Saturday, August 31, 2013

Debby Topliff- An Interview

Debby Topliff

"I gave myself permission to play with paint, even if my skill level was minimal. For me, overcoming inhibitions and ignoring the voices of my inner critic have been crucial in creating art."

     How do you describe the imagination of God? Some would say, 'take a walk in the forest' or, better yet,  'take a look in the mirror', but, the best place to begin is the Bible, the God-breathed account of the Artist Himself. Augustine said, "The Bible is shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim." Debby Topliff is an artist who paints from the deep end of the pool with childlike wonder. She graciously answered a few questions I had.

Why painting? What led to your art-making?

     I never thought of myself an artist. Grade school art class failures steered me toward the concreteness of math and science. But at age twenty-one I went to LʼAbri, a study center in Switzerland founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer, where I found faith in Christ. The night after encountering God at a prayer meeting, I opened my pocket New Testament to the Book of Acts and the stories appeared almost as movies jumping off the page. From then on Iʼve had a passion to make the Bible come alive to others. Iʼve written songs and skits, made worship banners and dances to Scripture songs. Iʼve written poetry and fiction in an attempt to communicate the gospel in creative, vibrant ways.


     Several years ago I studied the Book of Revelation through Precepts study guides written by Kay Arthur. One of the assignments was to sketch out the action in each chapter. Even though I used stick figures and crude symbols, I found that simple visual study aid not only useful, but fascinating. I told a friend that Iʼd like to try to put all twenty-two chapters together in a mural to envision the flow of the whole book. She said, “Why donʼt you do it? Are you afraid itʼs too hard?” After thinking a moment I said, “No, not too hard. Iʼm afraid it would be too much fun!” Hearing those words come out of my mouth, I decided it was time to let go of my pragmatic need to always be productive and start having fun. I gave myself permission to play with paint, even if my skill level was minimal. For me, overcoming inhibitions and ignoring the voices of my inner critic have been crucial in creating art. So one day I tacked a 5ʼ x 7ʼ canvas on my wall and began organizing and painting the scenes of Johnʼs vision.

You describe your work as a visual lectio divina. Can you walk me through the steps as you approach a painting?

     My process is based on Bible study. Once Iʼve chosen a section of Scripture that I want to see in a painting, I begin by studying it closely, section by section. I have a seminary degree and enjoy using reference materials to help me understand the theological, historical, cultural, and geographic significance of a passage. I sketch each scene, trying to include every detail. This is similar to the careful and repetitive nature of lectio divina- divine reading- because by slowing down and actually making a visual note of what I am reading, I pay attention to elements that I might have glossed over. For my large paintings, like the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts, this study and sketching process can take a whole year and produce over a hundred individual scenes. My most recent painting is on the life of Abraham. From start to finish it took me five months to study and paint eleven chapters.

     The next step is to decide the best way to compose the painting. Since the Book of Revelation is akin to a dream, without clear linear or historical events, I took freedom in how to arrange the scenes. Acts relates a twenty-five year period with historical figures, so I arranged the scenes as a journey and "color-coded" each key player in the drama. Mark divides perfectly into two sections so I painted it as a diptych with the first half arranged geographically around the Sea of Galilee and the second around the city of Jerusalem. I tried to stay close to geographic considerations in the life of Abraham as well.

     Once I settle on a design, I draw it on a large piece of kraft paper and fill in the background colors. Then I tack my numbered sketches on the paper and paint the scenes in the order they appear in Scripture. Each step of the way I learn more, rereading the passage I've sketched, noticing similarities and patterns, discovering insights I missed when studying just a portion at a time. For example, as I painted the Sea of Galilee in the middle of my Mark canvas, I realized that the first call Jesus made to the disciples was to be fishers of men. Mark 1-9 is His living example of how to do that. 

     I consider my paintings to be teaching tools, so further steps for me in the process occur as I actually teach the stories by using slides of the scenes along with the paintings as a whole. I continue to discover more connections between the scenes- and even between one painting and another- and draw what I consider to be convincing theological conclusions.

 Mark 1

As an "untrained artist" (your words), do you ever feel intimidated by other artists?

     I am in awe of the skills of trained artists, but I donʼt feel intimidated by them. I see my calling as complementary, not competitive, to theirs. I have, however, encountered sharp and potentially discouraging words from critics who donʼt understand the purpose and inspiration of my art. Recently a post on the Transpositions blog raised the question of what constitutes excellence in art. Who decides? Will the gatekeepers let new creatures into the fold? Not being a person with a high level of artistic skill forces me to be humble--a good position for Christians anyway. 

Aside from Scripture, who or what inspires you?

