Local world-renowned painter James Christensen had an interesting way of describing his artistic influence on his children and grandchildren.
“I suppose I became the zero patient in infectious diseases,” he said.
Christensen, whose intricate fantasy-based paintings have brought widespread acclaim, will showcase his work at “Curiouser and Curiouser,” an upcoming Springville Museum of Art exhibit. It will be the most comprehensive collection of his major paintings that’s ever been shown. It also will include some of his paintings that have never been exhibited.
But “Curiouser and Curiouser” isn’t just about him. Two of Christensen’s daughters, professional artists Cassandra Barney and Emily McPhie, share billing in the exhibition. “Curiouser and Curiouser” looks to show how artistic heritage has manifested itself within this particular clan, and how this heritage breeds certain artistic commonalities and differences.
Christensen, who lives in Orem, has in time seen his influence trickle through the generations. Barney and McPhie pursue art for their livelihood, and some of his daughters’ children are artists as well. Christensen’s children and grandchildren have even begun creating a unique family tree, with each family member creating a portrait of another family member. In time, all of them will have their likeness as part of this tree.
While his children were surrounded by art from a young age, Christensen said he never intended or expected any of them to follow his career path.
“I always had a studio someplace — in the garage, in the basement, in the dining room. So they grew up in the middle of that,” Christensen, who lives in Orem, said. “But I never pushed any of my kids to be artists. It never occurred to me, actually, that any of them would want to pursue this as a profession.
“I feel very strongly that you do art because you can’t be happy doing anything else; you can’t not do art. That’s the way I was,” he continued. “To tell someone else they’re going to be an artist doesn’t work. It’s the desire, the fire in the belly, the way your brain is wired. And I never pushed that on any of my children, because it has to come from inside.”
McPhie said her father exemplified this artistic passion in the home. His dedication and persistence, she said, has influenced her art career tremendously.
“I remember him being up late, door closed, in his studio, working and working and working, and didn’t understand it until I got there,” McPhie said. “He talks about the burning in the belly — if you’ve got it, you’ve got it, so what are you going to do about it? You’ve really got to keep going, even when it’s not panning out for you and you’re struggling.”
McPhie’s sister Cassandra, who now lives a few houses down from her father, didn’t always plan on being an artist. While visiting home after her first semester at college, Barney told her dad she wanted to change her major and start studying art. She eventually got a Master in Fine Arts, married a fellow artist and was even McPhie’s high school art teacher at one point.
Barney said her father shaped her artistic development by emphasizing the importance of making meaning and finding beauty in all of life’s happenings. And, understandably, he fostered a love of art. The family lived in Europe for a time when Barney was a child, and Christensen would regularly take her and her siblings to art museums.
“I really thought I was self taught, until I’d almost finished my MFA, and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve picked up so much from my dad.’ He was influencing me more than I was giving him credit,” Barney explained. “I’m feeling a lot of gratitude toward him. He did influence us a lot.”
Christensen’s art, Barney said, uses the language of symbolism to communicate ideas. Both her and her sister do the same thing within their own art. Although they each have different methods, all three artists often tackle similar themes, and the exhibit will group some of these themes together — showing the unique interconnectivity between the father and daughters.
Dr. Rita Wright, the Springville Museum of Art’s director, was exposed to these three artists separately, then later discovered their relation. She has since come to know all three, and posed the idea of a combined art show. The family, she said, jumped at the idea. Combining their works into one exhibit posed some artistic challenges. Wright gained appreciation for all their art separately, and wanted to respect each artist’s autonomy. The familial influence, however, is undeniable, and deserved exploration as well.
“It became kind of a fun challenge to make sure we gave each artist their due, but at the same we wanted to juxtapose their work,” Wright said. “What we wanted to do is have this kind of conversation between them through their artwork. By putting the works one against another, there’s this really generational attitude about some of these ideas and feelings. And that’s the exciting thing."