An Interview with Illustrator, Author, and Professor, John Hendrix
Looking at a lot of your art and illustration, sometimes your palette and creative choices can be a bit gruesome. What role does this play in your art, and do you think it comes from your faith or somewhere else?
I think you should be suspicious of any art about the spiritual that is saccharine or too candy-coated. If we think the Lord made kitty-cats and the Lord also made the parasitic wasp… So the Lord creates something like the female praying mantis that eats its mate’s head during sex… and says “This is good.” You have to ask some startling questions about our God when we really look at his creations.
There’s something going on in the world that is [maybe ‘sinister’ isn’t the right word…] dark and not fallen. I just think that’s interesting. I don’t think I have an obsession with the macabre, necessarily. I think I just like things that are outside of the realm of visual iconography that makes people comfortable, mainly because I like the formal aspects of the stuff. I just like drawing that sort of thing, and it’s always sort of attracted me in Scripture, too. We always get stuck with the same visual representations of things over and over. Thanks to Martin Luther and our friends of the Reformation, all the pictures in the churches were thrown out. They said, “We’re worshipping these images; they’ve gotta go,” which is a bummer. It set visual art in the Church back 400 years, until we were comfortable making art again, and honestly, I still don’t think we’re comfortable making art again. That’s a bummer. We had the best art ever made in the history of mankind made from stories of faith, and we’ve kind of lost it.
So your forthcoming book is on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called The Faithful Spy. What drew you to the subject of Bonhoeffer? You called it a visual novel, do you consider it to be a book for children, adults or both?
It’s middle grade, is the audience. In the publishing industry, if you think of board books, that would be for kids who chew on the books. And then you have picture books which go up to 6, 7. And then there’s middle grade for 8-10, 11. And then ‘young adult’ is from there on. This book is naturally between a middle grade and a YA book […] because it’s very mature content. It’s hard to get it into language that an eight year old can absorb. I believe all people should read books with pictures in it. Really it’s about making a thumbnail version of the rise and fall of Germany with lots of pictures. I just learn better with pictures. I remember things better. So there are maps, pictures of comics, and type. There are graphic ways where type and image intersect. I’ve called it a visual novel. Graphic novel is what is easiest to say, but most people think of graphic novels as endless pages of panels. But this has sections of text, so it’s in between the genres. When it comes to the subject, I’ve always loved Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a figure, and I couldn’t get him to work in a picture book format because there’s just too much there. It needed to be longer. I’d never done a project that’s this long, which is 176 pages. It took a year to write – with lots of reading and research to do that and then I’ve been working on the art for 9 months now. No single page is really that hard, but when you have 176 of them, it becomes a huge task that takes real discipline to complete.
What do you think are the roles of imagination and wonder in life, especially as we live in the death throes of modernity and scientism?
I think of Tolkien and Lewis and their desire for high fantasy stories. They loved the Norse mythology and didn’t know why anyone wasn’t writing these stories that they loved. To me, it’s the same sort of connection. We long for these high stories. Not just the hero’s journey, but something that really speaks to our longing for purpose and meaning and certainty, and ultimately, redemption of all things. I think that’s something that art always can speak to in a way that science is limited. Because science is concerned with the real and the measurable, and the things of our heart are not measurable. We need both. It’s not to throw one thing away from the other, or say that one is better. But it’s foolish to think that we can live in a world without both informing each other.
What is art?
I have a pretty low bar for what is art. What I mean by that is, I don’t think we want to start fighting for the idea of art as this super-special category that only a few people can do. Artmaking means you have to go to school for 10 years, and then MAYBE you’ll be able to make capital-A Art. I don’t feel like that’s really Biblical. I think that we’re all able to create things of beauty and of purpose. I think you can say that art is any sort of discipline–if someone said, “My engineering is my art” –great. Again, I have a very low bar for what is art. I have a very high bar for what I think good art is. I can say, “Okay, you’ve urinated in a jar over there. Great. Love your art. Now let’s talk about what that means… I don’t think that means much.” So I can say, “I love your art. I affirm your art. And I think it’s not good.” So those are not competing against each other. It’s not saying your art’s invalid, just that it’s not very good, beautiful, true, or interesting. Any critique can fall under those banners. So the fight should not be, “Let’s fight over what is art.” I don’t think that’s a very profitable argument.
