Jeanette Bennett, utahvalley360.com
Christmas at the Christensens is an art form.
First there’s the color the Orem family uses to create their annual Christmas craft, which might be mangers or wooden toy cars. Then there’s the texture of the clam chowder and chili they eat for Christmas Eve dinner. The subject is always family. And then there’s the medium — which was film a few years ago.
The Christensens have a family tradition to read and act out the nativity story from Luke in the Bible.
After a few years, the bathrobe and dishtowel costumes weren’t quite cutting it.
Solution? Turn the nativity dramatization into a movie.
Wanting a true representation, this creative family took their video cameras and their costumes to a field in Lehi. Using purple cellophane over the lens to set the mood, they put their young children in a field with sheep and said, “Don’t move. Look in awe!”
The sheep didn’t read their script.
The animals began to stampede and jump over the children. The women at the edge of the field were screaming.
“It was disastrous!” James says.
It all seems funnier now that children aren’t in danger — and the footage is as priceless to them as a James Christensen original.
But James isn’t the only artist on the pedigree chart.
Three of his children, his sister (Lorelie Andrus), and his two young granddaughters are also creators. To understate, this family can draw more than stick figures. So when the holiday season rolls around, this Orem family knows how to express their feelings in a variety of colors and shapes.
And they can create Christmas on more than just canvas.
One year they caroled with kazoos, Carole recalls.
James on James
Hometown: Orem, Utah
Wife: Carole Christensen
Current Projects: Nauvoo Temple Murals, preparing for exhibition at BYU Museum of Art trademarks: fantasy art, christmas paintings and ornaments, detailed and colorful ideas
“We were laughing much harder than the people we caroled to,” she says.
Another Christensen family tradition calls for Santa Claus to drop by Christmas Eve with new pajamas for everyone.
From PJs to angel ornaments, Christmas fills the large family room at the Christensens. And much of it is Christensen-created.
This holiday season, the Christensens are hosting a Christmas party for their Orem neighbors, and James and Carole are decorating a tree with James’ hand-crafted Christmas ornaments.
“Our Christmas gift to our friends will be to let them pick an ornament to take home,” James says.
Ho ho ho
The man known as “Bops” to his four granddaughters is known as Santa Claus to art collectors. Years ago after painting a wizard with a long white beard as a cover for Time Life Books, Greenwich Workshop came to him and asked, “Can you do a Santa?”
The name James Christensen has been synonymous with Christmas ever since.
He has several prints, ornaments and porcelain pieces crafted with holiday themes.
New for 2001 is The Holy Family, a unique nativity set that shows Joseph, not Mary, holding baby Jesus.
“As a father, I wanted to show a dad holding his son,” James says. “Of course, Mary is probably saying, ‘Hold his head — don’t drop him!’”
Christmas for young James
When James was in 5th grade, he was, as always, looking forward to a magical Christmas.
“My parents took me aside and said, ‘We need to talk about Santa. He is just an idea.’”
James burst into tears and ran into his bedroom.
“I didn’t want to know that,” he says. “I wanted to keep believing in magic.”
This kid is still alive in James, as he is best known for his fantasy art that creates and gives form to the unbelievable and legend.
The BYU days
While being an artist has always been a part of who James is, he has provided stability for his family through teaching art, including 21 years at BYU.
James’ fun-loving yet disciplined nature made him a natural in the classroom. He traveled the world with his art students, and Carole was often able to meet up with them for part of the trip.
“We’d be riding on a train, and I’d hand him my journal and say, ‘Will you draw what we’ve seen today for me?’”
James and Carole both have journals dotted with depictions that tell their life stories.
“I loved being with the students,” James says. “But a friend told me when you can see the end of the tunnel, you have to start thinking differently.”
Although James, now 59, is retired, life hasn’t slowed down.
“Part of why I was a teacher was because I was worried I’d run out of ideas if all I did was paint,” James says. “But now I’m realizing I won’t have time to do all the things I’m thinking up.”
Mrs. Claus — er, Christensen
James, like all good art, needs balance, and his wife, Carole, provides it by doing his scheduling, accounting, and office work, as well as acting as his personal sounding board.
“Our goal is to make each other happy,” Carole says. “I always know that I’m more important to James than his art.”
But his art is also important to Carole. For many years, she says, they couldn’t afford to keep any of his original work. But now she often asks for a painting for her birthday or Mother’s Day.
James has always made gifts for Carole — at first because they were poor, but now because his art stands for so much the couple has shared.
The entryway of their new Orem home has James’ fingerprints all over it. The stained glass on the sides of the solid wood front door carry his signature look.
“Art is our life,” Carole says.
However, music was the focus of their early marriage, as James was in “The New Sweetbriar Band.” After missing several holidays and working late nights and weekends, the Christensens decided that playing in smoke-filled rooms wasn’t an ideal family lifestyle. James began focusing on his art.
“Art has always been inside of him,” Carole says. “He’s very driven.”
In the 21st century, artists can live anywhere. With FedEx, fax machines, e-mail and cell phones, a creator could live in the middle of nowhere and still communicate with his galleries, framers and distributors.
But James loves living in the hub of Utah Valley. In fact, earlier this year the Christensens moved into a new home just three houses down from where they raised their family.
James jokes that this time he built his studio and then attached a house to it.
“We just love the people here so much that we had to stay,” James says. “This is a safe, nice place to work, and we’ve raised our family here.”
His only wish? That Utah Valley could have been kept a secret just a little bit longer. He also loves the hard-working, intelligent people who live here and who play supporting roles in his productions. Businesses such as Arthur Pheysey Frames, Repartee Gallery and Windowbox Gallery offer great service and support for James’ fantasy art, Christmas pieces and other works.
“This is home to us,” says James, who, along with his wife, is originally from California.
To find peace and seclusion, the Christensens built “Snow White’s Cottage” in the mountains near their home (see cover photo).
“It is our place to get away and be together,” James says.
Not just a local artist
“Jim’s art makes you think,” says Sharon Swindle, owner of Repartee Gallery, which sells Christensen’s work. “Fantasy art is fun, but his pieces also have meaning to them, which is what draws people in.”
Swindle notes that people of all ages and understanding of art have an appreciation for his paintings. His work is also loved by “high-tech” people and foreigners, especially art lovers in Japan and England.
“His work touches on the human emotions in all of us,” Swindle says. “Even his fun pieces have something serious about them.”
James also appeals to his fans because of his magical speaking style. People who’ve heard him speak say they laugh so hard they almost fall off their chairs, but then he also provokes them to ask questions such as, “Is there really life after death?”
James is engaging as an artist, a community member, father and teacher.
Although James’ reputation far exceeds the boundaries of Utah Valley, his handiwork can be seen within our community. The Shops at Riverwoods has several sculptures, including the fountain between Tucanos and Repartee, of James’ fantasy art.
The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival uses James’ work as their signature storytelling piece. “All the World’s a Stage” is on the cover of the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s program.
“Although I can’t do every project that comes along, I enjoy being part of community events — the Shakespearean Festival is a treat for me to be a part of,” James says.
The future for James looks as colorful as his past.
He is one of six artists completing murals for the Nauvoo temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He is also preparing for an exhibition at the BYU Museum of Art scheduled to open in 2003.
“The last third of my life, I’m going for balance,” says James, always keeping with artistic principles. “I never get tired of art, so my battle is to keep balance with my family as the most important thing.”
And this Christmas season, the magic of Santa is pretty important, too — to him and to the rest of us whose holidays sparkle a little brighter because of his creations.