The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 26, 2014

Painted praise

Spirit-led artist completes inspired works to music

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— 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 www.theinspirationalexpressions.com or www.tonyaleemills.com

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com