When given to opportunity to sit at the feet of an artist and hear his stories you say yes. I recently had the chance to meet with Grainger McKoy, a wood carver of birds known for pieces like Covey Rise and Red Shouldered Hawks and Copperhead Snake. His work has been displayed in private and public collections the world over and he currently has a few pieces at The Gibbes Museum in Charleston. I came to appreciate the beauty of birds while living in Uganda and now when I am out in the woods in South Carolina I try to identify what I see and hear so that I can more fully appreciate God’s creation. But it was not a love of birds or wood carving that brought Grainger and I together on a rainy May afternoon in Sumter County. It was a discussion of our faith in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.
Our extended families knew each other well and we had probably crossed paths before, but entering Grainger’s workshop with him was the first time the two of us had ever conversed with each other. After some introductory sentences and asking about my expectant wife he took over the interview and asked how I came to know Jesus. I shared a little about my own journey to faith and how I ended up in seminary, and a trust and friendship began to grow between us. I had read a bit of biographical information on Grainger so it was only fair that he get to know me as well. Our conversation turned to marriage and how precious a gift it is. God blesses us with a spouse and despite our actions and words, when we turn to the Lord he will continue to bless that precious gift.
We began to talk about his early success as an artist with shows around the country. While the money began to come in and checks were cashed Grainger realized something was missing from his life. Grainger, while on top of the world of art, was struggling internally and felt deflated knowing it would take another two years of hard work to get back to this point of having show-ready pieces. He began to question the satisfaction that came with his success. It took a dying friend sharing Jesus with him and the hope he had from his deathbed for Grainger to begin to carve away what was blocking his heart from knowing the Lord. Shortly thereafter in a quiet and solitary moment, just Grainger and Jesus, Grainger knew that he believed and he was born again.
Grainger went from a love and worship of creation to a love and worship of the Creator. He never wanted to misrepresent a bird or creation in his artwork, but now he did not want to misrepresent the one who created those birds. He had come to know the Lord and was living his life for him in new and bold ways. He had a new confidence knowing where his talent came from, and as he grew to know the Lord better, he did not want to misrepresent the Lord in his art or in his life.
Grainger then told a story of meeting with a curator of a museum up North that was less than excited about sitting down with a Southern boy in a sawdust-covered workshop. He explained to her that all he does is take a block of wood and make it appear to be something that it is not. He told her, with her nose upturned, that the greatest art is what comes from an internal change that no human can create. The type of change that comes when one begins to walk to with Christ. Grainger can carve away at a piece of wood and recreate the most beautiful bird anyone has seen but only God can change someone from the inside.
Our conversation turned from here to the various ministries that Grainger has been involved in. He told stories of state prisoners he interacted with through Kairos ministry and times he served on Cursillo. One of these characters called him up after being released from prison and wanted him to come speak at his church. How could Grainger say no to that, the man had served 30 years and had come to know the Lord through Kairos. Another fellow called him up during a work release program and Grainger became his sponsor, bringing him to an Anglican church and showing him the ocean for the first time. Grainger has prayed with a lot of people and the Lord has done some mighty work through him. Grainger, the man of faith, has by far had a greater and longer lasting impact on people’s lives than Grainger the artist.
Grainger has remained humble though, making it very clear that God is the artist working in his life and that he, and all of us, are still very unfinished artwork. As he continues working on new pieces for future shows and commissioned work, Grainger will be the first to say that the message is more magnificent than the medium. The birds are beautiful but without the message of Jesus with those birds it means very little. No artist, no matter how good they are, can ever capture the full beauty of what God has done. With every bird comes Grainger’s story of faith in the risen Lord, his heart for Jesus is in every piece of art. And Grainger seems to live his life with a simple prayer in the forefront that he may never seek in creation what can only be found in the creator.
Newman Lawrence is a seminary student at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. He and his wife, Trish Sosnowski Lawrence, are expecting twins this fall. They are members of St. Michael’s Church in Charleston and may often be found along Bohicket Creek somewhere in between Wadmalaw Island and Camp St. Christopher.