The Art Gallery of the Future – An Interview with Wayne Forte by Spencer Burke

Friday, Oct 04, 2002

As we entered the dimly lit entryway, we were almost mistaken that we had stepped into an after-hours gallery. Our eyes darted back and forth looking for the auditorium, but we soon got a little sidetracked. After catching a slight glimpse, we made our way up the carpeted stairs one step at a time.

Where did these come from? Did the church purchase these? Where could they have found them?

Our gazed upon one canvas after another never ceasing to be amazed by the profound, impressionistic representations of the biblical narrative. We weren’t in an art gallery – we were in a church, Coast Hills Church to be exact.

That night, we stumbled across a collection of paintings that dramatically tell the Story of Redemption in a way that you can see and feel. A member of the church, Wayne Forte, is an accomplished artist that is making waves in the world of religious art. We caught just a glimpse of what he will be presenting at our May event in Southern California – Soularize.

Listen in as we hear one artist’s journey to express his gifts within the context of his own local church.

THEOOZE: Tell us a little bit about your life story.

I was born in the Philippines in 1950. But, I came here when I was 3 years old to Santa Barbara. I started painting when very early when I was 4 or 5 years old. I always have had a studio in my house. That was always a place that I went to work things out. I went to high school in Santa Barbara. I had an ex-cop that was very influential in me as an artist. He was my art teacher in high school.

THEOOZE: So, he was an ex-cop, but he had a heart for the arts?

Yeah, he was an ex-cop that became an art teacher, because he really loved art. He was very talented. Then, I went to UC Santa Barbara and majored in art. Mostly print-making. I did a lot of etching and lithography. Then, I went to Denver and I switched around to a lot of universities. But, finally I went to UC Irvine which is how I came into this area. Then, I actually had a studio in LA off Western Blvd. for a few years. On a trip to Hawaii to get my brother out of a so-called cult, I ended up coming to the Lord. Then, I came back to LA and got plugged into the Vineyard. I really didn’t do any art there, but I did meet my present wife. She was doing some singing here. Then, I followed her back to Brazil the next year, and we got married and lived there for 2 years. Then, we came back here and moved to Laguna Niguel.

I was also very influenced by taking figure-drawing classes at a local junior college with Ling Chun. It was with her that I started doing the figure. Before that, I was mostly a landscape painter. When I started doing figure, I saw the possibility of my desire to do religious and biblical paintings. Then, I started doing some of the visuals at Coast Hills Church. I also joined CIVA, and it was an

encouragement to do paintings like that such as liturgical paintings. Or, even paintings just for my personal use where I wanted to give visual form to biblical things that I was thinking about.

THEOOZE: It sounded like you took a little hiatus at the time of conversion, but then it resurged. What was that like? Was there a sense of old life / new life or what was going on during that time?

Well, I stayed in Hawaii for a couple of months just reading the Bible to get grounded which was a good thing. I remember as a very immature Christian thinking, “Wow, maybe God is going to have me painting these evangelical paintings for the world.” But, once I got back to mainland and saw what was happening, I realized that my mission field would not be the world. It would be the church. Especially since my wife is Presbyterian and I am Catholic, we usually go to churches that are community churches that are non-denominational.

I really saw that churches had lost any appreciation or experience for the arts. So that has been my ministry – really to bring art back into the church and into worship just to give people an experience of art. So, that was kind of an irony there.

THEOOZE: Well, you mentioned that several things encouraged you to get back in there – a class and even CIVA. Give us a little description of CIVA.

CIVA stands for Christians in the Visual Arts. It is a national organization of Christian artists, filmmakers, photographers, dancers, and anyone in the arts. Every other year, they have a conference – usually at a Christian college where they have dormitories available. Then, they invite the best speakers they can get who are interested in religion but not necessarily Christian. They have had a Jewish writer and Robert Hughes – the LA Times art critic. They have had a lot of really challenging and eloquent people come to speak. They also have a juried show and what they call a midnight special. Everybody can bring slides, and they sign up for 15-minute slots. They show their work from 11:30 to 2:00 in the morning. Really, that is the most exciting, because you see the most exciting thing. You see the most amazing thing like what a little lady is doing out in Iowa with her chickens mounting them and making a symbol Christ out of that. They are just very entertaining.

THEOOZE: How did that encourage you to get back into the arts?

