BY STEPHEN CHAVEZ
T'S QUITE LIKELY
THAT NATHAN GREENE'S JESUS IS better known than
Nathan Greene, the artist. And that's just fine with the artist some call
"the next Harry Anderson."
In a modest home about three miles north of Eau Claire, Michigan, Nathan and
Patty Greene raise their three children. Patty, a trained dietitian, is now
teacher of their three home schoolers. Nathan, in his basement studio, is one
of the United States' premier Christian artists.
The Invitation is seen by countless thousands who tune in to It Is
weekly telecast. The paintings The Family of God and Chief of
the Medical Staff hang prominently at the Loma Linda University Medical
Center and Florida Hospital, respectively. Greene's
schedule for the next 18 months is packed with work on paintings that have already
been commissioned; and he and his agent, Dan Houghton, of Hart Classic Editions,
are negotiating contracts for paintings that will keep Greene occupied until
Nathan Greene is one of several Adventist artists who have taken up the mantle
of artist/illustrators of a generation ago: Harry Anderson, Russ Harlan, Harry
Baerg, Vernon Nye, and others. And just as the older artists filled the imagination
with biblical images for generations of Christians, most of whom were Adventist,
Greene's images of Jesus are striking
responsive chords among believers and nonbelievers throughout North America.
"Even when I was a little boy,
every now and then I would get this idea that I'm
supposed to be an artist,"
says Greene, sitting on a stool before an unfinished canvas in his studio. "In
first and second grade I thought, This is what I'm
destined to do. I had this vague notion that God had a plan for me in this
way. It grew stronger over the years."
Yet growing up, Greene also entertained ideas about becoming a medical doctor.
For a while he considered pursuing a career as a medical illustrator, thus combining
his two interests. Then providence stepped in.
When he was 17 Greene went on a trip with his high school art teacher to meet
the venerable Adventist artist Harry Anderson in Connecticut. "I
came home and I felt overwhelmed the whole next day,"
he remembers. "I just
felt this overwhelming presence of God. It was as if He was saying, 'I've
got a plan for you.'
After graduating from Cedar Lake Academy, Greene briefly attended Andrews University.
On a field trip to Chicago he stumbled upon an exhibit at the Sears Tower by
students of the American Academy of Art. Inspired by their realistic style,
Greene decided to quit school, earn some money by working with one of his two
brothers as a beekeeper, and study at the American Academy of Art.
At the time all prospective students had to be interviewed by the president
of the academy. During his interview Greene noticed that the painting on the
wall behind the president's desk was by Harry Anderson.
"Once again I felt like the
Holy Spirit was there at that moment telling me, 'I've
got a plan for you.'"
Greene lived in Chicago with relatives while he trained to be an artist, feeling
somewhat awkward and shy in such a high-powered metropolitan atmosphere. "There
were about a dozen students who had obvious talent," he remembers modestly, "and I was able to hold my
own with them."
From the American Academy of Art Greene began looking for work as a freelance
artist and illustrator in and around Chicago. He also contacted art directors
on the East Coast of the United States about doing wildlife and historical art.
He spent several days on one occasion interviewing with the art directors at
National Geographic. "I always felt I was a natural
for that," he says. "I'm
kind of obsessed with research and getting the details right."
For a while Greene did paintings for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) and illustrations for the National Wildlife Federation.
He also illustrated magazines and books for several Christian publishers such
as Tyndale House, Christianity Today, Billy Graham Association, Review and Herald,
Pacific Press, and Focus on the Family.
National Geographic demonstrated an interest in Greene's work, contacting him about
several projects. But "it
was about this time that I really wanted to do large oil paintings with Christian
themes," Greene remembers.
Once again doors providentially opened.
The Big Picture
Versacare Corporation had approached Harry Anderson about doing paintings for
each of their two hospitals, one in Florida and one in California. Ander-son,
retired at the time, suggested they contact Greene. "Those
two paintings changed everything for me,"
Greene states. "Until then I figured I was
pretty much destined to do book and magazine illustrations for the rest of my
career, which was fine. But I wanted to do things that were more permanent,
things that would be there for a long time. Magazine illustrations can be published
one month and be in the garbage the next. I wanted to do something a little
The two paintings Greene produced, Chief of the Medical Staff and The
Family of God, gave him a new client base and provided him with an opportunity
to bring Christ into modern settings, just as Harry Anderson did a generation
"Painting Christ is probably
the most difficult thing I do," Greene admits. "Everybody
has their own understanding, their own view, of what Jesus looked like; but
nobody really knows. There's no record of what He looked
like, and perhaps there's
a reason for that. It seems not to be an important thing.
personality and character, that was described in detail," he continues. "So
when I'm painting Jesus, I'm really trying to show His character
and His personality more than what He actually looked like."
of Christ is rugged yet tender. In the painting The Carpenter, perspiration
reflects light off Jesus' forehead. In several paintings
Jesus draws children to Him with an almost magnetic force. "I'm,
first of all, trying to avoid the blond-haired, blue-eyed, Anglo-Saxon Christ,
which has been painted many times," Greene says. Siegfried Horn,
noted archaologist and late chair of the Archaelogy Department at the Seventh-day
Adventist Theological Seminary, told him that a Jewish man 2,000 years ago would
most likely have had an olive complexion, dark hair, and brown eyes. Greene's
model for many years (until just recently) has been part Lebanese, part Hispanic,
and part East Indian.
