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Jesus in jeans?
Artist's modern images of Christ reflect faith but draw detractors
By MARK COOMES
mcoomes@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal

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Sawyer has worked on the painting "Call to Repentance" for years. "I have to paint Him as I know Him," he says.
Photos by STEWART BOWMAN
From cave walls to museum halls to the backboard of Stephen Sawyer's easel, the earth abounds with proof of humanity's need to express itself in paints and pigments.

After exploring the medium for thousands of years, mankind's collective portfolio runs the gamut from stark stick figures to surreally melting clocks. Pity the modern artist who aspires to create something truly original.

Surely the final frontier was crossed when Jackson Pollock found a way to make masterpieces from spills, splats and splashes.

Surely now there is nothing new left under the sun.

Except perhaps for the Son.

Sawyer's renderings of Jesus Christ are different, to say the least -- quite a feat, considering that the Versailles, Ky., artist's chosen subject happens to be the most frequently painted personage in the history of Western portraiture.

Sawyer's recent works are so different, in fact, that they might be unprecedented.

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A painting of Jesus wearing jeans and sporting a tattoo has stirred some controversy.

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Painter Stephen Sawyer showed a work called "For Ian" at his studio in Versailles, Ky.

Raise your hand if you've seen a picture of Jesus sporting a tattoo lately. Or decked out like a heavyweight boxing champ.

Didn't think so.

"Mr. Sawyer's paintings are unconventional, to be sure," said Jeffrey J. Fugate, pastor of Clays Mill Road Baptist Church in Lexington.

When a painting depicts no less than the central figure of Christianity, flouting convention usually means stirring controversy. But raising hackles -- or sales -- is not Sawyer's aim.

"My paintings are not intended to provoke," said Sawyer, 50, a Lexington native who lives in Versailles. "That would be commercialism. Yeah, I sell copies of my works, but I don't paint with the idea of making money in mind. If I get an idea that I am absolutely convinced has real spiritual value, I'm going to paint it no matter what it is."

The lion's share of Sawyer's portfolio depicts Jesus in traditional settings and clothes, but his two most recent paintings were inspired by contemporary visions. Thus the boxing trunks, tattoos, T-shirts and jeans.

And thus the sudden avalanche of attention.

After toiling in obscurity for some 20 years, Sawyer is suddenly attracting some of the brightest spotlights in American media. He has done or is scheduled to do print interviews with People, Time, USA Weekend, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

He also has been booked for TV appearances on "Today," "Good Morning America," "The 700 Club," "Donahue" and "Oprah."

Last, but not least, in March his work will be exhibited at the National Catholic Museum of Art and History in New York City.

Pretty fast company for an unpretentious father of five who regards his painting as "a ministry" and calls his business Art for God.

"Years ago I basically asked God to 'commission' me as His Son's portrait artist," Sawyer said. "But there was a catch. I got the spark around 1975, but I waited to start this assignment -- which is what I think it is -- until I felt spiritually trustworthy enough to take it on."

That moment arrived in 1995 after more than 20 years of spiritual searching.

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Stephen Sawyer lives with his family in Versailles, Ky. From left is son Andon, 20; Sawyer's wife, Cindy; and daughter Hart, 15. Andon sings and plays four instruments, while Hart is a singer-songwriter.

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This painting by Stephen Sawyer is titled "The Good Samaritan." Sawyer calls his painting "a ministry" and his business Art for God.

Sawyer began looking beyond his Protestant roots while at the University of Kentucky, from which he graduated in 1975 with a degree in advertising. After studying Islam and even practicing Buddhism for a while, Sawyer eventually returned to Christianity but chose not to adopt the strictures and restrictions of any particular denomination.

"I've never been a big follower of doctrine and dogma," he said. "I think that stuff is nothing but barbed wire people put around 'our' truth to separate it from somebody else's truth, when in fact we all believe essentially the same thing.

"I NEVER HAD a Paul-like conversion. My flower has opened up a little bit every day. It started 28 years ago when I married the greatest woman on the planet. She made it easy for me to fall in love with God again."

