American Graphic Artist John Mosiman’s work comes out of a sacred art tradition I know well from my childhood years in a conservative Baptist faith community in the late 1950s: the chalk art ministry. There were almost no religious images on display where we worshipped, so, it was a rare treat to be visited by a guest speaker, skilled in this visual tool for evangelization, whose best-known practitioners include Warner Sallman, Phil Saint, and Esther Frye.
As you watched spellbound from your pew, these itinerant artist-preachers used their easels as pulpits, illustrating a gospel message in chalk sketches, drawn with lightning speed on sheets of specially prepared paper. In a dazzling final touch, they would often flick on a black light to reveal the Cross or, perhaps, the face of Christ, shining through the outer drawing. If you were lucky, you might even be the one chosen to take the precious chalk sketch home with you.
Born in Elgin, Illinois, in 1931, Mosiman graduated with an arts degree in 1953 from nearby Wheaton College, a center of American Evangelical Protestantism. After taking graduate courses in printmaking at Northern Illinois University, Mosiman joined the staff of the missionary radio station, HCJB (Heralding Christ Jesus’ Blessings), in Quito, Ecuador. He put his artistic skills to good use in a chalk art ministry at evangelistic tent meetings. Local audiences marveled at these impromptu works by a left-handed artist, wondering what masterpieces Mosiman might have created had he been right-handed!
After 12 years of missionary service, Mosiman returned to Illinois and took up peformance art, staging “musical painting” demonstrations for schools and civic and religious groups. During a typical performance, Mosiman would set up a large canvas or paper pad on an illuminated stage and paint or draw pictures, inspired by musical compositions like Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. He synchronized his brush strokes or chalk markings in time with the music in a melding of sound and movement, which viewers compared to ballet choreography. Mosiman created screen-made prints to sell as souvenirs of his musical events.
The Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection has five Mosiman serigraphs on biblical themes, whose broad, boldly colored backgrounds and silhouetted forms evoke chalk ministry drawings. Three images have a primary palette of green and blue: Jesus Calling Disciples, The Prodigal Son, and The House on the Rock (illustrating Jesus' Parable of the Two Builders in Luke 6:47-49). The Good Samaritan is a somber study in black, grey and brown, while the glowing purple, reddish pink background of The Manger Scene and The Crucifixion with its touches of gold bring to mind the brilliant, black light special effects, summoned up by the artist-evangelists of my youth in the grand finale of their chalk sermons.