I was sitting on the floor, carefully scrutinizing a selfportrait by Rembrandt. There was something in his handling of chiaroscuro, the way his features emerged from the dark umber shadows into brilliant light and color. There was something too in his confident posture as he stared not only into his mirror, but into the eyes of future generations, drawing out the soul of the little boy who gazed at his portrait over 300 years later.
The paintings around my house filled me with hope that someday I too could be as great an artist as Rembrandt. I loved drawing portraits, and discovered that I was actually good at it. I believed this was God’s gift to me, my destiny. What seemed to confirm this was that Rembrandt’s birthday, July 15, also happened to be my own (give or take about 360 years)!
I closed the Rembrandt book, and inhaled deeply. The scents that hung in our house still linger in my mind—linseed oil and turpentine, charcoal and kneaded erasers. For besides Rembrandt, I had an even greater artistic influence in my life: my father, Tom.
Dad was an artist before me. Untrained, he developed his own realistic style, creating works that were simple, quiet and clear, and mostly on a smaller scale. He showed a proclivity for still life painting, setting up intimate assemblages of utensils, flowers, fruits and vegetables. He would also paint portraits of the family, seeking to faithfully render what was before him.
It was my father who gave me my first sketchbook. His portrait still graces the opening page, drawn in my sevenyear- old hand. Dad was an encourager rather than one who demanded that I follow in his footsteps. We would spend time drawing each other, painting the same still life or landscape, visiting the art museum and talking about all the reasons we loved Chardin and Titian and Georges De La Tour. After a lunch in the museum cafeteria, we would go to buy paintbrushes or oil paints.
After high school I was awarded a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the oldest art school in the country. There I studied drawing and painting, along with sculpture and printmaking. At the end of my fourth year I won the coveted Cresson Memorial Scholarship, allowing me to travel throughout Europe. From the National Gallery of London, the Louvre, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I wrote to my dad to let him know what great works of art I was seeing—and to rate each cafeteria along the way!
Afterwards, my father and I rented a studio together. Thanks to an old friend of his who had opened an art gallery, we held two different father-and-son exhibitions. I was achieving my dream of producing works of art that might leave a lasting impression, and I was doing it in company with my dad, who had been my inspiration.
Besides sharing artistic talents, my father and I also shared a journey of faith. Dad was not Jewish. But it might have been his love for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that prepared him to fall in love with a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn, New York, who was attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Lucy was not an artist herself, but my dad had an eye for beauty and for a sensitive soul. And so she became his bride.
Dad would often open up the Bible to his children. Though not a churchgoer, he had a deep affinity for God’s word and for the teachings of Yeshua. For instance, if Jesus said, “whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain” (Dad was always partial to the King James version), he would pick up hitchhikers since they were, after all, asking him to take them at least a mile!
That was the household I grew up in: a mixture of art and the Bible. Through my mother, I was physically related to the people in those Bible stories, the people of Israel. And thanks to my father, I was awakened to the God of those stories, to the God of Israel.
My dad and I both shared a spiritual hunger. At some point I found myself spending time with my Jewish family on the east coast while also attending Christian Bible studies. Meanwhile, Dad had been watching television evangelists and a “Hebrew-Christian” TV program. Soon after, we both started attending the same Messianic congregation, where our positive attitudes toward Yeshua eventually matured into robust faith. As we shared art, so we shared a journey: our spiritual fruition happened during the same time we were painting and exhibiting together.
Afterwards, though, our paths diverged. For alongside my passion for art grew a passion for telling my Jewish people the good news of the Messiah. I ended up joining the staff of Jews for Jesus, where for the past eight years I’ve been sharing my faith in many ways and many places—including through art. As a result, I’ve had to deal with some hard questions about art and faith.
There’s always been a conflict within me about “high art” versus “commercial art.” On the one hand, I’ve illustrated some of Jews for Jesus’ gospel tracts. Or I’ve made sidewalk chalk drawings, rendering famous works like Rembrandt’s Abraham Sacrificing Isaac in order to point people to Messiah. Sometimes I wonder if using my art to promote faith in this way makes it “commercial” or “religious propaganda.”
On the other hand, I’ve come closer to doing “art for art’s sake” in a ministry context during our “Behold Your God Israel” outreach in Tel Aviv last spring, when I offered free charcoal portraits to passersby on the boardwalk. My T-shirt clearly displayed Yehudim Lema’an Yeshua (Jews for Jesus) and I and my team members were able to speak openly to the sitters and observers about faith in Messiah.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever completely resolve this conflict. All I know is, whether broadside or portrait, I want my work to point people to God. In a broadside, the text clearly talks about Yeshua. A portrait is different: the art has to speak for itself. It should convey the beauty of God’s creation and cause people to see something of the sublime. Meanwhile, either by way of an artist’s statement or personal conversation, I am “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks” about my faith (1 Peter 3:15).
On January 17, 2008, my father passed away from complications of hepatitis C. Looking back, it all comes together for me how bound up my life was with his. I’ll never paint at his side again, not in this lifetime, anyway. But Dad has left me with so much that has influenced me as an artist and as a person.
As a missionary, I haven’t exercised my artistic gifts as much as I once did. Maybe I need to dust off my paintbox and get started again. But whatever the future holds, perhaps one day—maybe in 300 years, maybe a little sooner—someone will look into the eyes of the self-portrait that is my life and see something that inspires them to live for God.
My prayer is that what they find there is not me, not even the legacy of my earthly father Tom, who delighted to see me growing into an artist, but the gift of my heavenly Father, who delights to see me “conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29).
Amer Olson directs the branch of Jews for Jesus in Chicago, where he lives with his wife Paige, also an artist, and their four children.