August 18, 2011

Sermons on School Walls

We tend to talk about art in terms of how it moves us and of what makes it memorable. When analyzing a painting, art educators speak of color, tone, line, and shape. They identify space and texture, composition and direction, time and movement. Yet even the most studied artist suspends analysis when confronted with a painting that speaks.
Paintings, like books, are known to say more and different things than their creators intended. They change the way we see things. They change the way we see ourselves. Sometimes they even change the way we see God.
That’s something that Adventist artist Nathan Greene counts on when he paints from his studio on Painter School Road, near his home in Eau Claire, Michigan. His paintings were characterized as “sermons on the wall” by Adventist Review managing editor Stephen Chavez when he wrote about Greene and his artistic career more than a decade ago. Greene is following in the footsteps of Adventist artists from past generations —artists such as Harry Anderson, Harry Baerg, and Vernon Nye. “And just as the older artists filled the imagination with biblical images for generations of Christians, most of whom were Adventist,” wrote Chavez, “Greene’s images of Jesus are striking responsive chords among believers and nonbelievers throughout North America.”
Going Intentionally International
Greene’s audience has expanded to other continents since then, in very intentional ways. The concept of “sermons on the wall” is taking on new meaning. More than a year ago Minnesota entrepreneur and longtime ASI member Garwin McNeilus spent an afternoon brainstorming with Don Noble, president of Maranatha Volunteers International. Nathan Greene’s art came up as part of that conversation.

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Signature Pieces: For many years Nathan Greene's paintings have made images of Bible stories accessible for a twenty-first-century audience.

McNeilus originated the design and production process for the One-Day Church initiative that has been taking the world by storm. Through the combined efforts of ASI and Maranatha, that project has provided more than 1,600 high-quality, low-cost buildings to remote Adventist congregations around the world; and there’s no end in sight. The demand for One-Day Churches far exceeds current supply, and production is steady.
The One-Day Church roof and framework structures can be built in just a day by small, local teams. The kits are made of rugged, galvanized steel with vented roofs, and the resulting structures are remarkably durable. “They’re designed to last till Jesus comes,” says McNeilus. He originally envisioned just churches. But the vision quickly grew, and now the kits are being used to build large-scale school complexes in areas where Adventist church membership is high and resources are low.
In the African country of Zimbabwe, for instance, church growth has exploded in recent decades, and it is estimated that 75 percent of Zimbabwe church members are below the age of 24. There are about 1 million Adventist school-age children in that region. ASI, Maranatha, and the Southwestern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists recently combined resources to build a complex of 38 school buildings and a beautiful new church on 10 acres in the city of Victoria Falls, strategically located near the Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana borders. They used One-Day Church kits for each of the buildings.2
“During our original conversation,” recalls McNeilus, “Don Noble and I were asking ourselves, ‘Why are we building schools?’ And the answer was obvious: to provide Adventist Christian education. And that’s true, but it’s really to prepare children to meet Jesus. That’s why we do what we do.”
It’s a subject McNeilus is passionate about. “We’re doing it because we want to see kids in the kingdom of heaven,” he says, “and we believe it will happen. It’s very evangelistic. We’re just using steel and bolts instead of brick and mortar. People say brick and mortar don’t win souls for the kingdom, but yes they do!”
A Partnership Is Born
Schools generally are filled with images of alphabets and silly cartoon characters, he points out, but rarely are children confronted with images that point them to Christ and to heaven. McNeilus and Noble brainstormed about the kinds of educational artwork and materials they might provide with the schools to make them true places of learning, not just now but for eternity. They thought of Greene’s timeless images of Christ, and Noble suggested, “Why don’t we see if Dan Houghton will help us.”
Dan Houghton is Nathan Greene’s longtime friend and art agent. Like McNeilus and Noble, he has a long history of involvement with ASI and is personally moved by an evangelistic calling. Out of that collaboration came an idea to literally put Nathan Greene’s artistic sermons on the walls of One-Day Schools around the world.
As with all artist’s agents, Houghton is careful to protect how and where Greene’s artwork is displayed. But he and Greene were both excited about the prospect of sharing evangelistic images with thousands of children, many of whom have little or no understanding of who Jesus is. They began discussing the idea of providing reproductions of four of Greene’s best-known paintings for the One-Day Schools.
For Greene, it presented a unique ministry opportunity. His schedule is typically booked years in advance with commissioned painting projects. But he feels called to paint the way a pastor is called to preach, and that’s something he doesn’t want to lose sight of.
“When I do these paintings,” he says, “I’m often so focused on getting the job done, meeting the deadline, getting paid, and paying my bills that I don’t fully realize what the long-term effect could be on people all over the world. In fact, I may never fully comprehend it, but it’s exciting to think about.”
He recalls favorite stories of how his paintings have had that kind of impact: of the man who received an evangelistic brochure in the mail with Greene’s painting The Invitation on it, and couldn’t ignore the face of Christ staring back at him from the garbage can where he’d tossed it; of another man who ended up in the hospital for multiple-bypass surgery after a heart attack and was moved to embrace faith by Greene’s painting Chief of the Medical Staff.
Preachers With Palettes
Greene fondly recalls meeting Harry Anderson for the first time. Greene was only 17 years old, and knew Anderson’s work but not his name—the way many today know Greene’s work but not his name.

