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6 Utah artists share their experiences, perspectives of painting the Nativity

As a junior in high school, Utah artist Jenedy Paige was set on being a pianist. One evening when her father came home and told her they were moving to a small town in Colorado, her world changed. When she learned that her new school had none of the music classes she wanted, she decided to take six art classes her senior year.

“Up to that point, I thought that art was about making everything look real, and the teacher was all about making art that communicated a message,” said Paige, who now lives in Pleasant Grove.

The idea of communicating a message sparked something within her and she decided that, despite a lack of natural ability, she was going to become an artist. Following years of hard work, Paige has come to the point where she has been able to inspire many with her art, especially when it comes to her paintings of the Nativity.

Paige is one of many local artists who have taken on the task of painting the Nativity. She and five other local artists shared their experiences painting the scriptural scene, explaining how each infused his or her own style and perspective.

Brian Kershisnik

While Brian Kershisnik of Provo feels all his paintings have religious themes and undertones, painting specific religious scenes from the scriptures are rare for him. His Nativity painting, titled simply “Nativity,” came about in 2006 while he was temporarily teaching at Brigham Young University.

He challenged his students to be ambitious in their work, he said, so he felt he should be ambitious as well. He decided to do a painting larger than he had ever done before, which ended up around 8 feet tall and 17 feet wide.

He eventually decided to paint a Nativity scene that focused on the otherworldly witnesses looking in on the scene. All the angels in the painting are of varied age, gender and appearance. Some are wondering. Some are interested. Some are weeping. Some are upset. Some are there for protection while others are there to witness the event.

“It occurs to me that even though this event is prophesied, even though everything depends on this, that at the moment when it is actually underway that there would be some anxiety about knowing the stature of this being that has just been compressed into this mortal, human infant,” Kershisnik said.

Kershisnik said that his motives for his paintings are not to amass wisdom upon people or answer questions, but rather he hopes to facilitate conversations with the scenes he paints, not claiming to have the final say in his own art.

This philosophy presents itself in this painting not only in the varied reactions of the angels but also in the expressions of Mary and Joseph and the inclusion of two midwives helping with the birth and a mother dog with her two pups in the bottom right of the painting.

Clinton Whiting

Clinton Whiting teaches painting and drawing at the Visual Art Institute, a nonprofit art school in Sugar House. In addition to painting, he said he really loves and appreciates teaching.

“I always want to be able to teach because it informs my studio practice and I love being a part of the community,” said Whiting, a Holladay resident.

Whiting was hesitant to do a Nativity painting at first because he thought it would exclude those in his fan base who were non-Christian. In 2013, he decided to do so as a way to share his beliefs. The initial idea for the painting was to make a Christmas card for his family and friends, and while he’s continued to make an annual Christmas card, he described this initial painting as him hitting a home run in terms of emotion and prominence.

Influenced heavily by modernism, Whiting painted a Nativity scene with flattened forms that point the emphasis towards the holy family. The painting consists of a variety of barnyard animals all surrounding the baby Jesus, which he hopes creates emotion and points emphasis on the Christ child.

“Generally, I like working in that sort of abstraction because I feel like you can manipulate the space more than if you do a straight representation of the subject,” Whiting said.

Most of his work, he said, has to do with the overlooked angle on a story and, in this instance, he feels the idea of featuring the animals spoke to him.

Greg Olsen

Greg Olsen is known for his religious paintings of the Savior and other scriptural scenes, but he said that the religious emphasis almost came by accident. While the Provo resident always loved doing spiritual paintings, he didn’t sell them as he chose to focus on his other work. At one point, his publisher saw a painting of Jesus that he had done and decided to publish it as a limited print, and they were surprised at how fast it sold out. That sparked Olsen to start focusing on that body of work, which quickly took on a life of its own.

Two years ago, Olsen painted a major piece called “The Nativity,” which was suggested to him by representatives of Deseret Book. Olsen said he felt like a director of a movie with this as he hired models, created the set piece, found costumes and more. The preparation for the piece took about a month, which was followed by another month of 18-hour days to paint the image.

