When I was serving as a missionary in Mozambique, I spent lots of time sharing my love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, learning, and forming relationships with some of the most wonderful souls I have had the blessing to know. I also had my share of hardships. Rejection, exhaustion, disappointment. On those long, hard days, I would pull out a picture of a painting of Christ by J. Kirk Richards. It gave me perspective. It gave me peace.
Upon returning to school after my missionary service, I continued to pursue my journalism degree. One of my classes, Photo Journalism, allowed me to seek out subjects to photograph as a way to tell stories. Because of my deep respect and admiration for him and his work, and I reached out to Kirk, asking if he would grant me the chance to photograph him in his studio. Graciously, he accepted. It was an awe-inspiring experience.
Kirk’s artwork is deeply meaningful to me. It inspires, uplifts, and beautifies; I feel immensely humbled that he would be a part of the Talking Shop series. Today, he shares the background behind one of his favorite pieces, what makes him passionate about art, and where he finds inspiration.
Everyone, meet Kirk!
How did your journey as an artist start?
I loved drawing as a kid. In elementary school, I participated in the PTA’s Reflections Competition. My music lessons often took place in BYU’s Harris Fine Arts Center, and the artwork displayed there made me excited. The desire began building inside of me to express myself with visual art.
When I was fourteen, I convinced my parents to let me trade in my music lessons for art lessons. My mom found a private art teacher. I also took art classes through high school. By the time I reached college, I’d already spent a lot of hours developing drawing and design skills.
As a freshman in college, I declared an art major and committed to pursuing a career as an artist. I earned a BA degree in Visual Arts Studio at BYU. I traveled to New Jersey for a brief apprenticeship with professional artist Patrick Devonas during that time. Once I graduated, Amy and I lived frugally so I could spend the majority of my time making art. Time spent making art allowed me to grow my voice, my audience, and my methods of sharing artwork.
What makes you passionate about what you do?
I believe art plays an important role in the story of the world, in social and cultural development, in developing community, in conveying ideas. I’m passionate about the conversation art allows me to have with my community. But also, I simply love beauty. I love manipulating pigment and building surfaces and telling a story. To quote Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, “The beautiful is as useful as the useful.”
Describe your creative process.
My process is varied. At times, I jump in headfirst and hope that meaning presents itself. A sketch of a physical gesture is often the beginning point. Then I ask myself what the figure is doing. And what does it mean that the figure is doing this thing? Sometimes the composition develops completely from imagination. Sometimes I utilize visual reference by working from a model or photographs. Sometimes the process is quick, and sometimes it takes years.
What has been one of the hardest challenges in your career?
It took a lot of patience during the early years, waiting for the results I wanted, both aesthetically and financially. I didn’t feel like I fit into or was welcomed by any existing schools of artistic thought. In retrospect, I was forging my own path. But at the time, I mostly felt like I was doing things the wrong way, or that I wasn’t being given the right opportunities. Also, relying on my studies of the human figure was considered off the beaten path within my conservative culture.
What has been one of your biggest accomplishments?
Every time I finish a large work of art, I consider it a big accomplishment. Every time I hear from a pastor on the other side of the world, wanting to use my image for their ministry, I’m amazed at the reach an image can have.
What other artists have been the biggest influences on you?
Jules Bastien-Lepage, Bruce Hixson Smith, Anselm Kiefer, Edgar Maxence, James C. Christensen, Hagen Haltern, Anne Gregerson, Mary Sauer, Fran Cliff, Leroy Transfield, Caitlin Connolly, Brian Kershisnik, Gary Ernest Smith.
How do you find inspiration?
I visit art museums, antique shops, old churches. I work in different places to change my environment. Sometimes I browse periodicals to see what contemporary artists are doing. I keep a sketchbook. I pay attention to conversations around me and try to make sense of contemporary issues by making art about them.
What was the best advice you’ve ever been given?
“You have a specific and unique life mission.”
“It’s not necessarily the most talented that succeed, but rather, they who work hardest.”
“Gatekeepers may argue against your style, but they can’t argue against your high art-making output.”
“As a working studio artist, you need a product.”
Tell us the background behind one of your favorite works you’ve done.
A recently popular image I painted is “Jesus Said Love Everyone.” The image is one of several recent works that have incorporated a rainbow. These have come about as I have tried to sort out my own conflicts of faith as it relates to current policy and treatment of LGBTQ family, friends, and acquaintances. I maintain there is much room to do better and to put into practice the admonitions of the old primary song, “treat them kindly too.”
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
Push yourself to continuously improve in three areas: craft, concept, and sharing. Craft: get better at using your materials, at making your aesthetic match your message, at gathering a tool belt of techniques. Concept: improve the ideas behind your art, and your ability to communicate those ideas to your audience. Share: improve the methods by which you get your art in front of people. Find effective ways to grow your audience. What conversations is your art having with your community?
The Fun Qs:
What is your favorite out-of-studio activity?
I’m a recent convert to the beach. I like photography. Playing basketball. Cooking. Eating at a restaurant. Traveling to places with art and architecture.
What is your desert-island meal?
Maybe just tacos. Or a really good pasta. But also apple dumplings with vanilla ice cream.
What is the best book you’ve read recently?
“Future Mormon” by Adam Miller is currently on my nightstand. I’m also reading “Writing Better Lyrics.”
Your favorite family tradition?
We play games together. Chicken foot with dominoes. Speed Scrabble. Crazy 8s on Game Pigeon.
Follow Kirk on Instagram @jkirkrichards and visit his website here.
Feature Image by Ashley Thalman
Great read, J. Kirk is a fantastic example of someone who has spent the time and continues to develop a true love for humanity. An artist in every sense of the word and someone who understands what can come from a strong work ethic combined with a loving artistic practice.