Art as Spiritual Endeavor: The Work of Andrew Christman

While searching for a studio back in 2015, I was blessed with stumbling upon some of the hidden gems in Germantown. Finding an enclave of art and artists here in Northwest Philadelphia was like opening the gate to a secret garden, needing to savor it momentarily for myself before sharing about it with others. I consider myself very lucky that my practice now resides in the same building as some incredibly talented people in the area, one of whom is the mixed media artist, Andrew Christman. Being a huge fan of mixed media I was immediately drawn to his work. Andrew was gracious enough to complete the questionnaire I’d sent out late last year and share about his personal experience around the therapeutic qualities of art making.

Why do you create artwork?

I have loved making things longer than I can remember. I need to make art like I need to breathe or eat. Through the process of painting, I seek to balance impulses of action with impulses of reflection. In the best of circumstances, a “completed” painting represents an effort in seeking harmony between the experience of my inner world and my outer world.  I like to match thought and memory and imaginings with play, movement and marks.

What medium do you prefer to work with and why?

I work with ink, acrylic paint, watercolor, spray paint and drawing materials such as pencils, markers and charcoal. I paint and draw on surfaces such as wood, paper and photographs. I like working with a lot of materials because it keeps the process exuberant and varied. I have a very short attention span! Changing up media keeps me engaged with the work of art as it hangs on the wall or lies on the floor. I enjoy layering transparent and opaque marks because they give a painting or drawing the quality of evolving feelings or the overlapping motions of memories.

Do you feel that your work has been therapeutic in some way? If so, how?

Painting in the studio is my time for play and meditation, looking and feeling. I am very grateful that I love the simple ACT of painting so much! Even if I am lacking “ideas” or “subjects” that inspire me, pushing paint gives me great joy and helps me to find peace much in the way prayer or exercise helps others.

What, if anything, is therapeutic about the finished product?

Arriving at the moment in which I can say a painting is complete is very therapeutic. I work on most of my pieces over the course of many days, months and sometimes years. It can be a struggle at times to keep the overall feeling of a painting fresh, playful and vital –in the way a spontaneous musical performance can. If I come to a point at which a piece appears OR feels complete (or miraculously – both), the painting as it stands resonates with me in a way that I can not describe in words. The impulse to continue to work on the painting has left me and I feel at peace with the decision to frame it and share it or put in the garbage can. Either way, the process was a valuable journey, a meaningful search that continues on with the next painting.

If I am fortunate enough to exhibit my work somewhere, the finished work goes on to communicate with people in a space outside of the studio. The process of showing your work can be cathartic and exhilarating or nerve-racking and miserable. I happen to enjoy sharing my paintings with others as long as they care to look. I certainly hope that they feel something as they take a painting in, but I must always accept that another person’s reaction to my work is not something I can predict or control.

Has there been a particular time in life when your artwork pulled you through?

Without a doubt, making art “pulled me through” my adolescence. Being recognized as someone with artistic talent or promise helped me to cultivate self confidence when I had very little. The actual act of hunkering down and making art-particularly drawing was therapeutic and meditative. I worked a lot with oil and chalk pastels at that time. The tactile layering of colors coupled with the desire to master techniques with these materials gave me purpose and meaning. Art gave me confidence to interact with others in meaningful ways and fired my intellectual curiosity at a time when I struggled academically. God bless not only my high school art teachers, but also English, History and Science teachers who recognized my love for Art and encouraged me to understand those subjects through the lens of Art.

Has there been a particular time in life when the artwork of others was especially inspirational?

All the time! Not only is the work of historical / contemporary artists inspiring to me, but as someone who teaches, the work of children and young adults really excites me and inspires me; particularly the ways in which they express themselves with materials that they are picking up and using for their first time. The spirit and feeling of discovery that they demonstrate helps me very much to appreciate how powerful art is and what a gift it is to be an artist.

What artists inspire you? How have you embraced their concepts into your own work? 

There are so many painters that have inspired me. Most of all, I love artists who work spontaneously and improvisationally. Painters who play with the delicate balance between abstraction and realism such as such as Turner, Peter Doig, Richard Diebenkorn and WillemdeKooning encourage me to practice, practice and hone my skills with paint. Jean Michelle Basquiat and Franz Kline encourage me to seek expressive feeling in my work and to be bold and take risks. Artists such as Nathan Oliviera and the Indian painter Mansur are great models for artists who use nature and animals as subjects. My approach to a simple, iconic composition comes from work such as theirs.

However, the artist who has truly influenced me more than any other is not a visual artist but the great musician and composer John Coltrane. His dedication to both technical mastery and improvisation, his conviction that the creation of art is a deeply personal, spiritual endeavor and his continual pursuit of a freedom through a spontaneous discovery are all values that I have aspired to in my own life as an artist.

Are there particular metaphors in your artwork that have been especially meaningful to you in some way? 

Andrew Christman, mixed mediaThe central metaphor in my work is the one I described above in which the layering process I use signifies the moving memory or emerging experience of the subject I am painting whether it is a plant, animal or figure. I am also very interested in how science text books and scientific artists who work in the fields of zoology and botany use processes of abstraction to explain what they perceive to be objective truth about the details of the natural world when they create diagrams or renderings of trees, plants and animals. This is very interesting because as modern people, we are more likely to associate the process of abstraction with expressionistic art that separates the natural world from reality. I guess what I am trying to say is that Abstraction is a metaphor for Truth and Understanding.

Artist Bio: Andrew Christman is an artist and educator who lives and works in Philadelphia, Pa. Andrew has exhibited in Philadelphia, New York and Santiago, Chile. For more than twenty years, Andrew has shared his love for Art and Art History as a museum educator, artist in residence and public school middle and high school teacher. He has taught at the Brooklyn Museum, the Cloisters Museum, the Jewish Museum (of New York) and the New York City Museum School. Andrew was a founding teacher at el Centro de Estudiantes, an alternative , accelerated school in Kensington, Philadelphia.   His approach to teaching emphasizes interdisciplinary thinking, collaboration and experimentation. Andrew rarely teaches  “Art for Art’s sake”. He believes strongly that the process of art making is an agent for critical thinking, literacy,  social justice and healing. Andrew currently works from his studio in Germantown, Northwest Philadelphia.

Click here to see more of Andrew’s work.

Copyright 2017 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.