New Film 'Colors of Character' Shows God’s Glory in Broad Brush Strokes
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The name Steve Skipper may not be a household name, but in the art world his work is synonymous with a genre he perfected called super realism.
With no formal training, the Birmingham, Alabama native has been recognized globally for his ability to break down racial barriers through his sports and civil rights themed paintings. He claims God guides each and every one of his brush strokes.
This is a far cry from his early years as a drug-addicted gang member, a time when he could have easily become just another statistic. But a chance encounter with a life-guard drove him to church on a dare, a visit that dropped him to his knees and into the loving arms of his savior.
Skipper is the subject of a new documentary called Colors of Character: An Artist’s Journey to Redemption. Showing in limited release, the inspiring film can be seen in theaters nationwide now through November 15th. It will also be available for church screenings via the Faith Content Network through early next year.
I recently spoke with Skipper about his remarkable life as an artist, his powerful story of personal redemption, and what God has taught him over the years through his painting.
I guess it's safe to say that you never dreamed a film would be made about your life?
No, I didn't. I didn't have enough sense to even pray like that. This was one of those things like Scripture says, if you're able to do exceedingly abundantly above what you asked for, I think that's what this is.
Your life's story is one that includes gangs, finding Jesus, learning to paint, and civil rights. What can you tell me about your life so far?
I grew up in a home where there was dysfunction. I grew up and saw some stuff that I shouldn't have seen at nine years old. I saw my mom cheat on my dad. This filled my heart with a tremendous amount of anger. That brokenness in the home, led to the gangs presenting themselves to me as family. There was some deception right there, man. You’ve got that hole in your heart and then they come up to you and say, ‘We’re your family now to the extent of taking bullets for you on your behalf. We will die for you.’
But that's just a counterfeit of what Christ has already done for you. And you accept it. You accept Satan's sales job. When I accepted that, I fell right into a feeling of avoiding my home. It was the biggest deception that ever was. It pulled me into not just a lifestyle … in Psalm 40 where David said, ‘You've delivered me from a horrible pit.’ That’s bad enough, but then your life becomes a horrible pit. When you are in there with demons, devils and all of this kind of stuff, where to be in this kind of organization, your qualifications, you've got to be filled with demons. The enemy wants you to get over here, because the whole group is the same way.
As you have mentioned, you were a full-fledged gang member but then you took up painting. How did God impress upon your heart to learn how to paint and subsequently leave the gang lifestyle?
In the fourth grade, I had an uncle and a brother who used to draw. My uncle was great. And you have to understand, when I was a little boy it was the 1960s. We're talking about Birmingham, Alabama, which was the center of the civil rights movement, the center of Jim Crow laws and racism. And so for a black man to actually say he wanted to be an artist, that was not an option. And so my uncle grew up in all of this and yet he wanted to be an artist. He was treated so very badly that it broke him. He ended up being an alcoholic and dying of cancer as a very brokenhearted man.
Sometimes I liked to draw during school. One day, my teacher caught me. She saw what I was drawing and said, ‘Skipper, come here.’ So, she took me to the principal's office. She told him this young man has special talent. I stopped sweating. She said, ‘We need to do something about this young man's talent. Do we have any money allocated for some art supplies? Now, I'm not sweating. I'm really smiling at this point. He said, ‘We don't have any money.’ But she said, ‘I'll spend my own money to make sure that he has art supplies because he’s going to be great one day.’ And that’s the amazing thing about teachers. They can look past who you are into who you are going to be. They have a gift like that. Years later, I transferred from that school to another. This teacher called the principal at that school and tells him about me and to nurture what she recognized.
And so, now I’m 13 years old, and it’s Sunday evening after church. I'm introduced to the drugs and the gangs. With the drug and the gang situation, I buried all my talent under that. There was no painting or anything like that going on during that period. At 16 years old, I'm deeply into the gang. I'm leading at this point. I'm sitting in a park one day and we're celebrating. We've just robbed some people on a Friday night. So, we're celebrating on a Saturday. There’s a bunch of us sitting on a park table. There's a swimming pool right across from where we are. A lifeguard by the name of Big Mike, yells to me and says, ‘Skipper, you need to put that stuff down. You need to give your life to Jesus.' I looked up, everybody looked up. We're all armed heavily.
I said, don't pay any attention to him. Then, he yells down again (and says the same thing). The thing about it is at this point in time, I'm pretty much tired in my soul. Jesus said, ‘Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, I'll give you rest for your soul.’ But I can't tell these guys that I’m tired in my soul. I'm really tired of what we're doing, but on the inside, in my soul, I'm really tired of this stuff. And so, Mike really (stuck his neck out). He risked his life by yelling down to us because we didn’t want that kind of attention from anybody. And so, Mike boldly came out with his faith. He leaves the pool and comes down to where we are. This is really terrible and really dangerous. But he did it.