While on his spiritual journey, Sawyer and his bride, the former Cindy Underwood, then a young model-actress from Louisville, crisscrossed the country from Chicago to Hollywood and points between before returning to Kentucky.

They chose the quiet hamlet of Versailles in which to raise five children who pretty well prove that artistic talent is as hereditary as blue eyes or big ears. (Pop is a good example himself. His first cousin is broadcasting diva Diane Sawyer.)

Andon, 20, is a computer programmer who sings, acts and plays four instruments: piano, drums, guitar and an Australian wind instrument called a didgeridoo.

Fonta, 18, is an accomplished cartoonist and acting student in Hollywood.

Hart, 15, has won top awards for three years running at the American Model and Talent Association competition. A singer-songwriter, Hart performed her 9/11 tribute, "Just Faith," on a commemorative radio special that drew 3 million listeners in Atlanta.

All three also draw and paint with aplomb, as do their younger siblings, Van, 9, and Arbella, 7.

THEIR MOTHER, in addition to running the family home and family business, researches class-action lawsuits for a Lexington legal firm.

"I'm the dimmest star of the bunch," dad joked.

He is a rising star nonetheless. His Web site, art4god.com (designed by Andon, incidentally), has recorded more than 2 million hits over the past two years. Sawyer said he has sold several thousand reproductions, from $2 bookmarks to $495 hand-highlighted custom canvas reproductions.

And the real crush is probably yet to come.

"People have told us to keep our knees bent," Cindy Sawyer said. "They say when we get on the national shows, especially 'Oprah,' we're going to be absolutely overwhelmed."


"I never had a Paul-like conversion. My flower has opened up a little bit every day."

-- Stephen Sawyer


The Sawyers say they are as ready as they can be, though they've had to prepare fast.

Stephen Sawyer's publicist, Tom Estey, said it takes most other gifted wannabes two years to capture the fancy of as many major media properties as fell for Sawyer in two weeks.

"I honestly believe that Stephen is going to be huge," said Estey, who knows from huge. His clients include fitness guru Richard Simmons and singers Anita Baker and Annie Lennox. He said Sawyer "just turned down an offer from a huge company that wanted to mass-produce his work, and signed with a smaller company because he said that's what his heart told him to do."

However, not everyone is a fan of Sawyer's work.

"Donahue," an MSNBC news program that thrives on controversy, recruited two Lexington pastors to debate the merits of Sawyer's depictions of Jesus as a buff, handsome and thoroughly modern American male.

(The show is tentatively scheduled to air live later this month. No date has been set for Sawyer's appearances on "Oprah," "The 700 Club" or the network morning shows.)

"Steve's Jesus looks like Fabio," Fugate said. "I asked him where it was he learned about Christ. It surely wasn't from the Bible.

"The Bible says Jesus was humble, not prideful, and had 'no comeliness to Him.' Yet when I asked my wife and several of her friends what their impressions were of the Jesus with the tattoo, the first word out of their mouths was 'sensual.' That's not a word rightfully associated with Jesus Christ."

Fugate and Reggie Tipton, another pastor scheduled to appear on "Donahue," cite Isaiah 53:1-3 as proof that the attractiveness of Sawyer's Jesus is flatly contradicted in Scripture.

Verse 2 says, "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him."

With that in mind, Tipton, pastor of Bluegrass Baptist Church in Lexington, wrote to Sawyer in an e-mail forwarded to "Donahue" producers that he was "in utter shock as I viewed your modern, feminine and overly worldly depiction of this grotesque portrait of the Son of God."

SAWYER'S RESPONSE is similar to that which innovative artists have always used to defend their work. But in this case, Sawyer says, the validity of his vision is more than a matter of artistic license. It's a matter of personal spirituality as well.

"I have to paint Him as I know Him, and that's as incredibly strong and brilliant," Sawyer said. "Maybe I'm wrong, but however many mistakes I make, I paint to serve an audience of one. If I think God likes it, I don't care if anybody else likes it or not. But fortunately, a whole lot of people do."

10-24-2014
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