Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On God, Art, and Dragons.

I praise God that it is in the moments when we are the weakest, most broken and helpless that God is most glorified. I hope that, as I write about my life and my work, this comes across loud and clear- I am a small man sustained by the grace of God alone. I hope that, when I talk about spiritual things- about God, and about my faith (which is so important to me) that you don't hear me preaching downwards from some height.
I could just talk shop in whatever way feels safest: keep to the art-speak and pithy anecdotes from my life. But I find that if I am going to be truly honest, I cannot avoid talking about God.

To my mind, when I talk about faith, I am talking about art. There is no clear separation. If my work and what I believe fit neatly into their own separate categories, then neither would be much of anything. If my belief in God was all well and good but had nothing to do with why I make art, I would be in a sad state indeed- given that so much of my time and energy is devoted to making art. As I've been feeling the desire to wax a little introspective and I hope, as you all have in the past, that you'll indulge me again :)
I feel that God uses my work and my experiences with art to teach me lessons that suddenly become all the more vivid and true to me because they relate to things in my life that matter deeply to me. Or to put it another way: I speak "art", so God speaks "art" to me so that I'll understand. And because art matters deeply to me, it matters deeply to me when I find God stooping to my level just to really get to me.

So love: right? God is loving, we've all heard it.
It's so possible to just hear something again and again and again to the point where it means nothing anymore. You becomes desensitized, and you tune out because in the end it's just words. What are they talking about, anyways?
It's pretty impossible for me to get/relate to the love of an all-powerful deity. But I understand the love of my family. And God goes to great lengths in the Bible to communicate his love is like that of a 'father'. He's saying "I know you don't understand, so here's a you get it now?"
It's all well and good to say that God is beautiful and he is a loving creator, but it is so much more vivid when you can understand that his love is like the love of your family. Your actual ridiculous, boisterous, frustrating, wonderful, stupid family. You follow me? How does this relate to art? Stick with me.

I mentioned that God's use of the word "Father" is like a picture. I mean that literally. It's like an image: an abstraction, a representation meant to pluck at your heart and your associations and communicate something deeper than just the word itself. I'll come back to this.
So: beauty. It was never quite enough to me to say that God was beautiful, because that was just a word. And that word, in the context of church, in the mouth of a well-meaning pastor on Sunday morning meant to me that he was beautiful like worship-service stock photos of sunsets and pastel-colored naked babies with wings. Not terribly interested.

As an artistic soul caught up in the mainstream church-culture of America, I've sometimes felt ostracized. If you're like me, you don't really like the things it seems that everyone else likes- and you feel that your definition of 'beauty' clashes wildly with the church's. Which means yours is clearly a wrong one that you need to repent of. -_-
Really, the opposite is true. If you have a love of art and all things visual, you are closer to understanding what God means when he says beautiful. And if you follow that through to its conclusion, you may find yourself nearer to the beating heart of God than you'd have imagined possible.

It was a new and really profound thought to me: God's understanding of beauty encompasses my entire understanding of beauty. Hold on that for a second.

This means everything you've ever loved, admired, found striking, stood in awe of. Everything that moves you to tears. And if that's not pastel-colored paintings of angels: THAT'S OK.

