Tyrus Clutter is a painter and printmaker. He holds a BA in Painting from Spring Arbor University and an MFA in Painting from Bowling Green State University. Clutter's award-winning work can be found in many private collections as well as in the Print Collections of the New York Public Library and the Spencer Museum of Art, as well as the collections of Spring Arbor University and Union University. Images of Clutter's work have illustrated journals and magazines including The South Carolina Review, Chiron, The Christian Century, and Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture. The Beginning: A Second Look at the First Sin, by Square Halo Books, also incorporates Clutter's illustrations. Clutter currently resides in Massachusetts where he works as the director of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA.)
LM: What are some ways the church can support or encourage Christians in the visual arts?
TC: The old mentality that the mission field is only in some far off land where the heathen have never heard of Jesus is fading away. The contemporary church can see that right here in North America many people have heard of Jesus, but they do not actually understand the message of the gospel. Therefore, one of the most important things that the church can do is validate the role and calling of the artist. The roles and callings are as various as the types of art people make. Some artists are called to be liturgical designers. Their work is specifically made to function in the setting of communal worship. Others are called to be fine artists working in the national and international art scene—exhibiting in major galleries and museums or teaching at secular universities and art schools. The message of their work will surely be informed by their faith, but they are also a form of missionary to the cultural set in society. Their role is to make great art and live in a Christ-like manner in the world. Still others may be called to work in the film industry or graphic or industrial design. Again, all these people are called to be Christians in their workplace and we all know that that is no small task. And it is not just the practicing artists but the art historians and critics that need to be encouraged as vital within the Body.
Young people need to hear from the pulpit and from those in church leadership that all occupations are needed. Christians are called to every type of work, including the arts. I am not necessarily calling for a sermon on the arts from every pastor, but it would not hurt. And the support from leadership needs to begin at the level of seminary education, too. There is a surge of interest in the cultural class by young seminarians. They understand that this is a largely unchurched segment of society, yet few seminaries are preparing men and women to be conversant in the arts. While they will not be experts, they need to be comfortable around artists if this corner is to be turned.
LM: Tell me about your background as an artist and how you became involved with CIVA.
TC: I did not grow up in a family that embraced visual art. All of us were musicians—very acceptable in the church setting—but no one was serious about art. My siblings and I had dabbled in art but by the time I reached high school I recognized that this was the direction I needed to take. My parents, like many, were concerned. Our culture recognizes the term “starving artist” and that can easily put fear in the heart of any parent who only wants the best for his or her child. I reached a compromise with my parents to major in art and minor in business. The reasoning was that I would work toward a graphic design emphasis and have some hope of gainful employment. The minor disappeared after a year and a half when I declared that I was going to become a painter. That was not met by applause.
It was during these years at college (Spring Arbor University) that I first began to seriously consider how my faith and vocation should be integrated. Somehow during that time I first heard about CIVA. It was not until I was working on my MFA in painting at Bowling Green a couple of years later that I really began to look closely at CIVA. As one of two Christians in my MFA program I was in a very different place than at Spring Arbor (a four-year Christian liberal arts college). The topics of the CIVASEEN newsletter were timely. The news about projects, exhibitions, and conferences was exciting. The books suggested to read were formational. I longed to be part of that larger community and I knew I was, if only through my annual membership and the occasional mailings it provided to me.
In 1998 and 1999 my involvement in CIVA took off. I was accepted into the “Ignite” traveling exhibition of young emerging artists from within the ranks of CIVA. At the same time I took my first full-time teaching position and was able to attend my first CIVA biennial conference. When I look back now I see myself as so young and naïve at that first conference. I was in awe of all these people I had only read about, and now I had an opportunity to meet them. It is somewhat laughable today, because many of those same artists are now close personal friends and there are literally hundreds more I know through CIVA. Still, I remember that first conference and I know the exhilaration and intimidation that many feel at their first conference. I strive to let people know that CIVA members are generally the most open and giving people I know. There isn’t the vying for position that one finds in the broader art world. The network of CIVA is just like the church. We are a group of people at various levels of development who all need each other to press forward on our journey.
Because I was willing to volunteer in various roles for CIVA, was making contacts at the conferences, exhibiting work by CIVA artists at the college gallery I directed, and having work accepted by a variety of jurors for some CIVA shows, many on the CIVA Board knew who I was. When the Board took the step to hire a director everything came together at the right time for me to move into my current position. Directing CIVA’s programs was not something I would have imagined myself doing; nor was teaching, for that matter. God has other intentions for our lives sometimes and it takes faith to discern that leading.
LM: Is there anything you'd like to add?
TC: I have come to understand that the term “Christian artist” needs to be put to rest. There is always a problem when the word Christian is used as an adjective. I try to keep it in the realm of a noun. Christians are people, but so are artists. I prefer the term “artist of faith.” While I know that it is problematic for some, because it does not describe what the faith is in, it also does not come with a preconceived idea of what type or style of work the artist creates.
I meet many people in both the higher ranks of the church and the higher levels of the art world. If I was to ever describe myself as a Christian artist, people from both camps would arrive at the same preconception—that my work was illustrative biblical narrative, some kitschy reworking of a scene of angels, or some equally generic scene with a biblical quote attached. There is probably a place for each of those but to think that every artist in CIVA is doing that style of work is absurd.
A major thrust of my job is to have serious conversations with both sides. Usually this happens without words. I show lots of examples. CIVA is not simply a liturgical art and design organization—though those people are in our ranks and some of their work would inspire the imagination of even a die-hard atheist. CIVA encourages artists at every level to reach their highest potential. Good art work is simply good art work. It will be engaging and expanding for the viewer and it makes little difference whether it is created for use strictly inside the church or not, with an obvious and overt evangelical message or not.
We are in a time of openness in which the church knows that the visual can no longer be overlooked and the broader culture realizes that spirituality is essential to our well being. I find that, both as an artist and the Director of CIVA, this is an exciting time to be working.