Art a Little Left of Reality

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."

Christensen often uses his boats to symbolize the voyage through life. "I use voyages extensively. We don't always know the destination or where the boat is going, but the anticipation and mystery make life enjoyable. A boat may also symbolize the people we travel with at times along our journeys," he says.

Additionally, Christensen uses clothing as metaphors. "I love historical costumes with all their gold threads, jewels, buttons, and glitz. People use layers of clothing to get away from the core of who they really are. I like to say that the more bureaucratic or aristocratic we become, the more stuff we have. That stuff we wear on the outside is our vanity."

He says he is especially pleased, however, when someone explains how a particular Christensen work engaged his or her imagination.

"One man told me one of my prints had hung on his wall for a year. He said a picture light next to the print was the last thing he turned off at night. During that year, he had named the characters, invented stories about them, and created his own meanings.

"When he asked me, 'Is that all right?' I was delighted. This building contractor had been creative and taken an active role in the painting. That's what I like. Everyone has an imagination and many experiences he or she can bring to the art."

Being true to his own vision is an important element to Christensen’s philosophy. "I am an illustrator,” he says, and I'm proud of it because it is important. I reject the philosophies of the elitist clique of New York art. That is a tunnel-vision world, and I'm in middle America. That is where my vision must lie and not with the acclaim elsewhere."

Part of being true to that vision is his belief that life can be magical if you look at it that way.

"Consider fairies," he explains. "They are magic and have always been with us--we need them." His fairy muse is Beatrice Phillpotts, whose book, The Book of Fairies, inspired him. "When she explained the phenomenon of fairy painting in Britain, which flourished between 1790 and 1870, for example, she said their popularity was a reaction against the prevailing utilitarianism of the times. She wrote, 'It was a celebration of magic in a period predominantly concerned with establishing facts. Darwin's theories on Evolution and the Fall, the progress of Positivist thought, recent discoveries concerning the brain and the mind, all threatened the existing established framework of belief. Mystery was edged aside in a search for the kind of certitude afforded by experimental science. The postulation of an imaginary other world in art was an assertion of faith in the fantastic and irrational during a period of spiritual duress.'

As part of the artistic process, he made a transition from more traditional art styles--portraits, landscapes, still lifes--to fantastical art in the mid-1970s when he received a commission to paint one of "those crazy things stashed behind the desk." He thought the magic fairies glistening with dew, the ornate hunchbacks that stared wisely from his canvases and the wizards and mythological muses draped in layers of elaborate fabrics dripping with jewels were simply for his personal enjoyment. Christensen soon learned there was—and continues to be—an eager audience for this type of art.

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