Colouring a Black and White Jesus

Is it a good idea to let people colour all over the walls? 

I trust it will be worth it–something in my gut tells me that–but is it wise? 

I'm wrestling with this Saturday morning, just before we open Borys Tarasenko's Sweet Jesus at the Bleeding Heart Art Space. 

Saturday afternoon I am watching a group of a dozen or so people colour on our gallery walls. They carefully select a colour from the pink plastic Easter basket and head towards their chosen image with purpose. Except for Mila. She can't be more than two years old, and she colours with reckless abandon. 

People are making beautiful choices. Jesus' beard becomes a sea of blues. My daughter is decorating the pig's shirt with a pattern. Added designs show up everywhere. People refuse to stick to the confines of Tarasenko's predefined shapes and make new shapes within them. These co-creators work with the original artist while bringing their personal flair to the walls.
It is one thing to talk about the beautiful diversity of a community–how we each bring our particular charm. I often use the metaphor of a feast when promoting our ArtLuck events. We each bring our dish to the table, I say, and the meal is better for it. It is easy to talk this way, but I'll be honest with you. This time, I was afraid. Afraid that this freedom would ruin Borys Tarasenko's beautiful work.

Borys Tarasenko has been creating in the Bleeding Heart Art Space for the last week and a half. I've watched the work take shape, seeing the results of his labours with each visit to the gallery. Funny, strange, subversive religious iconography now wallpapers the Bleeding Heart space and I couldn't be happier. I've enjoyed the development of each tableau Borys adds. 


On one wall, "Jesus heals a Muslim stabbed by a Christian crusader". This scene comes straight from Tarasenko's Sweet Jesus colouring book. 

Our feature wall has the face of Jesus as a giant icon. Tarasenko has swapped flesh and wood, so that Jesus appears to be carved from a tree stump, wearing a crown of human arms and legs rather than thorns. I've been reflecting on that crown. What it means that rather than thorns, a multitude of humanity weighs down Jesus' head. 

The largest scene shows two priests enjoying hot dogs. Jesus cooks weiners on a grill just around the corner. He is handing a plated hotdog to a fierce bear in decorated robes. Smaller animals line up behind the bear. A little demon grovels naked at the line's end.

Saturday morning, all of this is painted black and white. Everything matches. There is a beautiful, stark order. Secretly, I want it to stay this way.  I want people to see this work 'as Borys intended'. Of course, I am wrong. This is not how Borys expects the work to be left. He has a massive box of felts on order and plenty at the ready now. Borys cannot wait for us to start colouring.

We colour with enthusiasm. I wonder if, by closing time, we'll have filled in every space. Thankfully Borys has created plenty of nooks and crannies for us. 

I notice the choices people are making. The arms and legs of Jesus' crown become a full spectrum of racial hues. One set of legs gets a pair of socks. One of the priests eating a hot dog gets a rainbow across his robe. God's sleeve, reaching down out from the clouds, is adorned with vivid geometric shapes. All of this is positive. Borys was right. The colouring was a good idea.    

Then Jesus' eyes are coloured red. Red like anger or evil. Red like a monster or demon. The big, bold Jesus on our feature wall. 

Another Jesus, the one healing the Muslim, receives rainbow hair and cleavage. His robe becomes a sort of mu-mu. That Jesus is now a woman.

In the front entry, a small crucifix 'hangs' on a picture hook I forgot to remove. Borys has taken advantage of whatever our space offers. The cross is striped and remains uncoloured. I wonder if a crucifix is too Sacred to tackle. I want to paint those stripes in rainbow colours–every stripe a new hue. Then I ask myself what that would imply. 

All of our colour choices reveal something. Something about us artists. We choose to embellish or we choice to deface. We choose to colour Jesus' hair brown or blonde or rainbow. 

All of these choices are allowed here. Freedom in a felt pen.

I realise that, without words, we are having conversations about Bible stories. Conversations totally unlike any I've had in church. These conversations–these freeoms–are making our space more beautiful every moment.  

Even the red-eyed Jesus is beautiful. The way Borys Tarasenko painted him, he doesn't seem angry with those red eyes. He looks like he's been crying.

I am stumbling over metaphors in every direction. What if we leave Jesus undefended–open to the colours the community brings him. What if we welcome anyone and give them a box of markers? What if we ask them to create this story with us, rather than present it fully formed and unalterable? 

60 people come through on this first Saturday and I can't tell you where they've all come from. I'm not sure where they'll be heading come Easter weekend, or how the story of Jesus' death and resurrection may or may not be a part of those plans. 

I leave this Saturday convinced that Borys was right about the colouring. It is better this way. Not so perfect maybe. Not so clean and concise. But better. 

My understanding of the story deepens as I witness the colours others bring. 

Sweet Jesus is open until April 30th. We'll have the markers ready for you.

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