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Arts & Culture Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

From Scripture to Canvas: An Interview with Jace McKinney
By Keisha Oliver
Sep 10, 2013 - 10:48:15 AM

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Jace Mckinney other students at New Student Orientation at Andrews University.

Bahamian artist and illustrator Jace Mckinney began a new chapter in his career this year; he returned to the classroom to pursue studies in Theology at Andrews University in Michigan. Over the past few months, this experience has not merely enriched his spiritual life, but also informed his creative practice.

Jace was the 2012 winner of the prestigious Central Bank of The Bahamas Art Competition’s open category under the theme ‘Redefining the Landscape”. He is currently preparing for his upcoming show ‘Decoding Salvation’ at the bank’s gallery this September.

Jace and I discuss his seminary experience and how his studies and religious beliefs have informed his recent body of work.

When and how did you decide it was important for you to enroll in seminary?

Last year I had taken on several roles within my church. At times, when I felt it was too much, members and leaders in the ministry would reassure me that “This is God’s calling on your life”. I was a teacher, a deacon, youth leader and publisher. I think it was the fifth time that I was approached to serve in another area, that I decided serving in four different ministries was my limit. Although it proved to be challenging, as I look back now I see it as an invaluable experience, as God’s preparation ground for what he has in store for my future.

I imagine this was a decision that you battled with. What was the major deciding factor?

The Great Architect, Theatre of Oblivion. 2010. Jace Mckinney

I feel like it was definitely a calling by God to go into ministry. I’ve had this feeling for years and could see my work as an artist also moving in this direction. I’ve always felt a call for my work to reflect God’s existence in my life and experiences. My art has always been a testimony to what I believe and what I live by. This decision was more about getting to another plateau and not necessarily about becoming a pastor.

How did your friends, family, and peers in the art community respond to this decision?

That’s funny. Early this year, I attended a few art show openings, whilst feeling a little unsure of my decision. I often said to myself “Am I actually doing this?” I remember having a conversation with John Beadle and he said, “So I hear you’re taking up the cloth” and everyone else chiming in with ‘Reverend and Pastor’ and I couldn’t help, but say woah, wait a minute, slow down, I’m not even there!

What have you learned most about yourself in your first semester in seminary?

I’ve learned that there was more of a back-story to my belief system and I gained a better understanding of the purpose God has in and for my life. More than learning, this experience has been about my relationship and personal journey with God. It is no longer just one part of my life, where I have to take time out of my schedule to study his word, but I’ve enjoyed having time that is solely devoted to focusing on the things of God.

I am a person who struggles with anxiety. I‘ve evaluated how this has a certain affect on how I interpret things. I found myself addressing this more in my prayer life and realizing that we all have to surrender to something bigger than ourselves by allowing God to take care of problems like this. I’ve become more carefree and observant of my environment, with the realization that even though God’s presence can be seen in the big things, he also exists in the small things in our lives.

Song of Moses. 2012. Jace Mckinney

How do you balance theology and art now?

My studies take up most of my time so I haven’t been practicing much art over the past few months, but I find myself using my artistic skills to enable and enhance my learning experience. For one of my classes we had to learn the names and work of 40 people. I’m a visual learner and I needed to see the faces in order to remember each character, so I illustrated all 40 of them. During a conversation with a lecturer on taking notes it was interesting to learn from him that some students who doodle in class retain more information than those who actually take notes.

What future do you envision for yourself as an artist with a degree in Theology? Do you plan on practicing in both fields as separate entities or in unison?

A lot of people have already pegged me as being a preacher, but I’m a flexible person. I think the role I take on is heavily dependent on the project that I am engaged in. As a Christian existing in a world with people of other faiths, its all about interaction and sharing; this touches on the theme of my show Decoding Salvation. This recent body of work reflects on the human desire to be saved. It also touches on other salvific themes in relation to loss, struggle, celebration and transformation.

Do you see yourself committing full time to ministry in a church? Arts pastors typically oversee worship and creative arts ministries. Is this a role that you see yourself assuming in the future?

It’s hard to say if I’ll take on the role of an arts pastor in the future, but this type of ministry is always fun to play a role in, especially as it relates to youth ministry. Last year, I was able to organize a camp. One of my favorite parts of this experience was helping the kids make costumes, which they wore while reenacting biblical stories. It was an awesome experience to reach out to the kids in a way that facilitated their learning of biblical stories through art and interaction.

Do you think your studies will drastically change the direction of your creative work or your approach as an artist?

