Justin Christenbery follows his art dream
By Katie Scarvey
When he was 16, Justin Christenbery created a portrait of Curtis Mayfield in his Bandys High School art class.
It’s a piece with excruciatingly fine detail, down to individual strands of gray threading through Mayfield’s beard.
His teacher insisted that he enter it in a competition at a community college art show, which he promptly won.
The positive feedback from that piece of art give Christenbery his first serious inkling that art could be his future. “There was momentum,” he says.
Before that, he insists hat he was “just an average kid,” who had fun drawing on the back of placemats.
In 2001, Christenbery went to college at Appalachian State University, accepted into an interdisciplinary program for freshmen.
The bridging of disciplines in that program — which prompted him to make connections he might not otherwise have made — “helped everything make sense,” he says.
He chose to major in painting and says he felt lucky that was possible, since it “felt like playing.”
It was as an art student at ASU that he fell in love with mandalas, he says. It was a new concept for him, artistically — starting in the center, with no definite idea of where the painting would eventually go.
“It was a new way of thinking and approaching,” he said, in which the process of creation became of the utmost importance. He loved the sensation of getting lost in doing something, of giving himself over to the process.
“When I’m in the process, it’s the same process happening when cells are dividing,” he says.
“The art of magic happens when you let go and get lost in it,” he says.
He graduated from ASU in 2004 with a BFA and before long had moved to Charlotte with his wife, Morgan Andrews, who grew up in Rowan County and is the daughter of Cindy Morgan. He began to work at a framing store while continuing to paint.
Working there kept art, if not in the forefront, at least steadily on a back burner.
The very first piece he displayed in the shop sold within two hours, he says.
He began to get commissions.
Once again, he felt the momentum, and realized that it was possible that he could make a living with his art.
“I want to be one of the artists that does make money,” he says.
He admits that the business side of art is challenging, and he regrets not taking some business classes while he was in college. He has noticed that “the most positive things happen with money when I’m not worried about it,” he says.
Like many artists, he experiences a pang when a piece moves out of his hands.
“It’s weird when pieces sell,” he says. “It’s like a kid moving out to go to college. I wish them well, and I wish they’d call more.”
When his wife Morgan took a different job, they moved to Cornelius. Christenbery left his job at the frame shop to strike out completely on his own.
His wife, he says, is his biggest supporter. “I couldn’t do this if not for her,” he says.
For the past year, he’s been pursuing his art full time, following two very different paths. He takes portrait commissions, creating realistic depictions of pets and humans.
He enjoys doing portraits, he says, and it’s gratifying when a client tears up when seeing a portrait unveiled.
But perhaps his greater passion is creating large, colorful paintings that evoke dreamlike images, and he has made himself a regional reputation for these dramatic pieces.
They’re hard to describe. They’re bold, full of energy, and manage somehow to be other worldly and deeply familiar at the same time.
Christenbery read a lot of Tolkien as a kid, which perhaps affects his belief today that the world is “a universe where magic is real.
Color is important to Christenbery.
“I want to be affected by colors,” he says.
The former photography major says that he’s always trying to capture color combinations in nature with his camera that he can use in his art.
He wants those who view his art to feel like they’re in the environment with it — to feel it viscerally.
A recurring dream Christenbery has seems important, somehow. There’s a “vast, black sky” and a featureless landscape. A large, heavy sphere — granite? — is in the center, steadily rolling; Christenbery identifies the movement as progress being made. At some point in the dream, the ground and the sky implode, collapse. Then,everything stretches back out, he says, with the ball rolling again and a feeling of steady contentment.
Hearing the dream,Christenbery’s fascination with mandalas makes sense.
“We are this thing at the center of everything,” he says.
“To me, my life is the art, and these” — he points to the pieces of art surrounding him — “are the milestones.”
Christenbery says that his sketchbooks are full of not only drawings but writing as well. He not only gets lost in painting but in the process of writing.
He speaks of moments when he feels “infused by energy,” and is listening to an “inner voice that has something real to say.”
Christenbery notes that “artists used to be the shamans, who infused meaning in the culture.
“I feel like a brother across time with the shamans,” he says.
Christenbery typically likes to work later in the day, he says. “I like feeling the quiet,” he says, although he adds that he’s trying to become a morning person, like his wife.
He’s working on a solo show coming up in Wilmington, and he’s looking forward to the opening of his show next weekend in Salisbury.
Many in Salisbury were introduced to Christenbery’s work at an invitational exhibit at Center for Faith & the Arts last fall.
One of his large paintings, “Incurrence,” was selected as the first prize winner. That resulted in the invitation for him to be the featured artist for the Muse & Spirit Festival exhibit.
Christenbery will have an exhibit at the Looking Glass Artist Collective’s black box theater, with an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. April 2. Earlier, at 3 p.m., Christenbery will give a demonstration and talk about his work.
The exhibit is called “Breaking Through: a Visual Journey into Awakening.”
Later that evening, from 8-11:30 p.m., Christenbery will be painting to the music of Sy Arden, stephaniesid and The Sky Captains of Industry. Christenbery has done this before and loves “live painting” in front of an audience.
Admission to this concert is $6 in advance and $8 at the door.
The painting Justin creates during the concert will be auctioned to raise funds for Center for Faith & the Arts.
To learn more about Chrisbenbery and his art, go to www.JustinChristenbery.com.