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The art of worship



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Cox News Service DAYTON, Ohio -- Painting is Mike Lewis' ministry; Jesus Christ, his muse.

Christian performance artist Lewis, also known as the Jesus Painter, is an unusual visual artist who makes his living painting 6-foot portraits of Christ in front of a live audience.

The 29-year-old Cincinnati native lives in Orlando, Fla. But this weekend he's returning to chilly Ohio to take part in Experiencing Christmas Through the Arts, an ambitious Christmas program being staged Sunday at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 4865 Wilmington Pike, Kettering.

Senior pastor of Emmanuel Church, Phil Esala, believes strongly that churches need art every bit as much as art needs the church.

"We have a long tradition of merging art and worship at Emmanuel," Esala said. "This year, we're going to experience Christ and Christmas with music and art featuring Jesus Painter. He will create four paintings during the 8:15 a.m. and 11 a.m. worship services, and the church will watch him do it."

Unlike artists who pore over their work for hours at a time, Lewis' evangelical brush strokes are swift and sure.

"Each painting takes

approximately 12 minutes to complete," Esala said. "You combine Jesus Painter, our choir's Christmas cantata and the dramatic readings and this event touches on a number of facets of the arts.

"We are doing this for the community. We want people to know that the opportunity exists to attend a totally different type of Christmas celebration."

Lewis, who graduated from Cincinnati's Colerain High School in 1994, brings his art to the people.

During his visual excursions, often enhanced by music and narrative, he swirls through two or more portraits in less than half an hour. He often closes his spectacle with a dramatic splash of blood-red paint symbolizing the New Covenant.

Lewis' artistic vision came into focus when a friend, Christian songwriter Seth Haines, shared a song, "Intimate Portrait."

"He asked me to paint a portrait of Christ on the stage during the song," Lewis said. "The request was unreasonable. He wanted me to paint a portrait large enough for an entire audience to see and also a likeness of Christ painted in seven minutes.

"I couldn't afford to do a practice run so my first try was live on stage. The moment I began to paint, everything disappeared except the canvas. It was, and still is, my most peaceful, personal time with Christ."

David White, minister of youth discipleship and music at Emmanuel, met Lewis at a Nashville youth conference and has attended several of his performances.

"Mike has become well-known in youth circles," White said.

"He gets invited to a lot of youth and adult conferences around the country. He has wide appeal because what he does is an interactive experience.

"He doesn't paint the same thing each and every time, but has a series of about 10 or 12 paintings. He does different ones for different occasions. Of the four paintings he will unveil on Sunday, three will eventually hang in our youth wing."

Khalid Moss writes for the Dayton Daily News. E-mail: kmoss AT daytondailynews.com

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