I am definitely seeing a change. One of the things I have been wrestling with as an artist is religious iconography, especially when looking at the Renaissance period. In this period, it is evident that a religious language exists within art. My work is definitely taking a different direction, but is gradually giving its own testimony in that conversation. I am not interested in using an iconic religious graphic language, because they are pretty concrete and a little closed off. When a person talks about their beliefs, they tend to use language that cannot be fully comprehended by others from different backgrounds and cultures. In the case of religion each faith has certain belief systems that are often attached through a specific language. It’s like saying “Oh we need a revival” and realizing the person is either not familiar with the term or associates it with an entirely different meaning. Ultimately, I want the direction of my work to be conscious of the universal perspective and how it can be translated to different types of people.

The Birthday Party. 2013. Jace Mckinney

In 2012 when working on your painting entitled Creation based on the biblical story of the creation of the world you said ‘I love serving God through my talents’. Ultimately is this how you view your creative practice, as a form of Christian servant hood?

Yes, I would definitely agree that I am serving God through my talents. Gifts like this are definitely given to us to reveal God’s glory. Many including myself have deemed this gift as God’s calling on my life. I’ve been wondering about that and what a ‘calling’ is. I guess it’s simply just connecting with God and allowing him to direct you towards his purpose for your life. So by definition I would say it is a calling, but sometimes we do things in our lives for a number of years, and then we can be directed by God to go off to do something else. Moses is a perfect example of this. He was first a prince then he became a shepherd for about forty years and then he was called to be a prophet. I appreciate his journey, in that he wasn’t a prophet his entire life, but was called at the age of 80. Sometimes when looking at these biblical characters we observe their life story in such a short span of time, but by looking at their stories we see that it can take a while before God calls you to your ultimate purpose.

As an artist you embrace the titles illustrator and storyteller; Christians often refer to Jesus as the ‘Greatest storyteller’ who made the connection of earthly places with heavenly realities. Do you see your gift as an opportunity to visualize these stories?

Recently I’ve been pondering the idea of the gift as being the tool to spread the truth. There was once a time when I believed the truth was in the gift. Sometimes we confuse the two. When looking at Jesus and his ministry, he used miracles. It has been very interesting to take a deeper look at his life story and the fact that he often used miracles, but they weren’t something that people were supposed to find the truth in. The miracle was supposed to point to the words he was speaking. So miracles weren’t seen as something that his ministry was hung on; these miracles were merely being used as a vehicle to arrest his audience. This perspective is very similar to how I view my art. The art is almost secondary to whatever the truth or the message is I am trying to convey to my audience. It is a means to get people to open up and start the dialogue.

You talk about their being many stories in the Bible and the Bible being a book of stories in a sense. Are you interested in visualizing those already written stories or are you more interested in creating your own stories from modern reality?

I’d say a little of both. There have been many artists who have illustrated biblical stories throughout the ages. So many interpretations exist today. I would like to illustrate stories of the creation as well as stories relevant to modern society. When looking at international disasters, a few months ago there was a tsunami in China and a lot of people are wondering what’s going on in the world today. I think stories that are related to these events are relevant to give us an idea on reflection on where we are going as a world.

Looking through the history of art, it can be said that art that incorporates religion and spirituality are inextricably linked. Have you been inspired by artists or a period of art that incorporates both?

Recently I’ve been exploring Michelangelo, his life and his approach to art. He saw it as a gift from God and a gift to praise God. He definitely seemed to commune with God through his art. There came a point in his career where he earned a lot of money from the work he produced, but there was also a period where he was just committed to the work because it was his passion.

Jace Mckinney leading students at CIC Camp Week 2012.

Like Michelangelo do you see the direction of your work over the years as your way of communicating with God?

Yes. There have been times I find myself feeling compelled to create an image. I’m not entirely sure why, but while doing research its meaning is revealed and I question whether if in fact it was a revelation from God. I feel that artists are very close to God and one of the roles often overlooked is God as creator. Appreciating God as the master artist is a part of him I am learning more about. In fact, this is a part of him that he actually calls us to remember, if you look in the scriptures, particularly in Genesis when God created the world.

Do you feel the subject of art in religion ignites controversy?

Oh Yea! Having been able to delve into its history recently through my Christian History class, has revealed this controversy. Just to see the influence of why we feel the way we do about certain religious beliefs… I think in today’s society there is an ear of relativism where people are like “Don’t step on my belief system and I won’t step on yours.” So typically whenever someone begins to talk about their beliefs others begin to interpret it as a sermon, attack, or chastisement. Christianity above all other religions by far has so many things tacked to it, having had a very bloody history of suppression and oppression of people all around the world. It was also a suppressed and oppressed religion itself, where it went through a period of persecutions and being torn apart. An irony that many are unaware is that Christians were actually considered atheists because they were seen by the Romans as non-believers of the Greek Gods. It’s interesting how the roles switch, where Christianity becomes this authoritative religion in the world and hence, the oppressor.

