Painting with Purpose

Anne NeilsonBy Anne Neilson12 Minutes

Excerpt taken from The Brushstrokes of Life: Discovering How God Brings Beauty and Purpose to Your Story by Anne Neilson

Painting with Purpose

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Isaiah 30:21

Clark once asked me, “How long are you going to paint angels?”

My response rose from a place deep within: “As long as God calls me to paint them.”

For me, painting is and has always been about following God. It’s such a privilege that the work I do is the work I love and also a work that enables me to give back and bless others with Jesus’ love. I thoroughly enjoy the times of worship in my studio, playing praise music, mixing colors, and creating the ethereal beings who make up my Angels series. I don’t just paint with purpose; I also love it. But purpose increases both my delight in painting and my love for God. When my work furthers His purposes, that’s when I stand in awe and bow in humility.

Whenever God nudges my heart, I want to listen and obey. A few times, however, I’ve doubted and delayed. On one such occasion, God prompted me to paint an angel for the Chapman family. Steven Curtis Chapman, a Christian recording artist I admired, and his wife, Mary Beth, had suffered the terrible loss of their precious five-year-old daughter Maria Sue in a tragic accident. I sensed God guiding me to paint, and I did so through tears, listening to Steven Curtis’s music every day for weeks.

Tears flowing, from my heart to the canvas, I saw a small angel appear, a red ponytail holder fastened around a tousled head of radiant, dark hair. The colors in the painting—pale yellows, greens, and pinks—were not ones I frequently used. Somehow, though, I knew that I needed those on my pallet.

While allowing the painting to dry in my studio, I read an article about the Chapmans. The journalist gave a few details about their house, and this opened a flood of doubt in my mind. The description of the Chapmans’ home did not match—in fact, it seemed in opposition to—the colors with which I had painted. For weeks I debated whether to send the painting. I wondered if I had actually sensed God’s leading to paint or if I simply empathized with the Chapmans and wanted to do something, anything.

The restlessness inside me would not subside, though. I had to send the painting. I contacted a dear friend, whose son knew the Chapmans through the Nashville recording industry, and asked if he would deliver the angel to the family. I didn’t expect to hear from Steven Curtis or Mary Beth; I was a stranger to them. I just wanted to follow what God asked me to do.

I did hear from the Chapmans, however, in an email that confirmed that I should always follow God’s lead—without delay. Mary Beth told my friend, “We about dropped it [the painting] when we opened it … the colors were the same colors as our home and our little Maria Sue always wore her hair tousled in a ponytail.” The Master Artist’s purposes are always greater than mine.

Indeed, over the course of my career, His purpose connected me with amazing ministries and individuals, including Oprah Winfrey. I had always loved Oprah’s generous heart—she gives back in a way I respect so much—and wanted her to have an angel painting. While watching her Angel Network every Christmas, I declared, “One day I’m going to paint something for Oprah.”

But I didn’t have a clear vision, so I continued to paint other angels and images. I never sensed that a painting I had created was for Oprah. Then, one day, a painting emerged on my canvas—a grouping of three angels, the center angel slightly taller than the other two. Both angels flanking the central figure had the same cropped hairdo. Hmm, I thought, that’s interesting. I stepped back to review the painting and sensed a nudge: “This one. This one is for Oprah.”

I stood there pondering the composition and the three angels, not quite sure who or what they represented. Once again I ignored the nudge, and this painting hung in my studio for more than a year. With it was a letter I had typed out, telling Oprah who I was, why I painted, and how I shared her heart’s desire to give back, especially to those who are under-resourced or struggling. I pressed Save on the letter’s file, but neither it nor the angels went anywhere.

Over the next year, many people who visited my gallery offered to buy that painting, but I would tell them, “I think one day I am going to give that to Oprah Winfrey, but I’m not sure who all the angels represent.” I’m also not sure how many people took me seriously when I said this.

Cooking spaghetti one evening—I recall this distinctly because the noodles were boiling and the sauce simmering—I listened as the news droned in the background. A feature story came on about none other than Oprah Winfrey, who had discovered a half sister she never knew. Oprah’s other half siblings, a sister and a brother, had both died years ago. Her remaining half sister, Patricia, did everything she could to get in touch with Oprah, but no one believed her story. Finally, through many twists and turns, Patricia and Oprah met.¹ Watching video footage, I noticed right away that Patricia was shorter than Oprah. When the sisters hugged, Patricia measured right at Oprah’s shoulder. Photographs of their other half sister (also named Patricia!) showed that she, too, came to the height of Oprah’s shoulder; and she looked almost like the other Patricia’s twin.

Instantly I started crying finally understanding the meaning of the painting. The two angel figures flanking a taller figure represented Oprah and her half sisters. I dug up the archived letter I had written more than a year before, printed it out, and carefully folded it, fitting it within the canvas’s rear supporters. I also grabbed some stationery and scribbled a small note, something to this effect: “Oprah, I have always thought you were supposed to have an angel painting. After learning about your familiy, however, I believe this painting might be for your half-sister Patricia. Do with it as you will.”

I shipped the painting to the assistant Oprah had frequently referred to on her show. Done. Oprah’s painting was finally sent. It had meaning: it had purpose. And I was overwhelmed with joy that God had given me direction for that painting.

A few weeks later, on a Tuesday night at 8:20 (to be exact), my cell phone rang. My family had just finished up dinner, and the kids were washing the dishes. I looked at the number on my phone and noticed a 312 area code. No caller ID, though. I answered, no idea who might be on the other end of the line.

When a familiar voice asked, “Hello, is Anne Neilson there?” I tried to remain calm, cool, and collected.

“This is Anne,” I replied, my voice trembling ever so slightly with excitement.

“Well, this is Oprah Winfrey.”

“Oh, Oprah, wow. I just want to take you to coffee,” I blurted out.

Right then my daughter brushed by me and whispered, “Mom, you sound so lame.”

Nothing like being a mom to keep you humble!

Oprah was so gracious. It felt like we talked forever, but really it was more like seven minutes. It was a super jam-packed seven minutes, though! I got to tell her about my work and the ways God nudged me to paint with purpose. I also told Oprah how much I admired her giving heart and sought to give from the depths of my heart in the same way she did.

The next day I wrote a note to thank Oprah for calling me. She could have had any aide or assistant dial my number to express gratitude for the painting, but she picked up the phone. It was such an honor. I mailed the letter that day and, two days later, I got an email from her assistant, informing me that the office had received my letter and would make sure she got it when she returned from traveling.

While chatting, Oprah’s assistant and I discovered we would both be in New York a week later. We set a date, and I met her at the Red Dot Art Fair in New York City. She was every bit as gracious as I imagined, and a friendship formed. A few weeks later, I received a phone call from her. Oprah wanted to offer two tickets to Clark and me, she explained. Would we like to be her guests at a show in May? I don’t know anyone who would say no to that invitation!

Order your copy of The Brushstrokes of Life: Discovering How God Brings Beauty and Purpose to Your Story by Anne Neilson