Picasso said that all children are artists. It’s merely a question of who holds onto that artistry into adulthood. What things, people, ideas, or imaginative exercises have helped you hold onto art?
I think you have to connect to the idea of artmaking or drawing to play. Children are good at playing. And what is play? Play is just where you do something for the pure sake of enjoying it. It’s really hard to do things just to enjoy them as adults, outside of like, eating a hamburger. –An activity where you don’t want to get any result out of it other than either interacting with friends in that space or yourself in that space. So a sketchbook is a way that I do that; drawing is truly just for fun. Sometimes I get good drawings out of that, sometimes I don’t. But the goal is not to get a good drawing. The goal is to have fun and to play. That’s one way I stay connected to it.
Other ways are where you’re just trying to do stuff that you’re really bad at, because then you know you can’t get something good out of it. Trying to cultivate enjoyment out of things that you are really bad at….like, I’m terrible at playing Scrabble, but I like playing Scrabble. Or basketball. I’m terrible at basketball, but enjoy playing it. So keep doing those things without saying, “I’ve gotta get better. I’ve gotta have some sort of goal for my…” No. And when you’re in college, it probably feels like everything you do, you’re bad at, or you’re learning. But as you get older, you master these certain areas of life, and you forget that it’s uncomfortable to learn. You forget that it’s uncomfortable to be uncomfortable. You have to discipline yourself to do that stuff.
Who are your favorite artists?
Where to start? I love Winsor McCay, who was kind of like Steven Spielberg of the early 20th century. Jack Unruh was a huge hero of mine, illustrator and contemporary, who just died a couple years ago. Edward Hopper. I would probably trade everything in my life to be Cornell, Joseph Cornell, the box maker. To me he is an Artist. He’s a capital-A artist in that it’s unquantifiable how his pieces work. They just move you. There’s some strange arithmetic of how his art actually works. Robert Lawson, who did Ferdinand the Bull. In terms of books, people who write and illustrate their own visual stories. Brian Selznick is one I think of who had a huge influence on me. I could go on for days.
What artists, works of art or books would you recommend to college students? Along the lines of imagination, wonder and play?
Well I would definitely recommend Drawing is Magic by John Hendrix. I would also recommend Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. It’s a wonderful book on teaching someone how to think about visual storytelling. Ellen Lupton’s book Thinking with Type because I think type is an underutilized vessel for expression in the world. I read this book called … Inside the Business of Illustration, by Marshall Arisman, and it was on the practices of an illustrator. It was something early on that helped me think about how an illustrator goes about their day, and the normal things they do in the business of illustration. That was one that very early on I realized, “Oh these are not like mystical creatures. They’re normal people who clock in and do their drawing.” It was inspirational in this real “low” way.
How do you choose the topics of your books? Many of them have been historical. Do you think history is important to understanding creative art?
I think history is super fascinating. I think I’m actually really good at taking things that exist and reinterpreting them, reimagining them more so than creating things out of whole cloth. I’ve never been a fiction writer like that. When I’m given a topic or a historical event, I love thinking through the lens of the event and what it means. A lot of my books have to do with where really high moral stakes collide. Whether it’s John Brown, a guy who tried to single-handedly end slavery, and it doesn’t go so well for him. Or the Christmas truce of World War I, basically where the Holy Spirit intervenes and almost stops the First World War. I like these things where we recontextualize religion, specifically Christianity, as a non-divisive force. I think religion is often characterized as purely a chaotic and disruptive force in the world. It’s very easy to forget that it is not always that. In fact, almost any human action can be either a positive or negative, depending on who is behind the wheel.