As a Christian artist, you pretty much feel like you are in a vacuum. The world doesn’t understand them, and the church doesn’t understand them. So, CIVA gives you a community with kin and kindred spirits. They also arrange a grant where other painters and I were able to go to Florence for the summer and do etchings on the theme of sacrifice. Then, they market them, and they take the show around.

One thing that always happens when I go there is encouragement. The thing that encouraged me most the last time I went was that I just showed slides of the administrative offices of our church. People were shocked. They said, “You mean your church hangs your paintings all over their offices.” They couldn’t believe that the church would be so open and receptive and supportive.

THEOOZE: How did that journey come about?

It came about over time, because I have been doing it for over 10 years. So, we really needed time to build a rapport. A bond of trust needed to develop, so that took time. We have a visual arts team, so it didn’t all fall on my shoulders. There was a group of us that took the sermons – even now we are in the midst of artists learning how to work together. You have a group of artists and a group of administrative people and pastors – so, we all have different needs. We all have different priorities. So, that is an ongoing thing that we are committed to working through. Once and awhile, we have a

liaison person which works well, but they tend to get burned. So, we go through our share of leaders; it is a very stressful job.

We also put on an arts conference once a year where we are able to bring out some of these ideas. You just saw the show I have at the church, and that is the first one I have had in 10 years. I mean I have an ongoing one in the offices, but this is the first one in a public place to be labeled and everything.

The children’s pastor complained about a couple of paintings; so we took those down. I didn’t really close up the show, because I really wanted them to realize that the show had been censored. But, it was okay; we weren’t taking it personally. When the arts conference, we’ll put those back up, because it is a mature audience. But, it is like a family – learning how to work together and allow compromise.

THEOOZE: Let’s say someone is reading this article saying, “Man, I wish we could do that!” What are some things you might encourage them to think about?

The arts conference we do is on a basic level. It is for churches that really want to incorporate art into their worship and into their church. CIVA is already is more for ministry to artists. I would say definitely say to incorporate art into your worship and church, because it makes it a much richer experience. God is a Master Painter. He created a bunch of abstract art that Adam gave names to. I think it makes a much richer experience for everyone, but it is not going to just happen over night. It is going to a lot of compromise and study and trial and error in order to find out what fits.

THEOOZE: What are some of the different ways people are responding to the art in their own journey with God?

Yeah, our church is pretty much white collar. So, most of them have been exposed to the arts. Although, in the Christian community, you get a lot of knee-jerk reactions to some things. I’ve even had calls from the church receptionist saying, “Come over quick! Someone says one of your paintings is occult.”

So, I go over there real fast and type up an explanation of the painting. “No these are actually objects of the Passion and they are arranged in this way for this reason. They are given this look in order to evoke the early church.” Then, they can kind of understand after you’ve given an accounting.

THEOOZE: So, it is somewhat educational as well as experiential. (laughter)

So, we’ve had cult alerts and all sorts of things. We have had many other people encouraging me and motivating me by their analysis of their painting. I feel free to use impressionistic or classic techniques depending on what the subject matter requires. Although, I have develop a strong, recognizable style over the last 15 years.

A lot of people in our church recognize my work right of way now. Which in itself is quite an accomplishment, because that takes a lot of looking. Other artists are really encouraged when they come to our church. Even some of our pastors told me that when they interviewed they said that just to be in that environment where there was a lot of art made them want to work there. They wanted a more progressive church, and that was a signal that they got. So, all sorts of blessings come from it.

THEOOZE: You’ve shown us one painting that is an annual piece. Is this theme something you revisit or is it ongoing? How did that come to you?

The theme is of Jacob fighting the angel. I see it almost as Jacob representing me or every Christian, and the angel representing God. I always think about this, because it seems like I am always struggling with God. A lot of other people are too. People who talk about my work like that theme;

They relate to that in a more personal way than any other theme. It seems like almost every year I’ll have new thoughts about that subject matter and what it means to me. So, I’ll do a new version. Sometimes with Jacob having a transcendental look in his eyes with a reflection in the shape of a cross. Other times meditating on a wing – on how it is fluttering and fighting but also a covering. Other times, I will take it very abstract so that you almost see these two forces colliding. Other times, I will do a version that is quite literal where you can see their facial expressions. I’ll do them in charcoal and painting. Like Rembrandt always did a self- portrait – an ongoing theme. So, in a way, this is a self-portrait.

THEOOZE: Is it part of your spiritual journey? I mean, this doesn’t seem like just a painting.

