Rich Mullins and I were both wild about CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia; we admired Lewis as a creator of worlds and I had urged Richard to use more metaphor, more images in his lyrics to build worlds for his audience. So when I found out that the Jesus House folks were equally enthusiastic about the Chronicles, something kicked in for me. As a student, I didn't have much money, but I was excited about the idea of supporting the efforts of Christian musicians by painting a mural.
I guess all of us who contributed murals to the Jesus House were volunteers. Volunteers move us because we instinctively feel their work is pure and unhampered by greed, unspoiled by mixed motives. Volunteering is seen as an act of mercy. Giving away the creative gift is volunteerism with a double-barreled blast of grace. The artist's work comes not from his hands only, but from his soul. Such a personal expression costs the artist more than time and materials. It obliges him to turn himself inside out like the prophet who eats the sweet scroll and when it sours in his stomach, must bring it back up for the whole world to see. I can’t imagine the process that leads to art is always a pretty sight. At its best, the artist's work costs him the vulnerability it takes to expose a true reflection of his soul to criticism or indifference.
The Jesus House host and emcee Terry Fisher was, and still is, one of the friendliest people I know. I felt comfortable approaching him with a drawing of Aslan I'd rendered on brown wrapping paper cadged from the mail room at the Bible College. Terry had kindly and warmly approved the draft. He wanted me to paint the Lion on the landing of the stairs at the front entrance to the Jesus House.
I arranged to come out to start painting early in my second semester at the Art Academy. I had to squeeze in my opportunity to finish it before the crunch of assignments settled on me; that year, I was regularly up well past three a.m. doing homework.
With a heavy school schedule creeping up and a large wall to fill, the work was precisely designed to be completed rapidly. I left my favorite techniques at home for lack of time. The finished work wasn't much more than an underpainting done in the final colors, resulting in a dull surface. To compensate for what the painting lacked, I concentrated more attention on the Lion's eyes to bring him life and power.
I probably spent the better part of two days completing the mural. Days, not nights, to take advantage of sunlight hours. The house was quiet at those times, with an occasional phone call or a stray musician or preacher coming through the door or leaving on an errand. I'd glance up from time to time, but I wasn't paying too much attention to the comings and goings. I was absorbed. I did take a break from painting, though, when I glanced up as Richard came through the door wearing his long black coat.
He was excited to get a good look at the mural, though it was not yet complete. I still had work to do on the eyes. I wanted them to have a more realistic effect than the rest of the painting. I planned to put some refelctions in those vertical cat pupils and throw a few highlights on the surface of the eyes. And I desperately needed a reference, a model. There were no cats to be found wandering around the Jesus House. I’d rudely imposed on a passing musician earlier in the day and he had humored me by letting me look at his eyes, but in just a few seconds I recognized his discomfort and thanked him profusely to make sure he knew he was excused from helping me further.
When I’d first started drawing him, Richard had been self-conscious about his nose, but from the very first moment I met him he was completely at ease letting me study his eyes. He was my most difficult subject, yet one of my favorite models. I would draw or paint him while he sang, because he held his head fairly still when he played the piano; and he'd do that for hours at a time. I had no problems keeping up, though. I could stare at him as long as he could play.
So I sat on the stairs and explained my dilemma and immediately he agreed to lend me his eyes. I stepped down a few stairs and stopped when my eyes were level with his. His gaze was focused, intense. He let me look as long as I needed to memorize the depths and lights. Perhaps I locked in longer than I really needed to, but there was something there that drew me, moved me.
After that long look, I went back to the wall to paint a lion and Richard went to a piano and wrote a song. Each of us went to work, forgot our fears, and gave a gift back to God out of thankfulness for his mercy.
It's not my favorite painting, but I still think that lion carries a little of the events of those times around him. I didn't design those eyes to look like Richard's; they are shaped like cat's eyes, not human ones, and they were painted the color of my own eyes, green. Still that lion reminds me of Richard somewhere through the eyes.
The lion went on to greet his thousands at the Jesus House before the place was finally sold as a private residence. The mural of Aslan is no more, and as far as I know this faded photograph is the only one left behind. I've adjusted it to what I think is its best advantage, but the lion has definitely aged.
Richard's song goes on.
"Heaven in His Eyes” is my favorite of all his songs. We were in close contact when he wrote it. We saw each other nearly every day for an ongoing discussion of the Beatitudes when I’d drop in where he worked. The lion and the song came out within a very short time of one another. Both works shared a common theme: looking into the eyes of Divinity, the presence of God, the beatific vision. Which came first, the mural or the song, I'm not sure. I have a hunch the lion came first, but that’s not an issue for me. It's only one example of how our art rubbed off on one another, the exchange of creative momentum.
The exchange of influence is the kind of thing that happens all the time between artists--a song impacts another artist's image, a poem impacts another artist's song, an image impacts the other's poem. It goes on and on like music. Artists rubbing shoulders don't send a bill to one another for freely supplying this static charge. Most artists who sense the debt owed will forgive it: this is what Christians call mercy. One artist responds to the obligation of gratitude to another by creating a new work of his own. This motivates and perpetuates a certain momentum between artists in close exchange, producing new works from the creative inertia sired by mercy out of gratitude: as far as I'm concerned, this momentum and its impact are beyond price.
We can’t all afford to work for nothing, of course. No one ought to feel guilty about needing to eat. But the free creative exchange, the mercy: it's the way artists are; it's the way we are in the kingdom--but only because it’s the way God was first.
Richard never mentioned our creative exchanges when he introduced his songs, and that was completely appropriate. When he performed, he focused the attention of the audience on God, not himself or anyone else. That was his task, and I support it. In fact he knew I was happier behind the scenes. Still, I will always feel the gratitude. The blessing of being a part of his creative process is mine; my real treasures are in heaven where the Real Lion keeps watch.