Frontlines / Christians at Work : The Artist

Philip Lawson Johnston is a glass engraver, who holds a Royal Warrant for his work. His website says: “My intention is to create on glass designs that not only are pleasing to the eye and accurate in what they portray, but also reflect in some way the care and attention to detail of the Creator, as observed in the world around us.” Gavin Matthews spoke to Philip for Solas, to find out how he shares Christ in the world of art.

Solas: Tell us a little about your job?

PLJ: Well in February this year I will have been a glass engraver for fifty years! It’s the only job I’ve ever had. I’ve been self-employed for all that time, as I suspect I am unemployable! I managed to fail my art A-level, and didn’t go to university. I was about twenty years of age and needed something to do, and really didn’t have a clue where to turn. Then it was suggested to me that should try glass engraving. My mother met a glass engraver, and there were very, very few of them around in 1971; it wasn’t something many people knew much about in the early 1970s. So I looked into it, with my brother – initially just to please our Mother. But we liked what we saw and we both decided to give it a go. My older brother Andy was a fellow Christian and a fellow engraver – which was a huge encouragement to me for the rest of his life.

What the job entails is engraving glass using a dental laboratory drill. Designed initially to shape things like false teeth, these dental drills are hand held, and have diamond tipped burrs and so forth. The diamond encrusted tips are industrial strength and cut glass very well. There are various stone wheels too; a whole variety of tools, each of which gives a different effect. Engraving is much more than drawing on glass as there is a sculptural element to it too, as you cut into the glass; and the depth to which you cut in gives an effect as well.

90% of what I do is commissions, which could be anything from some initials on a glass; to a picture of somebody’s house, formal inscriptions, coats of arms, company logos; or more freehand work such as wildlife or landscape scenes (which is the part I enjoy the most). I taught myself calligraphy in order to engrave words into glass. My brother was better at calligraphy than me, so I copied him and have mastered three types of script which I usually use.

Solas: Which part of the job do you enjoy the most?

PLJ: Well, part of my nature is that I prefer curves to straight-lines! I like the freehand approach, which I prefer to the rigid and disciplined part of the work; which says a lot about my life in that I’m pretty undisciplined! I’ve had to learn the more structured side of the work as that is what I am often asked to do.

Solas: And you work alone?

PLJ: Yes, but although I work alone I have a lot of contacts with people. Through this work I have met a huge range of interesting people I never would have come across otherwise; people in all walks of life.

Solas: What are some of the challenges you face at work – and how does your faith in Christ help you to navigate those?

PLJ: One of them is gauging whether someone who wants some work is very prescriptive about how they want things done, with very precise instructions about how it is to look; or someone who is less so and is more prepared to let me produce something for them with more of my creative input.

Another in the life of a self-employed artist, has been times when there has been a lack of work. For fifty years in this field it has been ‘feast-or-famine’. There have been times when there has been an abundance of work, and times when it has got very thin. In times when the work hasn’t come in, the bills have kept coming! For me, the key to dealing with that has been prayer. There have been many times when I’ve got on my knees (along with many friends!) and prayed “Lord, I need work!” and I have to say that He has provided again and again and again. We’ve prayed and God has been amazingly good and has provided – sometimes most unexpectedly from sources that I would never have thought of. So, about four years ago someone contacted me, which led to engraving beautiful whisky decanters in China! It led to six long trips in the Far East. That came completely out of the blue, I hadn’t been thinking about how I could get into China!

Solas: But that was more of answer to prayer than a genius business strategy!?

PLJ: Definitely! There’s no strategy! I do try and do exhibitions though to show the work that I do, and there I can do work that I enjoy rather than just commissions, where I have far more creative free reign. I can be more experimental, and speak more loudly through it.

Solas: Do people know you are a Christian, how do people react to it when they do know?

PLJ: Well, being a Christian producing art always provokes the question “how obvious is my faith in my art?” –I n that my job is not to engrave a tract for people to read. Now I do produce quite a lot of obviously Christian art for churches – but that’s something different. But my work is not about producing a picture of a kitten with a Bible verse underneath! So, I have asked myself about how my art reflects my faith. What I have boiled it down to is looking at creation, and how that speaks to us. The veins on a leaf, or a sunset, extraordinary wildlife – how does that speak to us about the God who is behind it? Well, in creation you see an amazing attention to detail, every snowflake is different, every leaf is too, or look at the human eye. The detail is quiet unbelievable actually – it’s mind boggling. And I love detail – when I am engraving a bird for example, I love putting in tiny details of the markings, the surroundings. To me, that is a way of reflecting the care and the detail that God has placed in creation. I think that communicates something.

