Some moments wash over a person in a way that can only be described as overwhelming. It’s the love, the greatness, the unexpected manner in which God shows up and whispers right to a heart. Overwhelming is how I would describe witnessing the creation of Jessie DeCorsey’s painting, “The Nativity.”
February 9, 2017, what appeared to be a blank 4-foot-by-5-foot canvas was installed on a wall inside Willowbrook Community Church in Forest Lake, Minnesota. At first glance, people passing by the canvas to come into or go out of the church wondered, What’s this? For those who took a closer look, the lightest of sketches could be seen: a man, a woman and a baby. The pencil marks alluded to a bigger picture, a larger plan.
To have a progressive painting in public had been a dream of Jessie’s, but never did she consider bringing the painting to life live, painting while people watched. When the project was discussed and it was suggested by one of the church pastors that she paint during their “happy hour” between services, Jessie decided to face her fears and be truly vulnerable, inviting people to walk with her , mistakes and all, as she told the story of Christ’s birth through her brush strokes.
Officially the project began on February 12th with an announcement that over the course of eight weeks Jessie DeCorsey would paint her version of “The Nativity.” I say officially, because for more than a year there had been a stirring in Jessie’s heart to paint Jesus. It wasn’t until after the birth of her daughter Winnie, the youngest of her four children, and the season of Thanksgiving, that she decided to paint Jesus as a baby and focus on the gift of His birth and the importance of the Holy family. In November she picked and photographed her models: her daughter Winnie as Jesus, her brother-in-law Brad Atkinson as Joseph, and a friend Kayleigh McNamara as Mary. What was to be, had begun before most people knew about or saw it.
The first Sunday, Jessie showed up to the church, unpacked her tools, took a deep breath and began before first service, working through second service. Referencing one of the 400 photographs of her models that she captured, she painted the face of Joseph and the head of baby Jesus. It took her three hours. While she worked to bring to life what she envisioned, people passed by, stood and sat peppered throughout the church commons, curious. Some individuals went up and spoke to her. Some asked questions. Jessie paused from painting and was present with the person. What was evident to me was that telling this story through paint was going to take patience and time.
A child who had grown up in her own mother’s art gallery, Jessie DeCorsey had always wanted to be an artist. January 2006, while attending the University of Minnesota – Duluth where she later earned a B.F.A. in Fine Arts, she traveled to Greece and was greatly impacted by the country’s Christians and what she describes as a “living religious culture.” She returned home and dove into researching the earliest artwork in Christianity. Her focus was on how it looked artistically to go from painting a pantheon of God’s to painting One God. That led her to the study of religious Iconography which she recognized as a long standing form of untouched art. Art history became Jessie’s minor. Perhaps, even before she thought it, God was up to something big in her life?
The summer of 2006, Jessie DeCorsey’s paintings of landscapes and flowers took a turn, and a woman who swore she would never paint figures found herself fascinated with and bringing to life Saints. In September 2006, she exhibited a body of work that featured twelve Saints. What was memorable to me was that the Saints did not look like they were from long ago, but instead looked like someone I could see on that college campus or passing by on a nearby street.
By the second week of “The Nativity,” there was a buzz and energy so present it caused me to lower my camera. Children were chewing on donuts while they pointed and whispered about the painter and the painting. Adults were leaning in and taking time to discuss the artist and the artwork, and other parts of life they needed and wanted to talk about. Leaving baby Jesus without a face, Jessie started to paint His mother, Mary. Next it was the clothing, and the clothing was not what most onlookers expected. I smiled as I saw them look with surprise. Depicting people in jeans and long sleeve t-shirts, Jessie DeCorsey blended the history of what people value and cherish – a mom, dad and baby; a family; the Holy family; a piece of a story, THE story about the birth of Jesus – with what they know and recognize, and she tells a tale from long ago that can be seen as possibly happening right now here today. Her hope is that in sharing the story of Jesus in this way, people can see and identify themselves.