For me that includes things like Miyazaki Films and good acapella. It includes comic books and mid-afternoon light. It includes good, heartfelt folk rock and ridiculous, candy-coated dance music. Chocolate chip cookies, musicals, rainy days, and well-chosen fonts.
I have spent much of my life feeling like I need to be making the 'right' kind of art...that It was all well and good for me to love fantasy novels and Disney movies, but the real ministry and work of God was done in tracts and comic-books-about-angels. Not that it can't include those things, it's just SO MUCH BIGGER, and if we miss that then we miss the point. And that's the very simple thing I'm trying to get at.
If we believe what we say we believe, then we believe that God made EVERYTHING. And before we get ahead of ourselves and decide we can judge what parts of creation are 'good' and 'evil' we have to remember that he declared everything to be 'good' first and foremost. All creation is still his. In the story of Genesis, the first act of God was to make art. "Let there be light" laid the foundations for every form of visual expression ever conceived.
When we paint, we paint with colors God conceived of. Every act of art is at least an accidental act of praise.
When I make art, I am playing Legos. God made the Legos, and I'm just...rearranging. That in- and-of-itself shows that, like a child made in the likeness of his father, I love to create because he loves to create. And that's enough to justify the action of creating. Praise God for Legos!
As a character designer, this has become clearer and clearer to me as I work. I design dragons for a living. And people love dragons.
(Aside: Not all people love dragons. In fact, generally the church-ladies of the world would have me feel guilty and heavy-laden for digging on dragons. They're 'evil', 'demonic' beasts, right? DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY DRAGONS YOU WOULD HAVE TO DESIGN IF YOU WERE GONNA ILLUSTRATE THE BIBLE? A butt-ton, is the answer to that question. Not to mention the Leviathan, a monster which God describes as one of his favorite and mightiest creations. BUT ANYWAY.)
Something about dragons occurred to me when I went to the zoo.
There's a thing about the zoo- it's pretty amazing when you're a very little kid...animals are cool! Everything is new and astounding, bizarre and exciting. Then most kids (at least, I did) go through this phase where it's all just 'boring'. I mean- horses? seen em. A fish is a fish, you know what I mean? But dragons? Hell yeah. SUPAH COOL.
But I took a few character design courses, trying to come up with super-cool new designs and things that nobody's ever seen...I started to sense something was holding my work back. Everything felt derivative of things I had seen drawn before- I was regurgitating work other people had already done. I needed to strip my process back down to basics.
So I hit up the zoo. And HOLY CRAP. Suddenly all that jaded little-kid-stuff fell off in a heap. I was suddenly back at the visual source- the origins of all creature design. Maybe this doesn't happen for everyone, but it happened this way for me. I was suddenly enraptured like the littlest kid by watching manta-rays float and snakes coil. It rocked my world and I realized that dragons aren't cool for their own sake at all- Lizards are cool. Bats are cool. Dragons are cool because of that little spark of creativity that it took for someone to put bat wings on a lizard. See what I mean by Legos? The spirit of creativity?

G.K. Chesterton (who is a GENIUS like WHOAH) puts it better than I ever could:
"Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water."
I realized that I do nothing that God hasn't already done. And in that moment I realized that God loves character design more than anyone who'd ever designed a character. He was a better, more wondrous designer than I would ever be, and he wasn't looking down impatiently for me to put down my pencil and start praising him. He was waiting for me to realize that by picking up my pencil, I was praising him all along.
And it's so beautiful, because there's this other side to it, too. Why would God make art? That doesn't make sense; to just do something for no reason at all. But then I think about why I make art...
I'm an illustrator, so this aspect of it is very specific to my discipline: I make art to communicate. I make art to say things to people that don't make sense to say in words. I write, and I use words when it seems right to do so, but sometimes what is in me to express is emotional and wordless.
And then suddenly lizards and bats and sunsets all make a kind of sense to me. When we see something beautiful, we see the beating heart of God. And God gets this idea, because God communicates his love in the person of Jesus, most completely and for this reason Jesus is called the "word made flesh".
Is it so hard to believe, therefore, that every coiling snake and every color on the color wheel; every Lego in the whole set is stamped to it's very core with the message "I love you"? "I love you in this wordless, beautiful way and there's just no way to express it other than >beluga whale<" :)
Such that there is no combination you can make, no work of art you can conceive of that isn't covered all over in God's love, whether you intend it or not.
In that light, it is a delight...a wonder to study and to learn to love some small part of what God must have loved when he made a lizard. To delight with him in its scales, color, spines and forms. And to me, God is saying "you like that? me too!"
And moreover: "you know that green? I love you" "I love you enough to make you this green I knew you'd love."
They are little gifts, love notes all throughout creation and all we see, stuck everywhere. Here and there: whispering in every small way "I love you. You specifically. Here's how."