Greene is fond of telling stories about how people respond to his paintings.
He met a man at the General Conference session in Toronto who had received an
evangelistic brochure in the mail with Greene's painting The Invitation,
announcing some meetings conducted by It Is Written evangelist Leo Schreven.
The man told Greene, "I
did what I usually do when I get something like this: I chucked it in the garbage
can. But every day I'd walk by there and I'd look in the garbage can;
there's that face looking back at
The man attended Schreven's meetings, was among several
dozen people baptized, and now carries that brochure in his Bible as a reminder
of Christ's invitation to follow Him.
Greene tells about a man and his wife who were spending their vacation at Disney
World when the man had a heart attack and was rushed to Celebration Health,
the collaboration between the Disney Corporation and Florida Hospital. The man's
wife was a believer, but the man himself wasn't. However, after he survived
multiple heart-bypass surgery the man told his wife to go to the hospital gift
shop and buy 20 postcards with the painting Chief of the Medical Staff reproduced
on them. He sent the cards to 20 of his friends with the message: "This is where I was, and this
is who was with me."
Another woman insisted on holding on to the Chief of the Medical Staff postcard
even as she went into surgery to be operated on for a brain tumor. The surgeon
said she never let go of it. She held it even while under anesthesia.
"The paintings I do for a hospital
or a clinic or a church—I
particularly think of medical institutions—they're
like sermons on the wall,"
says Greene. "People will come into these facilities
who may never set foot in a church, and maybe never even thought about these
things. But they come into an institution at a time in their lives when they're
thinking serious thoughts. What an opportunity to communicate with them in a
way that nothing else can."
The Master's Touch
Greene is a self-described perfectionist when it comes to
his paintings. In The Introduction he painted Christ's
face eight times, unable to satisfy his own standards until his last attempt.
When does he know that a painting is finished? "When
it all comes together so that it looks like I can step into the scene, then
I know it's done,"
he says. "When I don't feel that, I have to keep fiddling
with it until it's
Greene calls his painting style "painterly realism," and he cites, in addition
to Harry Anderson, Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent, and Winslow Homer as
other artists who have influenced his artistic style.
Greene's method of
putting Christ into modern settings is just one of the things he shares in common
with Harry Anderson. In 1987 during a visit to Anderson's
home in Connecticut, Anderson gave Greene his costume collection that he had
used in many of his paintings—including the one often used
by the models who portrayed Christ. Greene uses the same tunic on the models
who portray Christ in his paintings.
Painting is a vocation Greene has been called to, just as a pastor is called
to parish ministry. As he paints, Greene listens to books and sermons on audiotape—audio
books of some literary classics, sermons by Mark Finley, Morris Venden, and
others. Chief of the Medical Staff was painted while he listened to a
series by A. Graham Maxwell, teaching medical students at Loma Linda University
about finding God in all 66 books of the Bible. "I hope my depictions of Christ
are showing the character of God in a positive light that would win people to
Him," he says. "I'm
trying to support my family and make a living, but I do take it seriously. I
have an awareness that this can impact people."
One of Greene's frustrations
is that with paintings being commissioned so far into the future, he sometimes
doesn't have time to
develop his own ideas into finished works of art. This has been solved somewhat
by patrons who have commissioned him to paint his own ideas. Last year's
painting, The Lamb of God, is an example of an idea Greene had to paint
Christ in a nontraditional setting. "There are so many pictures
of Jesus as a shepherd,"
he observes, "but never
with a black lamb. But the symbolism is so obvious."
Greene also wants to picture Christ in more traditional biblical settings,
and plans soon to begin a painting picturing Jesus with Mary and Martha. He
would like to do a series of paintings on Jesus' miracles, His resurrection,
His second coming. "I'd
like to do Daniel and the lions'
den, a nice large oil painting; these are powerful images," he states. Like others, Greene
has recognized a need to update the visual images that are used in Adventist
evangelistic presentations. He would like to see himself and other Adventist
artists make this a priority over the next few years.
Perhaps Greene's greatest
frustration is that time is finite. He recalls jobs he had before he became
an artist when time just didn't
move fast enough. "But
now when I look at the clock, I'm
not thinking, How much longer do I have to endure this? It's I wish time would stop
going by so fast. I'm
having fun and I love what I'm doing."
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.