All the guys see him walking towards us and they reach for their weapons. But I told them to leave him alone. When I say leave him alone, that meant I was fixing to take care of him myself. And so, I stood up and walked to him. I had a 45 (gun) in the waistband of my pants. He ignored the 45 and ignored who I am. He said, ‘Man, you need to give your life to Jesus Christ. You need to get saved. God has a better life for you.’
He told me to meet him at 7:15 by the side of the church. And so I went in and my plan was to stay 15 minutes and walk out. But God’s plan was far greater than mine. I think Mike knew this at the same time. I went in for 15 minutes and have stayed for 46 years.
What led you into painting after God saved you and subsequently leaving the gang?
After I got saved, just with the time and the talent that I had buried, this was the time to take my new faith, a shovel, and dig it up. The minister there was a powerful man of God. Jesse L. Massey was the pastor who preached that night. When he preached, he looked right at me and started saying some things that nobody knew about me but me. One of the things he said was that we have talents, we have gifts, even artistic talents that we have. God is very concerned about how we use our talents to His glory. That got my attention. You tell somebody, something like that, they get saved and they fall in love with Jesus. That's just like pouring gasoline on a fire. So, I started using my gift. I started going out and getting art supplies and stuff like that. This time it wasn't just me doing it. God started doing it through me.
My painting style is known as super realism. It’s the same style that God uses. We honor him as Lord and savior, which we should, we honor him as deliberate and healer, which we should. But a lot of times we take for granted the fact that He's creative. When we say creator, we think that He's a sculptor because He created man in His image.
An example of Steve Skipper's artistic style:
God can paint like nobody's business. I mean the sun rises and sets every day. And for 15 minutes, you get to see a painting. Every one of them looks different. And if you notice it, the thing about His mixture of color, there's no one better who can come close to Him. So, God started to speak to me and say, ‘I'm going to teach you everything you need to know.’
You're known for your sports paintings. Why sports figures?
I played football growing up, and made up my mind this is what I'm going to be. I remember being on the football field, practicing one day. It was raining. I looked over at the high school and there was a light on in the art department. We're out there in the mud and it’s pouring down rain. And I remember God speaking to me and saying, ‘That's what I want you to do.’ I always loved sports. I had two scholarships to play football but I chose art instead.
At some point in your journey as a painter, you switched to painting heroes from the Civil Rights movement. Why the change?
A very good question. I'm sitting in my studio one night at the University of Alabama. I do artwork for them on a regular basis. They're playing in the national championship. I will never forget this. They win the national championship. I'm watching the game. I'm excited as can be because I know we are planning to do a painting and I'm going to make some money. And people are calling me on the phone asking me, am I going to do this painting? They want to pre-order prints. This was a dream come true. I'm actually thanking God. And then, all of a sudden, God speaks to me and says, ‘We're not going that way this time. We're going this way.’ Scripture says to acknowledge Him in all your ways. And He shall direct your path. Not your freeway, not your boulevard, not your street, but your path. A path can be cutting through anything. It could be unknown. So He says, ‘We're going to go this way.’ And then He showed me the civil rights movement artwork. And I said, oh no, because the market for civil rights artwork at the time was dead.
I thought, I’m having success here and now you want me to go in a different direction? And He said, ‘Yes.’ So, I decided I will go this way. That was a hard turn, but it was the best turn I've ever made in my life. His plan was so much greater than what I ever knew. It put me in the presence of people who I never thought I would come in contact with. It put me in the presence of the late congressman John Lewis, Rev. Joseph Lowery and ambassador Andrew Young.
If I had never made that turn, when God told me to make that turn towards the civil rights movement artwork, all of these important paintings never would have happened.
What has God taught or shown you over the years in relation to your painting?
I say this all the time. It's no stretch of the imagination that nobody teaches creativity like the Creator. And I'm telling you, He is so intricate in His teaching. Even though God is omniscient, when it comes to knowing everything about color, He knows everything when it comes to art. He'll whisper things to you that you've never heard before. And I've learned not to spend a whole lot of time on the fact that this doesn't make sense to me. Just go ahead and do it. The experience of sitting there in that chair, in front of that painting, and the experience of Him whispering in my ear, telling you which way to go and what to do is so tremendous.
I know He’s got His hand across the canvas, He told me everything to do. And then He has the audacity to tell me to sign it. Signing a painting is hard for me to do. That’s because I know He did it. Sometimes it takes me months to sign a painting because I know He did it. It's just me sitting there, you know, letting Him use me. The Bible says we have this treasure in earthen vessels. That is the power of God and not of us. I never tell people how great I am as an artist. I'm just somebody that God uses in a great way. Even when it comes down to the documentary, I’m not the star of it. Jesus is.
Watch a movie trailer for Colors of Character: An Artist's Journey to Redemption, showing in theaters now through November 15th:
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