Drawn to the Word

Thanks to Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in West Austin for sponsoring a fundraising event for Austin City Lutherans (ACL) on April 7, 2019, featuring Lutheran pastor and artist Paul Oman.

More than 125 curious onlookers seated in chairs and couches gazed toward a blank 4′ x 6′ canvas suspended in front of them at the altar area. The Shepherd of the Hills sanctuary, transformed into a coffee house setting, was bathed in fading afternoon light that seeped in from its westward windows. On a table adjacent to the canvas, close to 30 small jars of acrylic paint sat in rows alongside a handful of 2-inch and 4-inch brushes, the kind typically used by house painters. For the next hour, as promised by the event’s promotional pitch, guest artist Paul Oman would fill the canvas with color and meaning.

With a welcoming smile, Pastor Candice Combs stood before the canvas and asked church members and invited guests to join in prayer. She then invited the artist to the make-shift stage. The audience clapped and Paul Oman strode up to his canvas, acknowledging the warm welcome with a nod and a smile. He promised to finish the large painting within in 50 minutes, and then turned his back to the audience. What was he going to paint? Nobody knew – not even Pastor Combs nor event organizer Leah Jarvis. Oman sized up the canvas and immediately went into action, which was nothing short of organized frenzy.

Oman’s strokes were backdropped by live music and interspersed by Scripture readings – the words of Jesus as recorded in chapters 5-7 of St. Matthew’s gospel. As the audience listened to the first reader say, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God,” the bottom half of the canvas consisted of a number of horizontal lines that Oman, seemingly, had randomly applied with long but quick strokes. What was he painting? Many adults, forward in their seats with eyes squinted and foreheads ruffled, hadn’t a clue.

A bit later another reader intoned: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life . . . Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Suddenly, Oman put down his brushes and firmly grabbed the bottom edge of the canvas and rotated it 180*. The audience gasped. For the first fifteen minutes, the artist – apparently – had been painting upside-down. The vague horizontal lines instantly transformed into a lush sky with an unseen setting sun bouncing its light off low-hanging flat clouds.

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things that you need will be given to you.” With a few strokes, the artist then created a lakeshore underneath the colorful sky. It was all starting to make sense. From a perch overlooking a lake, someone was speaking to a large gathering of people.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Jesus was speaking to the people – lots of people. The artist darted back and forth from his table of paints to the canvas. The image in the artist’s mind – there from the very beginning – was now becoming visible to audience members. Smiles of recognition graced their faces as they settled back into their seats. Some leaned over to those seated beside them and whispered while pointing out details in the painting. It was as if the saving light of heaven infused the words that the artist’s Jesus spoke to the people. Words of grace, and guidance, and hope. Words to live by. Words to share. The Sermon on the Mount.

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Pastor Paul Oman stood back from the canvas one final time, took it all in, and set his brushes down. He looked at the audience and nodded his head. Peels of applause filled the sanctuary-coffee house. Oman explained that as a younger pastor during Holy Week, he decided that he would paint a crucifixion scene for the Good Friday service. The service – and his rendition of Calvary – turned out magnificently well. The pastor, a skilled painter as a youngster, decided to paint another Calvary rendition for the following year’s Good Friday service. Word spread in the small Wisconsin town where he served. The service that year was packed – with Lutherans, non-Lutheran churchgoers, and even non-churchgoers. He had discovered a new calling.

He’s still a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). It’s just that since 2011, he travels around the world and shares the good news of Christ via brushes and acrylic paint upon canvas.

He also explained to the Shepherd of the Hills crowd that he discovered the “upside-down painting” technique through his study of art – something about the artist’s brain being able “to see” the desired image, even though inverted on the canvas, sharper and more expansive. Not only that, he said, as he paints upside-down in front of an audience, rarely do adults perceive what’s happening. Children, however, often will tell their parents that the canvas is upside-down. And, sure enough, that afternoon, Melissa Robertson responded to Oman’s commentary by saying that her five-year-old daughter, Natalie, leaned over to her and told her that the painting was upside-down, because she could see the sky on the bottom. Out of the mouths of babes and infants . . .

Pastor Combs encouraged the crowd a final time to purchase raffle tickets to determine who would win with the painting. The raffle proceeds were earmarked for Austin City Lutherans’ early childhood development initiative in Montopolis. The winner was announced: ShepHills member Dabney Gomes! Dabney, who also works at the church as an admin assistant and media designer, came forward and without hesitation she said wanted the painting to go to ACL’s future childcare facility in Montopolis. The crowd cheered her decision approvingly! More than $500 was raised by the raffle for ACL’s work.

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Artist Paul Oman, ACL Director Tim Anderson, and painting winner Dabney Gomes

“Drawn to the Word” is what Paul Oman fittingly calls his painting ministry. Visit his website to see his work and itinerary, linked here: https://paulomanfineart.com/.

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