My paintings reflect hope for greater acceptance among all of us, for seeing with honest eyes, having an open mind and a willing heart. My work celebrates our inherent similarities rather than our differences because what lies beyond skin and gender, within the depth of our universal soul, is more alike than we’ll ever know.
My mother lost her battle with cancer when I was 23 years old. I helplessly witnessed her suffering and ultimately lost her. In time I knew it was important to strive to provide a voice through my art to women unable to speak for themselves for many reasons, including death. I made a commitment to work for good through strong and empowering depictions of women, art that was emotionally available and honest. A visitor to an exhibit told me that my paintings of women reminded her to stand up a little straighter—a statement that invariably resonates and inspires.
My painting Jesus of the People was selected First Place Winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s global competition at the Millennium by juror Sister Wendy Beckett of BBC fame. My journey with this painting has been nothing short of life altering. Jesus of the People is dark and modeled by a woman because people of color and women have traditionally been under-represented or left out of iconic imagery of Christ. Jesus of the People however was not created to be sensational or to create controversy—I simply hoped my then-15-year-old nephew, a young man of color, might find renewed joy seeing a version of his beautiful, dark face reflected back in an icon of Jesus. Jesus of the People was revealed for the first time on the Today Show in New York and it caused a firestorm of negative and hateful responses. I received death threats, my mail was separated for fear of letter bombs, and I was told if I painted Mohammed the same thing that happened to Salman Rushdie would happen to me. Westboro Baptist Church wrote a hate-infused letter tying the painting to Vermont’s Civil Union Bill and sent copies to Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, then-Governor Howard Dean, and me threatening to picket in front of my studio in Vermont. People called and told me to read the Bible, and hung up. Angry e-mails were constant. It seemed like the hate would not stop, but eventually it slowed, although it has never completely ended. Over time people embraced and stood up for the work far out numbering the haters. They have carried Jesus of the People forward into the world through museum exhibitions, inclusion in documentaries and film, written about it in books/magazines and online. The painting has been written about from South Africa to Iceland, Vietnam, Australia and Russia. Prints are all over the world.
In 2013 I was invited to be the William Belden Noble Lecturer at Harvard University’s Memorial Church and Jesus of the People was exhibited on the altar. While waiting to speak I looked at the painting displayed on the altar and it was emotional. I was reminded not only of the very hard and challenging, and at times joyful, journey I have experienced in response to the painting but more importantly, the long road we still have ahead of us to eradicate racial and gender prejudice and violence.
I was born in New York City and now live and work in the northeast kingdom of Vermont, an undiscovered place that speaks to my soul and inspires my work. I am grateful for the acquisitions and commissions I receive and execute in this undisturbed part of the world, and for the support I have received from the Vermont Arts Council and the NEA (a Fellowship in 1988 and a number of Artist’s Development Grants). In 2009 Orbis Books published Holiness and the Feminine Spirit–The Art of Janet McKenzie and 27 incredible writers and theologians—all women—joined forces with my art. Given complete freedom, each wrote about one work in whatever way spoke to them. I live and work in isolation but I am far from alone.