Monday, January 9, 2017

TOUCHED: JAMES CHRISTENSEN


He swept his arm through the air, crossing over the yards of canvas stretched before us. “Welcome to The Garden,” he said, with his signature smile lighting the space, easing the introduction for people whose admiration of him made them nervous to meet him. With all good graces he greeted my aging mother, then handed her a paintbrush and a palette. 
“Would you like to sign my guest bush?” 
The long slender paintbrush was passed from hand to hand.  
Today, in the Garden Room of the Nauvoo LDS temple, there are leaves that speak the names of my mother, my sister, my husband and myself, and others who were fortunate enough to visit that sacred creative space. James C, the painter of fantasy and hump-backed Everymen, who also knew how to handle serious matters in ink and oil, was masterful at his art.  But mostly, he was masterful with people.
A rare combination of ingredients made the recipe of James C Christensen deliciously unique: the kind of fare that worked in exotic places with outrageous prices and also hometown diners. He fit everywhere.  Everywhere! And we who knew him in his bare feet understood that the fact that he made us feel like his best friends was simply the way he treated everyone.  He had just enough ego and success to build his confidence and to drive his pursuit of excellence, and just enough humility to understand from Whom his confidence sprang. 

James was James partly because Carole was Carole.  Every James Christensen-type-person needs a Carole Christensen to balance him. She is the green to his red, the yang to his yin. He’d tell you this himself. Part of the beauty of their love story is their mutual understanding of their self-designed roles. She knows him, probably better than he knows himself. And he trusts her, thank goodness, because she has saved him from his own candor more than anyone can say. 
I know no other human being who fills the category that James filled.  Witty, wise, stalwart without being judgmental. He was a dreamer who made his dreams come to life, and who encouraged other talented dreamers to do the same. I first met him around a conference table at BYU, two decades ago.  I was newly appointed to the board of directors of the Mormon Arts Foundation, and was assigned to direct the three-day Mormon Arts Festival at BYU the coming year. We had chairpersons over varying artistic disciplines from film to music, literature, dance, theatre and visual art. James oversaw the visual art group. He was massively large; not in the physical sense. It’s just that he completely filled every space he entered, and bits of him flowed out through the doorways and into other spaces, the way his buddy Pat Debenham’s laughter does. He was a storyteller, not just through his art. He was a master of words and ideas, and he knew the ebb and flow of human emotion and could play it like a pro in any public or private setting. Oh the stories that have danced across his dinner table, across the large round picnic table on his back porch, across the podium as he led us through the last two decades of a small annual artistic retreat we worked together on. James, with the aid of Carole, was Chairman of the Board of the Mormon Arts Foundation. For the last few years, since the retirement of our founding father Doug Stewart, I have served as president of the foundation. We read each other pretty well, James and I. He knew what I could do, and I knew he could do everything I did and more. No one has ever led a discussion with more ease, skill and good humor than James.  In the same paragraph he could have us rolling on the floor with stories about how his son-in-law Dan Barney re-sewed his Costco jeans into skinny jeans, and then in the next sentence he would make the goose bumps rise on our arms with his tender testimony of the goodness of God.
When James and Carole first married, James says, there was a moment in time when they had to make a decision about what career path they would take. At the time he was actually making waves as a musician. His band was gigging nationally, making money, and moving up the ladder of musical success. James tells how he and Carole prayed, and pondered, and came to the decision that they would take the fork in the road that led to his incomparable painting career.  Imagine our world without a humpback, or a magical fish floating through a mystical ocean. Imagine!

