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Of fantasy and faith: LDS artist James C. Christensen dies at 74

OREM — Wise fools and fish on leashes. Dragons and dwarves. Boats and beetles. Flying pigs and goblin princesses.

The imaginative images of myths, fables and fantasies depicted by James C. Christensen will live on in myriad mediums, despite the death of the artist recognized for his works of fantasy and faith.

Christensen, a world-renowned LDS fantasy artist and former BYU art faculty member, died Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, in Orem after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 74.

Born Sept. 26, 1942, in Culver City, California, where he was raised, Christensen grew up playing in the MGM Studios backlots. His first art supplies were purchased at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, and he recalled his first painting attempt in high school as “horrible.”

He studied at Santa Monica City College, UCLA and BYU — giving oils a try as a sophomore there and later earning a master of arts degree at the Provo university. His early post-college career included working as a freelance illustrator and a California junior high school art instructor. He later joined BYU’s art department faculty in 1976, teaching there until retiring in 1997.

"The BYU Department of Art is saddened by the passing of renowned artist James C. Christensen," department chair Gary Barton said. "Jim, as he was known by his friends ... was a skilled and creative artist with a positive and gregarious personality. He was a popular teacher, and during his tenure at BYU, he made many valuable contributions to the department and the university."

Christensen saw himself not as the “fantasy artist” label given him, but rather as an artist who paints the fantastic.

“I paint things that are not real,” he told the Deseret News in 2008. “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 honors and awards include being named a Utah Art Treasure as well as one of Utah’s Top 100 Artists by the Springville Museum of Art and receiving the Governor’s Award for Art from the Utah Arts Council. He had won all the professional art honors given by the World Science Fiction Convention as well as multiple Chesley Awards from the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Christensen had served as president of the National Academy of Fantastic Art, and he co-chaired the Mormon Arts Foundation with his wife, Carole.

He also produced several books, “A Journey of the Imagination: The Art of James Christensen,” “Voyage of the Basset,” “Rhymes & Reasons,” “Parables” (written by Robert Millet), and "Passage by Faith: Exploring the Inspirational Art of James C. Christensen," as well as a series of art-filled interactive journals.

He cited his faith and spiritual beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as helping provide direction in his works as well as authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as giving shape to his early interests and efforts. “Every authentic artist paints who he is. My religion, my spiritual belief system permeate my life and my artwork.”

In an interview published with the LDS Church magazine The New Era, Christensen also acknowledged Mormon scripture. “Another great influence is the Book of Mormon,” he said in a Q&A published in the August 1989 issue. “I know that it is real and true, but it is also a great epic adventure. There are ancestral swords and directional devices that work and don’t work according to our feelings and attitudes. There are natural disasters and divine interventions and quests and wars and miracles.”

Christensen also explained how fish have become a common — almost trademark-like — element found in his artwork. “In my paintings a fish usually symbolizes wonder and wisdom. I often paint a fish floating in the air to remind the viewer that this is a new reality, that there is magic in the world.”

Visitors to the LDS Church’s Provo City Center Temple during its open house a year ago were treated to a large-scale Christensen piece, as the artist in his 70s painted and oversaw a multi-wall mural in one of the edifice's instruction rooms.

When he served as an LDS bishop, he got a sketchbook that was black and formal-looking to use as he sat on the stand. “Then I got busted,” recalled Christensen in a 2013 interview with the Deseret News. “The next week on the back of the program was a box titled ‘Bishop’s Doodle Area.’”

Christensen is survived by his wife and five children. Two daughers, Cassandra Christensen Barney and Emily Christensen McPhie, are artists in their own right. Both posted tributes to their father on social media that were accompanied by Christensen works. His funeral is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 14.

Loran Cook purchased hundreds of prints and original paintings by Christensen, initially buying a couple of Christmas paintings for his Utah Valley Eye Center office in 1985. Patients commented so often on them that he decided to to start collecting.

"Most of the paintings had some meaning to them that patients could relate to," Cook said. "I could, too."

Cook has retired, but the eye enter remains a de facto Christensen gallery, with 200 Christensen paintings on display. The artist regularly sent customers to the eye center to see a particular painting in which they were interested, with the artist and eye doctor becoming friends.

"I think his paintings help some people understand life and find meaning in everyday things," Cook said.

Cook's favorite Christensen painting is one the artist painted while Cook's family was facing a major challenge. The work's title is "Sometimes the Spirit Touches Us Through Our Weaknesses."

"When I looked at his painting, I thought, 'How will this challenge turn into a blessing?'" Cook said Monday. "But in fact, that challenge has turned into a blessing. Most of our challenges turn out to be blessings."

Cook last saw Christensen three months ago. He purchased more Christensen prints just last week, copies of a new release of "The Ten Lepers."

"He's had this wonderful influence on many, many people, and he's left a real legacy," Cook said. "He's certainly helped me be a better person and understand myself better and understand my life better."