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Simple But Sturdy: This One-Day Church in Zimbabwe is designed for simple construction and made out of materials that will last indefinitely with minimal maintenance and upkeep.

“After meeting him, I realized he was the real deal,” he says of Anderson. “He was godly and peaceful, and he had a wonderful character. It was his example that inspired me more than anything.”
“The older I got, the more I realized my own work was a continuation of what Harry Anderson started,” Greene continues. “The idea of portraying Christ in modern settings was something he began and many of us continued.”
Like Greene, Anderson discovered the world of drawing and painting in his teens. In 1925 Anderson was studying to be a mathematician at the University of Illinois. He transferred to the Syracuse School of Art, where he graduated in 1931 during the Great Depression. He was able to make a living as an illustrator for such magazines as Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post.
When Anderson and his wife, Ruth, joined the Adventist Church in 1944, he painted, by request, his first depiction of Christ. Many of us have personally been impacted by his painting, which appeared in volume 13 of Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories. It’s called What Happened to Your Hand? and it portrays Christ as loving, approachable, and real.3
Greene points out that Adventists have also been impacted by the works of Christian artist Warner Sallman, who produced a number of well-known Protestant images. Many recognize Sallman’s Head of Christ, Christ at Heart’s Door, and The Lord Is My Shepherd, still available for purchase as small gift cards in Adventist Book Centers.
Lasting Impressions
The way these images influence how we see Christ, and ultimately how we interact with Him, is subtle and easily overlooked, but significant nonetheless. A recent study by MIT scientists examined what makes some images memorable and others forgettable. They rated the memorability of 10,000 photographic images, based on how many participants correctly remembered seeing each image. They consistently found that “images with people in them are the most memorable,” according to an MIT News report.4
Memorability is what McNeilus, Noble, Houghton, and Greene are banking on—that and durability. They aren’t just hanging paper images in fancy frames that will age and disintegrate with time and temperature. McNeilus devised a way to adhere high-quality, easily cleaned decal reproductions of Greene’s paintings directly to steel plates that will permanently be installed on the walls of One-Day Schools. In effect, the art will last as long as the schools do, regardless of weather and wear.

In Houghton’s view, this project will create innumerable moments of opportunity for the Holy Spirit to impact the hearts and minds of children right up until the Second Coming. In turn, he thinks parents and teachers should seriously be examining the types of images children are exposed to every day. Kids in rural areas who will attend many of the One-Day Schools aren’t yet distracted by images from movies and video games. The pictures of Christ on their school walls are what they will remember and respond to.
Plans for the first 1,000 schools with Nathan Greene’s images have already been implemented. Four paintings were carefully chosen, based on their evangelistic messages: The Lion and the Lamb, Lamb of God, The Rescue, and The Blessed Hope (a painting depicting the Second Coming that was specially commissioned for last year’s General Conference session in Atlanta). The first 100 schools went to Africa, then 34 each to Honduras and Haiti. When the initial 1,000 schools are completed, about 50,000 children will be exposed on a daily basis to artistic depictions of a loving Savior.
Greene is pleased to consider the potential impact his artistic sermons may have as a result of the One-Day School collaboration. That impact is reason enough to suspend analysis and focus on how they will change the way children everywhere see God.
“The idea that you can touch someone with a moment of aesthetic enjoyment makes my work worthwhile,” he says. “But when I look back on my career, I know I will gain the most satisfaction from doing things that touched people for eternity.”
1 Stephen Chavez, “Sermons on the Wall,” available online at
2 “The One-Day School Brings Smiles to Zimbabwe” available online at
3 Review and Herald Publishing Association, copyrights and permissions
4 Anne Trafton, “What Makes an Image Memorable?” MIT News Office, available online at

Conna Bond is the Communication Director for ASI. This article was published August 11, 2011.