As a child, I loved painting, drawing, and modelling with Plasticine. Saturday evenings, I could use Dad’s fountain pen to copy verses from the Bible in my best handwriting. Perhaps my journey to find a life in Christ started here?
I was born in 1957, in East Peckham, Kent, which, at that time, was surrounded by hop fields. My father was a building-contracts manager, and my mother worked mainly on the local farms. I have one sister, Lesley. Together we had a very happy childhood, of which I have so many fond memories.
I took a wrong turn at the age of 17. As well as earning a living in the building trade, I started playing guitar with various bands. Many years of fun and plenty of self-indulgence followed, and with that came years of battling my demons.
When I met Lynn, my wife, I knew things had to change. I turned again to my Bible, and slowly but surely started to find some peace again. With this peace came a desire to be the painter and poet I daydreamed of. It really was time to put down the guitar, the builder’s tools, and pick up the paintbrushes and canvas again, which were a big part of my schooldays.
I’m inspired by the likes of Christopher Wood, the Nicholsons, Stanley Spencer. It wasn’t long before I found myself exhibiting with various galleries, and, finally, joining up with Portland Gallery, in London, in 2008.
The poems with the paintings evolved after a serious illness, during which I spent hours reminiscing. Upon returning to my easel, when I was well enough, I wrote small verses to accompany each painting. I turned to the Gospels during this period of illness, and they gave me immense strength.
On one occasion, I was lying in bed, the sun shining through the window; feeling at my worst, I thought my life was over. I remember handing myself over to Christ, and feeling truly at peace. I lay there with a smile on my face. I woke five hours later, and the feeling of peace remained with me, along with an acceptance of whatever lay ahead, and a realisation that what God lets happen has meaning.
People like the old man in my paintings. Not many pick up that he’s me, but people with a faith do. I painted myself as an old man because I didn’t think I’d survive till old age. But I don’t personalise things too much, or it doesn’t work. The old man could be someone’s father or grandfather. The dog — well, it’s the same relationship, a man and his dog, that I find in Christ, or God and his son, myself and Christ.
I painted Christ within a churchyard with the Bible on the wall, and my old men gardening in the allotment became the disciples. I stuck Judas down in the weeds, having a crafty cigarette. I wrote a long poem about it, “You reap what you sow”. I still write a bit of music; so I wrote some to go with it. I’d like people to go round my paintings with a Bluetooth headset to hear the poems read over the music. It would be wonderful to do something like that in a church one day.
I feel the spirit soaring sometimes — not very often. When these things happen when you’re working or in prayer, it’s quite mind-blowing. I’ve ended up with tears, taken over by the Spirit; not many times, but it’s quite extraordinary when it happens.
My obsession is God, Christ, and painting, and I’m lucky to have a family around me that just lets me get on with it.
I get amazing responses in emails and letters, especially from older people who decided to pick up their Bible again after visiting the exhibition. Most of them said they found the images sort-of-approachable rather than too stuffy, or in-their-face religion. People have to find Christ for themselves.
I think God has a sense of humour.
I like to think of myself as a follower of Christ. I don’t like to get tangled up in organised religion too much. I like going to church — it’s nice to have company — but most of my time with Christ is spent alone with Christ.
When I’m at a private view, I generally lose my voice, but I’m just pleased I can speak. I had cancer of the vocal cords 15 years ago. I can’t eat solid food, but that seems more of a problem for other people when we’re out to dinner. I handed it over to Christ many years ago, when I thought I was going to die, and, 15 years down the line, I don’t think I’ve got any right to complain.
To be honest, I’m just grateful. I believe the cancers were God’s will for me, not a punishment. The more I delve back into Christian paintings, I think this is where it’s led me to. It’s part of a journey, and what a wonderful one it is. I lost a lot of friends the same year, and I think how much they’d love to be here, drinking veg juice; so I’m not going to complain about not eating food.
I never wanted to have books published. I’m not very good with publicity: it seems a bit self-indulgent. I’ve been asked to be on the radio, and I feel I should; but it makes me want to curl up in a ball. The whole ego thing comes into it, and it’s God’s work, not my work. I don’t like to take too much credit for the book. It’s God’s ideas, and Christ’s. I just painted them.
Churches never get a chance to buy my work. I’ve had ten exhibitions, and they’re usually sold out before they open.
The response to By the Grace of God has gone beyond my wildest dreams. All the paintings have found new homes. To paint these images that are my passion, and to have people respond in this way, is so very inspiring.
My favourite painting is always the next one. I’m doing a crucifixion with the old man and the dog asleep, and I’d love to have that done as a life-size bronze. That would be my ambition. It’s about eternal life.
I love doing the bronze. It’s like Plasticine for grown-ups. I’m going back to painting on wooden panels rather than canvas in the traditional way, for religious paintings. I just love the strength they have, and you can gesso them. I want to develop the way I’m painting these with more texture.
Fifteen years on, I am still studying the Gospels along with the early Desert Fathers, which is where I discovered the Jesus Prayer. I really believe God knows what I need; so I rarely ask for anything in prayer. It is God’s will, not mine.
My dad’s work ethic has been a big influence on me; so I’m very disciplined when it comes to work.
I like the comforting sound of Radio 4 or English pastoral music, Gerald Finzi being a favourite; birdsong outside; the smell of paint; Lynn beside me; Henry and Georgia, my two children; Poppy and Iris, my two granddaughters; and my health. I shall paint. Then, within the paintings, disguised as the old man, I will continue on this contemplative journey that I truly believe is God’s will. A journey of hope, laughter, tears, and peace in Christ.
As for the future, I’ll leave that to the Creator.
If I was locked in a church for a few hours, my ideal companion would be Christ himself, as that would rid me of any doubts. That being a tall order, I’d be happy to spend time with either St Thérèse of Lisieux, or St Teresa of Ávila, in the hope that their absolute devotion and love of Christ would rub off on me.
Gary Bunt was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
He is represented exclusively by the Portland Gallery,
By the Grace of God is published by Unicorn.