Your first solo exhibition in 2010, Theophany, focused on spirituality and the nature of dystopia and the industrial age. It included pieces like The Great Architect: Theatre of Oblivion and That’s the Spirit and has been followed by a stream of work like The Song of Moses, 2013 that follow a trend of expressing spirituality. What were you trying to convey through these works?

One of the things I see from living today is the extreme detachment from spiritualism and the awareness of other-worldly powers. I think if we observe simple things in nature and then ask the question of whether we’re alone in the universe you would receive a resounding “No”. We look straight past the things considered mundane, like the fact that we live on a planet that orbits around a ball of fire. That’s pretty mind blowing when you really ponder it. We take so many things like this for granted. The work that I create gives birth to conversations that ask us to take notice of the things that exist and are happening around us.

Your second solo exhibition Decoding Salvation continues the trend of exploring spirituality. Is it more likely to show a similar tone and style of work or can we expect something completely new?

When working on Theophany, it was a moment where I felt like God was really moving in my life. That show was about getting a vision from God like Moses did in the burning bush. As it relates to my current body of work, one of the things that is like an Achilles’ heel coming from a religious standpoint is that this type of art can come off as sermonizing. This is why I take a less direct approach where there is still a sense of openness allowing viewers to make their own impressions on the work. It is in our nature to make our own impressions for what we hear, see and read. So this new work is giving a testimony of my beliefs and faith with hope that my viewers use it as a starting point to ask deeper and more interesting questions.

What was your inspiration behind the theme Decoding Salvation?

Death moved close to home, having taken away a few loved ones recently, I began to realise that death was becoming more of a reality. It’s amazing how detached we can be when we hear news of natural disasters and respond with brief moments of sympathy. If a tsunami were to come to The Bahamas, there would be total chaos and possibly many declaring it ‘the end of the world’. People would be throwing their clothes off like “it’s over, Government shut down and KFC closed” (laughs). Sadly we only begin to reflect on these things when they touch us.

The roots of the show started from exploring the idea of the hero. One of the people who inspired my work in this area was writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell, an all time favourite of mine. He shares many interesting concepts on the hero’s journey. As I look through history, saviors and heroes have always had the objective of serving; a purpose to save a society or offer an ideal of hope. Today it seems heroes are movie and basketball stars and have lost the ‘save me’ factor, and possess more of an awe factor, ‘look like me and be like me’. It begs the question ‘What use is a hero that can’t save you?’ An important aspect of my life is coming to understand ‘What is salvation and why we as humans need to be saved from death’. If it’s something that’s natural, why then does it still hurt when people we know die?

Other than Jesus, what other biblical heroes are you most drawn to?

I am interested in the heroes that give up their lives and huge opportunities for a greater cause. One of the greatest heroes I’ve recently looked at in the Bible was John the Baptist. The fact that he saw Christ dip into the water and saw the Holy Ghost come upon Christ, but he wasn’t there to witness any of the miracles, and was merely this voice crying out in the wilderness. He finds himself in prison locked away to be beheaded and has a dark moment of doubt. When you look at his story closely he wasn’t caught up with expectation that it was his season to be blessed or delivered from this situation. His story ended in his tragic death. It made me look at society today, realising people simply wish to be happy, but there is a cost and for heroes this price is great. We all really just wish to live happily ever after. John the Baptist for example could’ve not gone to prison, by remaining silent like many religious leaders today. No one wishes to give up their comfort to stand up for what they believe in. This is something that is strongly lacking in our world today.

Even Moses, who is one of my favourite characters in the Bible, was a hero. One of the things I found intriguing about his story is that he sinned because he struck the rock when God told him to speak to the rock. And by disobeying God he was barred from going to the Promised Land. Now Moses was a prophet whose whole life and ministry was about getting to the Promised Land. God was merciful enough to allow him to stand on the top of a mountain to see it. In the end, Moses had to humble himself and accept his fate of dying without entering the Holy Land. This was heart breaking for me.

What can be expected from Decoding Salvation?

I’m simply looking to convey a story to my audience; a great love story that illustrates that there is hope after this life and within it. I wish to give a testimony of my experiences of the ideas and interpretations of biblical stories and principles. The show will reflect on celebration. Something I think most people even those who are non-believers hope exists after death. Picture a Bahamian rake and scrap band and a birthday party in heaven. Instead of religious iconography, I have used symbols of festivity like party hats instead of crowns to give birth to the universal nature of the discussion.

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