And we can get it wrong- I get it so wrong so often, and I put the gift before the giver. I open the present and become obsessed with its qualities and functions and forget to notice the loving parent who is watching me play and just waiting, aching for a "thank you".

That's as honest and open a window into my thoughts as any. And just as messy and stream-of-consciousness, too :p Call it a first draft.
Thanks for reading (if you have). If not, I understand :) I'm...wordy.
Short version: Thank God for Dragons, Color and Miyazaki Movies.

I am so grateful for your support and comments. I hope this finds you well :)

God bless and love you,



Ryan said...

Thank you, Nick- a beautiful meditation!

Anonymous said...

This made my heart burst out of my chest and do a little happy dance. I seriously started tearing up reading this. You've expressed feelings I've never been able to find the words for. Thank you.

Mimi said...

This...Yes. It is YES. (Which is internet speak for 'amen')

And thank you for the point of illustrating the bible would require dragons. My dad is one of those people who say "SATAN" and don't move one. :D

karlene :) said...

"I feel that God uses my work and my experiences with art to teach me lessons that suddenly become all the more vivid and true to me because they relate to things in my life that matter deeply to me. Or to put it another way: I speak "art", so God speaks "art" to me so that I'll understand. And because art matters deeply to me, it matters deeply to me when I find God stooping to my level just to really get to me."

thanks, I completely agree.. =)

Danielle Coiro said...

Beautiful, and so true! Oh man it's SO TRUE.

The Lady Nerd said...

Wow....just wow. I have never read of a modern artist so enraptured with his faith, but completely and wholly immersing that with his art. What an inspiration. I feel ashamed to say that I'm stuck in that state of creating art, but not thinking of it in such a faith-led way like you. I get too hung up on the details - the pencil not going the way I want it to, the shading not being quite right, etc. I only recognise glimpses of the Creator's wonderful gifts. I'll occassionally glance up to see a sky full of cumulonimbus clouds and think, "Wow...the Master just did that." But sadly, that mindset is lacking in my everyday walk. What an amazing gift God's given you to see Him so clearly in so many things. You are a man to strive to be like.

Catherine said...

What beautiful thoughts - they ring very true. Thanks for this.

sindos said...

It was a great read! I feel encouraged by the knowledge I am not alone in church with a "weird view" n___n it's great how you put it into words and also felt enlightened by your comprehension of God's language.
*Leaves blog light hearted*

Wait… there isn't a +1 anywhere? isn't blogger part of Google? *searches* if I find it I will share it, so awesome.

Tim said...

Thanks mate, these are good words.

scruffy said...

i don't think i can find the words to thank you or agree with you on this and to thank God for you and for this....

i may have to go draw a dragon instead :)

Gabi Dimaranan said...

would you believe it if even your post was God's way for me to know He loves me? hahaha. this brought tears to my eyes.

i could remember the time he made the Manila Bay's sea and sky so blue with the clouds glowing white from the bright sun's light... just to let me know he loves me so. i really get what you mean. thank you for this post...<3

Moira said...

Hey Nick, I'm a new reader, but your post really cheered me up today. Lately I've just been feeling down about art in general - not because my love for it has wavered, but because I feel like being an artist is like being a little boy trying to cover the leak in the dam with band-aids. But your thoughts helped me to put things in perspective, and it reminded me to go back and read Pope John Paul II's "Letter to Artists". Such beautiful words for any artist who is trying to serve God.

Also, ditto on the Miyazaki films and good acapella, etc. Simple pleasures like those are what make life.

Keep up the amazing work!

Jono said...

Hey there, I love what you had to say, and I agree with alot of it. (not to say I disable with any of it) I'll share this with my Mum and Dad cos they're believers too, I know they take an interest.

