Artist Jessie DeCorsey spent eight weeks painting a modern interpretation of the Nativity, and she did so in a public setting: a church in Forest Lake, Minnesota.
A child who had grown up in her own mother’s art gallery, Jessie DeCorsey had always wanted to be an artist. In 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, with a focus on how it looked artistically to go from painting a pantheon of gods to painting One God. That led her to the study of religious iconography. Jessie soon undertook a minor in art history.
During the summer of that year, 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 depicting saints. DeCorsey came to feel that inserting contemporary figures into her faith-based works gave them a freshness that made them more accessible and relatable. The familiar figures from Biblical stories came alive in a new way.
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On February 9, 2017, 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 as they entered or exited the church wondered, “What’s this?” Those who took a closer look were able to see the lightest of sketches: a man, a woman and a baby.
To create a progressive painting in public had been a dream of Jessie’s, but never did she consider bringing the painting to life live, working while people watched. When one of the church pastors suggested that she paint during their “happy hour” between services rather than after hours, though, 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.
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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: Winnie as Jesus, her brother-in-law, Brad Atkinson, as Joseph, and a friend, Kayleigh McNamara, as Mary.
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 400 photographs of her models, she painted the face of Joseph and the head of Baby Jesus. She painted for three hours during that first session.
While she worked to bring to life what she envisioned, passersby stood and sat throughout the church commons, curious. Some individuals approached Jessie and asked questions. Jessie was happy to pause from her painting, making an effort to be present with each person who took an interest in the project.
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By the second week, there was a buzz and energy around the project. Children chewed on donuts as they pointed and whispered about the artist and her painting. Adults leaned in to discuss the project with Jessie. Leaving the face of baby Jesus incomplete for the present, Jessie began to focus on Mary before turning to the figures’ clothing.
Depicting her subjects in jeans and long-sleeved t-shirts, Jessie blended the history of what people value and cherish—a mom, dad and baby; a family; the Holy family—with what they know and recognize. She was telling a tale from long ago as if it were happening today
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Week Three saw Jessie turn her focus to the background of the painting. Jessie’s biggest challenge was conveying a scene around Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus that bridged the past and present. Jessie’s vision was to feature a dark, starry night sky that would highlight the Holy Family. She considered the inclusion of a manger setting, but in the end, she kept it simple so the focus would remain on the Child and His parents.
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During Week Four, Jessie had a previously planned trip with her family, and she chose to keep that dedicated time with her husband and her children a priority. So there was no live painting that week, but still people came to peek at what was done and imagine what was to come.
During that week, Becki Olseen, one of Jessie’s dear friends, paid a visit to Willowbrook. Later in conversation she acknowledged that though she and Jessie have differing beliefs, she found herself touched by the painting, the friendship, and the people in the church.
“There is something about art that brings people together,” Becki 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.”
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During Week Five, Jessie slowly and 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 the fabric. Each hair on the head of Baby Jesus was so perfect, observers were tempted to bend down to inhale that sweet baby smell, to hear those small baby sounds.
Over the final four weeks, news of the project continued to spread, and the excitement, the encouragement and the personal stories observers shared with her validated for Jessie why she had undertaken “The Nativity.” Deb Hoppe, a family friend, had seen pictures of the progress of the painting, “The Nativity,” online, but after visiting in person, she said, “To actually go see this in person, you just get goosebumps. You just know God is working through her with it all.”
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On Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, Jessie, 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, she finished “The Nativity,” signing her name in the lower right corner to signify its completion.
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“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,” said Jessie. “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.”
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