Show, don’t tell: Round 1

Round 1 in the Show, don’t tell showdown: Patty Wickman versus ubiquitous Christian painting hanging in most every American baptist church.

Patty Wikman thief

Above is Patty Wickman’s surreal A Thief in the Night. Wickman, an art professor at UCLA, is a master (in my opinion) of turning beautifully simple subjects into powerful metaphors.

Jesus knocking

Which do you think is more powerful imagery? Which is more likely to cause the viewer to more deeply engage the subject matter? Which one employs imagination? Which one tells and which one shows? And (ironically) which one is more likely to change a person’s attitude or worldview?

Christians in the past 100 years seem to have forgotten how to be creative, use our imaginations, when communicating visually. For some reason we feel the need to reduce the Gospel (and any other theological tenets we hold dear) to what is more or less propaganda. We obviously aren’t reading our Gospels very closely. The parables are a prime example of using art — storytelling — to show people an idea or principle rather than just saying it out loud. Granted, the culture was different then than now, and we may not be able to do exactly as Jesus did, but the point remains: People won’t respond to a direct statement in the same manner as they will to something that is illustrated, painted, drawn out.

And, for what it’s worth, the painting of Jesus knocking at the door (of your heart as so many mistakenly believe) is based on a verse, as far as I know, that’s almost always taken out of context. The imagery is generally used to appeal to non-believers. In reality, the verse is speaking to the church of Laodicea in the context of repentance.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

6 Responses to Show, don’t tell: Round 1

  1. jim janknegt says:

    Salman’s painting is a ripoff of Holman Hunt’s, which is a better painting, IMO.

    I don’t think it is either or, when it comes to visual art. I mean, you always have to show, don’t you. I don’t really see much difference in the concepts of the two paintings except the Wickman painting is just a better, more original painting. Both are using a visual metaphor to help us meditate on the meaning of a particular passage of scripture. If once chose to update the Hunt painting showing Jesus in modern dress standing at the door of a suburban house and the composition was good and the lighting effective it could be just as good a painting as the Wickman.

    • pcNielsen says:

      I think that might be why I had such a hard time writing the post in the first place. It makes sense to me when I hear the phrase, perfect sense, but when I try to work it out nothing comes.

    • Woody Brison says:

      There is just such a painting. Jesus is knocking on the door of an American upper middle class suburban house. A copy:

      I was a Mormon missionary and this painting evokes strong memories of what I observed and felt as I knocked on doors. Most people aren’t interested, altho their reasons aren’t about the truth or value of the religion.

  2. jim janknegt says:

    I meant to includde a link to the Holman Hunt painting:

  3. I agree with showing and not telling. Some times figuring out the difference can be so frustrating (I don’t claim to achieve that all the time) When you come across the difference it’s like night and day. I refer back to the fact that Jesus told parables too. There needs to be a link for the viewer to relate to and not a definitive answer spoon fed to the viewer. If there’s a touch of universal commonality and applicability to provide a common ground you’re well on your way to showing instead of spilling all your content on the canvas. Thanks for the comparison.

  4. Dan Lacey says:

    The first painting is to be admired, but the second is still well-loved. So, what category of art are you discussing?

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