When you were talking about God being loving and all, I couldn't help by remember this one bit of scripture:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
1 John 4:7-8

And lastly, whenever I think about beauty; the music from Miyazaki Films (by Joe Hisaishi) comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

I like what you said- I wish the church I went to talked about their ideas in a positive way like this. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

Nomichos said...

Hi Nick
I've been an avid lurker soon around 2009.

I'll admit openly to being agnostic though it is not that i don't believe in "god" but moreso that i do not believe in the christian view of "god".

Your words are full of grace, and the stream that you have hit upon rings true in even my somewhat cynical mind. I've spent many years enraptured by the play of colour across a cuttlefish, or the sweet rhythmic sorrow/joy inherent to the cadence of the rise and fall of a tiny slumbering rib-cage. The universe is filled with messages of love, sometimes it just feels that in modern life we are blinded to them.

Thankyou for your words and our reminder.

the doodler said...

This is pretty awesome, in both senses of the word.

Leslie said...

And thank you. That's an excellent thing to remember.

-fabi- said...

Very beautiful, Nick :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a recent christian and a communication arts student at VCU and I've been really struggling with trying to figure out what it means to glorify God through my art.

this made me almost cry. Thank you so much for this!

I do have a question for you, though. Communication arts students here at VCU are like the navy seals---teachers expect perfection all the time with any and all media and they push me so hard, I feel so much pressure to succeed on my own efforts, that I forget about God. How do I trust Him that everything will be okay, and that he has perfect control over something that requires so much of my own "control"?

find me on deviantart to answer?

thanks again for this post. it means so much that there are christian artists like you who praise God without fear in this jaded community.

DaimlerGirl said...

What a wonderful post. I often think that the reason humans love art and have the capacity to do it is because we were created in His image, and since He has the capacity and creativity to make it, then so do we.

I also suggest anyone who's struggling with Art and their faith to read Steve Turner's book 'Imagine' It helped me greatly in my quest to balance my two passions.

Yilin said...

Well said! I find it amazing as this is the first time I ever encounter an illustrator who shares the same faith as me (and I'm an illustrator too!), and I seriously have a lot to learn from you. I once almost gave up on art because I thought it was all eye candy and didn't know what good it would do for the Kingdom of God. I thought my pursue of a career in art was merely for the desire of the flesh. But I'm really glad that I didn't, and what you said here says it all.

Anonymous said...

" have spent much of my life feeling like I need to be making the 'right' kind of art...that It was all well and good for me to love fantasy novels and Disney movies, but the real ministry and work of God was done in tracts and comic-books-about-angels. Not that it can't include those things, it's just SO MUCH BIGGER, and if we miss that then we miss the point. And that's the very simple thing I'm trying to get at."

Thank you. You have just made me stop wondering if I can please God with my art and if I should be doing more "biblical" things like drawings of crosses instead.


Beth said...

Wow. I love this post so so much, and agree with just about every word. Especially these words:

"To my mind, when I talk about faith, I am talking about art. There is no clear separation."

So true. When I first began to make art and described the joy-filled experience of creation to a Christian friend, she responded, "That sounds like worship to me."

Yes. A thousand times yes!

Anonymous said...

this is one of the most beautiful thought-trains I've ever read - Thank you for encompassing almost the entirety of my faithviews in one post! God has blessed you with a gift of words as art, not just visual representations. THank you THANK YOU THANK YOU.

Raphael said...

something's going on in the artists world... and IT'S SOOOOOOOOO GOOOOOOOOOOOD!!!!

Gueph'Ren said...

This has to be one of the most beautiful blog posts I've ever read. Truthfully you capture the love of god toward us, graphic-inclined persons.

Thank you for such a post.

kelpeterson said...

First, it made perfect sense. Two, thank you very much for writing this post. I'm not an artist, but finding the ultimate creator in every little creation is an idea I think we can all appreciate.

