Priest combines art with religion

Ordained in April, he has added icons to his repertoire

July 30, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Rev J. Gordon Anderson took an egg out of a carton, cracked it, drained the egg white and slipped the coating off the yolk in one deft motion.

Next, he plopped the yolk into a dish and diluted it with eight tablespoons of water.

"You want to be sure that the yolk is properly diluted," Anderson said. "It gets very hard if it dries out."

With the bowl of yolk in one hand, Anderson turned on a CD called The Music of Byzantine Capella Romana, then sat down. He pulled out a piece of paper covered with color splotches on which to test hues as he mixed them.

"Sometimes I have to roll with the punches when I create my colors," Anderson said as he dipped his brush into the egg yolk and then into green and black pigments. "I have to get the intensity and temperature right, not just the shade."

Although his hand had a slight tremor as he worked, he skillfully applied vibrant pigments to a 9-by 12-inch piece of gessoed plywood.

Anderson, 32, who was ordained an Anglican priest in April, was working on an icon, a flat panel that depicts a religious theme.

The piece is one of several, along with some expressionist cityscapes that will be included in his exhibition opening Aug. 13 at the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air.

Although he spent more than a decade painting the cityscapes - he painted his first July 4, 1993 - he added the icons to his repertoire in an attempt to combine church and painting in a visual way, he said.

"I want to depict things in the Bible such as the Last Supper and the healing of the blind man," said Anderson, who was born in Miami and moved to Baltimore in 1997. "A lot of people that do icon art are theologians, but they don't understand the artistic side of it. So icons seem a perfect fit for me."

It was his art that sustained him on his road to the priesthood, which began when he was a teenager.

He attended a Christian high school where he was constantly told, "Maybe God is calling you to a life as a minister, or maybe he's calling you to be a missionary." He felt the call but wasn't ready to answer it.

He was torn between pursuing a career in art in New York City and the ministry. He chose art.

While attending Towson University, he painted whenever he could. He sold his works for $150 to $600. As his technique matured, so did the names he gave his works of art.

After a former girlfriend told him that his painting titles, such as Man on the Street, were too boring, he decided to give them an artistic makeover. Just as he painted from the heart, he named them from his heart.

His titles went from Man Standing to such things as It Was Just Never Meant to Be, or The Last Memento From a Torrid Love Affair.

He named one piece The Moment My World Came to An End because it depicts a street that doesn't lead anywhere.

His quandary of making a choice between art and ministry persisted.

"There were two pulls in me, and I wanted to see how they would integrate," Anderson said. He began exploring Anglican traditions.

He earned his bachelor's degree in 1997, in art with an emphasis in painting. In December, 1998, he enrolled at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, where, he said, he endured a tumultuous spiritual time. His work mimicked his emotions.

The work is dark but beautiful, said Joseph Bolick, 26, of Victoria, Texas, who owns some of Anderson's works.

"His cityscapes show that somehow in moments of darkness and anxiety life can still be beautiful," Bolick said. "And they capture Baltimore for me."

Although he graduated in 2001 and was appointed curate at St. Alban's Anglican Church in Joppa, Anderson opted not to go through with ordination.

Instead, he went to work for Keane Inc., based in Boston, as a computer technician.

Then he tried teaching at Father Charles Hall Catholic School in Baltimore. He didn't make it through the first year.

"The school was located in a drug-infested neighborhood, and it was more than I could handle," said Anderson, who taught at the school from September through December 2002. "It was my baptism by fire into teaching."

After leaving the school he went to work for his father, who sells decorative architectural pieces, he said.

But the defining moment for Anderson came at an interview for American Express Financial Services.

"I got up in the middle of the interview and left," Anderson said. "I got in my car and prayed to God for guidance and asked him his purpose for my life."

The answer was always there, he said. He was ready to become a priest. During his preparation, he married his wife, Valerie, in October 2005.

While preparing for his ordination, he painted a couple of times a week for three or more hours at a time and added religious icons to his repertoire.

"I wanted to paint a neo-proto-Renaissance-type art, and I didn't want to separate life from religion," he said.

He felt that with his religious background, he understood the scope of icons.

After his ordination in April 2006, he continued to paint cityscapes.

"I don't do duplicates, and I don't make prints," he said. "People have the same cars, and they can all buy Crate and Barrel dishes. But when they buy a painting, it's something they have that is completely unique."

In addition to selling his art at exhibits, Anderson accepts commissions that can sometimes be a challenge, he said.

Wilkins Avenue Mennonite Church in Baltimore hired him to paint a 30-by-15-foot mural depicting Jesus at a crab festival with Baltimore in the background.

"They asked me to paint Jesus so that he didn't look like any race," Anderson said.

Anderson is equal to the task, said Victoria Gaunt, 38, of Elkridge, who owns two of his cityscapes and said she is drawn to his work because of his vibrant use of color.

"He paints a cityscape to look like it's melting," she said. "He uses a spectrum of similar shades which gives the colors vitality and makes the buildings seem like they are alive."

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