So this article will be a bit of a departure from the type of thing we normally post on the page. This is actually an interview with an artist that several of our staff members have prints from in their homes and offices. Chris Koelle is an award-winning illustrator whose dramatic, visceral artwork has helped tell compelling stories across multi-disciplinary mediums including graphic novels, documentaries, feature film, animation, illustrated books, and fine art. He created powerful illustrations for an Oscar nominated film as well as nearly 600 illustrations for a Zondervan published book called The Book of Revelation which dramatically visualizes the entire New Testament.
I personally own 4 of his prints that are around my home and office and through our Facebook page and Discussion group, The Gentlemen’s Parlor, we will be giving away a Koelle print in August. What follows will be a captivating and exciting journey into the mind of a brilliant and gifted artist. We will explore several topics and get to have a window into what makes an artist tick.
Alex: So Chris, first question, tell me a bit more about you and the faith journey you have taken in life.
Chris: I grew up on the outskirts of Chicago, and my parents were raised Roman Catholic and, at separate times, converted to Protestant Evangelical Christianity when they were in their late teens or early twenties. So my siblings and I were raised going to church from the beginning. I remember, when I was about 5 years old, out of curiosity I asked my mom: “What is hell like?” I don’t remember the details [of the] conversation, but I remember vividly where we were – eating in a Venture store dining area – and the fact that I asked her of my own accord, out of the blue.
I grew up looking back at that experience and recounting it to other authority figures in the churchy environment as my experience of “getting saved”, but to be honest I don’t remember feeling spiritual at all or really being in love with God until I was in my early teens, when I remember sitting in the
back seat of the car driving home from my cousins at dusk, looking outside the window at the colors of the clouds and sky, feeling sad, feeling hypocritical, and brokenhearted at my own sinfulness and hypocrisy and complacency. I looked up at the sky and tried to talk to God about how I was sorry for everything and wanted to repent and actually trust in Jesus (not just with my words) and be changed by Him. I had a guilt that needed to be taken care of, and I was consciously deciding for myself to trust this invisible Jesus Christ to deal with it like he promised in the gospels. I believed He really loved the world, and even me, and I wanted to love Him back even though I had been failing miserably at it.
I never really talked about it much, except maybe a few very close friends and my mom. I would say that a felt sense of my personal guilt and shame continued and increased through junior high, high school, and college and into marriage, even though I have learned to really place my hope in the character of God in spite of (or because of?) what I know is a deeply rooted sinfulness within me.
My wife and children and I have been members of a local church that preaches Christ crucified and risen again as our only comfort in life and in death, that we are not our own, but belong to Him in life and in death, because of His great love for us. I am deeply grateful for the close kinship and realness we share with other brothers and sisters in Christ. I think, especially over the past several years, in slowly taking steps through some very painful addiction recovery, I’ve been growing into a more mature understanding of what it means to be spiritually connected to myself, to God, His Spirit, His Son, my wife and family and others. Growing in the practices of prayer, meditation, and contemplation to be more present with God. I’m so grateful that God has helped remove many masks I’ve hidden behind to reveal the person He created me to be, even in spite of my fear, reluctance and unwillingness at times.
A: Why do you do what you do?
C: To oversimplify it, because I have to.
A: In church history, the church was often seen as the center of the artistic world. The church was responsible for most of the art, music, and sculpture that was produced in society. What role do you think artists play in society in these modern times?
C: I honestly don’t think I can answer that broad of a question, but it’s a good question that others are continually asking and trying to answer. There are so many different kinds of people making art in so many different cultures and sub-cultures, with vastly different approaches to making art in so many forms and for vastly different reasons and goals.
The internet has made it easy for individuals to become a brand, creating and marketing not only their work for profit but carefully composing and curating a perceived way of life, a lifestyle of seemingly achievable beauty, authenticity, even a wholeness. A marketable appearance of the way life is supposedly meant to look and feel. I’m thinking of social media experts who are very good at what they do and are able to increasingly monetize it. The artist as brand. Some of the work is great, some of it is outstanding, some of it is not to my liking, some of it might be simply bad, either technically or in what I think is its lack of integrity.
If you’re on the internet and especially social media (you, reading this now), you’re painfully aware that you are constantly bombarded with way too much information and unending targeted advertisements – from your friends, your frenemies, giant corporations, small businesses, and individuals trying to make an honest living and provide for themselves and their families, like myself.
Our world is so interconnected and yet totally fragmented. I’d like to think that artists could accept their role in society as people who are trying to get to the heart of things, to the heart of ourselves as human beings…not only producing work that tries to ask and answer important questions, but live a life that aims to be more honest, more caring, more loving, more humanizing.
Recently I’ve had some really good conversations with my wife and other close friends about all this talk of the artist’s calling and responsibilities. One of the things we’ve been processing is the thought that art itself is like a space that God has given to His children to enter into and experience and explore His world, Himself, our place in this world in a free, playful way, like a parent allows spaces for children to draw and paint, make sculptures, dance and sing, get muddy, and so on. I hope that I can internalize that feeling more and more and see that approach bear good fruit in other people’s lives.
