Christopher Brown– an encaustic artist currently based in Jackson, Mississippi.
What is your background and where are you now?
My father is a minister in the PCA, and we moved multiple times, which means that I grew up in various cities. I was born in Tallahassee, Florida, where my dad served as the Reformed University Fellowship campus minister. We moved to another city in Florida when he became an assistant pastor. Our family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee when he was offered another position, and then I ventured out to Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi to study visual art. Currently, I am at Reformed Theological Seminary, going into my second year of full-time study. My wife and I now plan to be here for at least two more years, and possibly for more time, depending on whether I do any graduate work. My ultimate goal is to teach and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in a manner worthy of Him.
What led to your decision to enroll in seminary after completing an art degree? How do your continued art practice and work as a seminary student relate?
Prior to entering Belhaven I had begun to question whether my religious upbringing was something I actually believed to be true. I decided that while I was at school I could not be content to live a hypocritical life-style, and that I would seek out the ‘Truth’ about God. I then read my Bible for the first time, as well as many other religious texts and philosophers. I found worldly philosophy to be bereft of the simple facts that God’s Word called to account: Namely the justice of God, the entirely corrupted nature of man (that is, that man cannot do anything to save himself), and the person and salvific work of Jesus Christ. As I grew to love and know Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s ministry, I myself sensed a call to the ministry, specifically in the area of teaching. This call was tested when I began to supplement my artwork and art classes with Koine Greek, theology classes, and by joining the Honors College. I also discussed this with my father and with several pastors, who all confirmed that this was a wise discernment.
What does your process look like? What kinds of materials do you use?
I begin a goal in mind. I am not trying to express myself, nor am I trying to embed my ego onto a canvas. Similarly, I am not simply tyring to sell artwork–the value of artwork lies much deeper than consumerism and economic pragmatism. My goal in making art is both:
a. to understand, more and more, the glory of God displayed in creation, and
b. to make work that calls attention to the glory of God through aesthetic delight and through allegory.
That said, I do typically begin making a piece with a general allegory in mind. Before ever visiting my studio I find it of utmost importance to be involved in my sketchbook. When I am thinking about the way light works, or when I take the time to slowly follow the curve of an object with my eyes, I learn a great deal about God’s creation. From this experience I can then step into the studio, filled with ideas that have come from deep study.
Material-wise, I use beeswax and natural pigments. So, when I go to my studio, I plug in a crock-pot or heating tray to melt down the beeswax. Then, I prepare (or have already prepared) surfaces to use. Typically I use wood as a base for the wax, however I have used different metals, plastics, papers, and such things. While working on a piece I use a slow process of accretion. That is, I slowly, and lightly, brush the molten wax onto the surface, let it dry, and then do it again. Over a repeated process, this builds up into dense ‘tongues’ of wax. I also incorporate found objects into these pieces. I usually find these things accidentally, however I do occasionally search for specific objects. I primarily use leaves, seeds, insects, and stone because of their power of metaphor.
I began working with encaustic as a kind of experiment. Prior to encaustics, I used various materials, mainly cellophane and plastic wrap, in an attempt to display how broken objects can be reformed and renewed in a beautiful composition. But, when I had the opportunity to use beeswax I discovered that it realized my intentions in a much more authentic way. The material itself is humble and soft, much like a vessel in the hands of its Creator. It can be accreted over time, which I find a metaphor for the providence of God. You can also incorporate found objects into beeswax without damaging the object or damaging the wax (which was a problem with latex and plastic). Also, because beeswax is painted I could use my interest in pigments and minerals in a way I could not with latex or plastic. There are many other reasons for why I use encaustic, but primarily I still use it because of its usefulness for allegory, and because of its aesthetic quality.
Can you help us understand how to approach and view your work by telling us about Sons of the Resurrection?
