Discovering the Reformed faith gave Mike Mahon the freedom to pursue his calling as a landscape and portrait painter. He began studying fine arts at Texas Tech University in the late 1960s. But he quickly became disillusioned because “all anybody was interested in doing was making philosophical or political statements.” Also, most artists embraced abstract art and dismissed traditional painting and concepts of beauty.
Mahon, an agnostic at the time, felt he had no particular agenda: “I just wanted to do beautiful artwork.”
He switched his major to design and illustration, where he found the drawing and painting studies more serious, and went on to a commercial art career.
Shortly after college, Mahon and his wife, Cynthia, joined a Bible study. The group was dispensationalist, but one member became a Calvinist and kept pressing the issue. Things got so tense that the Calvinist was told he had to leave.
But “within six months, we were all Calvinists,” Mahon said.
The group sought counsel from Covenant Presbyterian Church in Abilene, Texas, eventually forming an OP chapel in Lubbock.
In 1976, the Mahons moved to Amarillo, Texas, where they helped to start Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church. One weekend, Cornelius Van Til led a seminar there. In reading Van Til’s books, Mahon found his mission as a painter: to fulfill the Christian’s calling to “think God’s thoughts after him.”
“If you believe that God created the universe and conceived it even before he created it, then everything we see was in his mind from the beginning,” Mahon said. The job of the painter becomes offering “a reflection of him.”
Suddenly, Mahon was free, not only from the political and philosophical expectations of other artists, but also from the fundamentalist misconception he had grown up under: that the arts were a “heathen activity.” He began painting portraits and landscapes as a sidelight to his commercial art studio, which he ran until 1998, when he switched to full-time painting. He also teaches art workshops around the country and sells an easel he designed.
“If you’re in music, you go to Nashville; if you’re an artist, you go to Santa Fe,” Mahon said, explaining the couple’s move in 2008 from Amarillo to Santa Fe. There they joined the fledgling Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Mahon has been an OP elder for about thirty years.
Mahon doesn’t often paint overtly Christian works, although he does paint covers for The Confessional Presbyterian (see www.cpjournal.com)—usually portraits of famous theologians. During presbytery and general assembly meetings, he sketches his fellow commissioners.
He doesn’t believe it’s necessary to embed a cross in every painting, as one of his college professors did, or to paint “Christian” themes.
“Doing the best you can do at reinterpreting what you see is sufficient,” he said. “Your faith will express itself naturally, whatever your calling.”
The author is a member of Grace OPC in Columbus, Ohio. To see Mahon’s paintings, go to mmahon.com. He is available to deliver church seminars on Christianity and art. Photo © Mike Mahon. New Horizons, March 2015.