In 1975, Stephen Sawyer graduated from the University of Kentucky with an advertising degree. His future, however, didn't lie in creating ad slogans or slick copy. Rather, it lay in painting images of Jesus—images like no one had ever before seen.
From Stephen Sawyer painting "The Storm Pilot." (Stephen S. Sawyer/Art for God)
It lay in Art for God.
Sawyer recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com from his studio in Versailles, Ky., about his spiritual journey, his art and his calling.
The Lexington native said he got a call from God when he graduated.
"It's been very expensive, so I'd say it was a collect call," he joked. The calling lay in using his artistic talents to portray Jesus anew.
"I didn't know it was going to be called Art for God," said Sawyer. "I just knew who the real Jesus was had not been portrayed in art." He said most art had portrayed Jesus at his birth or death, but not during his life—and Sawyer wanted to create art that honored Jesus' life.
"I ended up waiting 20 years," he said, his voice revealing the patience it took. Sawyer, now 52, said he spent those two decades getting three things in order: his talent, his spiritual readiness, and his Jesus model.
That's right: Sawyer wanted a model for Jesus, and not just anyone would do.
"I was staring at a lot of men," said Sawyer. "I would sometimes make them uncomfortable. Funnier yet, they would sometimes make me uncomfortable."
One day, though, as he sat in his studio, he spotted a man walking down the street—and Sawyer knew he'd found his Jesus. The artist rocketed out of his studio to catch the unsuspecting pedestrian.
"I said, 'I've been looking for you for 20 years,'" Sawyer recalled. And the gentleman, Ty Gardner, was up to the task.
"He was 12 when I told God I wanted the assignment, and when I met him he was 32," Sawyer said, noting the parallel between Gardner's ages and those of significant times in Jesus' own life.
And one more thing: Gardner's legal middle name is Dove.
The Religious and Spiritual Journey
"I was raised in a Christian home," said Sawyer. When he entered high school, however, he began seeking opportunities to visit other churches, even a friend's synagogue. By the time he entered college, he sought a broader religious experience than the one he had known.
"There was something about the limitation of worshipping God through the constraints of a denomination that I felt were misleading in some ways," he said.
Sawyer studied different religions—Buddhism, Islam, American Indian, to name a few—calling his exploration "a quest to find what God was and what he turns people into."
However, "The thing that got me was the life and teachings of Jesus," he said, adding that those are "crucially different from the religion about Jesus."
"I just wanted God to be real, and I found out that God is real," he said. "For God to actually incarnate in human flesh—people take it for granted, but that's nuts. That's crazy. That's wild."
The Jesus Image
The more than two dozen images in the Art for God series are a source of controversy. Some Christians have even called Sawyer's work blasphemy.
"Why?" asked Sawyer rhetorically. "Because I did art that was outside their comfort zone."
"When you put a tattoo on Jesus, that inflames some people, and I understand that," he said. "But they're looking at the surface, and that's exactly what Jesus told us not to do. All I'm trying to do is create art that honors the life and teaching of Jesus."
In Sawyer's "No Appointment Necessary," Jesus shows off a muscular arm emblazoned with a heart and cross tattoo that says "Father." In "Undefeated," Jesus stands in a boxing ring. In "Jesus of Nazareth," Jesus looks directly ahead, pointing a finger at the viewer a la Uncle Sam.
Sawyer includes a story with each print that explains the ideas behind it.
"I'm not trying to paint Jesus the way he might have looked 2,000 years ago," said Sawyer. "Nobody knows that." In that vein, he expressed disinterest in the work of scholars and scientists who have tried to create an image of what Jesus historically looked like.
"It's really irrelevant to try to pigeonhole an image of Jesus," he said. "There are so many things that scholars fight over that I couldn't care less about." Rather, Sawyer wants to show Jesus' kindness, humility, compassion and strength.
"People that love Jesus, they see him as beautiful and strong, and so do I." He said one of the most frequent reactions to his work is, "Thank you for not making Jesus wimpy."
Sawyer married his wife, Cindy, the day after she turned 18. They've now been married more than 30 years.
"There's nothing like it," he said of married life. "We've had an absolute blast." They've also had five children: Andon, Fonta, Hart, Van and Arbella.
Art for God, whose prints have shipped to more than 100 countries, is a family business. Not only do family members serve as models, but Andon built the company's Web site, and eight-year-old Arbella, for example, has paintings of her own for sale (proceeds of which go toward her college fund).
"It's just the greatest thing in the world to be able to do this as a family," Sawyer said.
Art for God
"I think Art for God is really special for a lot of reasons," said Sawyer. "It's special to me because it means that I have, with my family's help, been able to create art that honors the life and teachings of Jesus. It has given me a venue to write. It has given me not only the privilege of being able to live on faith—because you never know what your paycheck is going to be from week to week—but it's also given me the opportunity to share the gospel in a unique and different way."
That way is positive instead of negative. Sawyer points out that Art for God doesn't criticize any denomination or religion.
"I'm not going to tell God that he's not doing his job right," said Sawyer, citing biblical texts in which God says he will pour out his spirit on all people. "I think he's doing a splendid job."
"You've got to trust that God knows what he's doing," he said.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The Art for God Web site is www.art4god.com. The studio is in Versailles, Ky., with a gallery in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Prints, t-shirts, pins and more are available.
Art for God is also sponsoring a national Christian art competition, the deadline of which has been extended to Dec. 15. Visit the Web site for more details.