Janet McKenzie's painting of Jesus has been called blasphemous by thousands of detractors, while admirers say the image brings tears to their eyes.
However, the artist from Island Pond, Vt., wasn't expecting either response from her version of Jesus Christ - a dark-skinned figure with masculine and feminine traits. Her oil-on-canvas painting Jesus of the People was a personal expression of how she saw him.
"I painted this painting for myself," McKenzie said.
The artwork won her the National Catholic Reporter's Jesus 2000 competition, a global search for a new image of Jesus as the millennium approached. The competition yielded nearly 1,700 entries from 19 countries.
Jesus of the People is on display with 21 other paintings by McKenzie in the exhibit Mary and Women: Images from the Heart at Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville though Dec. 31. Much of her work focuses on women and African-Americans, which she said have been left out of Jesus images.
"We've been regimented to think of Jesus primarily as white and male," said McKenzie, 53. "And I think, `Where do I fit into the imagery of Jesus?' And I'd like to feel that the essence of Jesus is within me as well, and we're all comprised of male and female aspects."
Christians believe Jesus to be the son of God and the Christ. In Jesus of the People, the figure with dreadlocked hair wears a crown of thorns and stands in front of the Chinese yin-yang, symbolizing harmony, and a feather, paying homage to Native American beliefs and representing transcendent knowledge.
The criticism began quickly after the painting - which took McKenzie three weeks to complete - was chosen as the contest winner. Critics condemned McKenzie for creating a Jesus that strayed from the typical depiction of a white man, using a young black woman as her model.
She was flooded with thousands of e-mails, letters and telephone calls. People would call and say, "I am appalled" and hang up. Her Vermont post office separated her parcels, afraid of potential mail bombs.
Some criticized her pose of Jesus, with arms crossed, as not appearing to be welcoming people.
"My Jesus shows doubt about us being able to love each other enough," McKenzie said.
Scores of positive responses from those who supported her work soon followed. McKenzie carries a notebook full of press coverage and correspondence from people who wrote that her painting touched them.
"It's been a controversy that's really fostered dialogue between people," she said.
Her model in Jesus of the People is a woman McKenzie identifies only as Maria. The model has shied away from publicity after the negative attention the painting received. McKenzie had met Maria at an auction and was captivated by her features, though Maria had never modeled before.
McKenzie said Maria epitomizes the religious spirit, living a simple life in Vermont, where she has a tiny house and raises organic poultry. "She is so joyous and appreciative of what she has in life, which, in a world level, is very small," the artist said.
Though the painting is based on a female model, McKenzie said she considers it to be a male image. But she also focused on the female traits to include women, especially African-Americans.
Years ago, McKenzie made a conscious effort to incorporate more minorities into her paintings when she realized that her then-10-year-old nephew Elliott McKenzie, who is African-American, "couldn't see his own beautiful face celebrated in my work."
Her nephew, who lives in Los Angeles and is now 17, has never modeled for McKenzie. But when T-shirts with the Jesus of the People image came out, he would wear one and tell people, "This is me."
McKenzie has taken her artwork - driving it in her pickup truck, with a trailer attached, if necessary - throughout the nation, including Massachusetts, Ohio and New Mexico.
Her creations also include women in secular images. The painting Radiance shows twins linked and was inspired by her grandmother, who was a twin. All of her paintings at the show, except Jesus of the People, are for sale.
Bon Secours Spiritual Center invited McKenzie to exhibit her art after the center was host for a show of the Jesus 2000 competition entries last year, with Jesus of the People as the centerpiece.
Sister Carol Marozzi, director of the spiritual center, said she was impressed with McKenzie's art and offered her a solo show.
"It stirs something deep within me," Marozzi said. "It draws me into another place, a place of the spirit beyond myself."
McKenzie's art appears to elicit a range of strong emotional response from viewers. During an exhibit of her artwork in September at Good Hands Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., people burst into tears on seeing Jesus of the People, said Nance Lopez, owner of the gallery.