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From flying pigs to goblin princesses

James C. Christensen’s art travels a magical journey

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OREM — It is a magic world, the one that artist James C. Christensen invites you to enter. Fishes appear in unexpected locations. Boats carry amazing cargoes to unknown destinations. Pigs fly; hedgehogs come in heliotrope; goblin princesses have pet beetles.

In this place, there are no limits to imagination and creativity. Yet there is a lightness of being and an uplifting sense of purpose to it all. You want to linger. You want to savor. You want to spirit a tiny part of it away with you.

You can see and do all these things and more in the latest compilation of Christensen's work, a gorgeous coffee-table book book called "Men and Angels: The Art of James C. Christensen" (Greenwich Workshop Press, $85). The book, which was co-written by Kate Horowitz, features more than 300 full-color paintings and a selection of whimsical sketches from Christensen's private sketchbooks as well as anecdotes, thoughts and descriptions of each piece.

Christensen is one of the most recognizable and critically acclaimed living artists in the United States today, says Scott Usher, president of Greenwich Workshop Press. "We are very excited about the release of 'Men and Angels.' His work communi-

cates on a level that is as personal as it is universal. He has the unique ability to give life to characters that appear to be both human and divine."

The book is also a fun journey of discovery for Christensen. "I'm not fond of any of my pieces when I finish them. I'm just glad they are going away," he says. "It's like composer Merrill Jenson told me once, 'It's because we know where all the bent nails are.' But give me a year or two, and I come back and think, 'That's nice.' I've forgotten where the personal problem areas are."

When people ask him which is his favorite painting, "I always say, 'The next one.' I always look forward to starting a new one. Then I get so involved I can't see it objectively. So, having a book with my work from the past 10, 20 years, that's pretty exciting, pretty fun."

Plus, he says, every artist dreams of "leaving the legacy behind. The book is a nice artifact for my children and grandchildren." (He and his wife, Carole, have five children: two daughters are now artists in their own right; a third daughter teaches art; the two sons "are not involved in art but are very creative people.")

When Christensen takes time to reflect on his career, he's as surprised as anyone, he says. "I didn't grow up in an artistic family. They liked art, but I didn't even know what art supplies were. I got my first supplies at Disneyland. They had an art shop in Tomorrowland that I absolutely loved."

Growing up in Southern California, "I drew as long as I've been alive." But it took him a while to get into art. "I did one painting on my own in high school, and it was horrible. I didn't discover oils until I was a sophomore at BYU."

When he gives lectures to students, "they always want to know what my five-year plan was. The truth is, I didn't engineer any of this. I didn't know who Greenwich Workshop was when they called and asked if they could make prints of my work."

But there's a bit more involved. "That sounds like opportunities just fell into my lap, and some did. But I don't believe in blind luck. I think you have to work hard, do your best, constantly try to improve and give every project 100 percent. It follows that the harder you work, the luckier you get." Still, he says, "you do have to be in the right place and have the right things to say."

For Christensen, the things he says have always bordered on the magical. He's commonly called a fantasy artist, but he sees himself, rather, as an artist who paints the fantastic. "That's actually a 17th-century term, like the work of Hieronymus Bosch. I paint things that are not real. But fantasy often ventures into the dark and scary stuff. I made a decision long ago that I would not go to dark places. There's a lot of negativity in the world. I try not to be part of it."

His paintings are filled with symbolism. "There are many layers of meaning in my work, and I love to play with themes and metaphors."

If our lives are like rivers, he says, then boats are a good place for things to happen. He also often uses fish. If you are fully dressed and a fish is there, "it means you are somewhere else, a magical place. I like to juxtapose things that you might not think would go together. I get a kick out of putting in a lot of symbols and letting people find out what they are."

He wants his paintings to be "a point of departure. I don't demand that the viewer finds out what I'm trying to say. If they have different ideas, I say 'hooray.' Sometimes I like theirs better; sometimes I steal those."

He does want people to use their imaginations. "We all have that ability to think creatively, but I don't think we use it enough."

He also tries to "connect with common themes, the issues that people have to deal with — the burdens of a responsible man." Ideas, he says, are all around us, all a part of life. "I try to explore them in a unique way. Most times it's a fun way, sometimes it's a touching way. But this is stuff we all go through."

If his paintings often have a spiritual side, that, too, is natural. "Every authentic artist paints who he is. My religion, my spiritual belief system permeate my life and my artwork."

There are some artists who "feel that if you don't put great angst into your paintings, you are not serving art. I don't buy that. My contribution is to try to encourage people to be happy, to enjoy life, to be positive."

He knows a man who hangs a Christensen painting in his bathroom. "He told me that every time he gets out of the shower, he sees it and it makes him laugh. I say good for him!"

Some of Christensen's artwork hangs in his own Orem home. "Carole gets to pick one painting a year to keep. That was her deal way back when I was just starting to get successful. I've also saved a couple that particularly inspire me, and things that don't sell have a way of dribbling back."

Christensen taught at Brigham Young University for 20 years but has since "quit my day job." Over the course of his career, he has been accorded numerous honors and awards. He was recently designated as a Utah Art Treasure, one of Utah's Top 100 Artists by the Springville Museum of Art and received the Governor's Award for Art from the Utah Arts Council.

He has won all the professional art honors the World Science Fiction Convention gives out and has received multiple Chesley Awards from the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists.

"Men and Angels" is the latest of several books he has produced, including "A Journey of the Imagination: The Art of James Christensen," "Voyage of the Basset," "Rhymes & Reasons," "Parables" (written by Robert Millet), as well as a series of interactive journals — all filled with art that Greenwich Workshop notes is "born from his keen observation of humanity and his endless supply of imagination."

Christensen just "feels fortunate I get to work at a thing I love to do. The more I discover about the world, from biology to art history, the more enthralled I am with the magic that is human existence."

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com