This is definitely a way to deal with that question visually. Then, it feeds back and forth between the mental and physical and visual. I can say, “You know, I am going to put in a crutch this year.” That crutch is going to indicate that he was lamed by the angel. Then, that crutch may remind of a branch of a tree, which reminds me of a cross. That way you can take it deeper and meditate on it. That way it becomes an object of meditation.

THEOOZE: If you were to guide our readers through your gallery, what would you say to them as you led them by the hand?

I would say that most of the biblical works are updates on old master paintings. I have taken them and adjusted them so that they are more readable to contemporary vision. We who are used to TV, movies, big billboards where the information comes hot and fast. Otherwise, we don’t have time. It used to be in the Renaissance that a painting was an object of contemplation, because people had time. Not anymore.

So, lots of times I will use old master paintings that people haven’t seen in awhile. I will simplify by just including the necessary figures – push them right up to the picture frame using impressionistic techniques so they feel energy. I will try to make the message either using a few words like having a rooster crowing and words that say, “and Peter wept.” Then, they will make the connection between the image and the text, and hopefully that will resonate. Then, hopefully, they can always think of that image when they hear those words or story. I will use an impressionistic technique to get energy going in there.

THEOOZE: Any words of hope or inspiration for someone just starting out.

Allow God to use your talents. That doesn’t mean that you are just going to be painting religious or sanctified paintings. A lot of times I will paint things that are profane. Sometimes, it is just something that bothered me and I had to paint about it. I don’t really try to divide myself and say I’m just a spiritual painter all the time. I think that if you allow God to use any talent He has given you, it will be his responsibility.

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East/West Interaction: Four Christian Artists Respond

Briefly describe your artistic style. What forces from both East and West have influenced what and how you create?  What things are most appealing to you about each culture?

My artistic style might be described as expressionistic, narrative and figurative. It can be seen as a mixture of influences from the East where I was born (in the Philippines); from the Southern Hemisphere where I was married (in Brazil); and from the West where I was educated and reside today with my wife and four children (in Southern California).

From the East I retain a penchant for a loose calligraphic line that often extends even to the way I apply paint to the canvas. I love the sumi brush painters’ Zen-like idea of not assuming too much control over the medium, allowing it to express its own unique character – whether that is the flow of the paint or the strong graphic qualities of charcoal.

From the Latino painters like Diego Riveira, I learned to invest my figures with a monumentality that fills out the pictorial space. I am also drawn to constructing a picture as the great Mexican muralists do – sturdy and logical like a child with wooden building blocks.

From the West I retain many of the Modernist ideas that formed the basis of my university education. They give me an awareness of a constant questioning about the nature of the artistic enterprise, especially its conceptual component. I also appreciate the  Modernist tradition of borrowing ideas from other cultures in order to revitalize the enterprise of art-making.

As an artist of faith what are some of the challenges you face? Is it easier for you to be a Christian in the East or in the West? Why?

It’s more difficult to be a Christian artist in the U.S. because here religion is so politicized and politics are so polarized. In the East and in Latin America one assumes that an artist belongs to a faith tradition and that that tradition is reflected in his work to a greater or lesser extent.

What sorts of collectors and viewers are interested in your work?  What specifically engages them in your art? Are there markedly different responses to your work between Eastern and Western audiences? 

I had a one-person show of figurative paintings at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Hong Kong about 7 years ago. About 12 paintings were sold, all to expats: Brits, French, Americans, Australians; not one was purchased by a Chinese. I was told that the Chinese don’t buy modern art, preferring to invest in objects that have intrinsic value like gold or jade. Also, they do not consider their home a showplace for art where they can receive visitors – entertaining is done in restaurants at big tables and home is a very casual and private place for family members only.

A few years earlier I had a one-person show in Makati, the upscale section of Manila. Here most of the buyers were from the wealthy Chinese-Filipino community. Only a few paintings did not sell and they were the ones that were considered “unlucky.”  One featured a bunch of hot peppers which, I was told, made it unlucky and very difficult to sell. On the other hand any painting with lots of red or yellow/gold was considered “lucky” and sold quickly. Also feng shui was usually a factor in the selection and purchase of a painting.

By and large art buyers in the East are upper class and affluent, even more so than those in the West where even members of the middle class sometimes purchase fine art. These upper class Asians have often been educated in the West or spent enough time there that they are receptive to contemporary Western art. I like to think that my Eastern sensibilities show through in my art and make it more accessible and therefore attractive to an Asian collector.

Personally, is it harder to gain recognition and acceptance in the West or in the East? Why do you think this is so? In what ways are the art systems different?

