Returning to Art: An Interview with Tim Thornton
Tim Thornton is an artist based in Colorado. He’s also a musician and a dad and a man who spends most of his time either pastoring or discipling or worship-leading. We knew he had a pretty extraordinary story about returning to art, and this month, we had the opportunity to catch up with him and talk about it.
And Sons: So, well, where’d this all start?
Tim Thornton: Yeah, the shape of the story is actually a bit better told from the perspective of my later years, uncovering that history later on. You’ll forgive me for going to Middle Earth so quickly, but it’s like that quote at the start of the film—History became legend, legend became myth, and some things, that should not have been forgotten, were lost.
So, I spend most of my time doing people work: pastoring, discipling, stewarding this family expression of church—music, and leading worship has been a big part of my life too. Also, doing some writing and teaching, for most of my married adult life. They’re very compelling, aesthetic, beautiful things, and they’re deeply satisfying to my heart, but there was sort of this ache that told me something was missing. A hole that, I later discovered, had something to do with visual art. I can remember, even though I was involved in all these important spiritual and beautiful labors, seeing carpenter’s trucks and feeling this longing, like, “Hey, you’ve got a physical craft. What you do is so physical, and I bet you’re so good at what you do, building a business of creating with your hands”— I can remember being so jealous. I knew, they had it—they had something I needed but couldn’t put my finger on.
I would be praying, “Lord should I be bi-vocational? Should I have a craft going on the side, something physical, some business that I’m building?” And, I would always be asking the wrong questions: What’s strategic? Where can you prosper me? And that was my prayer life, How do I address this missing piece, this inexpressible longing for something I can’t identify?
It was such a mystery to my wife during the fifteen years of forgetting. She just couldn’t understand how I would talk about art, and about how I did a creative craft, and how I was into pottery—I was doing a lot of hand-building early on. She got me some clay and tools to my birthday, or Father’s Day, or something, and I just couldn't do anything with them. I couldn't make anything because I had totally lost that part of my heart. All that stuff would get sold at yard sales. She knew who I was, and there was a lot of great stuff there, and yet there was something incomplete.
It came to my attention in a couple of ways. One, actually, through some teaching I was doing at a retreat. This principle came forth that it is intimacy with God, which is the practice of sonship, that releases inheritance to us. If you look at the Scriptures through this lens, certain things come to light. You can look at the Garden of Eden, and the original temptation from the snake makes sense. “ The good things you want—you can get them apart from intimacy with God. Reach out and take it.” Or you can look at the Tower of Babel—trying to build an inheritance apart from intimacy with God. Or, you can look at the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s a tale of both sons looking for inheritance apart from intimacy with the father, when it is our intimacy with the Father that releases inheritance.
So, I was teaching this principle, and kind of dwelling on it, and realizing it really was true, and I remember having dinner with some friends—we were just talking about some things related to work and ministry and vision and craft. I realized all of a sudden that I drew back—I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, where you have this conversation with God while you’re sitting there having another conversation with everyone else—but I drew back to a secret place with God and realized all of a sudden that on the basis of what I’ve been teaching I’d been asking the wrong questions. I had asked, What is strategic, or, Where can you prosper me, when I needed to ask, What craft comes from my intimacy with Jesus? What do I do with my hands that is the result of intimacy with God?
I asked that, and it hit me. Things that have been buried and needed to be uncovered. I've always found that when you ask the Holy Spirit the right question, there are whole paragraphs waiting in an instant. For years, I had been praying about this part of my life and heard crickets. Then, all of a sudden, I have volumes and the volumes: pictures of me in my youngest days, before warfare and agreements and everything else had taken its toll, painting. I can remember painting a bluebird—it was a watercolor painting, probably a big circle for the body, and a circle for the head, and some yellow sticks for feet, but it remains the first thing I know about myself. I was creating visual art. I started looking through my elementary school days—I was always drawing and copying drawings and making up nature scenes and dragons and knights. I would get graph paper and create maps, and create these kingdoms, these complex visual story environments, and I loved it.
