A Gravitational Pull

by Evelyn Barge

The trio of sculptures stands in a far corner of the L Gallery on West Campus. They go unnoticed by most, save those few who happen to glance around the bend and spot them—spindly, delicate figures with layers of oxidation imparting tone and texture to frenetic bundles of wire. Upright on impossibly narrow limbs, the figures spurn the pull of gravity, even as Matthew Ellis, MFA ’13, rearranges their pedestals in the gallery.

Ellis’s works draw on the artist’s real-life experiences, including painful memories of a fractured childhood. Now 28, the Inland Empire native will earn his master’s degree next year, but he doesn’t always feel so far removed from the abusive home where he and his six siblings sought refuge in creativity. “We had nothing,” said Ellis. “We made toys out of the materials around us—paper, foil, boxes. And I did a lot of sketching.”

Today, Ellis’s dimensional wire sculptures still borrow from the linear energy of drawing that provided an outlet for him at a young age. Creating and displaying such deeply revealing art was nothing if not difficult for Ellis. He started the MFA program in 2009 with a focus on printmaking and graphic design, but his professors and mentors encouraged a creative reboot. “I was holding back,” Ellis said. “And, truthfully, I’m still trying to get there.”

“Now my artwork is much more than that—it’s my lifestyle, my communion with God.”

For scholars like Ellis in the Department of Art and Design, such programs of study lend themselves naturally to a process of self-discovery. “There is a transformative aspect to it,” said Becky Roe, MFA, associate professor of art and design. “It’s learning how to become more whole. The transformation happens internally and comes out in our students’ art-making.”

Marissa Quinn ’11, MFA ’14, discovered the notion of art as something bigger than one’s self during her undergraduate studies. “Before that, art was just something that made me a little different, something that I did,” said Quinn, who works with mixed media to create large, highly textural paintings that position nature in contrast to the detachment of modern technology. “Now my artwork is much more than that—it’s my lifestyle, my communion with God.”

William Catling, MFA, chair of the Department of Art and Design, contends that students engaged in the creative process learn to examine and break down the conceptual framework that informs not only their art, but also their faith. “We work with students to define their framework, and how that influences their practice and product,” Catling said. “The artist’s faith is like water that moves through 50 feet of bedrock. It percolates through and is a natural part of the life of the Spirit moving through them. When artists touch their material, they’ve integrated their faith into their entire being.”

That’s certainly evident in the case of Colorado resident Rachel Farrington, MFA ’14, who describes her body of work as a visual record of spiritual growth. Farrington explores layering in drawing and painting, incorporating reflective surfaces and semitransparent elements designed to evoke the tension between flesh and spirit.

In the course of her studies, Farrington, an adjunct professor of art in Grand Junction, said she’s been struck by how current and connected APU’s art and design programs are to the contemporary art scene without sacrificing the critical incorporation of Christian faith. “If you want to make a difference in culture, you’ve got to get into culture first,” noted Catling. “And you don’t engage with mediocre or unchallenged work. Unless you’re in the cultural dialogue, it’s hard to make an impact.”

But the meeting of modern art culture and religious faith can sometimes be an uncomfortable intersection for serious Christian artists. “Artists are often thought of as challenging people’s faith and treading along the edges of society,” said Roe. “The secular art world criticizes Christian artists who are perceived as not having a realistic understanding of the contemporary world that we live in.”

Recognizing this tension even before entering the Master of Fine Arts in Visual Art program in 2011, Jordan Mullen, a former Marine, said he wanted to glorify God through art by creating a relevant body of work that would be acknowledged in the broader art culture. “I wondered, ‘How am I going to make Christian art that anyone is going to take seriously?’” said Mullen. “The MFA program is all about finding yourself as an artist. I’m exploring what I have to say, and because I am a Christian, that essential part of who I am comes through in any art form.”

David Weeks, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, sees no reason for modern Christians to surrender the fine arts, which, at times in history, were almost exclusively created by and for believers and the Church. “The relationship between art and Christianity has become tenuous in recent decades, in part because art is now widely used to represent non- or even anti-Christian points of view,” said Weeks. “But God’s first act in Scripture is an act of creation, of something good and beautiful. At APU, developing Christian artists are frequently reminded that their work follows in that vein. By creating art that reflects the complexity, the challenges, and the hope we have for the world, artists transform their own lives and the lives of others.”

Likewise, artists and designers, mature in their art and faith, stand ready to bear witness as influencers in current culture. “Art has the potential to change people—starting with the artist and then the audience,” said Catling. “The role of artists is vital to make the invisible visible.”

Steadily, by increments, substantial change becomes outwardly apparent in art students like Ellis.

Today, Ellis’s sculptural works are growing, literally, in size and detail alongside his faith and artistic confidence. He cautiously imagines a career in a Southern California museum or gallery—perhaps one of his own. Once impossible, dreams born in the midst of adversity become possible, empowered by the Spirit to defy gravity.