As an accomplished commercial artist, Tyrone Huntley gets some pretty challenging job assignments, including drawings for the lounge at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Toronto, layouts for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, and album cover designs for Donna Summer and James Brown.
But when a national church group recently commissioned him to do a series of Christmas drawings, Huntley came up against something that left more than a few broken pencils strewn about his Southeast Washington studio.
The assignment: Draw Jesus.
It sounded simple enough at first. "Usually I ask questions of an art director like, 'What do you mean,' or 'What do you want?' But this was Jesus and I felt I could draw him."
And he did, with a broad nose, full lips and earth tones instead of peaches-and-cream skin.
So his client came back with a long face and a picture from a Bible -- and sent Huntley back to the drawing board with a "model" of the type of Christ that the church wanted.
Because this was a commercial venture, Huntley tried again. But every time he put the nose on Jesus it came out flat and the lips stayed full.
It seems that most Americans figure Jesus to be a handsome white man with blond hair and blue eyes. Most folk -- except Huntley.
Clearly, Huntley had a problem, and it was not unlike the discomfort experienced by many black people, black men in particular, who have stopped going to church in part because of this symbol of a white Jesus representing the purity of God's covenant with man.
And yet for Huntley there was no escaping the impact of the man born in a manger nearly 2,000 years ago this week.
At first Huntley ran, but he could not hide.
"I tried to devise a system where I did not have to deal with Christ's features, just the energy he represented," Huntley said. "I ended up falling way behind on the assignment and agonized a lot."
But it still didn't work. The concept was rejected, the assignment terminated. For Huntley, awareness of ethnicity and his search for a black Jesus had become a costly proposition.
Yet in many ways what he gained in the process proved well worth the cost of the contract.
Huntley, 32, graduated from Ballou High School in Southeast in 1972 and attended Loyola University in Los Angeles. He was a biology major who began taking art courses to improve his manual dexterity but discovered that he liked art better.
However, biology had made him aware of genetics, while art history had enabled him to explore the culture and religion of the Middle East.
With these things taken together, his childhood view of Jesus as a white man suddenly made no sense. After consulting the Bible, he discovered that the hair of Jesus was described as being like "lamb's wool," curly and tight, not straight. Jesus was called unattractive, someone who would not stand out in a crowd. And since he lived in the Middle East, it was highly unlikely that he was fair-skinned.
"People in power always seem to push their own image as powerful," Huntley said in a rare moment of frustration. "I guess it would undermine the power of this country for Jesus to be presented as a black man."
Huntley says that for most of his career he has had to play down his "blackness" just to make a living. To do this, he says, he rarely draws human figures anymore, preferring instead to work with animals or "the energy created by the presence of humans."
Until the church offer came along, it appeared that his formula was working.
But Jesus was another story, and Huntley eventually came to recognize the most important point of it: that it is not important what Jesus looked like, but it is very important what he had to say.
Yet one wonders what harm would be done to have a Jesus who is black, anthropologically correct no less, hanging on the walls of some of the black churches around town.
At least there is an artist who has a knack for drawing Him that way.