Sunday, March 9, 2003

Jesus with tattoo?

Artist explores his many facets

By Lori Burling
The Associated Press

VERSAILLES, Ky. - Stephen Sawyer paints images of Christ on his own terms.

Sometimes his modern-day Jesus is wearing blue jeans, sometimes a T-shirt or even boxing gloves. Many of the paintings have clear meanings, such as Christ holding blueprints of the world.

"I'm trying to bring out the simple truths in my paintings," said the 50-year-old artist, who describes himself as a Christian with no denomination. "Whatever Jesus spoke is represented in my work."

In one painting titled "No Appointment Necessary," a handsome, muscular Jesus lifts his T-shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo with a red heart that reads "Father."

Sawyer says the point of the piece is not to judge. "I've known many bikers who serve the Lord, but because of their long hair and body full of tattoos, they're still judged by some people. God judges no one."

But Sawyer says his series of more than 20 Jesus oil paintings called Art for God has been judged plenty, particularly by some Christians who see the work as sacrilegious.

"Sometimes it's hard to sell. My work is in-your-face kind of stuff," said Sawyer, adding that most recently a woman walked out of his gallery because she was offended by "Joy to the World," which depicts Jesus laughing.

University of Louisville religious studies professor Larry Smith said attempting to depict Christ is nearly always an invitation to controversy. "Any time you make visual presentations of Jesus there is going to be someone who is offended by it, usually because they believe it dishonors Jesus in some sense."

Sawyer's spiritual and artistic journey began in 1975 after graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in advertising. He and his wife, Cindy, traveled the United States while she pursued a modeling career. Sawyer began studying theology and traveling Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Twenty years after his journey began, Sawyer was finally ready to merge his religious studies with his artistic talent. "I was making sure my beliefs were clear and my model was right because I'm going to affect the world with my art," he said.

That model - Tyrone Dove Gardner - is movie-star handsome with long, cascading, brown curls. From the moment Sawyer spotted him through the window of his Versailles studio, he knew Gardner was the perfect God.

"He came running across the street and said he had been looking for me for 20 years," Gardner said from his home in Sacramento, Calif. "He told me his plan, we took some pictures and went from there."

The 6-foot-3 Gardner, who lived in Versailles until two years ago, is featured in nearly all of the pieces.

"His paintings reach out to so many age groups, especially to the younger crowd. They love "Undefeated" (where Christ wears boxing gloves in a boxing ring) and the tattooed one," Gardner said.

Not all of Saywer's paintings depict a modern Jesus. He has others that show Christ in more solemn, traditional poses that are sold through his central Kentucky studio and Gatlinburg, Tenn., gallery to churches throughout the country.

University of Texas art history professor Jonathan Bober said Christ has been represented in "as many ways as there are human beings," he said.

"There is no record whatsoever of a definitive image of Christ," Bober said. "Part of the brilliance of Christianity is its flexibility in all of the cultures in which it has taken root."

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