Artist Christian Calvin’s manliness is surely beyond repute. The Nashville-based neo-expressionist painter, after all, was once a wide receiver for the University of Tennessee’s football team. To this day, he signs his paintings with the number from his old high school football jersey.
Yet a certain feminine sensibility inhabits all of Calvin’s art. His paintings overflow with positive images of brightly painted female figures. Often, these figures tower over background sketches of sturdy buildings, a symbol of a woman’s strength in society.
“A lot of my artistic inspiration comes from living in a house full of women,” Calvin explains. “I live with a wife and four daughters, and they have brought out my softer side.”
One of Calvin’s colorful creations is on display at Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center through July 23, 2023 as part of the museum’s Permanent Memory Collection. The painting is titled “Lovers Lane” and depicts a romantic couple dancing in front of a skyline of tall buildings. The inspiration for the piece came from a photograph of Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly dancing in the 1956 film “High Society.”
“I loved the photo and just did my own thing with it,” Calvin says.
“Lovers Lane” is typical of the artist’s style. The dancers are abstract figures drawn with elements of expressionism and cubism. Bright colors imbue the dancers with a certain radiance, conveying energy and positivity.
Calvin’s process begins with taking a canvas and painting it black. “I’ll paint the edges and sides first and then sometimes go on to paint the entire canvas,” Calvin explains. “I don’t like having any blank spaces.”
For his next layer, Calvin mixes paint, sand, glue and water, which he lays down for the background. Texture now becomes a central focus of the work. He therefore rejects traditional paint brushes, preferring instead to use a garden scraper.
To create his images, Calvin will use chalk to draw on the background. When he first started painting, Calvin generally improvised, producing themes, symbols and images more or less spontaneously. Now, he often sketches his ideas on paper first.
Regardless of process, Calvin always signs his works with his nom de guerre, 33N. Like his paintings, the signature is layered with meaning. It represents his old football number, his first name (the last letter in Christian is ‘n’), and Christ’s age at the time of his death.
“For me, the number 33 is deeply spiritual and positive,” he says.
Calvin spent most of his adult life working in his family’s business. The business was sold when Calvin was still in his early forties, leaving him with extra time on his hands. He soon found his way into art. He was walking along a beach in Panama City with his family when they suddenly came upon a sand dollar.
“You usually find sand dollars in lots of broken pieces, but this one was completely intact,” he recalls. “We took it with us and painted it. I’ve been painting ever since.”
Calvin’s painting eventually attracted the attention of Cheryl Strichik, executive director at Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center. In 2022, she organized an exhibition at the MACC titled “Birth: A Father and son Journey,” which featured Calvin’s paintings along with the folk-art sculptures of his father, Brownie Calvin. The exhibit met with critical acclaim.
The success of that exhibit was eventually noticed by John Block, the executive vice president of the Park West Gallery, the world’s largest private art gallery. Calvin soon signed on as a Park West artist. He now takes his place alongside other luminaries of the art world such as Peter Max, Mark Kostabi, Alexandre Renoir, Tim Yanke and Autumn de Forest.
“I never dreamed I’d be able to do anything like this,” Calvin says. “And the MACC played a big part in it.”