Back when we were painting on his guest bush on the canvases of the Nauvoo Temple, I remember him taking us into the room where Gary Smith and Chris Young were painting the magnificent scenes depicting the creation of the world. (Disclaimer- I'm not really remembering with much accuracy who painted what at the time. Forgive me.)  
"Guess what is under this amazing ocean of water?" James said. He gave us that coy sideways flickering glance, and told the story. In the middle of the night, after everyone had left, James and Robert Marshall snuck into their room and painted fantasy fish in the ocean water. Of course the fish are painted over. They had complete reverence for their subject matter and it looks just divine when the paint is dry. But I like to think that the under layer on that canvas of paint brings the Lord some measure of delight. The antics between James and his fellow painters were part of the joy of working with him. Ask any of them who were fortunate enough to work with him.  He was like glitter-glue: Everything and everyone became bound together, and it was obvious James had been there.
James battled cancer with the strength and grace of the Pilates moves he practiced regularly with Carole and his friends. It was a roller coaster ride for him, his flight with cancer, and I’m afraid he suffered more than he ever let on. The level of hope he carried the last number of years…that we all carried with him…was a testament to his trust in God’s purposes. Not that he felt entitled to tell God what to do. But he did find great purpose in the consecration of his art. Last year, while he was undergoing cancer treatment, he began his days at the Provo City Center temple with “the boys”. You know the classic scene of retired buddies meeting for breakfast at their favorite diner?  These “boys” met daily in the empty rooms of the re-purposed Provo Tabernacle, in the process of becoming the Provo City Center LDS temple. The rooms then echoed with their conversation and smelled of oil and paint. James and Robert and Gary, with David Linn and Doug Fryer as the youngsters assigned to handle the painting of the ceiling, devoted each day to painting the murals that grace the walls of that temple forevermore. Eventually the boys were aided by two of Jim’s daughters, Cassie Barney and Emily McPhie, and Downey Doxey-Marshall, Robert’s daughter-in-law, among a few others. All in all, about ten artists gave their gifts to the Lord in that project. When it ended there was a sense of melancholy. Robert passed away not long after the temple opened. It broke James’ heart. James and Carole could not shake the worry that without such divine purpose, James may lose his earthly footing.
Two months ago James and I sat beside each other on our friend Sam Cardon’s couch. We had just finished breaking bread together at the breakfast table. As usual, James oversaw our board meeting for the Mormon Arts Foundation.  
“Before we start," James said, "I need to tell you something.”  
Hearts throbbed and tears flowed as he told us that the medical trial for which he was the first patient, had not done the trick.  The cancer was reeling its head, and though there was hope for a new trial, I sensed the spirit whispered that this might not be his destiny. 
That was the last time I saw Jim. Between then and now the power that was James Christensen belonged to his truest loves.
When word came tonight that James had left us for holier spaces, it was unfathomable.  Like, shouldn’t the world stop spinning?  Shouldn’t it at least pause on its axis out of respect? 

On our living room wall we are blessed to have one of James’ last paintings.  It depicts an artist standing before a blank page.  James thought perhaps it was a representation of painter’s block.  For me it is writer’s block.  I suppose, tonight, I am thinking that that blank canvas is all that lies ahead for my friend. A blank page, waiting for his imagination. Perhaps, looking at it more closely, that white page is actually the entryway to the hereafter. He told me he wasn't completely certain what that page represented anyway.
On our living room table there sits a large book of scripture and an equally large book called Men & Angels with a painfully beautiful sentiment from Jim written inside. As our friend Kirk Richards said tonight, when the news of James' passing wafted over to him and he blew it my way, “If there is a winged angel in this universe, I hope it carries James home.”


8 comments:

  1. What a lovely tribute. My home, growing up, was full of stories of Bob and Jim. My parents were students, and Jim was their mentor. In their kitchen hangs a little Christensen sketch of "Manuel the Mexican Waiter" spraying pesticide on the buffet. My parents met on a BYU Art trip to Mexico that Jim lead. Jim was at their sealing. While I only had brief encounters, I couldn't help but feel that he had had a great impact on my family.

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    1. Oh, that image of Jim creating a Manuel, the Mexican waiter is classic James! His humor was surpassed only by his goodness.

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  2. Thank you for sharing. There are endless possibilities with a blank canvas. We can choose fear or excitement. I wonder what heavenly art he is creating now, with a pallet of colors we do not even posses on this earth.

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  3. Beautiful. And so fitting. Thank you, Cori.

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  4. Thank you so much for this lovely tribute. I have always loved the art of this dear man. I wish I had been able to tell him so. He will live on forever through his art and in our hearts for his willingness to share his brilliance.

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  5. What a beautiful talent heaven has gained! I can feel your love and admiration for him. I have a copy of his painting of Shakespearean characters, and gave it to our father when he retired from teaching high school English over 40 years. Thanks for allowing a more personal view.

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  6. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into the life of James Christensen and your personal experience as well. Such a great talent and wonderful gentleman.

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  7. Cori, I remember how eager I was at each MAF retreat to drive down from the beauty of Aspen Grove for Jim's Big Gulp. And just like everything else he did, it had to mark his individuality. I've specialized in serving the greatest servers. It makes sense. They need refueling and the more I can assist them, the greater good they can accomplish. Everyone needs a niche and this is mine. If I attended MAF this year I would spend most of the time gazing at the mountains waiting for Jim to reappear with a grin and reminder on how to mix his Big Gulp. miss him so very much.

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