Sean Oswald started drawing when he was three years old. He kept a black, nylon easel under the bunk bed. His work brings beauty to light, in portraits and landscapes of real people and places.
“I felt called to it [being an artist] from a very young age,” he said. His parents took him to after-school programs at the Toledo Art Museum. “I would go there and draw from the sculptures. I didn’t think it was unusual at all. It was what I really loved,” Sean said.
When he was eleven years old, he went to Disney World with his family. His grandpa, a German immigrant said to the animators you’ve got to let Sean draw with you.’ So he drew Mickie Mouse with the Disney animator.
‘Sean is going to be an artist someday,’ the animator said. “I remember latching on to that and thinking “I’m going to be an animator someday. I’m going to be an artist,” he said. From that time on, Sean believed that he would go to art school and become an artist.
He also had an art teacher in high school who took an interest in his work. “I think this was my freshman or sophomore year. The teacher said, ‘Sean has more drawing ability in his pinky than anyone in the school combined.’
In 2004, he left his home in Toledo to enroll in art school at Miami University. He joined a Bible study and was convinced he should be a pastor or a missionary. “There was a hierarchy of good Christians and at the bottom of that were artists and self-destructive people,” Sean said.
He grew up attending a Missionary Alliance Church, an evangelical Protestant denomination that believes “spiritual gifts are supernatural empowerments given by the Holy Spirit,” according to the Christian and Missionary Alliance website.
Sean said, “I knew the vocation of an artist didn’t make sense in that church tradition.” When it was almost time for graduation, he decided “I’m no longer going to be an art guy – I’m going to be a Christian guy.”
He and his wife Hilary moved to the Hudson River Valley in 2012. That’s where he apprenticed with the realist painter, Garin Baker at his studio “The Carriage House Atelier.”
Baker told him “You’re going to paint two to three paintings a day. You’re going to paint all day and you’re going to learn something.” That’s where he learned the tradition of “alla prima,” an Italian phrase that translates to “at once.”
Van Gough, an artist that Sean cited in our conversation, was a master of the Alla Prima technique. Sean painted still lifes in the morning, landscapes in the afternoon, and portraits in the evenings. Now he teaches Van Gough as part of the fine arts curriculum at a classical, Christian school in Waco, Texas.
“He was a Protestant artist who thought he had to be a preacher. He was terrible at it. He tried to be a bookseller and a teacher,” Sean said.
He searched for a Christian tradition in grad school – where he pursued an MFA, with a more conceptual painting approach. During a residency a few years later – he came to the realization that he was “too invested” in the politics of the contemporary art world.
“I was caught up in wanting to show in certain galleries. I was starting to do work that I didn’t believe in as much.”
Then he started looking at early Renaissance painters and watched Pier Paolo’s film “The Gospel of St. Matthew” which was released in 1964. When it was time for his first solo art show, he was inspired. “I decided to draw and charcoal from the gospel of Luke and Matthew.”
“I got the feeling…what I was doing wasn’t ‘cool.’ We did a walk through on the last day with thirty people. It was just so awkward.” He titled this project, “The Gospel, According to St. Luke.”
“I was trying to explore my feeling and thinking of my church tradition, Evangelicalism, Protestantism. I grew up in a very German-American family.” His dad grew up Roman Catholic and his mom grew up Lutheran.
When he became Anglican, the internal conflict of being an artist evaporated. “Along with being an Anglican, I intuited as a kid, in Catholicism there was a place for being an artist. He started attending Christ Church Waco, the “that deep existential angst was just gone.” Sean was finally able to rest in his vocation as an artist.
Sean’s work is unique, but you will undoubtedly see it in real life. If you visit Christ Church Waco, you can see his altarpiece that depicts the Resurrection of Jesus. When I was new to town in Waco, a family invited me over for Easter brunch – Sean had painted a beautiful mural of the Brazos River in their foyer.
“Even if I don’t become successful, it will be okay. I’m an artist and can be faithful to the calling” he said.