Sons of the Resurrection is a reference to Luke 30:24-38, in which Jesus argues that God will, in fact, raise the dead. Sadducees neither believed in angels, nor in the resurrection, and so Jesus was explaining to them the power of God, and the precise nature of the resurrection. Because I had read the Scriptures, I understood the concept of Sonship, and also knew Luke 20, prior to creating this piece. But, I began collecting the materials for this work before I knew exactly what I was making. First, I found an old art project that my dad has done in middle or high school. It was composed of a piece of wood with a picture of runners. Above the image there were letters glued to the work, quoting Hebrews 12:11, “…Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” My dad was threatening to discard the project, so I saved it from its certain doom. I thought that the raised lettering would be a perfect under-layer for beeswax, and was excited to see what effect beeswax would have on the flat, coated image. Meanwhile, I had salvaged several cicada (tibicen linnei) husks from annual cicadas. I also found a dead cicada, perfectly preserved, and so I kept that as well. So, as I began to put beeswax onto the surface of my work I thought, “you know, this is a piece about the perseverance of the saints. This is a work that is about endurance in the midst of suffering, and about the promise of eternal fellowship with God. What objects can I incorporate that would be a good metaphor for this?” I looked to the cicadas then because of my studies in poetry. Japanese Zen poets often use cicadas as an illustration of reincarnation. I believe that cicadas are more useful as a metaphor, or as an illustration, for regeneration that for reincarnation. The nymph is like a person trapped under the “prince of the power of the air”–dead in sin. The molting process is then an allegory for dying to one’s self by the power of the Holy Spirit, and emerging from the husk is like being regenerated through the Spirit’s renewing work, and united by faith to Christ. The new cicada then matures and dies, just as a Christian will mature in Christ and be taken to glory with Him (or live until He returns!). So, thinking back through this process there are a few things I’d like to note:
a. The organic nature of the process: thought gives cause to action, and what is produced gives cause to more thought.
b. The analogical nature of materials: much of the power of poetry, the power of music, and the power of non-representational artwork, is found in the usefulness of materials. Representations are useful for analogy, it is true, but the juxtaposition of different materials, sounds, and instruments is just as useful for creating deep and rich analogy.
c. The aesthetic nature of artwork: There is a lot to be said about how the glory of God is revealed through His general creation. All of creation declares His glory, and a way in which His glory is revealed to humans is through aesthetic experience or pleasure. We understand something of God’s glory when we can recognize how beautiful, how utterly majestic God is, if He can make a tree so beautiful. For this reason artists should focus on craftsmanship: we need to make aesthetically sensitive work, and inculcate an attitude of wonder in viewers. We need to do this, not for the sake of making an income, but for the sake of humans: humans need to know God, and a part of knowing Him is understanding His beauty revealed through creation.
What is the relationship between your pieces and their titles. How do you go about naming a work?
I name my pieces after completing them because though I know the theological implications of the work prior to finishing, I am not always certain as to the most exact and useful name for it. So, for example, after much thought I came to believe that ‘Sons of the Resurrection’ was the best name for a piece with a reference to perseverance of the saints, and the hope of the resurrection of the dead.
Your work is both conceptual and experiential, how do you navigate between the two?
As I mentioned earlier, the nature of ‘process’ is organic. I meditate on Scripture, or on some concept, and then find metaphors for them in nature. Have I mentioned poetry? I think I have. I go on walks, and as I walk I write poetry–and not good poetry, mind you. Usually, I simply write down what I observe in tight but lucid language so that later I can understand these things as metaphors. While on these walks, I gather found objects. Just like with my writing, I store these objects, hoping that later I will further understand their allegorical nature. If I did not walk, write, and gather, I would be bereft of any material that could legitimately be a metaphor for deep concepts. If I did not meditate on God’s creation and on His Word I would have no ideas worth discussing. So, both thinking and doing help fuel each other, and when I lean too heavily to one or the other it becomes difficult to make good artwork.
What advice do you have for the church and its relationship to artists and art?
Artists need to understand the Church. The Church is, allegorically speaking, both a body and a building, both being composed of living members. The Church is a body in that it is Christ’s body, He Himself being the Head. We are on earth, He is in heaven. Members of the body function just like ‘members’ of a human body: some function as feet, some as eyes, some as ears. Christian artists need to understand that we are living members of the body of Christ: we are not separated from the Headship of Jesus, nor are our fellow members. So, this means that we need to be in subjection to the authority of Jesus, which He has given–not to a pope, nor to councils–but in His Word and to those elders who teach His word. We must submit ourselves to the government of the Church out of reverence for Christ. This is what He Himself has instituted, and He commands that there be Church discipline given by fit and able elders. For this reason we do not need isolationist ‘Christian’ artists. We do not need ‘churchless Christians’. If you believe yourself to be a Christian–obedient to Christ’s commands–but will not obey God, then you have a real issue with hypocrisy and pride. So, really, we need Christians who truly desire to be held accountable by other members, and who want to grow in love for their fellow members. This, of course, doesn’t dismiss the fact that Christians mistreat one another, and this sinfulness often hurts Christian artists. But, as Paul says, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor. 6:7) If you are in Christ, then you are being made like Him. Just as He suffered injustice, we too should gladly suffer injustice–even from our own brethren. It is my prayer that Christian artists will be made spiritually mature by joining and participating in Christ’s body, because it is so easy for us to grow arrogant and to mimic the art culture around us.