By Caleb Stoltzfus
In August of 2015, I moved to Indianapolis, as Artist in Residence for the year at the The Harrison Center for the Arts, and began oil painting full-time. Knowing many artists who would love to work in their studios full-time, the weight of this opportunity was not lost on me. Every day in my studio, I felt that time could not be wasted: each minute was a gift.
Making, for me, comes in a variety of forms and stages, and sometimes applying paint to canvas can be a move backward—instead of forward—if I rush the process. I had to learn the importance of preparation: composing, designing, reading, and even discerning when I needed to give my mind a rest and focus on other things. For the first eight months of my residency, as I prepared for my show at The Harrison Gallery in April 2016, I was also learning how to make the best use of the time and space I had been given.
I thought about the Old Testament prophets—how incredibly bold, clear, and direct they were, and how important their examples were for our own cultural moment. That led me to dig into the character of several specific prophets: Noah, Jonah, Isaiah, and Moses. All of them controversial figures, they experienced times of disobedience, ostracization, hopelessness, and arrogance, and they left indelible impressions on people—by what they did right . . . and by what they did wrong. What developed for me over those eight months were compositions reflecting these biblical figures’ dark and painful moments.
Throughout the Old Testament, prophets are called to convey messages from God, and frequently these messages were ones of reproach and reproof. These men were called by God to be leaders, and yet their special status did not exempt them from disobedient actions themselves, and it’s no wonder: prophets were often despised and rejected, outsiders and town spectacles.
Moses implored God in Exodus, “Who am I?” and “Lord, please send someone else.” Often, prophets are associated with holier-than-thou judgment, and yet they required forgiveness as well. The pieces I’ve painted depict the stories of Moses striking the rock (Numbers 20:11), Noah getting drunk (Genesis 9:21), Jonah drowning (Jonah 1:15), and Isaiah prophesying naked for three years (Isaiah 20:2-4). Caught in the tension of being God’s mouthpieces and not themselves God, these prophets experienced complex relationships with God. For this reason, the prophets’ stories demonstrate that God alone is truly holy.
At times, prophets were called to perform what John Sawyer in Prophecy and the Biblical Prophets calls “sign-acts,” or symbolic acts that serve as a metaphor for God’s judgment. The only true sign-act in this series is depicted in Isaiah, in which Isaiah walks naked for three years to demonstrate the forthcoming vulnerability of the Egyptians and Cushites. Contemporary Christians often read the stories of the Bible (and not just the prophetic ones) as sign-acts, metaphors to be applied in their own lives. In a similar way, the paintings in this series are meant to serve as visual reminders of a bigger message about our own disobedience—as sign-acts.
I decided to use the texture of the paint in this series to tell as much of the story as the form. For example, the dry and choppy paint in Isaiah gives the image material weight, emphasizing the humility of his position. In contrast, the smooth, transparent layers of paint in Resurrection gives the torsos of both figures a sense of transcendence. Often, smoothness and roughness are used simply for formal description. The paint quality in many of these scenes is highly textured, an important part of the “technical narrative” of the painting.
A number of the pieces from my Prophets series will be on display beginning December 2, 2016 through January 30, 2017, at Square Halo Gallery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The mission of Square Halo Gallery and its Director, CIVA graphic designer, Ned Bustard, is to provide a gallery space in Lancaster for artists inspired by the Christian faith. I look forward to showing my work at a gallery with such an important mission.
Caleb Stoltzfus studied drawing and painting under Neilson Carlin at Studio Rilievo—a Classical atelier near Philadelphia. He also studied painting under Jeff Morton and sculpting under Kayb Joseph, both at Covenant College, before spending 2015-2016 as Artist in Residence at the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is currently working on making observation-based work while studying with artist Daud Ahkriev. Visit calebstoltzfus.com to see more of Caleb’s work.