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A Small (but Growing?) Window for Christian Art

Posted: 10/20/11 11:11 AM ET

For 14 years, Morgan Weistling was doing very well, painting movie posters for Hollywood producers ("occasionally for a 'Police Academy,' but mostly for B-movies"), but then "God knocked me on the head and told me to stop wasting my talent and use it for better purposes." He became a fine artist, creating inspirational and Christian images, sold sometimes as originals but more often as offset paper and giclee canvas prints, and these days he is doing even better.

At times, Weistling's work has been overtly biblical, painting images of Christ based on a New Testament story. "I've tried to portray it as thought I were an eyewitness to it," he said. Other inspirational images are either suggestive of the Bible -- his most famous image, "Kissing the Face of God," is a woman in Middle Eastern garb kissing a swaddled baby (presumably Mary and Jesus) -- or reflect bygone scenes of rural American childhood in its sweetness.

"I'm not denying the ugly, terrible things that happen in life," he said. "There is a place for that in art, but I wanted to create work that is wholesome, uplifting and positive. I think a lot of people respond to that."

Weistling, who lives in Canyon Country, Calif., didn't think of the change from film to biblical and inspirational figures as a career move, but he had tapped into a large market, some of whom are actual art collectors while others just want to be reminded of ideas and stories that mean something to them.

He is part of a growing number of artists who have found success selling to the Christian market, a large realm of the population that does not see itself as art collectors but is willing to spend limited amounts of money on prints and posters that reflect its beliefs and values. Representational in content, the art is stylistically diverse and the range of subjects wide, encompassing peaceful landscapes and pictures of Christ; however, uniting the entire Christian art field is the hopeful and uplifting theme of the imagery. A pioneer in this market is the California painter Thomas Kinkade, whose paintings of rural and small-town life (sold primarily as giclee prints through galleries and the artist's website) "taught dealers that they could sell Christian art for a high price," said Stephanie Allen, executive vice-president of Somerset Fine Art in Fulshear, Texas, a print publisher whose "Christian" art is one of 16 categories of artwork produced and distributed to galleries around the United States. Kinkade's images are not overtly Christian, she noted, but he built his brand around being an artist with a strong set of Christian values.

Most of the Christian art market, however, is focused on the specific images rather than the name or style of the artist. "You see couples with a combined income of $40,000, driving some old pick-up truck, come into a gallery and just stare and stare at a picture of a log cabin that costs $1,700, and they'll buy it," Allen said. "They'll never be able to buy the log cabin, but they will spend that money for a picture of one."

A number of the major print publishers have developed a presence in this field. Greenwich Workshop in Seymour, Conn., for instance, sells "Spiritual/Inspirational" art, while Applejack Publishing in Manchester Center, Vt., markets a line of "Religious Images." The most active publisher is Mill Pond Press in Venice, Fla., which established an entire division in 1995, with the trademarked name Visions of Faith, that distributes its offset prints not through its network of art galleries but at Christian bookstores, most of which are located in the Southeast and the West. Noting that the Christian art market is volatile, Linda Schaner, president of Mill Pond Press, said that Visions of Faith accounts for between 15 and 35 percent of the company's total income. Money is made through volume, with the average sale in the $100 range, as opposed to the $500-1,000 range for the giclee prints in other categories of images that are sold in galleries. (Because the galleries generally do framing while the Christian stores do not, Mill Pond established a framing operation in order that the bookstores have pictures that are ready to hang.)

The majority of the Christian bookstore art buyers are women in the 45-60 age group who see the images as "a statement of their beliefs," she said. "When we first started Visions of Faith, we had a mix of landscapes and overtly, in-your-face religious subjects, but we began to realize that our largest area of sales was images of Jesus. For a while, we were called the 'Publisher of God.'"

The other major print publishers have ceded Christian bookstores to Mill Pond, preferring the higher-end art galleries and a greater diversity of images in their religious artwork.

"Our market for religious and inspirational art is regional," said Scott Usher, Greenwich Workshop's publisher. "It's Arizona, Utah -- the West. Our galleries in Utah, for instance, do very well in Christian art. The what-you-put-on-your-wall mindset is entirely different out there than in other parts of the country. The audience is more predisposed to narrative Christian artwork."

