Artist James Christensen: A Final Fantasy

Artist James Christensen in his Orem studio on Tuesday, September 30 2008. Paul Fraughton / Salt Lake Tribune

The world of pop culture took a hit in 2016 with the loss of some legends. David Bowie, Mohamed Ali, Carrie Fisher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nancy Reagan and Prince, to name just a few.  But beyond pop culture, real culture also suffered a blow with the recent passing of a masterful artist.

James Christensen was genius.

I’ve followed and loved his artwork since college. His work is bold, creative, symbolic, ethereal, odd, beautiful and timeless. He masterfully mixes classical applications and themes with modern fantasy. He was an illustrator, fine artist, author, professor, business man and family man. He designed his house with secret passageways filled with sculptures inspired by his paintings.

I met him once at a workshop I attended. After his inspiring and hilarious presentation, I lined up with the hoard of admirers to geek out in his presence momentarily.

When I was in the throes of young motherhood and overwhelmed by the demands of that stage of life, my husband gave me a limited edition print of my favorite painting by James, “The Responsible Woman.” James created this piece as a tribute to his wife and all women with imagery and symbolism that champion the many roles and duties of womanhood. It hangs prominently in my office and reminds me every day that at least two men understand me.

That painting also produced a little miracle for me a few years later.

My first book had just been accepted for publication and I was ecstatic, and frustrated. I quickly learned I had little (no) say about the title and cover that would gild my magnum opus. I’ve already ranted about the title fight I lost, but the cover story has a happy ending. I didn’t even know what the cover was going to be until I opened the first box of books. There it was, “The Responsible Woman” on the cover. Like magic, my publisher had chosen one of my favorite works of art to represent my work.

It was perfect. In fact, it was a little too perfect.

At a bookstore signing for a women’s event I was struggling to compete for attention for my book with the spread of foodstuffs covered in chocolate for sale nearby. Finally, a woman noticed, looked excited and came over. “Oh, I love Christensen’s work!” she gushed as she picked up my book. “I didn’t know he had a new book out. I’ll take one.”

I was at BYU so I felt obligated to be honest, “Actually, it’s not his book, it’s one I wrote.” Apparently, she didn’t feel the same duty to be Christlike because she didn’t even try to hide her disappointment. She set my book down and went back for more chocolate. It happened a few more times that day, and since, but I’ll gladly concede top billing to James Christensen anytime.

I wrote about the bookstore debacle shortly thereafter in a blog and somehow James saw it and responded. With cleverness, he apologized and bragged simultaneously for stealing my thunder, but said he felt privileged to grace my cover. He promised to read my book and let me know if it was worthy.

Farewell, Master Christensen. Enjoy building secret passageways in the sky filled with fairies, funky fishes and balloon people tied with strings.

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