When Yongsung Kim was 20 years old, he prayed and asked God about the purpose of his life. Then, these words entered his mind: “Have I not given you talent?”
Soon after that experience, Kim walked into an art store specializing in religious art. As he scanned the paintings, he noticed all of them were of Jesus suffering or on the cross.
“Even though those paintings were graceful, it was too heavy, too dark and too gloomy for me,” he said recently.
The tone didn’t match how the joy he felt when he started believing in Christ. He wondered, “How come we don’t see any paintings of Christ depicting such a happiness and a joy?”
At that moment, Kim realized his purpose: He would paint a different kind of Jesus — a happy Jesus. He had started painting in middle school when he became a Christian, but it took until the revelation at the art store for his career as a Christian artist began to take off.
Today, Kim is a professional artist and his artwork is sold at places like Havenlight and Deseret Book. Although Kim is a Protestant, his artwork has become well-known in Latter-day Saint circles and hangs on the walls of Brigham Young University.
Kim is far from the only artist of faith to have built a career around unique portrayals of Jesus. The Deseret News recently spoke with him and four others about what characteristics of Jesus they showcase in their work — and why.
Yongsung Kim paints a joyful Jesus
On a sunny day in American Fork, Kim spoke to Deseret News through an interpreter at Havenlight, since English isn’t his first language. He said when he started his artistic career, he was concerned with people who had a negative image of church. As a Protestant in South Korea, he saw people rejecting Jesus because of this image. He wanted to help.
“I want to paint a Christ who heals their pains inside and one who, you know, comforts those who are going through difficult times,” he said.
His audience has responded positively to this image, Kim said, smiling as he recounted how people have told him they’ve resumed believing in Christ after seeing his images.
While he said picking a favorite painting he’s done would be akin to picking a favorite child, his painting “Hand of God” has special meaning for him. The painting shows Jesus reaching his hand into water — a kaleidoscope of blues, purples and teals with a warm yellow light around Jesus piercing through the water. He’s reaching his hand out to Peter in the painting, but Kim hoped it would seem like Jesus was reaching his hand out to the viewer.
For Kim, that’s what Jesus looks like: He’s the one who reaches out and heals.
He said even though he’s not a missionary or a pastor, his artwork allows him to share “the beauty of (Jesus’) teachings and happiness.” For Kim, that means he has “no choice but to praise the Lord ... because I’ve discovered that’s what he wants me to do in my ministry.”
Maria Lang believes Jesus looks like the love she sees
Artist Maria Lang felt the love of Jesus when a priest told her the story of Jesus urging a rich young man to sell everything he had and follow him. She rushed home after the conversation to paint her interpretation of the biblical story.
Around the same time, Lang was diagnosed with COVID-19. Quarantine gave her more time to focus on capturing what she felt when she heard that story.
The resulting painting, titled “He Looked and He Loved,” embodies what Lang tries to highlight through her work: Love is what matters when it comes to depicting Jesus.
Growing up Catholic, Lang was surrounded by beautiful artwork, but it didn’t speak to her, she said. Traditional Catholic artwork involves stained glass and idealized portrayals, which she didn’t connect with. That’s one reason why she tries to paint “in a raw, artistic way.”
Lang, who lives in Pennsylvania, said that, when painting Jesus, she focuses on capturing “the love in his eyes.” She said experiences like the one she had with the priest continue to inspire her painting today.
“I hope that my art depicts a raw humanity both in the people that we are and the God who came to be like us,” said Lang, who sells her artwork on Etsy. “And that his love can be found there.”
She added, “I just watch as I’m painting his eyes, I start to see him looking back at me and really feeling my life, my pain, my joy, whatever it is.”
‘Twin Hicks’ paint Jesus through an Afrocentric perspective
Alan and Aaron Hicks, who are also known as “Twin Hicks,” are a pair of twins who share a love of art and the Bible. They grew up going to church every Sunday, where they learned the stories of biblical characters. That upbringing helped lead them to become Christian artists, they said.
Today, the Hicks brothers are Christians whose art has appeared in Ebony, Jet and Upscale Magazine. In addition to selling their artwork online and at various shows, they told Deseret News they’ve also refurbished the mural at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and had their art appear in films like “The Equalizer.”
In their artwork, the Hicks brothers portray Jesus through an Afrocentric point of view.
“It’s just a wonderful thing to be able to portray him in his original brown skin. ... People need something and someone to look up to and to identify with,” Alan Hicks said.
He added that when they paint Jesus as Black, people start asking them questions about who Jesus was and what he looked like. “I like the fact that people are inquisitive and asking questions about who was Christ or what was the word of God?,” he said.
“And that’s just fulfilling to me,” Alan Hicks said. “To be able to use my artwork as a tool for conversation, no matter who’s in the art piece or whether we paint them from an Afrocentric point of view. It’s conversation again, asking questions about him.”
The brothers see their work as transformative, not only in terms of representation, but the way it could impact someone’s heart.
Aaron Hicks said it’s important for their artwork to “get the message out there — the good news about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and that he came here, loved you and died for your sins. So it may be a painting that changes a person or a performance that changes a person.”
When they’re painting, they try to imagine themselves as if they were seeing the stories in the Bible first-hand and stick close to the text. “I try to paint according to what happened in scriptures, I try not to add too many things,” Aaron Hicks said.
Alan Hicks added that their artwork is “praise on canvas” and they hope to see their artwork in people’s homes as they believe it can be transformative.
Jorge Cocco paints Jesus in sacrocubism
Jorge Cocco said he first started painting Jesus when he wanted a painting for his living room. Up to that point, his artwork generally took the form of landscapes and portraits, but after he made the little painting for his living room, religion became an important theme.
Cocco is a Latter-day Saint artist with studios in the United States and in Argentina. His art is in a permanent exhibit at The Museum of Biblical Art and has been acquired by a total of 16 museums. Additionally, 21 of his paintings were acquired by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He spoke to Deseret News with his interpreter and son Amiel Cocco, since English isn’t his first language.
He said while he admires the technical skills of many artists who have painted Jesus over the years, his work isn’t inspired by them and his portrayal of Jesus is based on a different source.
“For me, the essence of who Jesus Christ is goes far beyond what he looks like,” he said. “I tried to eliminate as much as possible references to physical features.”
Using forms and colors, Cocco said he conveys spiritual feelings and the essence of his ministry through art. Cocco’s son and interpreter Amiel Cocco added, “When Jorge takes away all these physical features and instead of making this perfect nose, he adds a triangle, at first, it provokes some frustration. ... But it forces you to search beyond the physical.”
Cocco’s uses a post-cubist style known as sacrocubism and focuses on portraying Jesus’ ministry as opposed to what he looked like. He compared his work to the way Jesus taught parables and said sometimes people would listen to a parable and miss the deeper meaning of the story because they were focused on the plot.
Similarly, Cocco wants his artwork to portray a deeper meaning. “Jesus’ ministry was very dramatic and some of the paintings make him look like a comic or a graphic novel. And I don’t wish to enter into that,” he said. “The most important ministry was happening and there was a connection between heaven and earth.”
Often when Cocco sets out to portray Jesus, an image appears in his mind and he wrestles with putting into a physical shape using paint and canvas.
“It happens so frequently and often that even I am surprised,” he said. “At this point in my life, I can’t stop painting Jesus.”