BYU student finds ‘joy in the mess’ by painting Jesus

Kristen Hollingshouse
Bronte Weller views local artist Emmalee Powell’s artwork during Powell’s interactive art exhibit at Pioneer Book in Provo on Nov. 9. (Kristen Hollingshouse)

BYU student and artist Emmalee Powell has combated the idea that Jesus is unreachable by battling through her desire to create the “perfect” image of Christ by producing over 340 abstract paintings of him instead.

Powell said she has come to realize that Jesus is most present in peoples’ lives when they are in a state of disarray, whether it be physical, emotional or mental. She used personally imposed limitations during the art creation process, to show that Jesus is here for everyone, not just perfect people living in perfect circumstances.

She explained that throughout the New Testament, Jesus is never where things are pretty and nice; he is always in hard, difficult situations. For example, the time he spent ministering to the woman who was caught in adultery was not a comfortable situation, but he was there for her regardless of the circumstances.

“He’s with the people who need him, and the people who need him are in a mess,” Powell said. 

Powell used to be a realistic portrait painter and had always wanted to paint Jesus but didn’t know what he really looked like. Through her desire to paint him, she realized that no painting she ever attempted of him would be perfect. Because of this, she decided to purposefully give herself limitations by using only her non-dominant hand, not using a paintbrush and not planning how the picture would look.

Powell’s pictures have been created using paper towels, spoons, forks, pocket knives, carving tools and sticks. She’ll reach for anything but a paintbrush when it comes to painting Jesus.

The exhibit is an interactive experience for viewers. Powell lays small paintings of Jesus on a table and asks viewers to pick up the painting that they feel best fits the “mess” in their lives, then write one or two words on the back that describe this mess.

For Powell, the action of having observers interact with the art communicates that the idea that Jesus is “untouchable” is false.

BYU student Austin Carter experienced the art for himself. 

“It’s not what I expected; all the paintings are different, and each face of Jesus provokes a different emotion,” Carter said. 

Emotions are what Powell said drives her artwork. When she is stressed, overwhelmed or doesn’t know where to start, she strives to find Jesus through prayer.

Pictures of Jesus by Emmalee Powell on display at Pioneer Book in Provo on Center Street. (Kristen Hollingshouse)

“Most of this is all about getting started when you’re stuck in a moment of indecision,” Powell said.

Powell said diving into the motions of painting Jesus without a plan or paintbrush and with her left-hand has helped her let go of control and turn her work over to Christ. Because of her willingness to acknowledge the mess she is in, she feels a personal connection with the paintings and said each painting represents a prayer from her to Jesus. 

Each picture of Jesus that Powell has painted is different from the previous. She explained that this is because each prayer, mess and limitation is different.

BYU student Leah Thompson, who is majoring in art education, listened to Powell explain her process of finding Jesus in the mess and Thompson said it suddenly made sense to her why Jesus looked so different in each painting.

“It made me think that all the different cultures look at Jesus a different way, so it makes sense that he looks different in all of her paintings,” Thompson said. 

The exhibit is open to the public until Dec. 3 and is located on the second floor of Pioneer Book on Center Street in Provo.

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