporary composition I was trying out. The response has been terrific.

But it seems like a classic composition is what you keep coming back to — the straight-on view, a glass, a piece of bread, a piece of fruit . . .


Blue Cheese


Blue Vase with Plums


I feel like I’ve been learning to paint all this time. By using this traditional structure, I can work with and can try things inside that, and feel like I have some confidence and change one thing.  For instance, I was in the habit of using a dark background,



and it was a little leap to use a lighter background.


Good Company


Beer has this beautiful color, but you can’t see it well with a dark background.  I paint a lot of beer!


Mug of Beer


It’s been good to work out some how I deal with light, things like these last couple I’ve done, like some eggshells.




Another was “Tempus Fugit,” [see above] which is made up of a lot of things that remind me of the passage of time. I didn’t set that up intentionally; there was some stuff in a box, and I decided to paint it, and it turned out they were all themed.

One painting that my sons loved was the hamburger. You’ve done a few hamburgers.


Suzy Q Double Cheeseburger


I was happy with it. It ended up in a show. Everyone thought it was great, but then it stayed around forever. Nobody bought it.

Is there a struggle between wanting to paint something and having to make a commercial decision?

I did some orange paintings that sold while they were still wet.


Orange Peeled





The gallery guy said, “Go home and paint about twelve more oranges.” But this weird little thing in my brain says, “I can’t paint an orange now, because it’s been requested! I’m switching now to submarines!

But I have a genuine interest in everything I paint. You spend a lot of time lying in bed thinking about what you want to paint next. I haven’t always had a really clear idea of what direction I want to go in, but I have had a clear idea of what I don’t or shouldn’t want to do.

Like what?

There’s the temptation of doing something that’s going to sell well: kitschy, sentimental stuff, might have worked out.  My family might have wanted me to do some of that!  But I always really had to paint things that I was interested in. I find beer really beautiful. A lot of the setups are trying to create an atmosphere of fellowship or camaraderie.


Pewter Stein and Pipe


Speaking of an atmosphere of fellowship, you teach classical art in a private high school, Chesterton Academy. How did that come about?

I went to a Chesterton conference with a painting and a drawing of Chesterton,


Astonished at the World


and the head of the Chesterton Society came up and said, “We’ve started a school.  Would you like to move to Minnesota?”  Now I’m finishing my second year there.  If there’s one thing that could drag me away from painting, it’s that.

The school is in its fifth year. They started with eight or nine students, and now they have 115. The school has this character of a little, crazy school – a private, Catholic classical high school – and the spirit of Chesterton plays a big part in that. It’s a joyous, thankful approach to Catholicism, a very human Catholicism.  We have the greatest conversations in the faculty lounge. The kids all take drama, and they all take four years of art – studio art, and art history.  It’s kind of a luxury for me to delve into those books again.

A lot of the kids are surprised to learn that there are steps to making a work of art. They think you just come out of the womb with this talent, that you pick up a pencil and it’s magic. There is an element of that, but there are also a whole lot of ways to systematically help yourself. The kids open up in a way that is gratifying, and fun, to see. They surprise themselves.

After I teach them, they can go on and paint like Picasso if they want to. I try to keep things positive and not bash that kind of art. But I want them to be aware of all this beautiful stuff.

Last year, the juniors and seniors took a field trip to Rome. (I couldn’t afford to go; moving had done such wonderful things to my budget!).  You don’t have to convince them that Caravaggio or St. Peter’s Basilica is great. It changes a person.  Compare that to the absurdity of some modern art movement . . . it’s not anything you really have to spell out.

And you have been through some spiritual changes yourself, as a convert to Catholicism?

It’s all Jimmy Akin’s doing. He and I were friends in college. In our thirties, my wife Martha and I lived close to him and his wife. It was a great time. He has one of the quickest minds I’ve ever seen.  I can’t keep up with him, but it was fun to try. Also, he’s just an honest person.  Wherever the logic takes him, he’ll go. He began to help me start learning to think. One thing led to another and here we are.

What sort of art have you been looking at recently?

I just saw a bunch of painting from ancient Rome, nature studies on their walls. Still life. They were just doing the same thing:  “Isn’t this great, we have these fish!” I think that’s part of Chesterton’s writings: this love and gratitude for the material world, a reaction against the puritan suspicion of the physical world, or the gnostic suspicion.

What do you mean, “gnostic suspicion?”

I see currents of gnosticism in modern art. Suspicious, antagonistic to dull reality, to life, to the rocks in the street. We don’t wanna paint things that are all around us, we have to transcend that! But for me, the transcendence comes through the experience of things. Explore this, talk about it . . . that’s what I love about art. That’s what art, especially original art, not reproductions, is: this tremendous dialogue. Someone painted this a thousand ago, and I’m reading his  mind. I like this idea of this dialogue, fellowship over a bird or a plant.

Your art strikes me as very Catholic, even the ones that aren’t explicitly religious, like “Immaculate Heart” is.


Immaculate Heart


I’m glad to hear that! I try to think sincerely what I should be painting. What can I do to move people toward the truth? I try to think of things I can show my own gratitude for. The essence of art is the artist saying,  “Look, I have something to show you. I saw this plant, I saw this bird!”



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.