I suppose it is easier for an American to gain recognition, or at least serious consideration, in the East (or Latin America for that matter) because he automatically has a certain caché just for being from a more affluent culture.  Since there is so much competition in the American gallery system even a very talented artist would have to pay his dues and work himself up in the hierarchy.

At least in Manila, Hong Kong and São Paulo the gallery system models itself on the American one though on a much smaller scale.  They show local artists and a sampling of foreigners. Collectors tend to be almost exclusively from the upper class or expats. Art Fairs are international in scope and standards. They often act as a showcase for their national artists and new local talent. The Sao Paulo Biennale is a good example. There are, however, craft fairs where a practiced eye can sometimes find interesting and collectable “outsider” or indigenous art.

One of the most significant factors affecting the contemporary art world has been cultural and economic globalization. How has globalization affected your own life and artwork? What is your relationship between your local culture and the larger world? How are the two intertwined?

My own life has been globalized from the start since I had a Filipina mother and an American Father. It has continued into my children’s life because we spend a lot of time in my wife’s native country, Brazil. I feel that my life has been all the richer because of my mixed cultural identity. Furthermore, I see my faith as a continuation of Judaism, a Middle Eastern religion. The Gospel from the time of Paul was designed to be a global message spread to “Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” When Christianity is stretched to include all nations and denominations it functions as it should; when it becomes nationalistic it suffers under the spirit of fear. I understand my Western culture better because I have seen and experienced it from the Eastern and Southern hemispheres. I feel that my art is richer because it draws from a wide pool of influences, deeper because it takes into account various cultural perspectives.

When I see American hip-hop dancers adapt moves from the Tinikling, an ethnic Filipino hopping dance, into their choreography, I get that warm feeling as when two of my friends appreciate each other. When I see a retrospective of Chinese artist Cai Guo Qang at the Guggenheim I feel that he shares my cultural diversity and dreams my dreams. When I see David Hockney’s insightful paintings of the California landscape I see my own environment with his fresh eyes. When I hear Stan Getz play Bossa Nova masterfully on his saxophone I know that a deep fellowship has taken place. When I see the tropical baroque churches of Brazil I am awed by an elegant interpretation of an old European style, making it fresh and vital again.

What can Western artists of faith learn from their Asian counterparts regarding the role the arts can play in contemporary culture? Or what can Asian artists of faith learn from their European and American counterparts regarding the role the arts can play in contemporary culture?

Well, it’s not a one-way street. The key is to learn humbly from each other, care about each other and share the blessings and insights that are our inheritance as artists pursuing our vocation.

Western artists have the advantage of a well-developed and financed system of schools, galleries and criticism. The danger here is that the art can easily become academic, be seduced into a role of status objects by an overheated market or degenerate into a game of ideological or intellectual politics.

Non-Western artists, lacking a viable commercial market for their art, often feel trapped in their officially sanctioned and highly refined traditions, alien to contemporary sensibilities. Yet their art has often been a vital source of inspiration for the West and a touchstone for their spiritual lives.

The U.S. has already started opening its galleries and museums to Eastern artists and this is a propitious start. I am also hearing of more Western artists, especially those of faith, traveling into foreign lands where the art and culture are rich but not readily consumable. Bridges are being built! Maybe the most important job now is to keep these bridges open, passable and in good repair.

Institutions have already developed cultural interchanges but I can imagine an independent interchange between artists of different countries where they would exchange their houses and studios for several weeks or months allowing a real experience of a different artistic milieu and way of life with a minimum of extra monetary expenditure beyond transportation costs. This would work with small groups of artists as well, with the advantage of a built in fellowship factor at both ends.

I’ve long admired the Seventh Day Adventist church for it’s ongoing programs of cultural exchange for young people. Why couldn’t other denominations adapt this model for already established sister churches in other cultures? This could be a win-win on many levels and artists are temperamentally well-equipped for trailblazing such a project.

