Shelby artist strives to be a 'witness of our Christian joy'
SHELBY — As Christians we are called to love and serve God. Particularly, Jesus calls us to "do to others whatever you would have them do to you" Mt 7:12. So, how can we justify living a life in which we do not constantly pray, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick?
Chrys Riviere-Blalock, along with many other Christian artists, is faced with this question. The painter from Shelby hangs a crucifix in her studio, but wonders how she can deem herself a "Christian artist." No, her paintings are not of saints or Biblical scenes. Instead, she is left wondering, "Wouldn't I be of more service to do something good for others? It seems real selfish."
She says, "Sometimes, as a painter, I think, 'Why am I doing this?' You get all these pieces (of your work) piling up if you don't have a show, and you haven't sold anything in a while, and sometimes it's hard to justify why you're doing it, but you want to do it."
Troubled with this conflict, Riviere-Blalock found encouragement in the words she saw on the cover of a hymnal: "He who does God's work does not do so in vain."
With this in mind, she realizes she has a gift from God, a gift she must take advantage of. "I thought, that's encouraging when you're not selling anything and it's piling up around the studio, and you think you should be doing something else. Then, you remember, 'God gave me that gift.'"
Riviere-Blalock admits, "I still struggle with that." But encouragement for her to continue keeps coming. She says, "You hear things like what Bishop (Peter) Jugis said at the Eucharistic Congress. In his homily, he said, 'The world needs the witness of our Christian joy.' That's what I was supposed to hear. That's why I do my painting – it's my witness of my Christian joy."
Riviere-Blalock grew up in an environment of art and design. Her father was an architect and her uncles were printers.
"There was always paper everywhere," she says. "So, my earliest memories are lying on my tummy drawing on the floor all the time. Everybody can do something – I was the kid who the teachers would take my drawings and put them outside the door. They didn't pick me to read the hard library books, they didn't pick me to go stand up and talk, they picked me to do stuff to hang outside the door. That's what I always did."
Growing up Methodist, Riviere-Blalock also carried with her an attraction to the Catholic Church and the Eucharist.
"I think God must have put that seed in my heart to yearn for the Eucharist," she says. "I remember as a little girl asking my dad why Methodists didn't believe (the bread and wine) turned into the Body and Blood. I had read or heard about what Catholics believed from somewhere. He told me what Methodists believe and I remember thinking, 'Well, that's kind of odd. Why don't we think God is capable of doing it?' I think that God always led me to converting, and I finally did."
Her faith has become a part of who she is as an artist. In his letter to artists, Pope John Paul II wrote that artists "must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity ... There is therefore an ethic, even a 'spirituality' of artistic service."
As a painter, Riviere-Blalock keeps this letter in mind. She says, "You need to make a living and find an audience for your work, and you want it to be popular. But that's not why I'm doing it; it's just that, you're not witnessing to the Christian joy if you don't have an audience."
Her paintings are well-received in a secular environment, and their quality is recognized outside of her religious background. Right now, her paintings focus on landscapes.
"I've done a lot of different things over the years," she says. "But I've always been interested in spatial concepts, putting the viewer within the actual painting, rather than just that two-dimensional surface being a kind of illusion. So, now I'm doing landscapes, and I play with this idea of the space being ambiguous. I try to almost make the viewer be in the space so it reads ambiguously. Then, as the viewer, you have to figure out where you are in space."
She says, "I still haven't gotten tired of working with landscape because there so much to discover. I live in a rural area and it's so much a part of my life. I think that God speaks to me in that way. Landscapes constantly reflect God's beauty and they take my breath away."
Riviere-Blalock is within a world of contemporary art where, she says, "so much visual art is so graphic in so many different ways that are not positive. I think it's real hard. You want your work to be strong, but you have to be in the world and not of the world."
She attempts to separate herself from the typical contemporary artists through her faith.
She says, "For Christian people in the arts, we're doing the same thing (as contemporary artists): we're making art and trying to engage the viewer, challenge somebody intellectually, and reflect what's going on in our culture and time. But Christian artists are motivated by a witness to Christian joy. Christian artists have this idea that art that's beautiful or uplifting points to God. Our job is to point to God and His incredible love for us in what He surrounds us with visually."
Riviere-Blalock earned a master's degree in art at Appalachian State University, and has taught in small colleges in western North Carolina for 25 years.
Riviere-Blalock loves to paint and hopes she continues to have the talent and calling to do it. She says, "There's never any question about why I want to do it. I love it and it's such a joy. I know it's a gift. I know God has given me the gift to see, which is what painters do. We see."
— Christopher Lux, correspondent