Art / Visual Art

Reformed Iconography: The Art of James Disney

We were eating lunch when James Disney suddenly said, “I see a landscape.” We were not talking about landscapes at that moment, or about art, so his comment dropped into the conversation rather abruptly. We weren’t even talking about what we could see. In fact, Jim was seated at the table with his back to the window, which looks out onto the side of a neighbor’s house, in any case. “There,” he said in the silence, pointing to an old buffet that is against the opposite wall in our dining room. We looked, but it didn’t help.

The buffet is an old piece, probably dating from the 1930’s. It had belonged to friends who hadn’t liked it, so they sold it to us for $40 when they moved. It has three drawers, two doors one at each end, and a small beveled mirror on top embedded in a raised section along the back. We have always liked it, primarily for the wood from which it was crafted. On the front a curved piece of vividly-grained maple adds richness to what is a simple piece of functional furniture. Though we had long appreciated the lovely swirls of the maple, we had never seen how the design which nature had produced in the woodgrain might include a hint of something other than the beauty of the wood itself.

“In that curved wood,” Jim said, getting up to point it out. “In the grain is an entire scene, a landscape, with trees, a lake, and workers in a field. I’ll show you later by painting a watercolor of it.” Which he did, and the piece now hangs on the wall beside the buffet. It took an artist’s eye and gift to help us see—to really see—what we had been looking at for years.

It has been our pleasure to host Jim and Jennifer Disney at Toad Hall, and each visit is filled with laughter, conversation, and proof that dear friends are a precious gift in this broken world. Our conversations are about art and faith, about culture in a fallen world viewed through the lens of a biblical world view. The two paintings by Jim which grace our walls are not just lovely pieces of art, but sweet reminders of friends enjoying unhurried time together.

One of his simpler pieces hangs in my office, a shrouded figure against a sharply defined, dark sky. The solitary, haloed figure, painted in warm colors, seems to emanate quiet. The aloneness of the figure is absolute, yet it does not seem to be lost or adrift in the empty space which surrounds it, nor is it overwhelmed. If anything, the expanse is overwhelmed by the figure. Though nameless and faceless, it is someone in holy communion with the Divine, someone wrestling with God, the painting a celebration of the astonishing paradox that unhurried seclusion before the face of God supplies precisely what is needed to cure our insatiable cosmic loneliness.

Jim’s art is not representational, yet not fully abstract. His artwork depicts landscapes, figures, and moments in time, yet they always manage to hint at more. Each painting is rather like an icon, though Jim’s evangelical convictions as a Lutheran pastor bring a Reformational rather than an Eastern Orthodox sensibility to his artistic expression. Backgrounds are flattened, figures are simplified, and though perspective is not absent, it is used to focus our attention rather than to craft a photo-like depth. Whether the work has a distinctly religious theme or not, each acts like a window into the depths of reality, a simple scene with a whisper of transcendence. I interviewed him recently.

DH: How would you describe your art?
JD: My art is a spiritual diary of revelations, insights, and prayers. My paintings are a kind of workbook that I have filled out with God looking over my shoulder. Working mostly in watercolor I always feel that I am still learning.

DH: What are you trying to express or communicate in your art?
JD: Often things start for me during some intuitive drawing. I might create an image that I do not fully understand. As I work out the parts of the painting some kind of personal message or moral seems to emerge. If a painting can be some evidence of this process then it has a personal significance for me. My painting can seem like a sermon delivered specifically to address the needs of a person with exactly my set of problems. To me some of my paintings are direct evidence that God has woven himself into the things of this world.

DH: How did you arrive at your style? How would you describe your style?
JD: I feel like a kid who ran out of pages in his coloring book. Now I draw some pictures and if I like them I will fill them in with color. Art books have always surrounded me. The pictures in them are more real to me then the objects outside my house. The pure content of Iconography has influenced me. The tedious craftsmanship of the Netherlandish painters inspires and exhausts me. My style is personal and intimate. It is heavily based on line and color. It is literary, sometimes homiletic.

DH: How do people respond to your work?
JD: My painting usually requires a kind of Christian decoder ring. This leaves a lot of people adrift with only the image to respond to. At my last show in Minneapolis I was explaining to a young woman that my painting “The Coward” was based on the book of Jonah. She registered surprise at discovering that this tale was in the Bible. She thought it was a children’s story, like Pinocchio. I have enjoyed sharing the deep connection of faith with those who can decode my work. Christians seem to enjoy the twists and new perspectives I bring to basic truths of the faith.

Jim Disney’s work hints at stories and elicits questions because he somehow manages to make them simultaneously very simple, and yet strangely allusive. His images are always clear, yet always symbolic. They capture in paint the reality of spiritual mystery, not simply by depicting it but by evoking it.

