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Janet McKenzie:Art Across Boundaries

February 29, 2016

Left: Jesus of the People by McKenzie. Right Photo L-R: Artist Sister Celeste Nuttman, Sister Marilyn Morgan, Janet McKenzie, Sister Katie O'Hanlon

Nationally known artist Janet McKenzie spoke to a gathering at Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA, on Feb. 21. Her theme, “Images of Holiness: Every One of Us” focused on the origins and inspiration of her art which reaches across racial and gender boundaries.  Her work, “Jesus of the People,” was chosen by Sister Wendy Beckett as the winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s “Jesus 2000 Competition.”

In a dialogue with Reverend Marjorie Wilkes Matthews, pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Oakland, CA, Janet recounted that in 1995 her African American nephew, then age 15, could not see himself in any of the images of traditional religious art. Inclusion became her mission. Janet described how she began to create art which depicted holy figures as black, Asian American, Native American and Caucasian women

Mercy Sister Marilyn Morgan, a liturgical design consultant, said, “There aren’t very many artists that I know of whose work depicts African American people as holy people, as saints to emulate.  I’ve seen statues of Caucasian figures painted over as Black people. I’ve seen carved images of Christ from Africa. Janet’s work offers the opportunity for people to reflect on the many faces of God.”

“In her different depictions, some are more Asian, some more African American, some mixed race,” said Mercy Sister Celeste Nuttman, an artist and teacher. “You are invited to recognize the Christ in your own humanity. I found it inspiring and challenging.”

Janet’s advice to young artists is to master technique and then speak “from what is in your heart.” She has found her best work in silence. “In silence you need to get past the fear of yourself and listen to the answers. They will come.”


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