It was an expression of my youth, my sonship. In high school, I never thought that I was going to be anything but a visual artist. For the first two decades of my life, it was obvious that I had to create. And so for that to have been totally, entirely forgotten by the time I got to my mid thirties was a great loss.
In college, I got into the fine art scene at CU Boulder. It just wasn't a good place for me, for many reasons. Most of all, some things that well-meaning people had said began to sprout mid-college. Those seeds came from lines of questioning, like, This is cool, but, what are you going to fall back on? What are you really going to do for a job? How are you going to make a living? Those questions all came together with a common message: You're going to have to take care of yourself. There's not going to be provision for you, if you decide to pursue this heart-based craft. You're going to need to be more practical. Practical. That’s a pretty powerful word. It sounds so rational, but for me, it was unbelief, an agreement with the kingdom of darkness. I was going to live as though God would not provide for me, and I was going to forsake the things I cared about, the things that were beautiful to me. It’s a devastating result of something that sounds so reasonable.
So, that's the agreement I made, realizing way later—at a Ransomed Heart Boot Camp, actually—that I had made an agreement with the kingdom of darkness: You’re going to have to look out for number one. You’re going to be on your own, and you’re going to have to find a way, and it’s not going to have anything to do with the heart. That was the beginning of the crash.
AS: What were the consequences of that agreement?
TT: It’s interesting, actually, because you would think that the story would go, I become a hard, driven, super-practical financially-minded go-getter who really prospered in godlessness with a withering soul, but actually, I’m such an idealist and such a visionary person I wasn’t able to achieve anything like that. In forgetting art, music came online as a vocation for me, so, I tried to make a go at folk music. I created a band with some friends. It was really successful in that region at that time, and it's really interesting now, looking back how some of the dynamics of unbelief and godlessness played out.
I took on these mentalities, what you could call, essentially, a slave mentality: the son who’s standing in the field, saying, I’m trying to work, God, but you’re not giving me what I think I deserve. And the whole time, he’s saying, Well, what I want is your heart, and with that, everything I have is yours. Still, even though I was involved in music, an art form, I became the person in the group who would reserve the creative act for last, after the “real” work was done. Creating was too vulnerable, and it didn’t feel like something I could show myself approved with or earn what I needed with so I became a very useful slave. I did the bookkeeping and finances, etc.—really practical things that had no life in them. Like many people with a slave mentality, I began to find myself full of bitterness, especially towards people who knew how to engage art from an intimate, spiritual, daring place. Looking back on it, if I had lived out of intimacy with God instead of godlessness, it would have been a lot more fun. Ultimately, it’s no good to have a guy around who’s doing great things for the wrong reasons.
AS: How did that godlessness start to break down?
TT: Well, having realized I was operating out of functional godlessness, which was anti-creativity, I realized I needed to make a spiritual change. Really, I realized I needed to do some of the work of sitting down and setting out what I had believed—ultimately, that I was alone in the world or alone in my life—and then renouncing those agreements, repenting of that unbelief, and replacing those convictions with belief. I knew I needed to turn around and choose creativity, which is an act of spiritual intimacy for me. Painting goes right alongside prayer and worship. It’s warfare to choose art first, and it’s warfare to set aside websites and finances and all that stuff that goes on promoting and coordinating and selling and say, I’m going to do the vulnerable act of creating something right now.
In order to engage, I knew I had to break the agreements I had made with the kingdom of darkness—that I was alone in the world—and I had to start believing that I had a Father who was going to provide on the basis of his love alone.
AS: Was there a period of change?
TT: It was just a moment, really, in prayer, when I said, I'm not going to live like that anymore, I’m going to learn to live from intimacy and I'm going to create beauty because that's obviously what I was made to do, or at least it's a part of what I was made to do. I'm going to learn to engage that first--to be creative first and do the other things next. I'm going to learn to live from that place of creativity and belief. Then, it was only a few moments of praying, Okay, that's the deal, receive the blood of Jesus to cover that unbelief and open up a new space for creativity in my life. I remember going to bed that night after being up late with God; I came back to bed and Laurie was awake and I said I feel like I come home to myself. It was like the world was alive again. I couldn't wait to see how I could live if I chose intimacy and believe first.