At the age of 21, in addition to witnessing and participating in the day of Epiphany ceremonies where all the Christians of Greece seemed to be celebrating the baptism of Christ publicly, DeCorsey found herself at an Abbey in the mountains discussing with nuns how they could live without TV and the internet and their families, and why they would give up the lives that they knew and liked, for God. Afterward, she began wondering how she could live for God. Within a year, she not only had a desire to dedicate her life to Christ, but also her artwork.
Week three of “The Nativity” brought with it the background of the painting. Each painting, of course, has its own set of challenges. For “The Nativity,” the biggest challenge for Jessie DeCorsey was the task of conveying around Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, a scene that is tangible and bridges the two worlds of past and present with enough details for onlookers to believe the moment portrayed could be the actual scene of the Nativity from many years ago. Jessie’s vision was to feature a dark starry night sky that would highlight the Holy family. She chose crowns to represent Christ the King, and while she wrestled with the inclusion of a manger scene, in the end she kept it simple so the focus could remain on this child, baby Jesus, His parents, and the possibilities with and purpose for His life.
From the young girl I first met when she was in college, to the artist, wife and mother standing before me painting in Willowbrook, there was an identifiable, inspirational transformation. The true passions of a person’s heart and the payoff of hard work and years of perseverance required to stay the course and hold tight the calling one hears became a beacon of encouragement that each of us has a great purpose in this life, and our very own unique path where God will and does show up.
During week four of “The Nativity,” Jessie took a trip to Wisconsin Dells with her family. It had been planned prior to the opportunity for the painting, and she chose to keep that dedicated time with her husband and her children a priority. So there was no live painting Sunday, March 12th, but still people came to peek at what was done, and dream about and imagine what was to come.
March 19th, while some pondered what possibly could be added to the painting, Jessie picked up her brush and slowly, steadily, began showing her audience the importance of tiny little details. Those in the room began to see specific stars in the crafted night sky. Joseph’s shirt appeared as if one should be able to grab the creases and feel it. Each hair on the head of baby Jesus so perfect, women considered bending down to smell that sweet baby smell or hear those small baby sounds. Jessie’s layers and depths brought the story to life.
Friends, family and strangers came to see this creation of this image of the birth of Christ, “The Nativity,” a story ever so present when one is out shopping at Christmas time. And while the story of the birth of Christ is fairly well known, it is the life of Jesus Christ that Christians like Jessie DeCorsey hope people take an interest in. That detailed, personal story is found in Scripture in the Bible, and like this Nativity painting, it comes to mean something different for everyone.
By week four, local reporters were taking interest in the adventure of an artist bringing to life live a painting inside a church for eight weeks. Every day different and more people came. Every week, Lynn Brune, a friend and fellow Christian, prayed with Jessie for her person, her project, her passions and her purpose. For Lynn, the process of Jessie DeCorsey bringing to life “The Nativity,” – What it did within and through the church, the kids who were impacted, the seeds that were planted, the visible friendship between Jessie and I – became a tapestry of how God shows up in the world and has his handprint on everything.
For Jessie, to huddle close and hold hands with and hear Lynn Brune pray the words of her heart and see and experience how God can speaks to someone receiving prayer, deeply gripped her.
“She thanked God for helping me choose this painting to portray and that intrigued me because she said anyone can relate to this moment in time and that love for a child. She said it gave her more love for Christ in the way that he came into this world as this child and grew up into this man,” Jessie said. Having just finished reading the Bible in a year, Jessie DeCorsey silently listened to Brune’s prayer and was left in awe of working on an image of His birth and knowing what was to come in his lifetime and His death.
During the fifth week of “The Nativity” painting, despite not remembering the last time she spent a Sunday in church, Becki Olseen, one of Jessie’s dear friends was at Willowbrook. Later in conversation she acknowledged both she and Jessie have strong, differing beliefs. Still, there she was looking at an image of the birth of Christ, and she found herself touched by the painting, the friendship, and the people in the church.
