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Glenn Howell

Body of work

Vocation | Controversial Christian artist Ed Knippers says painting nudes is his calling

Issue: "Biblical callings," Dec. 4, 2010

"In Flesh & Flight" is the name of an exhibit that opens on our cover date-Dec. 4­-in Annapolis, Md. The exhibit notice explains, "On April 18, 2005 Edward Knippers' wife died of cancer. In the years following his loss the artist has been investigating his personal version of transcendence." Knippers explains, "The human body is at the center of my artistic imagination because I am a Christian, and because the body is an essential element of the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation and Resurrection."

Well, sure, but nudes? Even though his are sweaty, not sultry, Knippers at age 64 has had decades of both praise and condemnation. Gene Edward Veith, in his book State of the Arts, calls Knippers' work "explicitly, confrontationally Biblical" and "eminently evangelical." Covenant College art professor Ed Kellogg said about Knippers' works when displayed at the college, "There was nothing lewd about his work nor were the few images of Christ in his terrible suffering and shame irreverent."

But Chattanooga resident Charles Wysong, after hearing about the paintings, went onto the Covenant campus and tore up three of them that portrayed Christ. Then Covenant president Frank Brock later said the college "erred in exhibiting Knippers' work." Others argued that nudes often appeal to prurient interests, and even if Knippers' nudes do not preen and show off, accepting them creates a bad precedent.

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Knippers says God called him to persevere in art: He recalls that as an art graduate student at the University of Tennessee, "I wasn't making the grade, and I had to go to the Lord and ask Him if this was His way of telling me that He required another direction for my life. Even harder, if He told me another way to go, I had to be willing to do it. He kept me at the university." Later, Knippers says he was "drawn to the whole idea of dealing with the figure. God gave us bodies for a reason, and they are bodies we'll be stuck with for eternity, because we believe in the resurrection of the body. Christ came in the flesh and redeemed it, and by doing so redeemed the entire world of matter."

He notes the difference between nudity and, as they say in Texas, nekkedness: but, given our sinful natures, do most people make that distinction? Knippers' figures are not lewd. He argued in a recent essay, "My detractors have pointed out that nudity in the Scriptures is often a sign of shame and sinfulness, yet it does not follow, as some might think, that nudity is a sin in and of itself. It may be inappropriate in most situations, I think that it is, but that is not the same thing as saying that nudity is categorically evil. . . . I have seen the Lord use the nudity in my paintings to speak to my contemporaries-to raise theological questions about our bodies and our eternal personhood that need to be explored."

When cancer killed Diane Knippers five years ago, Ed says, "It was very sad, but I never felt abandoned." He once again thought through his calling: "I had to go back to the Lord again. I had to ask if He wanted me to continue being an artist, continue being a painter. The insights I've gained from her death have directly affected my painting because I get a sense of the movement behind the veil, so to speak, of the reality that's here all the time and we can't see it. . . . Do I believe that the physical body can in reality take flight to a world beyond what we know? As a Christian I believe that there will be an actual resurrection of our bodies."

Knippers' paintings remain controversial, but he does not give in or give up: "My identity is in Christ, my art is my vocation, and I sense it's His calling so I can give it all I've got."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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