     Iʼm in love with the variety and splendor of nature. I see creation as Godʼs art on the primary level. A secondary level is human art--the surprising ways we continue to participate in Godʼs revelation as, to use JRR Tolkienʼs word, sub-creators.

Who are your favorite artists and why?

     The first piece of art that captured my imagination as a child was a “cartoon” by Saul Steinberg in The New Yorker magazine. He combines artistic elements with words and concepts to reveal deeper and more complex meaning. I see this marriage of visual with intellectual as akin to Chinese ideograms. Iʼve become an avid collector of his works and have all his New Yorker covers. I love Marc Chagall and his playful use of color. I also relate to his narrative content. Iʼve visited the stunning Chagall museum in Nice twice and adore his biblical paintings. David Hockney is one of my favorites too. He gives me permission to adjust perspective to meet the needs of the the story. I like artists who arenʼt compelled to comply with traditional rules.

     I heard Dr. Rex Jung in an interview with Krista Tippett refer to creativity as something both novel and useful, but the usefulness is not always recognized within the social context. This takes me back to the question of the gatekeepers and who decides what art is valuable.

How would you describe your style?

     Primitive, child-like, bold, yet theologically sophisticated. I combine artistic inhibition with careful study. The “keys” that accompany my paintings enable viewers to follow the stories and identify the verses being portrayed.

I like the Revelation DVD you produced. Any plans for similar projects?

     Thank you. That video was another step into humility. I recommend that everyone has the experience of seeing themselves on the big screen. It doesnʼt take long until you have to get over the reality of yourself! Painting your gut with a vision way beyond your own capabilities. I felt called to make the visual content of that most difficult and mysterious book available to the population at large. I think itʼs crucial for us to know how the biblical story ends so we have courage to persevere through the dark valleys. One of our dear friends, Don Hart of Move Communications, caught the vision with me and made the video happen. We filmed it before the birth of YouTube when production costs were high. I would love to do something similar with my other paintings--perhaps in small segments--but I would need help. The studying and painting are enough for me. I deeply desire to find ways to transfer the work Iʼve done into the hands of other Bible teachers. I have made sturdy, full-size reproductions on fabric that can easily be tacked up on walls or hung between trees. I have often been told that my style is cross-cultural. I would love to have these biblical pictures used to pique curiosity and complement teaching. I also have a vision of using the images of individual scenes on a smart phone app so visual learners could watch and listen to the text at the same time. I have the content, but I need help with the platform. Iʼd like to interject an opinion: There are many mission-minded people who pull specific stories from Scripture to weave an overall teaching of the gospel. While there is certainly great value in this, I think it is also true that if we go thoroughly into the whole content of one book of the Bible, we can gain the gospel message from a different angle. There is a depth that comes from examining all the stories of the early disciples, or all the events in one gospel. I was surprised when I painted Acts to notice the cross and resurrection are in every sermon. 

Book of Acts

Your work has been seen in churches and various teaching venues. Do you have a particular 'audience' in mind when you approach a piece?

     My first audience is me. I mentioned that people who have travelled and worked in other cultures say my work is cross-cultural. That pleases me very much, but it was not a conscious intention but the result of my limited ability. I donʼt paint faces because I donʼt have that skill. Children quickly warm up to my work, but that is not an intention either. I think my style is child-like because at this point in life, Iʼm interested in being in touch with my own uninhibited inner child.

     A second prong of my passion is to encourage others to adapt my “visual lectio divina” process to their own study of Scripture. I have a how-to book in the works to lead people through visual study of key passages of spiritual growth.

What comments have you received from 'un-churched' viewers who may not know Scripture?

     Two years ago I showed all four of my large paintings at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. All sorts of people came to the three-week city-wide event. I found that having whole books on one canvas enabled people to enter the gospel story from many different directions. To a Catholic unfamiliar with Scripture I could point to the Last Supper and take the story on from there. With a group of Muslims I got into a discussion of the Crucifixion in Mark and whether Jesus really died. Then we looked at Jesusʼ return in Revelation and Johnʼs depiction of heaven. It quickly became evident where we agreed and disagreed. (Iʼd love to show the Life of Abraham to Muslims. Iʼm fascinated with Godʼs care of Hagar and Ishmael.)

     I also had a wonderful “discussion” with a man from Puerto Rico who did not speak any English, but who knew the Bible intimately. He helped me realize that my paintings taken as a whole represent the Trinity: God the Father on the throne in Revelation, Jesus as a man walking among people in Galilee and Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit manifested at Pentecost and throughout Acts.

What advice do you give young artists?

     Overcome your inhibitions.

     Paint first to please yourself.

     Follow your passion.

     Silence your inner critic.

     Embrace your mistakes.

     Be bold.

     Ask God for help.

     Have fun!

You can view Debbie's work  and read more about her on her website-

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