That was the motivation of Bonhoeffer too. The intersection of the desire for the Church to wield political power and how dangerous that was. And then how a guy, who tried to stay away from it, eventually had to make a political choice. Inside that environment of, “I can’t make the church be political. It has to just be about the church and about each other. Oh my gosh, this has gotten so bad. I have to join the resistance. I have to actively help assassinate Hitler.” That’s a bizarre, counterintuitive situation. Anyway, it’s endlessly fascinating.
In an industrial post-modern society, what is the place of an artist as a prophetic voice to call people back into wonder?
We just have now gotten to the point where we assume biological humanism is all there is. We’re a set of atoms, we’re a machine that works this way and the universe is set in order so now we can understand it. Thank God we can get rid of God. I think that’s mostly an illusion of control because there’s so much to the world that’s just a total mystery. It takes as much faith either way – no matter what you believe. There is a leap of faith to believing there is no Creator as there is to believing there is a Creator. The amount of neural connections in a single brain, something like a hundred trillion possible neural connections. And then you multiply that with the number of people who have ever lived. We’re one impossibly small quadrant of the known universe. I saw this picture of the set of galaxies that our galaxy is a part of. If you pull back and look at this web of galaxies, it looks almost exactly like this neural network in your brain. Something’s going on right? I can’t look at that and think “What a curious accident, what an unusual pattern”. The more you look at it, the more you’re forced to say: “We’re just not going to know.” If art can’t teach us something about wonder, then nothing can. There’s no quantifiable scientific value for wonder and that’s why we make art, that’s why we need it and that’s why our hearts hunger for it.
Specifically in Trump’s America, many artists are using their voices to resist. What do you think it looks like to do this faithfully as a Christian artist? What does it then mean for an individual in your vocation to be called to resist?
Well I think if we are Christians who are actively listening to the Word of God, then we are called to resist a lot of things, on an almost hourly basis. So there is a temptation to take Bonhoeffer’s example, even now, and say, “How would he have handled this moment?” There is certainly a sense that we need to do something and we may in fact need to do something. I think you always have to be cautious when the church is interested in self-preservation over the preservation of The Other, or the preservation of the fidelity of the Word, sola fide, or some of the tenants of what it means to be a believer. Success is not proof of obedience. We need to be interested first in obedience. Bonhoeffer obeyed, and he did not succeed. The fact that he did not succeed, does not mean that he was wrong. The inverse is also true. If suddenly, we’re succeeding and the church has political power, then that is not proof that we are obeying. We cannot look towards people in power and say “Well look, this guy says he’s a Christian and he’s in power. So that’s proof that we’re doing things right.” In fact, I believe the Lord did send us our president, but the Lord sent him as a judgment more than as a proof of our obedience. How can bad things that God says “That is definitely wrong that that happened” also exist with “And oh by the way, all things work together.” How do we hold things in tension? It’s a mystery. There is something there where God is using things that are at his displeasure as a proof of His power, in some bizarre arithmetic. It takes faith to really believe that. Concerning the question of resistance, I don’t think we’re at the point where we need to be planning assassinations. Trump is not Hitler. There are a lot of things that are eerily similar to what Germany went through in the early 30s. I personally think that Trump is not as smart as a lot of people in the early days of the Third Reich. I mean Praise God there I guess. I do think that with Bonhoeffer’s story, it’s not really a playbook of resistance, it’s more of a caution to the church striving for power. That’s where the German Lutheran church fell into the trap of “wanting to be relevant” or “needing a seat at the table”, but when that happened they capitulated everything they believed in.
Art by John Hendrix. Illustration of John Hendrix by Meredith Liu.Tags: art, beauty, CS Lewis, Dietrich, graphic novel, history, JRR Tolkien, narrative, Picasso, politics, Protestant, redemption, vocation, wonder