A: Man, isn’t that true. I would love to see a resurgence of artists as being people that help to tear down the facades we put up and help us refocus on the core of who we are meant to be in Christ.
Let me ask you this: did you have any influences for your art growing up or do you now? If so, who and why?
C: When I was in elementary school, there was a library right next to our school and I’d go there all the time, often after school to wait to be picked up by my mom. Downstairs, on the same level as the kid section and the art books, there was a big reproduction print of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” on a wall when you walked down the stairs. I looked at it countless times, and it stirred up this sense of longing, yearning, mystery, curiosity, wonder. Even a sense of eerie dreamlike displacement and even dread, with the house far away on the hill, wondering what the place was, what was in the house, why this girl (woman?) was sitting alone so far away, staring off towards the high horizon and the house, the wind blowing her hair (was it warm, was it cool?)
A few aisles down were the classic “Scary Stories” books illustrated nightmarishly by Stephen Gammell. Those images terrified and captivated me simultaneously and became a part of my DNA. Video game art in Nintendo game booklets and comic books. The impossibly cool world of anime and manga.
A good friend’s senior art exhibition when I was a freshman in college, consisting mostly of stark black and white etchings and drawings – stirred up in me a passion for serious printmaking and exploring image-making as a process of surprises and discoveries. So many great artists – old printmakers like Gustav Doré, Leonard Baskin, William Blake, Maurcio Lasansky… Jim Dine, Francis Bacon, Anselm Kiefer, to name a few. Byzantine iconography. Recently, David Lynch’s work. My wife Annie and her gracefully tenacious art spirit and work ethic.
A: Chris, if you could, explain for me your artistic process. As someone who is not an artist this has always intrigued me. When I look at a work of art I can’t help but wonder what process someone goes through when creating those types of artistic work. Do you see a completed work in your head and then figure out a way to translate it to your medium, or do you begin with somewhere between no idea and a basic idea and just let it flow, unsure of what the final piece will be until it is done?
C: The way I work on the inside, the most natural way, is for me to start working with no clear idea of the destination. A process full of surprises, trial and error, discoveries – that is what is most natural and most enjoyable for me personally. With client illustration work, I’ve found that process usually doesn’t work because of the limitations, expectations and goals of a client and the project at hand. So that has to be more clearly planned out with initial concepts in written word, word associations, several rough sketch variations, several rounds of submitting sketches and getting feedback, discussion, revising drawings, etc. towards the finished art. The back and forth often is a trigger for anxiety and frustration because of my ego, as well as legitimate concerns of time and money. But the ego, that is something I’ve been learning to detach from in a healthy way. Ideally though, all the personal work I do (and some of the client project artwork) come from a place of honest curiosity and exploration that is almost entirely stress-free.
A: What is your favorite medium to work in and why?
C: Intaglio printmaking is what I would do all the time if I could somehow make that work. The physical, visceral nature of the process can be sometimes dangerous, sexy, full of surprises, accidents (some happy, some insanely frustrating). The way an image changes from initial sketches to early stages in the metal plate, to the inking and printing, there are so many interesting variations to be explored within a single foundational image. An etching can go through a life of countless changes, each print totally unique. I just love the process of exploration there, getting lost in it, through a physical process that requires a lot of elbow grease and sore muscles and aches and pains.
A: What is your favorite piece you have ever done? I really like the Prodigal Son print as well as the Joshua drawing that hangs in my office right now.
C: I can’t pick a favorite, but my personal pieces (not illustrations done for clients) are the closest to my heart, even if they haven’t proven to be very marketable. I think especially of my botanical drawings, which feel like a kind of manifestation of my inner world.
A: Do you have any advice for other creatives or creative wanna-be’s out there?
C: I honestly feel increasingly unworthy and unqualified to give advice to artists or creative types. I want to say what most people would say, which is to take your work and what you feel is your calling seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. But these days, in this internet age, one’s work and career and identity as an artist or “maker” or “creative” feels so increasingly idolized, and it makes me sick.
Human beings are meant to be, not just make. Find the ways for you to simply be. That is far more important than being productive or marketable. Ask yourself and the people closest to you (your pastor, your closest friends and family) how your desires might become more and more aligned with your design as a human being – with all of you, your spirit, your mind, and body, not just the “producer” part of you.
A: Man, Chris, that’s good. I think that all of us, artist or not, get caught up in the need to produce and end up missing out on existing. How can our readers find you and your art?
C: Well, I live and work in Greenville, South Carolina but I can be found on the web at:
Guys and Gals, you NEED to check out Chris’ artwork. We need to make it a point to support people doing work like he does. His art is incredible and of extremely high quality. If you enjoyed this interview with Chris and would like to see more content like this, jump on our Facebook page and let us know!