Greenwich Workshop, like Mill Pond Press, has been strongly identified with nature, wildlife and Western imagery, and moved into the Christian art realm in the 1990s tentatively, exhibiting a narrative Christian image called "The Widow's Mite" by one of its regular figurative artists, James Christensen of Orem, Utah, and the edition quickly sold out. The experience led the company to pursue the Christian art market in a more concerted way, bringing in new artists and publishing the more inspirational work of the artists with whom they already had a relationship. "Over the last 40 years, my art has gone in a lot of different directions," Christensen said, "but I think I'm better known for the inspirational art than for anything else," adding that three-quarters of his income is derived from the sale of Greenwich Workshop prints.

In 1994, Mill Pond also experimented with a Christian image by one of its Americana painters, Greg Olsen, titled "In His Constant Care," which displayed an image of Jesus Christ holding out his hand to some sparrows. The image was well-received, leading the company to commission more work in this realm and establish its Vision of Faith division. Olsen, who lives in Provo, Utah, has been and remains Vision of Faith's best selling artist, although the start-up was a bit rocky, because of objections by member bookstores of the Christian Booksellers Association to the fact that the artist is a Mormon.

"I've been asked, 'Is that a Mormon Jesus?'" he said. "I tell people, 'It's just Jesus.'" Linda Schaner also noted that "it was difficult being in the middle of religious wars. I had to tell people that no, we're not a Mormon company; we're not affiliated with any faith. It has been very different, having conversations that have nothing to do with business." In time, however, Olsen's work gained acceptance by association members, opening the door for others whose work is not judged on the basis of a particular church's doctrines.

The different publishers have also learned to target specific religious denominations. One painting by Christensen, who is also a Mormon, titled "Hold to the Rod," which represents a man whose arms are holding his material possessions while looking up at an iron bar that he would need to grab onto for salvation, comes from a Mormon hymn, based on a story from the Book of Mormon.

"Scott Usher came to my studio and saw that work. He said, 'That's great. We should make an edition of that.' I told him where the idea came from and he said he just liked the image. It meant something to him." The prints of that work, as with most of the other images by Christensen, have been aimed primarily at the Mormon market."

Christensen's religious paintings also are for sale "if people want them," but sales don't happen very often, an experience he shares with many others in this field. Michael Dudash, a painter in Conneautville, Penn., who creates both secular landscapes and more clearly identifiable Christian images, stated that "the bulk of the Christian work that I have done is largely sold through print publishers" -- Somerset Fine Art, principally -- "and it's rare that I have gotten an inquiry from someone wanting to buy the original painting for that image." It has happened that he has received offers to purchase originals from collectors through Somerset, but most of his painting sales are for secular landscapes. The people who look to art for a spiritual message -- the buyers of the prints -- "don't have the disposable income to buy originals," which in Dudash's case may reach $40,000.

Inspirational artwork has a greater likelihood of selling, but that work is less illustrative of biblical stories and more metaphoric of "God's love for mankind, the beauty of the world God created," said Daniel Gerhartz, a painter in Kewaskum, Wis., who is well-known in the Christian art realm but largely supports himself from the sale of figurative and landscape paintings in a number of galleries, most of them located west of the Mississippi. "Collectors find spiritual overtones in my art resonating with them." The owners of these galleries agree, referring to the artist's work as spiritual in content, usually conveyed through a special light that shines on a particular subject, but making no specific references to any religious faith. Dan Blanchard, owner of the Grapevine Gallery in Oklahoma City, Okla., noted that "we don't get a whole lot of his religious work. We sell more of his landscapes," and David Wilkinson, director of Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., also stated that the gallery "hasn't shown much Christian art. There's not a whole lot of people saying they want it."

An artist's religious beliefs still may influence potential collectors who prize faith highly to purchase that person's work. One of the ways that is done is through artwork titles that make biblical references even when the content of the image is unrelated to a Old or New Testament story. Artists sometimes signal their Christian beliefs on their websites through a statement of faith rather than a customary artist statement. Dudash himself noted that he paints a cross next to his signature on his paintings: "I don't think that has ever hurt me, but I think it may be a real plus if a collector finds out that an artist he or she likes is a committed Christian."