The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


March 26, 2014

Painted praise

Spirit-led artist completes inspired works to music

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord, reads Psalm 150. Indeed, most expressions of organized worship are audible, from the sermon to the singing to the vocalized “amens.” But what if God impressed a person to worship in a different way, to sing a new song, one seen rather than heard?

She doesn’t use a canvas, she uses a bedsheet.

“The cheapest 6-foot canvas is close to $200.” She doesn’t use a brush; she uses her hands and pints of interior acrylic latex. “My son calls it ‘extreme finger painting.’”

Tonya Mills, an insurance agent by day and a youth leader at Big Clear Creek Baptist Church in Rupert, was inspired by a video she came across on YouTube, called “The Jesus Painter.”

 The video shows artist Mike Lewis taking a large canvas and placing it at the front of a sanctuary. On it, he spontaneously reproduces the face of Jesus and other Christian themes, art in motion set to inspirational music. The unfolding of a biblical precept inside of a painting is an unusual format for a Sunday morning, but the emotional impact is undeniable. Something of nothing. Beauty from ashes. Spontaneous, unedited creation.

Her search for a different way to worship was initially for the youth.

“In December 2009, our church was hosting a youth rally. I was told I had to do something very spectacular, different from what anybody had ever seen. I had watched the video. After, I contacted the artist,” Mills said.

Taking the idea and making it her own, Mills discovered something extraordinary. She stepped out in faith to find God was up to the challenge.

“I would hear songs and would get pictures popping into my head,” she said. The images persisted and she began to sketch them on paper. Her next leap of faith happened June 2010, the day of her first painting as part of a live service.

“I just wanted to see if the painting would do well and they really enjoyed it.”

Generally set to music, Mills’ artistic process plays out on an upright bedsheet stretched between the timbers of a frame she builds herself, afterward allowing the church to display the individualized message she believes God delivers through her, much the way Saint Paul was inspired to pen missives directly to individual churches.

She estimates she has created 26 large paintings since.

Mills’ art is now the subject of YouTube video postings. Her website, theinspirationalexpressions. com, features images of the 6-foot by 6 foot paintings, ironically modern art from methods as humble as can be.

Mills had always fostered a degree of artistic ability, especially in drawing, but never in this format — creating in front of full congregations — no erasures or do-overs.

Her confidence comes from her trust in God, where Mills says she not only receives the subjects, but confirmation they aren’t self-determined.

“I was painting for our church camp at Cowen. I did one called ‘It is well with my soul’. The Micah Watson Band played while I painted.”

The image included a trumpet, a cross and Jesus ascending, she says. “The pastor came up front crying. A lot of other people were crying, too.”

Mills was surprised at the response, but there was a reason. “(The pastor) said, ‘There’s my message. It’s right there.’”

Mills, having had no prior communication with the pastor concerning his message for the service, had unwittingly painted the theme of it in detail. “That was awe-inspiring,” she said.

It takes Mills just 12 to 25 minutes to complete her pictures, ones she leaves with a church as a constant reminder of a message spoken in season and without a single audible word.

In addition to being a spirit-led artist, Mills and her husband Greg are also co-authors of a new book, “Our Life By Faith,” published by Tate Publishing. It is the story of their family and how Mills came through bad decisions and weathered an early failed marriage to begin trusting in God.

Her husband, she says, is fully supportive of her unconventional art. “Nothing surprises him. He knows if God has put something on my heart to do, I’m going to do it no matter what.”

For more information on the Mills’ art ministry or their book, visit or

— E-mail:

Text Only
  • 072314 Life CrossFit 4.jpg Crossfit Nation: Working out the WOD way

    Just as fashion trends come and go, so do fitness fads, and Cyndie Chinn had tried them all.

    July 23, 2014 3 Photos

  • downsize 1 Living large in smaller spaces

    How is it possible that as your nest gets emptier, your garage gets fuller? Living off the grid sounds tantalizing — the extreme version of paring down. But are you ready for solar panels and growing your own groceries or would a smaller home do the trick?

    July 20, 2014 3 Photos

  • Relishing the faith of little children

    July 19, 2014

  • Guns 1 ‘Guns’ for Life

    With the latest World Health Organization figures showing global life expectancy increasing from 64 years in 1990 to 70 years in 2011, staying healthy enough to add quality to the quantity of life is an important consideration.

    July 16, 2014 3 Photos

  • coconut 4 Crack open the power of the coconut

    Now let’s get this straight …
      We know about Parrotheads. And Cheeseheads. But when did Coconut Heads become cool?
    Move over, argan — you are so last season. Another exotic oil is taking lead role in everything from shampoo to weight-loss supplements. That cast-iron skillet seasoning, stretch-mark banishing essence of the hour is — coconut oil.

    July 13, 2014 2 Photos

  • Free summer serenade concert to be held

    Aurora Celtic, sponsored by Ivy & Stone, presents the free Summer Serenade concert Saturday at 6 p.m. on the Brown House lawn in Summersville.

    July 13, 2014

  • WVU Extension: Healthy summer eating tips for all occasions

    Summer and early fall are the times of year for family reunions, potluck picnics, pool parties and various other celebrations where we like to share food.

    July 13, 2014

  • new BAF fund Endowment still helping students attend college

    The “Beckley College, College of West Virginia, Mountain State University and University of Charleston-Beckley Alumni Association Fund” has the distinction of having the longest name of any of the 400 permanent endowments managed by the Beckley Area Foundation.

    July 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • My faith is an anchor to hold on to

    July 12, 2014

  • 062514 Life Piloxing 3.jpg Wellness Wednesdays: One-Two, Punch!

    In a fast-paced blend of pilates, boxing and dance, a popular group exercise class at the YMCA called Piloxing is a sure way to increase cardio and build long, lean muscles.

    July 9, 2014 2 Photos