“There is something about art that brings people together,” she said. “I left with the exact same beliefs I came in with, but I left with more respect and understanding of Jessie’s passionate belief too. I hate labels, but you could say I am an Atheist — who was moved by my beautiful Christian friend, and her beautiful Christian art. I think that’s the best we can ask for in the world we live in: kindness, understanding, and art that moves.”
Those who could stopped by after service or came to Willowbrook Community Church to show their love and support for Jessie DeCorsey and her storytelling through the art of painting. Not only were individuals impacted by watching this artist work, they were moved by her ease and eagerness to connect. Never did she want someone to worry about interrupting her or hesitate to come closer, stay a while, or ask a question. Though Jessie was the painter, the people, too, became a part of her piece, “The Nativity.” And though close family and friends have seen her paint a hundred times, this time was different. For Jessie’s husband, my cousin Trevor DeCorsey, this painting whispered something to him that the others had not.
“Joseph and Mary had to go through all the trials of the period and listen to God and his angels direct them to get through it. It was a different time, and from what I read a difficult and hard to understand experience. But the painting shows a Joseph and Mary so at peace and happy, and they just have their reward, Jesus. So understanding what I am able to of the story, then seeing my wife’s painting, it reminds me that the trials and tribulations were so worth it. Everyone can relate to the Joseph and Mary that are painted as everyday people in ‘The Nativity.’”
For the final four weeks, the progress of the painting continued, and the story of this woman and her work in front of and with people started to spread. The excitement, the memories, the encouragement and the personal stories shared with Jessie DeCorsey herself, validated for her why she has been called as an artist to paint the stories of God and the life of Jesus Christ.
For me, as a photographer, friend and church community member, to witness all of this firsthand has become a great reminder of how loved we are, how big God truly is, and how He is using each of us for a great purpose. We may think we know what each of our lives is going to look like and feel like and be, but then, just like this painting, it’s a little different than we thought and there are a few twists and turns and a couple surprises, and in the end, we realize it is so much greater than what we had in our minds; than what we had thought or imagined.
Deb Hoppe, a Catholic who is not a member of Willowbrook Community Church but is a family friend, found in the passion she saw in Jessie’s eyes – the excitement, the love, the reflection – a gift of God and the greatness of the birth and life of Jesus Christ. She had seen pictures of the progress of the painting, “The Nativity,” online, but said, “To actually go see this in person – you just get goosebumps. You just know God is working through her with it all.”
Jessie DeCorsey would tell you her life has been greatly impacted by this experience and the people who participated and showed up for this art adventure. She would tell you the risk that any one of her worries or fears would become a reality, was worth the reward of an experience that surpassed what she dreamed for herself or anyone else. She would tell you that painting is its own language, and it speaks to every individual differently. But most of all, Jessie would tell you that this painting and this process of allowing people the ability to witness a work from blank canvas beginning to storytelling end, is all God. It’s how He works. He shows up in little and big, unexpected ways, bringing the people that are needed to the place where they are needed at the exact right time, and He uses each of us and our life story in a unique, distinct way for His glory. A woman and a painting who brought someone closer to Christ? What an accomplishment. What a great purpose. What a wonderful thing to be a part of.
On Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, Jessie DeCorsey, for the first time ever, exhibited her religious art paintings as a collective body of work, and after forty-two hours over the course of eight weeks, completed her painting, “The Nativity,” signing her name in the lower right corner.
On Saturday, April 22, 2017, Jessie DeCorsey was presented with an award of Excellence from the 2017 Image Art Show for her painting, “The Nativity.”
“For the first time in my life, it feels like God just showed me how my paintings can be used as a way He can really speak through and reach people. The process of creating “The Nativity” showed me the power of God and the way He can use any thing and anyone to speak to a person just when they need it most.” – Jessie DeCorsrey
FOR ADDITIONAL PHOTOS AND WEEKLY BLOG POSTS ON “THE NATIVITY” visit www.JessieDeCorsey.com