Olsen said he wanted the painting to be more intimate, so he had Mary holding the baby Jesus instead of having him lying in the manger. Although he realized the chronology of the Nativity story is debated, Olsen chose to include all the classic characters typically used in Nativity paintings, symbolizing the entire event.

Also shown in the painting is another woman holding a lantern as Olsen wanted to have more of a feminine influence.

“I think sometimes women are under-represented in scripture stories,” Olsen said, explaining why he included her.

Another holiday painting that Olsen created is called “The Spirit of Christmas” and depicts Santa Claus looking over a Nativity set while on his Christmas rounds, perhaps looking at Jesus as inspiration for his mission.

“I’ve always kind of hated the fact that we often have to pit Santa Claus against the baby Jesus, wondering which one we celebrate at Christmas, so I wanted to find a way to join these two together,” Olsen said.

Jenedy Paige

Paige writes about every painting she does. She writes in her journal to get an idea for what she wants to paint, then she paints her idea, then she writes about her experience afterwards.

“It’s amazing because, in the writing, I always gain new insights into the painting," Paige said. "I’ll have this original concept and then as I’m writing about it, God adds other levels to it.”

The first of three Nativity paintings she did was titled “Little Lamb.” In the painting, she depicted what she felt was a unique Nativity scene. She contacted an archaeologist in Jerusalem who taught her that it’s possible that the manger that Christ was laid in was made out of limestone and contained no hay. She also learned from her research that the swaddling bands Jesus was wrapped in were a big part of Israelite culture and were likely embroidered with symbols of heritage.

Paige painted a Nativity scene with these elements included that she felt teaches of the foreshadowing of Christ’s death right from his birth.

“Of course, nothing about the birth of the Son of God was coincidental,” Paige said.

Following the painting of this scene, she painted two other scenes from the Nativity that she titled “Delivered” and “The Shepherds’ Invitation.” She has enjoyed sharing messages of the Nativity through her art as well as her writing.

Liz Lemon Swindle

Liz Lemon Swindle has been painting religious art since 1994 and was inspired by music her daughter-in-law played for her one day. For seven years, she painted the Prophet Joseph Smith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and then transitioned to painting the life of Jesus Christ, which she has been painting since around the year 2000. She said she still has over 50 parables to paint before she is done painting the life of Christ.

Swindle, who has a studio in American Fork, said painting the life of Christ gives her a peace and comfort that helps her to relax and feel safe regardless of what is happening in the world around her. She also enjoys being able to use her painting to help others with their spirituality.

“There’s this urgency to create these paintings of the Savior that you hope that a lot of people will love them,” Swindle said. “But in reality, if only one person loves them, it’s worth doing it because of the worth of a soul to our Heavenly Father.”

The Nativity paintings that Swindle has done have been spread throughout her journey in painting the life of Christ, partly to help her regain peace and joy following a more difficult, emotional painting of the Savior’s life.

Her favorite and most successful Nativity painting has been “Be It Unto Me,” which she painted early on in her journey. The painting depicts a young Mary holding the baby Jesus while looking off into the distance, feeling very overwhelmed at this new calling she has been trusted with in raising the Son of God.

Sabrina Squires

Sabrina Squires of Provo works in collage painting using National Geographic covers. She takes the covers, glues them together on a wooden panel and paints on top of them, finding a balance between what’s going on with the pages under the art and what she’s putting on top of them.

“The reason I like to do that is I like the texture, I like the depth," Squires said. "It’s more of an abstract type of work. It’s not your traditional oil painting.”

Squires said she has painted around 10 Nativity scenes, one of her favorites being her painting of the shepherds. The painting was inspired by some photos she took while driving in the foothills of Idaho one day as she had to stop when a herd of sheep was in the way. She also loves what the shepherds represent in the Nativity.

“When you think of a shepherd, the scriptures talk a lot about how they’ll give their life for the sheep," she said. "They’re very dedicated. They’re very loyal in what they do. I think of myself giving my life for sheep and I kind of struggle with that.”

Being an artist and being able to inspire others who come look at her work is something Squires sees as a privilege.

“People have their walks of life and different things that they’re doing,” Squires said. “It’s fun to have people come in wherever they’re at and look at a Nativity and be reminded of the truth that there is a Savior that cares about their life and to refocus on that and to remind people is a privilege as an artist.”