AS: What were the consequences of that change?
TT: Oh, it’s opened up a host of beautiful things in my life. Like this studio, for example, which was, as I said earlier, rat-infested and forgotten, like the artistic part of my heart. I did the work of restoring it. I came out here and took my saw and cut down the stuff that needed to be cut down and swept out the stuff that needed to be swept out and started to build: a fireplace, a stone wall, some windows to let in the light, and the workbench and the easel. I started making this a place to engage in prayer and worship and visual art and it's been an amazing journey: to set aside time for that, even when other things are undone, in order to engage beauty first, and then to do other necessary things.
It’s been cool to see what's happened. I wouldn't say that it's solved all the problems in my life concerning what’s strategic or how to monetize or anything, but I've sold almost every piece I've created. It's not just a cathartic disconnected hobby to keep me alive for other things. And it wouldn't be a bad thing if it were, but to do something that actually contributes to the economy of my family and allows us to move forward in our mission with the family expression of church and does not detract from it has been a really cool thing for me.
AS: You’ve talked about how it’s total spiritual warfare to move towards art. Could you talk more about that?
TT: It’s still a battle for me. It is total spiritual warfare to face a blank canvas. It is an incredible act of faith. Like, this painting behind you right now is in this phase—every painting has this phase—where I can’t stand it. Usually, you start painting, and you're inspired, and you think, Oh, this is going to be the best thing I've ever done. And you get things in progress and get paint on the canvas—it’s the same thing if you're writing a song or telling a story, actually—you started, and thought, This is going to be the best thing I have ever done. And then it all falls to pieces. Steven Pressfield calls it the belly of the beast. You get paint on canvas and think, Why am I doing this? This is such a waste of time—I’m not good at this, in fact, I’m not good at anything. In that phase, every time, it’s like, welcome to hell. Every time I go to paint, all the old agreements are there, waiting. What are you doing? You have kids! This is so silly. And then, after I push through and continue to paint, it turns into something of a miracle. You pass through the shadow of death and realize you were accompanied the whole time, he was with you, and you realize it was the best thing you could have done. What a good use of time.
AS: We’ve also heard you mention that the act of creation is worship. How does that play out for you?
TT: You hold prayer or worship as such high and lofty things, but when you go to do them, they feel like such a waste. That’s kind of why it’s so good. Prayer is just wasting your time; it’s wasting your time on Jesus. In a way, the more you push through to do it the better offering it is. The woman, Mary, who poured out her perfume on Jesus—she put everything she had into her offering. What did the people around her say? What a waste. And yet she knew that there was nothing more useful than intimacy. Her whole life was given in anointing.
I think the whole act of worship is wastefulness. The other picture of that for me is King David, dancing as the presence of God, the ark, entered Jerusalem. It’s so key: he danced, and gave himself so fully to his worship that his clothes fell off, and the first thing that happened was someone shamed him. His answer, though, is probably just as fiercely righteous as Jesus defending Mary: I will be even more undignified than this. What a great response to shame. The accuser comes to destroy creativity and worship, and the best response is to say, Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet! Watch, how wasteful I can be toward a God who I love and am responding to and care to anoint with my life.
There’s always an act of faith in intimacy, which is kind of embracing the fact that it might be a total waste of time, but I do it, because it’s part of my life with God, and it could never be understood from a godless mentality. I’ve always considered it to be a mark of living the spiritual life, that someone who didn't believe there is a god would go, How is this building standing? This doesn’t make any sense. My life is pretty well that. It’s a building that, if God were not real, should not be standing. And yet here it is and it is joy.
We love Tim Thornton’s work. You can check out his website here. Not everything we’ve featured here is still available, but don’t worry, he does commissions.