Painter Janet McKenzie reinvents the image of Christ — and she’s black
Christian fundamentalists will tell you Jesus wasn’t a prophet, or a philosopher; he is the Son of God. Period. He is also the original “compassionate conservative,” the lion and the lamb rolled into one. A beatific being with long golden hair, tear-stained cheeks and peerless blue eyes who beckons the chosen few into the fold with open arms. With this stereotypic, Sunday-school image of Christ in mind, it’s perfectly natural to assume he was male, and a Jew with the physical characteristics of a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
Painter Janet McKenzie made no such assumptions last fall when she entered the Jesus 2000 contest held by the National Catholic Reporter magazine, an independent journal with 50,000 readers. A call went out worldwide inviting artists to create a new image of Christ for the millennium.
McKenzie took the challenge seriously. She decided to include “us” — meaning women — in the image, and based her depiction of Jesus on a female, African-American friend. It was only a small stretch from the iconic portraits of women she had long been noted for.
“My work as an artist is devoted to imagery of women,” says the Island Pond painter. “And I felt the fairest way to bring women into the mix was to have my model be a woman, even if I was the only one who knew. I would know in my heart that I included ‘us.’”
McKenzie’s private insight into who Jesus is became more public than she could have imagined. In December, Sister Wendy Beckett, the 69-year-old British nun who stars in public TV programs about art, picked McKenzie’s painting, “Jesus of the People,” from 1678 entries as the winner of NCR’s international art competition. McKenzie won $2000, and her work was published on the cover of a special Christmas edition of the magazine.
A publicity blitz shortly ensued, and practically overnight McKenzie went from relative obscurity in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom to international renown. Thousands of people have sent supportive — or excoriating — e-mails to NCR. This is a painting that, like the idea of same-sex marriage, doesn’t evoke middle-of-the-road reactions: People either love it or love to hate it. “Jesus” has received both responses at McKenzie’s Albany show, “Saints and Martyrs,” at the Visions Gallery of the Catholic Diocese Pastoral Center. A simultaneous exhibit of her work appeared at the Fulton Street Gallery in nearby Troy.
McKenzie, 51, is unaccustomed to being at the vortex of public attention. She has worked full-time as a painter for three decades, quietly selling about 20 paintings a year through galleries on the East and West coasts. Her medium is oil, her style is direct and intensely realistic, and her subject is invariably women. While she’s dabbled in religious art before, this was the first time she had attempted a painting of Jesus.
For the contest, McKenzie ignored historical images and, with a courage she didn’t know she had, tapped into her own vision of Christ. The painting was barely dry when she sent it overnight to NCR. Even though she used a female model to bring out Christ’s gentler, feminine side, the work still depicts a powerful male. “Jesus of the People” is fresh and inspiring because of what it’s not. This Jesus is nothing like the one in, say, Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible. His arms aren’t wide open, ready to embrace the world, there are no adoring children at his feet, and his countenance isn’t miraculously bathed in sunlight.
McKenzie’s Jesus is not only black and androgynous, he also appears less certain of human redemption. His face is full of doubt, pain and a Zen-like acceptance. The faintest of smiles escapes his lips. He clutches his robe to his chest.
“Someone asked me, ‘Why would you paint Jesus all wrapped up and holding himself like that? Jesus is supposed to be like this,’” McKenzie recalls, holding her arms outstretched. “And I said, ‘No I don’t think so. We’ve had every opportunity for 2000 years to love one another and we really haven’t done a very good job.’ And so you see him holding all this darkness to him because it’s questioning. There is an aspect of doubt.”
While McKenzie eschewed traditional poses, she did incorporate iconography into her painting — with a New Age twist. The pink background is a subtle reminder of the blood of Christ’s suffering. The halo isn’t a blur of luminosity, it’s a dark circle, a looking glass into the eternal life he offers to those who believe in him. In the upper left hand corner is the yin-yang symbol of perfect harmony. On the right is a feather, representing the Native American belief in transcendent knowledge.
“A lot of people have told me I set out to be politically correct,” McKenzie says, brushing her long, frosted blonde hair out of her face. “And I’ve tried to include too many people in this mix. There’s really only one thing I say to that, and that is: People read their own personal negativity into this, because I did this painting for myself with my nephew in mind, and tried to bring forth the essence of what Jesus represents — grace and love.”
For most of her career, McKenzie has gravitated toward girl-power images of saints, goddess types and beauties. But about five years ago, McKenzie had an epiphany. She suddenly realized that Elliot, her 10-year-old, African-American nephew, couldn’t find himself in her work. That’s when she made a conscious decision to become more inclusive. She began painting an African-American woman she’d seen regularly at auctions in Vermont. “She embraced a certain kind of dignity and youthfulness,” McKenzie says, “everything I look for in the women I paint.”
A few years later, McKenzie found herself drawn to sacred, mostly Christian, icons and subjects, even though she doesn’t profess belief in any particular religious faith. Her first sacred painting was for a church in Island Pond. The pastor loved it, and from that point on McKenzie gave herself, as she puts it, “permission to work with sacred subjects.” Since then she has painted the Madonna and Child, saints and spiritual guides.
McKenzie is nonplussed by the slew of e-mail she’s received from admirers and detractors. Young black people have written her saying, “This Jesus looks like me.” Others call the painting blasphemous.
She shakes her head as she flips through e-mails from all over the United States and Australia and is amazed at how “Jesus of the People” has resonated — with people. “I simply feel the work was meant to exist and I’m the vehicle for its existence,” McKenzie says. “Because the reaction has been so enormous, it’s as though this work of art just opened everybody up. Everyone had something to say in reaction to it.”
“Jesus of the People” will be shown in an exhibit of 50 of the Jesus 2000 entries at the Schimmel Center for the Arts at PACE University in New York City in May and June. The Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester is featuring McKenzie’s secular and sacred work in “Women, Voices, Across Time” through March 8. Info, 802-362-1405.