Another thing is that when I am doing more formal engraving, such as retirement gifts- I am helping people to say ‘thankyou’. Saying thankyou to someone with a personal, beautiful gift is a very valid thing, which speaks also of the care and goodness of God. Engendering thankfulness is a good way to live before God too.

Psalm 90 contains a particularly important verse for me, “May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us. Establish the work of our hands for us; yes establish the work of our hands” (v17). For me that is the motto for my work. From that I wrote my own mission statement for work which says: “My intention is to create on glass, designs which are not only pleasing to the eye and accurate in what they portray but also reflect in some way the care and attention to detail of the Creator as observed in the world around us.”

Solas: That’s lovely! So how do people respond to this? You obviously have contacts with customers, suppliers, business people..?

PLJ: Well, some don’t notice, they don’t have eyes to see! I sign every piece I engrave, usually under the bottom of the stem of a glass or bowl. I put my signature, the date and a something else. Sometimes a fish-symbol, – or if I’m feeling especially bold “Jesus Cares”. I want people to think, “why does he care?” I want them to see that he cares for the details of our lives, something I hope to reflect in the way I care for the details of my work. Generally people are respectful of my faith. There have only been a couple of times when I have had to refuse work, because of my faith. That was quite difficult when people wanted me to engrave things that my conscience wouldn’t allow. I have been asked to do, for example Masonic symbolism – and I really don’t like doing that. I’ve had to refuse commissions once or twice, and of course they don’t understand why. However for me, that crossed a red-line; there would be other red-lines I’d have to hold to if challenged too. Thankfully that’s been rare!

Solas: Have you had opportunities to talk about your faith to people you’ve met through your work?

PLJ: I once had an adverse reaction! Sometimes I’ve engraved “Soli Deo Gloria” into my pieces, (which is what Bach put on all his sheet music), because it means “To God alone be the glory”. I did that on the base of a set of glasses, and someone said it made them feel very awkward and uncomfortable when they washed them up! I thought, “Well, that’s alright”!

Solas: So your faith is obvious on your website, you are dropping these little inscriptions in and seeking to reflect something of God in the way you go about your art.. what motivates you to want to share your faith in Christ like this?

PLJ: Some years ago I wrote a book about worship called, “Song of the Father’s Heart” and I answered that question in there. In the last chapter entitled “Captured by the Wonder” (which is also the title of a song I wrote), I quoted C.S. Lewis who described an artist who starts by seeing the light, and then sets out to portray something of that light so that others may catch glimpses of it. But he then drifts into creating the art just for the sake of the art – and forgets to continue looking at the light, which then becomes obscured. This parable warns of the danger to every poet, musician or artist of becoming ever more interested in their own work and then their own personalities and then their own reputations. Only grace can save them from that deadly end.

And one sets out with the desire to encapsulate some of the light which one has received and let it shine in what one creates with one’s hands so that others will (hopefully and prayerfully) capture themselves. But the danger is of becoming so absorbed in the art that you actually that you lose your initial motivation. So I have to keep checking that and reminding myself that what I am doing is earning a living, but there is a missional element to it too. When I’m not engraving I do a lot of worship leading for churches, and writing and recording songs – and that is a more obvious and direct way of expressing my love for the Lord. But there is a connection between the two.

Solas: What advice would you give a young Christian entering your field of work who wants to be faithful to Christ there?

PLJ: Chose something more stable! No, I’m joking! I’d say to anyone, make integrity your top priority in everything you do. It is absolutely vital in art and in business. Integrity helps people to trust you – and that is so important. You can lose your integrity in a second, and the person is gone. Then after that, pursue excellence. Do the absolute best you can at all times. Now one person’s ‘best’ might be better than another person’s ‘best’, but each person should make sure that they are doing their best – and asking God to help you constantly improve. That’s as true in songwriting, worship leading as it is in art. In the long lists of names in Chronicles it mention Kennaniah who led the temple worship because he was good at it! Being good at it was commended. I’d also say that in art it’s OK to imitate others who have gone before you. Classical composers did it, The Beatles did it – we all need to learn from those who have gone ahead of us.

Solas: Thankyou for speaking to us!

PLJ: Thankyou!!