Steps Into the Dark: An Interview with J. Kirk Richards
"I look at art as a metaphor for faith."
Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?
Sure. The name I use with my art is J. Kirk Richards. I use the initial J, which stands for Joel, because there is another artist named Kirk Richards who's been in the art world a decade or more longer than I have. He's a Christian artist from Texas.
I grew up in Provo, right underneath Y Mountain, and I grew up in a musical family. My mom is a violin teacher. All of the kids played a musical instrument. But I convinced my parents when I was a young teen to let me shift my focus to visual arts instead of music, and they found a teacher for me. I also studied art in the public school system. I graduated from Provo High in 1994, and began attending Brigham Young University. After a year there, during which I took a figure drawing class—that really was the decision point for me that I wanted to pursue art as a career.
After that first year, I served a mission in the Italy Rome Mission, which was a blessing for me as an aspiring artist. After my mission, I studied at the university for a little bit but a little bit frustrated, dropped out, and did a brief apprenticeship with artist Patrick Devonas on the East Coast. I re-enrolled in BYU and finished a bachelor of arts degree in the Visual Arts Studio program. During my last year, I met my wife Amy Catherine Tolk; her family was from Tennessee, also a musical family. We got married two semesters before I finished, and we have four children.
From that point, we tried to live very frugally while my career began developing and gaining momentum. Twenty years later, I have a small community art gallery and academy in Provo and a studio in Woodland Hills, Utah, where we live. I also have a studio out in the countryside in Redmond, Utah. And I spend about a month out of the year in Bondsville, Massachusetts, where we purchased an old Catholic church building and I am trying to develop an art show within the sanctuary.
While you were in Rome for your mission, was there a particular piece of art that you saw that generated something for you?
Yeah, absolutely. I'd grown up in Provo and I'd been on an airplane once before my mission and that was a flight to Las Vegas, of all places. I had traveled a bit with my family in the Western states, but this was my first time outside the United States. We landed in Rome and we were picked up by the office elders. We started driving, passing by the Colosseum and then, suddenly, the very first thing that they drove us to was up into this church parking lot to see an old Catholic church. We walked inside and the office elders showed us the sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo. That was our very first stop. My mind was immediately expanded and blown from day one in Italy.
I was amazed at how much art was there, and of course, the quality of it. This is really the pinnacle of Christian religious art. I was in Rome proper or just outside of Rome for about eleven months. I had several opportunities to go to the Vatican Museums and also seek out Caravaggio paintings in various churches in the city of Rome. Those really gave me a larger view of art, the history of art, the history of Christian art, and what maybe I could aspire to as an artist.
Did you know right away that you wanted to focus on religious art or did that develop later?
My work largely treats religious themes and I try to remember the development of that. My efforts are unsuccessful, other than I have a sketchbook from when I was probably 14 that has a sketch of Jesus. I definitely remember that as a teenager, one of my favorite artists was James Christensen. I really loved his religious paintings and just the feeling, the message, and the aesthetics of those, which included things like angel wings that were not included in correlated Church imagery. I remember as a young adult being really moved by all of the Carl Bloch prints that I would see in church buildings and in temples.
So from a very early point in my career, I was dedicated to doing religious subject matter. That was actually a challenge going through the university programs because they kind of discouraged artists who wanted to do narrative, religious representative work in the Visual Arts studio program. I think they felt that the artists who wanted to do that should go through the illustration program rather than the fine art.
It seems a little strange that BYU would discourage religious art.
I think that their goal was to prepare artists for graduate work in some of the top schools like Yale and Pratt, and those schools are looking for something very different. I think they also, at BYU, had seen religious art being done in a way that they didn't like or that they felt was done poorly that they just kind of tried to steer people away from it. But those are probably generalizations too. Each professor probably had their own take on that, but that was my experience.
How has creating religious art developed your faith in God?
The very process of making a painting and by extension, creating an art career, has been a type and a shadow of faith in that I am constantly taking one more step in the dark. In terms of an individual piece, what is the next step on this piece? I take that and then hopefully the step after that unfolds or is revealed to my mind, my heart, and my hand.
