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The Elevation of Christian Artists

by G. James Daichendt

The 21st century art world is not for the faint of heart. Simultaneously exhilarating and bizarre, it encompasses both penthouse cocktail parties and underground performances. Today’s artists embrace post-modern thinking and relish philosophical debates.

Traditional form and technique such as painting or sculpture, though sometimes honored, seldom take center stage. Instead, contemporary artists create from unusual materials like sound, body movement, light, and computer programs. Given the plethora of styles and theories, how does a Christian university traverse the art world? The best answer: nurture an art program that engages the contemporary field and contributes to the conversation. At APU, students and faculty do both while leading the university toward an exciting moment in its arts education history.

Faith-Based Exploration

In the last several years, many have come to view the Azusa Pacific University Department of Art as a center for artistic expression in the area. Drawing similarities to medieval monasteries where educated monks, through scholarship, craft, and art production, explored important biblical and secular ideas, the department facilitates critical dialogue, drawing national attention for work from both students and faculty. Rooted in biblical truth, APU professors, students, and their guests have begun an earnest exploration of art history, technique, culture, and social issues within a faith-based framework. As a center for artistic activity, the Department of Art hosts a number of events to engage the APU community and the outside art world. Faculty and students facilitate more than 50 exhibitions a year. Student-inspired shows adorn four different on-campus galleries, while traveling exhibitions take the show on the road. The work of modern masters such as Jackson Pollock and Marc Chagall have graced the gallery walls this last year, while the works of invited guests, artists, and historians addressed topics like aesthetics, the role of the city, metaphysics, and the place of spirituality and art. These culture-building events and gatherings invite faculty, students, and guests to discuss art and ideas intimately and create opportunities for rich dialogue.

An Academic Partnership

APU art faculty and students also impact the local community and the larger art community by participating in events and engaging in philosophical and technical discussions within the three largest artist communities in Southern California—Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Laguna Beach. As the art scene is primarily secular, Christians are desperately needed to navigate the complexity and intellectual barricades set in place. Beyond Southern California, faculty, students, and alumni participate in traveling exhibitions that enable their work to influence a multitude of visitors, from California to New York and beyond. This level of involvement helps debunk the stereotypes and challenges of being a Christian Department of Art. Akin to philosophers, Christian artists are best equipped to lead this discussion so wrought with hopelessness and confusion. Students prepare to challenge the world’s assumptions through a rigorous course of study that impacts the words they use and the imagery they create. But to significantly influence art culture requires a position of leadership. In the art world, that means the earning a Master of Fine Art (MFA). Until now, no university within the Council of Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) has offered such a degree. APU, however, graduated its first class of MFA students this past summer. After three years of research and production, these APU alumni now engage universities and art galleries around the country through their leadership roles as artists and educators. Both undergraduate and graduate students studying art and graphic design at APU are in the unique position of understanding their purpose in the world—living as artists and followers of Christ. Seeing the world through this perspective allows study in the arts to be grounded in Truth, an option not always available or acceptable in other art schools. As Christians, we recognize the role of artist as a divine calling. Because we are made in the image of our Creator, we find joy and fulfillment through the act of creating. Because APU promotes a culture of truth seeking across all disciplines, we can refine our craft with freedom, integrity, and authority.

G. James Daichendt ’98, Ed.D., is an associate professor and exhibitions director in the Department of Art, and author of the forthcoming text:Artist-Teacher: A Philosophy for Creating and Teaching (Intellect Books, December 2009). gdaichendt@apu.edu

“Because we are made in the image of our Creator, we find joy and fulfillment through the act of creating.”
“Christian artists are best equipped to lead this discussion so wrought with hopelessness and confusion.”

Originally published in the Winter '09 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).