Faith in Art
Painting Freedom began as many ministries do—with a leap of faith. Artist Tucker Rodkey’s plan for art and sharing the gospel required him to believe God over his own senses.
“Throughout the creation of what became Painting Freedom, God was always showing me the next step, but never the final step,” says Rodkey, who brings messages of the Gospel and parables to life through paintings. “It was like shining a flashlight just bright enough to illuminate one foot in front of me.”
Painting Freedom has become a powerful, recognized multimedia ministry. Rodkey and a group of talented artists combine painting and other forms of multimedia to share their individual testimonies and talk about God’s presence in our lives.
Streets of Philadelphia
At age 11, Rodkey remembers thinking, “If everything that I know from the Bible is true, and God is real, my life needs to reflect that.” As a child of missionaries, he had always known the Lord. But as he grew older, other spiritual mentors and guides came into his life. One of these was Ryan Jackson, a high school art teacher and devout Christian. “Ryan was a wild and crazy guy who loved the Lord. We would spend hours talking about art and God,” says Rodkey. Rodkey became part of a community of young Christian artists who wanted their lives to reflect what they believe.
But when Jackson proposed that they go to a park in Philadelphia and tell people about Jesus through art, Rodkey immediately balked at the idea. “Philadelphia is not New York City, with its outdoor art culture open to everyone. Plus, I wasn’t comfortable sharing my faith so openly,” says Rodkey.
Jackson challenged Rodkey, who eventually agreed to be part of the project. At the park, Jackson and the team painted an unconventional interpretation of the stoning of the biblical character Stephen, with the martyr in jeans and a t–shirt. Rodkey’s experience with Ryan Jackson in the park was the beginning of what would become Painting Freedom’s ministry of reaching people through art.
“We didn’t even have to initiate talks; they just came about organically,” says Rodkey. “People asked what the painting was about and why it was important to share. From there, the conversation went to Jesus.”
Taking the Coast
While attending college in Colorado, Rodkey discovered the words of Jeremiah 8:20: “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.”
“While reading those words I felt the Spirit speak to me. I already had a vision to combine art and spoken word with the gospel,” says Rodkey. “It was finally time to focus on the ministry that I wanted to do.”
That summer Rodkey left school to begin what he referred to as “Take the Coast 2014,” a road trip from Florida to New Hampshire. It consisted of creating art and sharing the gospel at beaches and boardwalks. Take the Coast was another leap of faith for the 18–year–old, who slept in his car and spent hours inside coffeeshops on rainy days.
“At times I felt lost in a wilderness, but I also had deeply intimate moments with God. I made connections. I prayed with and for many people,” says Rodkey. He recalls being in Florida and painting a conceptual portrait of a man. Rodkey intentionally omitted parts of the man’s face. The finished image remarkably resembled an unfinished puzzle. As Rodkey worked, he spoke to onlookers about how at times we can all feel as if something is missing from our lives. “But Christ is the one who can put all our pieces back together and make us whole,” said the artist.
“A scarred homeless man came up to me and asked what I was doing. He had seen my painting from across the street,” remembers Rodkey. “Then he said to me, ‘I feel like this guy is missing something from his life, just like I’m missing something from mine. I don’t know what can fill that, but I feel you have an answer for me.’” Moments such as that one proved to Rodkey that using art to reach people with the gospel would be a success.
Two years after Rodkey’s summer of taking the coast, he was working jobs as a landscaper and a church employee. Though he had done paintings at pastoral conferences and at Christian conventions a few times each year, he now decided to make Painting Freedom his full–time service. Having built up years of connections, Rodkey gathered artists who shared his vision, just as art teacher Ryan Jackson had done.
In 2017, Painting Freedom performed at Creationfest, a Christian music festival. The artists created a gallery’s worth of paintings. The festival organizers and audience welcomed them and their work to the main stage. Since then, Rodkey says God has opened every path for the ministry.
Today, Painting Freedom also consists of spoken word poets, musicians, and filmmakers. “When we combine a Christian song or a powerful testimony with a video or a speed painting, it all suddenly comes to life,” says Rodkey. “The presence of the painting is never the side attraction, but rather, another way to promote the message of Scripture.”
In galleries and community
Painting Freedom is also empowering artists to influence the fine art world. Despite a common belief that modern art is shut off from Christianity and God, Rodkey says that if artists communicate what they see and live as the truth, the art world relates to it and appreciates it.
Painting Freedom has also helped bring art to Chester, Pa., the home of many artists in the group. They’ve worked with local art galleries to launch Legacy Arts Club, an after–school art program to mentor young artists and offer projects such as mural painting.
“In addition to the travel that Painting Freedom does, we wanted to serve our own backyard too. Despite Chester being a low–income town, it has a growing art culture. Opportunities keep coming up for us to combine art with involvement in the community.”
“As in art, the secret to a successful outdoor ministry is to create something that starts a conversation,” says Rodkey. “Even when you are done creating, people will remain engaged and talking about your creation.
“A spectacle will only bring people that will watch and leave,” says Rodkey. “But if you create something that starts a discussion, they will stay until that discussion is finished and everyone has had their say.”
Earlier this summer, Painting Freedom made its second appearance at the Salvation Army’s Old Orchard Beach Pier ministry in Maine. Rodkey painted as spoken word artist Abby Robinson shared her powerful testimony with the Pier crowd. Rodkey completed over 20 paintings that week, which were given to attendees.
“I love how The Salvation Army presents the word of God in Maine,” says Rodkey. “It can be easy to overcomplicate the gospel; there is so much packed in there that you can study it into oblivion. But the Army has found ways to make it accessible to everyone.”
Art for the soul
“Starting Painting Freedom was an enormous risk, but God opened the door and we acted on it,” says Rodkey. “Faith without action is dead, and I have no interest in ever having dead faith.
“If you want to experience God’s love as no one else has, you need to go where no one else has gone,” says Rodkey. “If you’re not taking those brave risks, don’t complain about being bored or burnt out in your faith. There are always new, exciting ways to serve the Lord.”
Rodkey says that despite art’s power, it’s still only a tool to be used for the mission of bringing people to God, whether it’s for an audience of five people, or a group of thousands. “It’s nice to be in front of a large conference crowd or in a festival. It might look great in a photo, but that’s not more important than the one–on–one conversation about the Lord with someone after the art is done.
by Hugo Bravo