Sometimes he incorporates symbols into the work itself. “The Magdalene,” for example, is of a woman against an abstracted landscape. Her hair is brown, her dress ochre. The figure dominates the canvas, and Mary looks out at us, holding with great care in both hands, in a way that can’t be missed, an egg. Even if we have no idea what it means or have never heard of the woman from the pages of the New Testament, we know there is some sort of significance in this egg. Chances are we will either know what this symbol means—or we will want to know.

Sometimes, as in “Refined by Fire,” the painting implies a story which implies a hidden meaning. A woman holding a diapered baby stands out on a vast prairie, while in the background a fire rages on the horizon. We wonder how she came to be there, who she is, and whether she has already been refined or whether the purifying flames are yet to sweep over her. And whether the moment captured on the canvas symbolizes something that brings meaning in hard times.

This allusive quality in Disney’s work invites us to stop, to look more closely, to reflect a bit. To walk by too quickly is to merely see the surface, though that is lovely enough with his beautiful watercolor washes, subtly rich colors, and freely drawn lines. To not take the time would be like discovering an ancient chest in a forgotten attic, but never bothering to break open the rusty lock and look inside. His paintings invite questions, almost demand them.

And since we are asking questions, why is “The Coward” a coward? What hints are we given in this painting as to its meaning? The moon seems to look over the man’s shoulder, his back to the world, his attention centered on his own concerns. In the background a boat sails across the water, while the man sits at a table looking at a book which depicts a whale. Who is this character? Am I like him? And what do the items arrayed on the table represent?

Even Disney’s simple images are not only about the specific object that he has depicted. He painted “The Lamb” on Good Friday as a meditation on Jesus’ sacrifice. The dark background of doom seems to weigh down the animal. Although no knife is visible, the lamb seems to offer its neck. If you are a Christian, a myriad connections and stories come to mind. Images of death, sacrifices, and blood, of altars—and the fact that in Scripture we are the ones likened to helpless, doomed sheep. It would be interesting to ask a non-Christian what the painting means.

Art that invites us to slow down and reflect is a gracious surprise in our busy world. It is equally surprising that such thoughtful, painstaking work is produced by a man whose schedule is relentless as he pastors a church of over a thousand believers. Jim’s images always suggest something deeper, as if the piece were a window instead of a canvas, a way through which or in which we see something beyond. Some quality in them makes us wonder, and evokes a sense of mystery.

DH: What is the relationship between your art and your evangelism or worship?
JD: The painter George Roualt said that his ambition was to paint one image of the head of Christ such that anyone who looked at it would immediately come to faith. After 17 years of being a Lutheran preacher I have had most of that sort of mysticism crowded out of me. If my paintings are a kind of spiritual diary of my search for God then perhaps they can be companions for others who travel the same path. It has been really exciting to see my art in the context of the secular gallery scene. It almost feels subversive. But paintings cannot convert people; they can only whisper the truth. The process by which I make my art is certainly a kind of personal worship. The use of icons in worship and personal devotion interests me. I used to dream of making images that could serve in liturgical spaces. But for now my style seems too personal for corporate worship.

DH: Most Christians can attend church for a lifetime without hearing a positive sermon on art. Why is this?
JD: To search for God with all 5 senses is a hard thing in itself. To begin to try to formalize that search into reasoned thought is even harder. The thing that is great about painting is that it creates spirituality without words. Most preachers don’t want to touch something so hazy. When I have used visual images in sermons I have talked about decoding the picture and people seem to understand that. They can take that skill and even apply it to nature: what is God saying with this mountain, or this animal, that He made?

DH: Original art tends to be the province of the wealthy. Should Christians who are starting out in life budget for art?
JD: People like looking at paintings a lot more than they enjoy buying them. This is unfortunate because living with a painting can be a very rich experience. One of the exciting ideas from the world of iconography is that paintings can be a living presence. The eyes of a saint might gaze out of a painting into your home. A painting can be like a living prayer on your wall. I like to work details into a painting that will enable it to endure a long scrutiny; I hope that those details could lead to meditation. Of course that would take more then a 5 second glance, which is all that most people will give to a picture. If a painting costs as much as a two-week vacation most people are going to take the vacation. If you make 60 thousand and you walk into a gallery that is selling paintings for 2 thousand, you are not going to buy anything. The problem is that if someone wants to commit himself to being just a painter they have to sell 30 paintings at that rate just to make 30 thousand, since the gallery gets half of the sale. That is why I have given up on the dream of ever being just a painter. That also means I will make far fewer pictures over the course of my career. I think every Christian needs some art on their walls.

I agree. Every Christian needs some art—original art, I would add—on their walls.

In 1982, the year after the Communist regimes in Central Europe collapsed, I had the opportunity to lecture at a conference which drew Christian leaders from Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. Though I was one of the presenters, I have always felt that I received far more than I was able to give. One of my fondest memories from that trip was being welcomed into the homes (usually a flat) of Christians, often jammed with people eager to talk long into the night. The hospitality was generous and warm. The flat was often simple and, by American standards, small. It would be one of a myriad identical apartments in a huge, gray cement tower, one of many huge complexes of identical towers which are so characteristic of the housing provided by Marxist regimes. I found the towers ugly, a view shared by the people who lived in them. And depressing. Depressing, that is, until one of the identical gray, steel doors was opened to us. Inside there would be laughter, serious conversation, and art. Lots of art.

