Note: This article spotlights work at Denver Seminary, where three faculty members are individual faculty partners of the Oikonomia Network.
Artwork: Light the Lamps, Justin Reddick, mixed media on canvas, 30” x 40”, private collection (used with permission)
Justin Reddick wears many hats. He is a husband, father, artist, seminary student and the religious services assistant and creative arts platform facilitator at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. I first met Justin after a lecture I gave on a theology of work in one of our foundational courses at Denver Seminary: Introduction to Mentored Formation. In the lecture, I referred to the work of artists. Being an artist himself, Justin wanted to follow up and talk after class. He shared with me his love for art and his desire to somehow incorporate that part of his life into his schoolwork. That began a journey over the next couple of years in which I would watch him integrate his faith and work in powerfully redemptive ways.
Denver Seminary students are required to engage a for-credit curriculum called Training and Mentoring. This part of their degree program entails engaging mentors while intentionally pursuing growth in personal character and professional skill formation needs. It is a self-directed, collaborative, context-based curriculum, which allows students to integrate their learning outside the classroom. For Justin, this primarily took shape through integrating his passion for art, his love for others and his daily work at the prison.
Over the course of five semesters, Justin used both character-based and skill-based learning plans to develop the Creative Arts Platform. This is a program available to inmates as part of the preparation process for reentry back into society in a way that leads to personal and community flourishing. The program is affiliated with the National Gallery of Art, drawing on their curriculum, which is used in schools across the country. Through multiple phases, participants learn about art history and personal identity, and create an art portfolio based upon what they learn about art and themselves.
The Creative Arts Platform is an individualized process conducted in the prison, but it has spilled out into the community as well. Art created by inmates was put on display in a public art exhibition in the summer of 2018. And earlier this year, a number of program participants were invited to create a mural in the community, depicting their journey from being incarcerated to being freed. Justin is affirming the inmates’ individual value while giving them opportunities to create value through their work for the community in Colorado.
Justin’s vision for loving his neighbor as himself through this art program is motivated by the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 (see one of Justin’s art pieces below). However, beyond just visiting those in prison, Justin is amplifying the dignity and worth of this easily overlooked and marginalized population. The inmates spend the majority of their time in isolation, and it would be quite easy to build a primary self-identity around this isolation and their own brokenness. The art program is a tool that helps the inmates see themselves as more than just a number confined to a cell; they are people with a story. Though the curriculum is not overtly evangelistic in and of itself, the program affords a multitude of opportunities for Justin to engage with the inmates in this way as they desire.
Justin’s Christlike character makes the art program work: His love and compassion for others; his courage to step into peoples’ stories; his vision to engage the needs of others where many will not go; and his hope to see lives and communities changed through the redemptive power of the gospel.
While I may be Justin’s professor, there are many times I have found myself being his student. He has an imagination that extends well beyond formal art media such as painting on a canvas or sculpting something out of clay. In many ways, he sees the prison as a canvas, and has stepped into that context with a redemptive imagination, believing that God can and will make all things new. I am personally challenged to portray Christ to others in my own work as an educator in these same ways, expressing a redemptive imagination that hopes for the renewal of all things now and to come.