Again, thank you for writing such a cool post!

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for taking the time to write that. It is so true.

Josh Cotton said...

Hi, you don't know me, I just found you on the DA (my handle there is greeni-studio). I just want to say thank you for posting this. I think in the political climate today people are made to feel afraid to express their feelings about God, when truly He is the most important part of our lives. I admire your courage in bearing your testimony of Him so openly. Also, thank you for your thought about art and spirituality being inseparable- I believe that is more true than most people realize. Thank you for your example and your fine art :)

Michelle Barnett said...

Dude, that is amazing!

I'm an illustrator (not quite on your level yet, but I'll get there!) and a Christian, and you've just summed up a whole bunch of what I feel about drawing and creativity and where they come from.

A while ago I was at a prayer night but struggling to actually do any praying because there was a massive chalkboard in the room and I JUST WANTED TO DRAW ON IT SO BADLY!!! After some agonising it finally hit me - drawing to God could be just as good a prayer as talking to him. SO i spent the whole hour drawing :)

A friend of mine put it very well. She said that in the Bible it talks about the trees and rocks praising God, but they can't speak so how can they praise him? By being what he has made them to be. So when a rock is the rockiest rock it can be with as many rocklike propoerties as God has given it, it worships it's creator. Likewise to worhsip God I must be the most Michelliest Michelle that I can, fulfilling as many properties of Michelliness as possible. And if one of those properties is to want to draw, I should therefore draw as often as I feel the need. When I enjoy and practise that gift I show gratitude to God.

Also yes, dragons as freakin' AWESOME.

Ciara Kay said...

I stumbled on to your blog via that link you posted on your dA journal... I am so glad I did. I pray that more people will understand these truths, and I look forward to future arts & words from you.

Chelsey Scheffe said...

Whoaza. I resonate with this on every level. Praises to beautiful Jesus for placing these thoughts, realizations, and passions in you.

Eventide said...

Came here from BadCrispy (Tumblr). Thank you so incredibly much for this post! I've loved dragons for a very long time, but coming from an extremely conservative church/town, I always felt a little guilty about it, as if I was doing something wrong. My parents weren't thrilled about this either--especially my artwork or writing, both of which focused on dragons or sci-fi/fantasy in general. (This is also why I don't tell them I play D&D. I don't even WANT to imagine their reactions to that.) I've even, at times, wondered about things like TV, movies, etc. in terms of faith (again, mostly because of my upbringing). But when I'd stop to think about it, I realized these things can have the same effects you mention here about art: the wonder of those gorgeous landscape shots in LotR, the goosebump-inducing or tear-jerking crescendo of an orchestral soundtrack at just the right moment, the awe of spending a couple hours immersed in a world I'd never even dreamt of before. Or, more simply, why do we have creativity if we weren't supposed to use it?

Just recently, I realized that in most RPG systems that have dragons, the creatures are powerful, beautiful, terrifying, awe-inspiring--all of which are aspects of God. When I realized this, I was like, "I should draw God as a dragon!" It just made sense. Again, I felt a little guilty, but for some odd reason, I ended up mentioning this idea to one of the ministers of my church, and though he seemed a little hesitant at first, he realized that something like drawing God as a dragon could be a way to "minister"--if you will--to gamers. And that's something else art can do: it not only reveals God to the artists but also to the viewers!

Anyway, I've rambled way too much. It's just so awesome to see someone else put into words things I've often wondered/worried about. Thank you SO MUCH for this!

God be with you always! <3

Kasey Snow said...

Thank you so much for writing this post. You have just expressed everything I've ever felt about art and God but didn't understand well enough to describe. The spirit definitely spoke through you to me in this and I have just been encouraged far more than I can say. May God continue to bless your current endeavors and may you continue to share in His delight in all of the art that is creation.

Anna said...

Wow. I came here from the tumblr ask-I was the one who asked the question and this post so beautifully made clear what I needed to understand. Thank you. :D