Fareed Zakaria said it well in an article from TIME magazine (6/11/07, page 29) entitled “Beyond Bush”:

Above all the US has to find a way to send a powerful and consistent signal to the world that we understand the struggles that it is involved in – for security, peace and a better standard of living. As Barack Obama said in a speech in Chicago, ‘It is time to send a message to all those men and women beyond our shores who long for lives of dignity and security that says, ‘You matter to us, your future is our future…’’ … America as a place has always been the great antidote to U.S. foreign policy. At the end of the day openness is America’s greatest strength. Many people on both sides of the political isle have ideas that they believe will keep America strong in this new globalized world – fences, tariffs, subsidies, investments. But America has succeeded not because of the ingenuity of its government programs. It has thrived because it has kept itself open to the world – to goods and services, ideas and inventions, people and cultures.  This openness has allowed us to respond fast and flexibly in new economic times, to manage change and diversity with remarkable ease, and to push forward the boundaries of freedom and autonomy.” This sounds like a great apologetic for the propagation of the Gospel as well.

Interview with Wayne Forte at Coast Hills Christian Art Conference

1. Historically what has been the relationship between art and the Church?

The early church was very cautious in its use of images. Christ could only be portrayed in certain ways (first as the Pantocrator or Creator of the universe regally seated and reigning over the Earth; then as the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb over his shoulders). Picturing Christ crucified was considered shameful and not allowed.

In the 2nd to 4th centuries, especially after Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the empire, art was used to tell the story of salvation to a largely illiterate population. Manuscripts were illuminated (illustration of the text) and mosaic murals of the Old and New Testaments covered the walls of the Basilicas. Art served the important functions of instructing and inspiring the congregation.

By the Renaissance, the Church had become by far the leading patron of the arts. In fact, many artists who were more interested in the pagan aesthetics of Greece and Rome were employed by the Pope and bishops. They vied with each other to create increasingly more opulent and sophisticated interiors which were more a witness to their own power than God’s Kingdom or the piety of Christ. This obviously led to many abuses.

When Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers succeeded in purging the Church of its many abuses which had accumulated over the centuries, art was also thrown out like the proverbial baby with the bath-water. Their short-sighted and reactionary attitude unfortunately had the effect of shutting the doors of the Church to artists who in turn used their energies and talents to serve the world, the flesh and the devil rather than the Kingdom of God.

2. What is the attitude of the Church today towards art? 

After almost five centuries of estrangement between art and the Reformation Church (and almost as long with the Catholic Church) some pastors, clergy and missionaries, theologians and lay members are once again carefully looking to art for help with their mission of spreading the Gospel and causing it to be planted deeply in the believer’s heart.

The church is turning to filmmakers to help dramatize the Gospel and use these films as a missionary tool. A few churches have taken tentative steps in the use of liturgical art to visually enrich the weekly service. And a small remnant of Christian artists have organized loosely to discuss and exhibit their faith-based works.

3. What is the future of art in the Church?

Art is just a tool, given to man by God. Whether it is used for good or bad depends on the user. It can of course be a powerful tool which the church has, over the centuries ultimately abused and relinquished. The challenge for todays’ church is to reacquaint itself with the art world, find the right relationship balance and maintain it.

The challenge for the clergy is to become familiar with this tool that God has provided and use it effectively for the purpose of communicating the Gospel to a world which is hungry for truth and spirituality – yet weary of outmoded forms and suspicious of people who package religion and sell it for their own gain.

The challenge for the Christian artist is finding new forms, fresh symbols and images with  which he can speak to new generations brought up on MTV and Andy Warhol (the cross is now used as a trendy fashion accessory), then to persist in humbly serving and advocating for art in their congregations.

The challenge for the lay believer is to take back the use and the appreciation of art, once relinquished to the world, for the Kingdom of God. This will entail the cultivation of an open mind and the support and encouragement of artistically creative members of the body, sometimes withholding judgement until the “shock of the new” wears off a bit.

4. Wayne, as a fine artist how has your work been influenced by your faith?

Yes, most definitely. After coming to the Lord at age 29 I wanted to paint the biblical narratives so I spent the next 10 years trying to gain a technical mastery of the figure. Now that I feel comfortable rendering the figure I am striving to tell the Biblical narratives in a new, personal and visually compelling way that will catch the eye and hopefully the heart of a post-modern generation. I am also striving to acknowledge God’s Lordship in my work by relinquishing the need for constant control and seeking more diligently His point of view.

5. What has been your personal experience with the struggle to bring art back to the church?

It has been a long and sometimes difficult process yet one with many rewards and surprises. Two key ingredients for the artist are persistence and humility. I embrace rejection as God’s way of saying “start again from a new perspective.”

I have learned to value a liaison person who can act as an intercessor between me, the hand, and the pastoral staff, the head. This frees me to maintain my integrity as a fine artist and allows the pastor to express his feelings and reservations freely. The best liaison person will have a heart for the arts and a head for administration.