Pelican Rapids man finds nice niche as ‘liturgical artist’
By Deb Trygstad, M.S.
“We all have a unique art, a personal passion that serves as a vessel through which our souls can speak. True happiness is found by filling it, and purpose is fulfilled by pouring it out.” Cristen Rodgers
There are people who you meet, that right away you know they are authentic human beings. They believe what they say and live by their principles and their faith. Paul Johnson from Pelican Rapids is one of those people. He is a man who has walked his talk. Paul is the artist behind the stunning murals at the annual Concordia Christmas concert at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. You will understand what I mean about this amazing artist if you have ever been to this concert and seen one of these breathtaking murals which are directly in sync with the music. The combination of these two forms of self-expression, art and music creates a wondrous experience. You begin to understand the words behind people like Nick Bartock who said, “You cannot separate art from life or spirituality. They are bound together in a single unit.”
There is more to Paul Johnson and his art than just these murals. In his 60s, he has recognized his unique niche, which fits with his personality, a liturgical artist. The word liturgy comes from a Greek term meaning “public work or work done on behalf of the people.” Liturgy always referred to an organized community. A work, then, done by an individual or a group is a liturgy on behalf of the larger community. According to Encyclopedia.com, liturgy art is an artform related to the fashioning of objects, such as vessels and vestments for liturgical use, and the programming of worship space, or the planning of the architecture of a church for liturgical worship.
“I always thought art was very spiritual,” he said.
Paul grew up in Pelican Rapids and has lived there most of his life. He said he knew he wanted to be an artist since he was in the third grade. “I knew right away. I had a love for it,” he said. So, upon graduating from high school, he pursued a degree in Illustration at Moorhead State University. He worked for Lutheran Health Systems as a Corporate Artist in the Communications department, developing materials for this large healthcare company. The company eventually became Banner Health System and relocated to Arizona. Paul had a chance to stay with the company if he moved, but the family decided that it was more important for his children to be close to their grandmothers when they grew up, so the family decided to stay in Pelican Rapids. He worked independently for a year but he soon learned that this was not for him. He eventually landed a teaching position in the Communication Art and Design program, at Alexandria Technical and Community College where he has been for nineteen years. He said “teaching has been phenomenal”. In addition, he has his own business on the side—Paul Johnson Design and Illustration.
The story behind how he got started with the Concordia Christmas Concert began with his apprenticeship with David Hetland, a renowned, nationally recognized liturgical artist from Fargo, North Dakota who created many murals for Concordia College. Paul said that when Hetland produced the murals, they were hand drawn on muslin. Then it became a paint by number project. People from the community could volunteer using latex paints and complete each numbered section. The sections were then put together to form the mural. When Hetland passed away on Easter morning in 2006 at age 59, Concordia had to replace their artist for their murals. Paul Johnson got the job.
Paul had created some murals on his own but used a different technique. He creates the murals digitally on the computer and then they are printed onto wallpaper. One such mural (roughly 7 x 14 ft), he created for the Anne Carlsen Center in Jamestown, North Dakota. In 2008, Paul convinced Concordia to let him try the digital wallpapering technique to create these huge murals for the concert. Paul said, “I have always been a risk taker (with my art), experimenting and trying new techniques,” His mural titled, “Before the Marvel of this Night” was 176 x 24 feet. The graphite drawing was done using Adobe Illustrator and then it was made into 4’ wallpaper. The wallpaper is secured to lightweight panels approximately 16’ – 24’ tall. There are 44 panels that finish the mural. Paul said, “It’s a huge undertaking to put these up and bolt them together, which is accomplished by the maintenance staff at Concordia.” They start working on the mural for the next season in early July. Now retired Director of Choral Activities, Rene Clausen would give him the theme with a complete list of hymns, scriptures, and personal thoughts to be used that season, and Paul would design his creations from this. This last Christmas, new Choral Activities Director, Michael Culloton, provided his theme and content, but because of COVID-19, the art and concert were all done virtually.
Paul has also created posters for the Fargo Marathon. Again using his out of the box techniques in the poster “Run Your Race,” he applied aluminum tape to multiple layers of cardboard which created a look of runners sculpted in metal.
“At the marathon unveiling, I arrived with the art and people reacted like I never expected. They wanted to touch it. One viewer said, “It looked like it was created 75 years ago and you discovered it in an old barn.” Paul said, “that was the greatest compliment I could have received.”
He developed another poster for the Fargo Marathon titled “Perseverance.” In this poster he included some of his liturgical skills by showing a runner with open arms crossing the finish line with a subtle cross formed in the runner’s shadow. Paul said about this piece, “Most runners raise their arms when they cross the finish line-whether first or last. Running is truly representative of our lives—the ups and downs.”
Paul’s work can also be found in the Hope Lutheran Church lobby in Fargo, a Christmas mural at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, and worship banners at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Hopkins ,Minnesota. He has also created numerous brand identities for businesses and churches throughout the country. Paul’s future plans are to reprise his love of ceramics. He has started making a home studio with throwing wheel and future kiln plans, all with aspirations of creating three dimensional vessels for churches, nursing homes and chapels.
Humbly, Paul would be the first one to tell you he never thought he was talented as an artist. When you see his work you would never believe this. His work expresses his life as well as his faith, and when you see it you are inspired. Paul told me sometimes when he creates art and is “in the zone,” where time stands still, there is this “wow moment” when he looks up and says, “How did this happen? Where did this come from?” Paul believes that, “Art is very powerful. It can help people focus their emotions and minds.” His work helps you recognize the inter connection between art, spirit and faith.