The career has been similar in that I just go as far as I can see to go and then a way opens up to take further steps. So I look at art as a metaphor for faith. In terms of making religious art, yes, I do think about Jesus and grace and all of those things. As I study the scriptures, I try to place myself in them or at least have some sort of visualization of them. That really makes me ask on a regular basis: who is Jesus? Who was Jesus? How do the things that he taught and teaches apply to my life and in practical purposes, how can I live those and put those into practice? And do I believe all of them? Do I think Jesus was a hundred percent right, applicable to 2023? Those are questions that I ask on a regular basis because I'm painting those themes. I tend of course to choose the aspects of Jesus that resonate the most with me, which are things like love and charity and healing, and choosing the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. Those are the themes that I come back to again and again.
I recently read an article about people who believe that creating art depictions puts God into a box because we’re creating an image of the way we interpret who and what God even is, and that’s creating a graven image. How do you approach that question?
Well, that debate is as old as the Old Testament or older and if we look at the context of whether or not you should have graven images, at that historical point, they were trying to consolidate power to the God of Israel, right? And we can ask ourselves, is the God that we're worshiping the same God as the God of Israel?
Maybe I'm more deconstructed than a lot of people, but frankly, I love graven images. I love old sculptures of strange gods. I don't pray to them, but I find them amazing historical artifacts and I just love images in general. I believe that as a culture, Latter-day Saints love images a lot more than much of Protestantism. The Protestant reaction to Catholicism, in my limited understanding, seems to have an iconoclasm that has lasted. There are many kinds of puritan or stringent feelings about excluding imagery from worship in order to not be worshiping false idols. Of course, the Catholic church has some of the best art in the history of the world, likewise Orthodox and Byzantine artwork.
I love images. In terms of putting God in a box—yes. It does that, but so does every bit of written dogma. That puts God in a box just as much as an image. I think that the Church has been trying to foster a larger array of images so that we don't have a single view of what Jesus looked like or even of what the temple ceremony looks like. There are several films, and I think part of that is to not pigeonhole or canonize particular aesthetics or features. The more artists that we have working and producing diverse images, the better it is for an expanded view of God and the gospel.
What trends in Latter-day Saint art are you observing?
We are seeing a lot more racial diversity in religious depictions, and we are seeing a lot more art from LDS artists of diverse backgrounds. There's a lot of LGBTQ art these days. There's a lot of Heavenly Mother, a lot of women with halos. That goes back to James Christensen and maybe earlier, but I think it's really flowering right now. There are so many artists interested in that kind of imagery.
With the new historical transparency, exemplified in the Joseph Smith papers, LDS artists, such as Anthony Sweat, are trying to depict a lot of controversial scenes that have never been depicted before. For example, Joseph Smith with his head in a hat. It will take some time for those images to make it into correlated materials, but as it becomes more common in the general consciousness, it will become less shocking to the eye and the mind. I think we'll see a lot more about the women of the early Church—plural wives and their struggles. We'll see a lot more from their perspective, championing them. I think that will be really good, and that those kinds of images will be very useful in the future.
What are you focusing on in your work right now?
I'm trying to purchase the building that the art academy is in and I'll move the gallery over there. I'd like to start a small museum, a baby, boutique museum that I can start growing.
I just finished a show at Writ and Vision, the theme of which was, “They were liberal to all.” It was a surface overview of a history of religion from early, pre-Old Testament Judaism up to current day, touching on progressive moments when things opened up—when the practice of religion and worship was liberalized and opened up to more people, and became more equal in its treatment of people.
I've been thinking about doing a show next year about apologizing because we've heard that the Church doesn't apologize, but I think there are a lot of people who would love to see that Christian principle put to use by the institution that mediates our worship with God.
Joel Kirk Richards is a contemporary artist whose work engages with themes of antiquity, religion, spirituality, equality, and love. His work asks questions about modern application and implementation of religion as it relates to historical narratives and mythologies. The work often prioritizes the poetry of religious text over dogma or historical accuracy. Stylistically it often bridges or walks a tightrope between classical and abstract expression.
From 1999 to 2022, Kirk created about 2300 physical works of art, most of which can be found in private collections throughout the United States. His images have been licensed for devotional and religious studies publications internationally.
In 2020, Kirk founded a mixed-use art space, including studio rentals, a gallery that hosts monthly themed exhibits by living professionals and semi-professionals, and a continued education art academy.
Kirk lives and works at his studios in Woodland Hills, Redmond, and Provo, Utah, and in Bondsville, Massachusetts. He and his wife Amy Tolk Richards have four children.