Time and again I was impressed with the original art that decorated the walls. Often there was so much art that the walls were literally crowded with it.

I asked about it, and my hosts told me that the Marxists outlawed religious art, which was fine, they said, since much religious art sacrificed depth of meaning and aesthetic quality in order to get some agenda across. But art that tended to mystery, to the abstract, which used symbols provocatively, that was a different story. For one thing, it was beyond the Marxist censors, who often approved it because they didn’t want to admit they didn’t understand it. It was a way for Christians to remind one another that life had meaning even when their circumstances seemed so meaningless as to be beyond hope. And such art prompted conversations with non-Christians.

I asked how they could afford it, when life had been so hard under totalitarianism, and when often even the necessities of life were priced beyond their reach. They said they couldn’t not afford it. For one thing, they were supporting fellow believers who had been called into the arts. For another, art nurtured the soul and so was not a luxury. It was a necessity, especially in a materialistic society.

DH: Judging by the “art” displayed in religious bookstores, your work will not achieve much popularity among Chris-tians. Care to comment?
JD: Taste is a conditioned response. In high school I liked to read Mad Magazine until a teacher got me to read Herman Hesse. But being the pastor of people who sport Thomas Kinkade Bible covers has taught me that piety is not given in equal proportion to aesthetic preference. Sadly the value of some truly great paintings has been diminished by the proliferation of that image. After marketing some of my paintings on cards and posters I have heard from people who treasure them. But I never want to see one of my images on an umbrella or tote bag. Having the technology to reproduce imagery in any form is one of the most profound developments in the history of art. How we decide to use that technology will deeply affect the future of the human soul.

DH: Who were your mentors (models, heroes, etc) as a Christian? As an artist? What books or writers most shaped your imagination, thinking and life?
JD: I have never had a mentor; sounds like a great idea. Had it not been for Kant, Kierke-gaard, and Nietzsche I might never have read the Bible. St. Augustine impressed me with the honesty and depth of his writing. Reading his Confessions and City of God was what sent me on to seminary. The poetry of T.S. Eliot, the short stories of Tolstoy, Doctor Faustus by Mann, and Zhivago by Pasternak, all convinced me that the Christian faith had power. As a painter, Klee, Picasso, and Chagall set me on my course.

DH: Many believers see the postmodern world as a dangerous place; what would you say to the parent whose artistically-gifted child yearns to pursue the arts?
JD: Every parent who gives their child a hockey stick puts them into danger. Life is a risk. I think being an artist might be safer than being a lawyer. But anyone can betray themselves and God. Just like the parent who encourages their child to get good at baseball, the family that produces a budding artist needs to talk about a safety net. Very few are going to make it on art alone.

DH: Over the past several decades much work has been done in trying to encourage the development of a Christian mind among the people of God. What can discerning Christians do to nurture a Christian imagination?
JD: They should read the publications of Ransom Fellowship. I have used your ideas to get people thinking about discernment when they listen to the radio or watch TV. Person-ally I spend a lot of my post-modern life rejecting things that don’t work. It’s a lot of effort to fend off all the stuff that wants to suffocate our spirit. When by God’s grace I find art and artists that trigger my imagination I feed on them like a starving man. There are prophets among us; it’s just a lot harder to hear them.

Christians who wonder how to address explicitly Christian themes without preaching would do well to attend a showing of Jim Disney’s art. Here is a preacher whose art never preaches, yet it includes profoundly religious images without repulsing non-Christians. His paintings prompt people to stop, to think and wonder, while displaying a quiet authenticity which is deeply attractive. He is unabashed about the spirituality he holds dear, and his art is infused with a proper mysticism which speaks to the heart.

Margie and I attended a showing of Disney’s art in Minneapolis. It was in a gallery tucked in an old building in the warehouse district of the city. Jim’s work was hung in a hallway and central room, with another artist’s work displayed in a room next to it. The other artist, a young postmodernist, painted “from within himself.” Each canvas depicted a nightmare. The work was done competently—the gallery owner is no slouch—and as I looked at it I was struck by the truth he portrayed. Indeed, within each of us, are nightmares birthed in the fallenness that permeates our being and which touches all we touch.

In the gallery that evening, two artists displayed their work. Both faced life with integrity, but only one helped us see beyond the brokenness. I thought the juxtaposition was perfect, and that Jim’s work was displayed exactly where it should be. Not in a safe, religious place, but in the middle of a broken world, where it can whisper of hope, hint at transcendence, and provoke us with symbols that get us thinking about the mystery and promise of spiritual reality.

Click Here to Visit James Disney’s Ransom Gallery

Artist can be contacted by email at  Please mention you saw his work on Ransom’s website or heard about it in Critique.