Master portrait artist Zimou Tan revives the Gospel in art but won’t depict the face of Jesus

POUGHKEEPSIE, New York — About a month before his solo exhibition billed “The Lord was there” opened at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie on March 1, master portrait artist Zimou Tan had a completely different vision of what the show would look like.

Initially, Tan planned to display 15 pieces from his portfolio split between his religious paintings and his portraits. But God, he said, interrupted everything.

“After a sermon that I heard about, maybe two months ago during our Sunday service, the pastor mentioned that the Lord was there. The whole sermon revolved around the idea that the Lord was there. Every part [of what] we do, Jesus is with us,” Tan explains.

“Tears came out my eyes, nonstop. My heart felt that I was called to do something different for the Lord. And I decided at that moment the whole show is dedicated [to the Lord].”

Tan, an award-winning traditional fine artist specializing in portrait and narrative figurative painting and drawings, would later find out that instead of getting space at the museum to display 15 paintings from his religious collection, he could put 10 pieces on display.

And the 10 he selected reflect how deeply his work is inspired by his faith and Scripture from the titles to the narratives behind them. There is “Valley of Dry Bones,” inspired by Ezekiel 37:1-10; “The Lion, the lamb, and the King,” inspired by Revelation 5:5 and Isaiah 53:7; “Forgiveness,” inspired by John 8:3-7; “Temptations,” inspired by Matthew 4:1-11; “Faith,” inspired by Genesis 22:1-19; “40 Days,” inspired by Matthew 4:1; “Blessing,” inspired by Luke 6:20-23; “Seeking Sanctuary,” inspired by Romans 11:33-36; "Carrying the cross together," inspired by Matthew 27:31-32; and “Receiving the Paraclete”, inspired by John 16:13.

About 10 years earlier, Tan, 50, says he converted to Christianity. Though he was always a spiritual person with Buddhist influences, his work was mainly rooted in a philosophical exploration of life without any specific faith tradition. Since his conversion to Christianity, he says he has been on a different journey with his art.

It is a crisp, sunny, spring day in late March when Tan recalls the story of God’s divine interruption that set the stage for “The Lord was there,” which ends on April 28 at the museum about 200 miles outside New York City.

He is comfortably dressed in jeans, a stylish sweater, a trilby hat, and glasses with photochromic lenses that change color in the sun. He introduces himself warmly in the parking lot of a historic building in Wingdale. He reveals that he and his wife are working to fulfill another vision to convert the building into a hub for artists. It will include a gallery where Christian artists especially can find a home to display their work.

“This gallery can also open a door, a window for Christian artists, because not too many places are willing to host just for religious art,” Tan says.

He recalls the history of the building as he enters. It once housed a hotel. Most recently, it was a showroom for Hunt’s Country Furniture. A sign for the furniture company still hangs at the front. It isn’t hard to imagine the building as a hotel near the bank of the Tenmile River across the street. It’s quiet and rustic.

Tan gives a quick tour of the building while casting his vision of each room inside. It’s easy to see as he describes it in painterly tones.

He eventually stops next to the sill of a bright picture window just above the main stairway on the second floor of the building where he shares a bit of his origin story as an artist. It started in China.

“I always joked around that I was made in China and improved in the United States,” he quips.

He recalls the first time he went to school at age 8. He remembers when his teacher asked what he wanted to be as an adult and how he never hesitated to tell it.

“People say, ‘I want to be an astronaut,’ ‘I want to be a doctor,’ ‘I want to be a lawyer,’ I didn't want to be a scientist,’” Tan recalls. “I was the only one with my hand raised, saying, 'I want to be an artist.' I remember that because that was the first time I went to school.”

Tan had never been able to attend school before then. He recalls being separated from his parents at one point and put in the care of his grandmother.

Though he never had everything he needed to practice art in his earlier years, Tan explains how a lack of formal tools for the trade wasn’t able to stop him from being creative.

“I was using a twig on the ground. During that time kids had nothing. I was just using rocks and twigs on the ground. Drawing and cutting, copying things I see,” he says.

People in his community noticed his talent. By the time he was about 12, Tan says he began learning about portraiture. He started sketching members of his family even though his work at that time was not very good. He also became an apprentice to a 93-year-old master artist in China.