Editor Elizabeth Herzing interviews artist Bert VanderMark about his work Visual Parables and its connection with faith.
Q. What is your background as an artist, and what motivates you to reach out to others through art?
I was born and raised in the Netherlands. My grandfather was an amateur painter. In my early childhood I would go to his house and we would sit and paint together—or go for long walks and sit on a bench and sketch what we saw. So my introduction to art was immediately linked with “fellowship, unconditional companionship, shared experiences, and love.” I studied art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where my interest developed further. I wanted to study art even more and try to make a living doing commercial design work. I left the Netherlands and continued my studies in the U.S. at Washington State University, where I received a combined master’s degree in fine arts and graphic design. I taught in colleges for almost eighteen years.
I felt my professional life was successful, but my personal life was an absolute disaster—my marriage was failing, and I struggled with alcohol, anger, and loneliness. In 1988 I was really searching for truth—eternal truth, God’s truth, God’s answers to life. At the time, I was working as a designer for hospitals managed by the Sisters of St. Mary. They asked me to do a logo branding for their new order. To understand the order better, I asked to interview Mother Superior. She spent four hours describing to me her personal relationship with Jesus Christ: her daily fellowship with the Lord, her time of devotion and prayer, the intimacy, knowledge, and confirmation she received in living her life in line with God’s will. I left with a strong desire to know Jesus personally. A friend invited me to go to church that Sunday. The experience moved me to accept Jesus’ presence into my life and be open to receive his direction. May of 1988 marked the start of my intimate journey of faith.
As I entered more and more into the emotional presence of Jesus, I was drawn to his use of parables. Parabolic statements such as “you are the light of the world” and the reality of how Christ drew from everyday life to convey moral and religious truth made me realize how art could be instrumental in supporting biblical teachings and provide a visual challenge to nonbelievers to reflect on.
I decided to express religious ideas through abstract visuals based on biblical truths: earthly stories with a heavenly message. Visual Parables combines the powerful teachings of Christ’s parables with an understanding that we live in a culture hungry for clear visual communication of truth. Pictures and examples of what life looks like are dedicated to Christ, to tell the story of Christian life.
Q. Explain Visual Parables’ mission and some of the ministries it supports. Mercy Ministries is a big one, I see.
Pictures can be a powerful way for Christians to worship and share the faith. I want to see Christians use pictures based on biblical truth to encourage, teach, and bring glory to God. In this age of visual communication and visual media learning, it is essential for the Church to once again embrace the arts and that the God-given aesthetics be redeemed to its original purpose of bringing glory to him. We help do this through:
Arts education, helping Christians understand and embrace the language of visual communication in the context of life and faith.
Spiritual formation, networking with and mentoring the next generation of artists in an authentic, caring Christian community.
Cultural redemption, faithfully participating and engaging in the work of redemption and restoration, using visual artistic communication as a witness to the surrounding culture.
Visual Parables resulted from a desire to see people cared for through Bible truths. A good deal of creativity has been used in the world to portray evil or to convey negative or shocking messages. I believe it’s essential to counter these preoccupied messages of visual entertainment with images celebrating and refocusing on biblical eternal truth and messages of hope, victory and forgiveness in Jesus Christ to a lost world.
Visual Parables started by portraying lepers, victims of our culture—women in need, women outcasts who struggled with personal identity, physical abuse, self harm, physical abuse, suicidal thoughts, and related problems. These are the kinds of issues that the women at Mercy Ministries work through. Mercy invited me to help residents make visual portraits of God’s grace. My purpose wasn’t to teach art as a skill or to share art in a way that created or reenforced self-centered perspectives. There was to be no visual celebration of their doubt, mistrust, angst, or continuous difficulties. Rather, their images were to focus on their new identity in Christ—profound and challenging truths he taught, including depictions of their reception of the truth and their response to Christ’s invitation to follow him. I’ve seen people become engaged in the Holy Spirit, transformed by commitment and personal dedication, and inspired to share their faith with others bringing glory to God. Their paintings often are progressive revelations that provide a “snapshot” of growth in Christ as they learn to follow him.
Q. What has Visual Parables done for your own spiritual insight and growth?
The creative process is a journey, a gift from God. We are made in the image of our Creator. In life we discover his aesthetics, beauty, and his tremendous gift of freedom. The expressions of our imagination point back to God and his original purpose—inviting the Holy Spirit through the word of God to replace our hurts and pictures of the past with intimate experiences and revelations of knowledge provided by God. I’ve gained a desire to learn more about God, his word, and how to apply the truth in visual communication.
Q. What is the reach of your efforts?
Arts education: I was just recently asked to apply to and was accepted to become part of the Communication of the Arts BFA and MFA Program at Liberty University. I will teach and develop courses in visual communication and ministering the Gospel.
Professionally: I run a commercial design studio focusing on educational publishing. We do cover and interior design projects for major publishing companies, training and equipping churches and ministries on how to use visual communication as a way to connect and reach communities with the truth of the Gospel.
Curriculum: I’m writing lesson plans that present images of Bible stories. Visual Parables is a course with eight paintings of eight parables done in eight weeks. This course could be done by others in their own mission.
Q. What are some ways that your work has touched lives?
The teachings of parables in connection with visible experiences and visual expression make the encounter even more intimate and real. The testimonials I receive after every painting are similar to the response of the woman at the well after encountering Jesus. She ran back to her village and shared her experience. The issues the women at Mercy have dealt with will not be solved by a piece of art or a painting. But the experience can be one step along the path of healing. One woman said, “I am never alone because God is there. I want to fully grasp this reality that he is with me in every detail of my life. Painting gives me an opportunity to express my desire to serve him and create something worthy of imitation in inviting others.” By presenting the truth through my own scars, I am able to be a living picture of what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Q. How can individuals learn more, offer support, or participate?
Contact Bert VanderMark by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his studio address: email@example.com.