About a year ago, my friend Lex told me about a South African artist he’d got to know. I checked out his website and quickly realised that this was not some hobby-ist with a bit of a creative itch. Duncan Stewart is a painter and sculptor whose work is profoundly thoughtful and technically superb. His wide range, both in terms of style (oils, charcoal, bronze sculptures) and subject (addressing social, environmental and theological issues) is as impressive as his craftsmanship.
His raison d’etre, as expressed on the website’s ‘about’ tab also resonated with me:
‘Trust God and live life forward’ encapsulates my life’s philosophy… to do work that opens people’s hearts long enough, through whatever appeal my art may have, that the deeper narrative which imbues all my work, may be both ingested and digested.’
I caught up with Duncan to delve a little deeper.
Who are you and what do you do?
The short answer is that I am a human being whom God has graciously rescued from eternal destruction, in the process delighting my heart with a restored fellowship with Him and causing the gifts and passion He placed within me to be the vehicles which I now have the privilege of using for His glory and the blessing of others.
Even shorter answer: husband, son, brother, father, painter, sculptor, preacher, prayer, runner, paddler…in no clear order.
How did you decide to make art more than a hobby in your life?
Before Jesus interrupted my life, I never had the faith, vision or even desire to become an artist. I was hungry for the worldly promises of wealth and comfort which the life of an artist seemed completely incapable of achieving for me. Yet I always loved to draw things which ultimately translated into me keeping the flame of art alive through evening courses whilst working in the ad industry during the day. And then one day, God spoke to me from the story of Moses in Exodus, showing me that if I was willing to throw down what I had in my hand – my talents and artistic abilities, He could do in the supernatural what was impossible for me to do in the natural – use my work, my life, to lead others from captivity into freedom, into a promised land. I couldn’t imagine a more meaningful way to spend/invest my life. That moment, compounded by miraculous moments of divine provision and favour on my work, propelled me into the future I am now living but could never have dreamed of.
How would your art be different if you weren’t a Christian?
I think if I was not a Christian, I wouldn’t be an artist. My new identity – the person redefined by Christ on the cross, that person is an artist. The man I was prior to salvation had some artistic ability but the heart and passions, the fear controlling me then would have either sabotaged me or driven my work and my life in the pursuit of selfish pleasure, fame and fortune.
What would you like to achieve through your art in your lifetime?
Honestly, having my life/art play a role in the salvation of souls, millions or some part there-in.
The satisfaction and joy of redirecting vast sums of worldly wealth into the kingdom.
Influencing a whole industry to the truth and glory of God.
Model that the calling/living of an artist is a blessing and privilege, not requiring a host of dysfunctions or being subjected to poverty but rather a fountain of life and creativity and generosity and courage (not that I have achieved this, but I press on…:-)
What would be your advice to any young Christian artists finding it difficult to balance their art with the other demands of life (including church commitments)?
Know your boundaries and don’t be afraid to follow paths that others may judge as selfish.
Invest in yourself, your health, your talent, your education…value who God has made you to be, so that when you come to invest outwards – which is the goal, the outpouring of Christ is from a vessel that is whole.
Lose your religion ( viz. hypocrisy/legalistic spirit)….don’t be afraid to be seen and mix with people who aren’t Christians, true humility is a great weapon/tool for an artist.
Take time to rest, it may take more faith than to be busy but it is vital.
Be strict with yourself in practicing the daily discipline of seeking/being with Jesus.
Store compliments in your heart for encouragement when needed, not in your head which can get too big/proud; store criticism not in your heart where it can poison, but in your head where you can reflect upon it’s value and determine if you need to make correction or if it can be dismissed as irrelevant.
All church leaders I know say that they would like to both encourage artists (and creativity in general) in their churches, however thriving local church based artistic movements are few and far between. What do you think needs to change (in the churches and in the artists) for churches to start becoming homes for genuinely innovative and prolific art collectives?
From my experience there are at least 2 aspects that need consideration; the artist and the church/leadership of their local community.
Church side: I have the privilege of being in an extremely diverse community of people – black, white, rich poor, English and many other languages and nationalities and what I respect so much within our leadership is their vision and courage to create room for every member to explore and find their niche – the role God has uniquely gifted them to perform (1 Corinthians 12), creating opportunities within that for personal expression and challenge whilst recognising that it is God who brings the growth. They don’t always get it right, but one gets the deep sense that they are desiring to please God before man…which for me is key….they call us often into stretching, seemingly inconvenient relationships or tasks, gently but firmly. It is not necessarily always comfortable in our church – which is a good thing. So a leadership that is able to not box or over-administrate a church but desires to see a true reflection of the bride living in harmony with all its various parts…..so easy in words, so messy in life.
Artists side: What I have learnt is that we are not special, or rather more special, than anyone else. That we need to model the best of being an artist, even if it means giving when it hurts, helping, serving – playing out of position sometimes. We also need to be confident and secure in ourselves and with our leaders to trust them enough to be able to speak out our fears/dreams/frustrations so that they can position us better for success and connect us to a bigger picture. We need to share our gifts and talents (and ourselves) with the body to fulfill our unique God-given calling within and for the benefit and well-being of the whole body.