Art a Little Left of Reality

James C. Christensen, 2005 Alumni Achievement Award winner, College of Fine Arts and Communications

If fantasy artist James C. Christensen fills his days riding a ship through the sky, roaming the forest with impish fairies, and engaging in an animated chat with the pet fish that floats beside him, don't be too surprised. This professional artist lives in a land just a little left of reality.

He creates a domain where it is not considered unusual for a percussionist to play sea shells and other fishy instruments, for a trio of elegant angels to glide through the evening on a boat across the moon, or a set of dowager ogresses--complete with bright red toenails--to enjoy a spot of tea with their pet mouse.

Yet Christensen's journey is not isolated. His whimsical artistic style appeals to an extensive and expanding national audience that regularly accompanies him on his fanciful treks.

It is clear his art appeals to many. His limited-edition fine arts prints, produced and marketed by the prestigious Greenwich Workshop in Connecticut, routinely sell out shortly after they are printed. Christensen also has an eager audience for original paintings, bronzes, books, and porcelains of some of his favorite characters.

Regardless of the medium, Christensen's attraction seems to center on how he changes the rules of reality to create delightfully inventive worlds.

"I'm always pleased when my work jump starts someone's imagination," Christensen explains. "I hope my art is more than something I do and then say, 'Look what I'm giving you.' I want people to create their own meanings and find their own stories. For me, the art process is not complete unless it becomes thought provoking for the viewer."

One way he provides such an entry into his paintings is with symbols that add layers of meaning to the canvas. Although the artist will discuss them, he is somewhat reluctant to elaborate on symbols because he wants individuals to contribute their own meanings.

"Several hundred years ago, most people, regardless of wealth or station, were illiterate," he explains. "Symbols became necessary to help people understand and 'read' a painting. We don't understand many of them today, yet a few--a skull representing death, for instance--are universal and have transcended time and culture. I use some traditional symbolism in my paintings, but over time, I have created symbols of my own that remain consistent from painting to painting."

One of his most common, the flying fish, embodies magic. "If you and I are sitting here having a conversation and a fish floats between us, that changes everything," he says. "Immediately you sense that something is not quite right. I use fish as passages to higher levels of understanding and insight. They are intriguing and beautiful, but for me, they are also magical."

Another frequent symbol is the hunchback. "He is a sort of everyman," Christensen says. "We all carry burdens and flaws through life; the hunchback is a physical symbol of the ordeals we all face. However, another dimension is at play here. The hunchback reminds us that while we all have weaknesses, it can be through those flaws that the Spirit touches and teaches."

Many of Christensen's paintings depict boats, sometimes in water, other times in the air--and, frequently, perched atop people's heads. One of his celebrated oils, "The Burden of the Responsible Man," features an exhausted-looking man wearing a boat filled with people. A biographical piece, Christensen painted it when he was feeling overworked and spread too thin. His character holds a porcupine briefcase, he dangles an armful of keys, and he follows a carrot swinging from a fishing pole in the vessel.

"The idea was that I had to keep going, keep moving, which is what all responsible people do. When I painted a woman with all her tasks surrounding her, my wife, Carole, would not let me use the word burden, because to her the tasks aren't burdens. It's good to get her perspective; I really rely on her to be an outside voice."

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Full Name: 
James C. Christensen
Grad Year: 
BA 1967, MA 1968
Fine Arts and Communications
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