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Helping us see Jesus with fresh eyes

There has always been a degree of safety or invulnerability associated with worshipping a distant God who is off in heaven looking down on us.

If we thought of him as being closer, as existing within us, we would have to be less impulsive and more considerate of his take on our actions. We would have to see him as our personal God who directs our steps rather than as a Santa Claus magically giving us things on demand.

The latter scenario is the impetus behind Stephen S. Sawyer's Calvary, a powerful oil painting of a junkie injecting drugs into his own arm and, in doing so, into the arm of Jesus.

"I wanted people to realize if we are temples of God, we cannot defile the temple without defiling the Creator," Sawyer said.

"The Scripture I used out of context was, 'what you've done unto the least of these, you have done also unto me,'" he said, paraphrasing Matthew 25:46. "I could have also used, 'in all of our afflictions he is also afflicted.'" (Isaiah 63:9)

The prints of the painting, originally created in 2006, are Sawyer's best sellers, bringing in sales from throughout the United States and abroad to his small studio in a historic building in downtown Versailles.

Sawyer used an actual former addict as his model along with the model's drug paraphernalia that he later left with Sawyer.

The Jesus who Sawyer portrays is one who climbed down off the cross and into our daily lives. He is a God who is impossible for us to ignore.

That Jesus is buff, laughs heartily, wears tattoos, is a prizefighter and enjoys a Last Supper with children from all nations.

However, Sawyer has also painted the traditional image of the Jesus who embraces children, watches over the world, knocks on a door or is nailed to a cross.

But it is Calvary and No Appointment Necessary, which features a tattooed Jesus, that have garnered the most attention. "That sent the Pharisees scrambling for my throat," he said of the tattooed image.

"Calvary really didn't rock the boat like I thought it would," Sawyer said. "It's got one degree of separation. Almost everybody has a friend or relative who is struggling with one kind of addiction or another. So how can you dismiss it?"

He has received testimonials from people throughout the world who identified with Calvary, he said. Some couldn't find the heart to forgive themselves.

"I named it Calvary because 2,000 years later, if you look at what happened to Jesus, is it really that much different?" he said. "Would he sacrifice to save these people? And the answer is 'yes.'"

Sawyer, with the love and support of his wife of 35 years, Cindy, and their five children, has been able to translate his love of art and his love of God into a good living. He opened his studio, Art for God, in Versailles in 1995 and later established a second gallery in Gatlinburg.

Sawyer uses only one model for Jesus, Tyrone Dove Gardner, whom he met in 1995 in Kentucky but who now lives in California. (Sawyer went to California to take pictures for the latest round of paintings.)

"Some people say I don't make Jesus look ethnic enough," Sawyer, 56, said last week from his studio in Versailles. "Some people say, 'Why don't you paint a black Jesus?' I say I'm doing the best I can. I think a black artist would probably do a better job of that than me.

"You take up your cross and not somebody else's. I'm taking up mine."

That cross first became apparent to him when he was 5 years old and overheard God's name spoken in vain. That evening, after difficulty falling asleep, he said God told him everything would be OK.

"It was my first experience where God became real, and from that moment on I can track my changes," he said. "I became very, very sensitive about hurting other people's feelings. That doesn't mean I didn't do it a thousand times, but it is the pain associated with being mean and selfish. It was like I had a faith seed planted in me and I knew I wanted that thing to grow."

Born in Paris but reared in Lexington from the second grade on, Sawyer earned a bachelor's degree in general studies and advertising from the University of Kentucky. Advertising, he said, was an easy way to blend the way we think and behave with art.

"Norman Rockwell was one of my artistic heroes," Sawyer said. "You could look and tell the story without reading about the art. He broke ground with the integration painting (of Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by federal marshals in 1960), and that made him even more of a hero to me because he stood for something. He took a chance on being ridiculed."

Sawyer and his wife, whom he met while he was a lifeguard at Kentucky Dam Village, traveled throughout the states before settling back in Kentucky to raise a family.

There have been lean years when feeding his family was difficult on the money he earned as a portrait artist. He supplemented his income by designing sets of area TV stations or with other jobs.

After waiting 20 years to discover what he was supposed to do with his cross, he spotted Gardner during a chance encounter and knew right away.

Since then, although his portraits are still in demand and he also paints abstracts, it is his Christian art that has taken off.

"In some circles people only know me as a portrait artist," he said. Sawyer has painted actor Ben Vereen, country music icons Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and his cousin, Good Morning America anchor Diane Sawyer.

But in other circles, he is the artist who has brought a contemporary Jesus to light, one less docile.

In Dusting Off, Stephen Sawyer depicts Jesus emerging from the tomb, knocking dust from his clothing and getting on with his Father's business.

A photograph of Sawyer's Undefeated, in which Jesus is a prizefighter, was featured on the front page of The New York Times in 2004.

"This is the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life," he said. "I've made a difference in other people's lives. I've done stuff that made me feel like a whole person. Would I trade that? God, no."

Prints of Sawyer's work are available at