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The Power of Beauty in Art


This is a great audience! So young and vibrant and diverse. Multicultural and multinational. 30 different nations all gathered here together in one room. This is particularly interesting for me because I was brought up all over the world.

As a child, every two or three years my father was posted to another country, so we moved from Malawi to Ghana, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Malaysia, Aden, Germany. If any of you come from those countries, I’d love to meet you afterwards.

In all these different countries and throughout my childhood, the central focus of our family life was God. My parents placed Jesus solidly at the heart of everything we did and everywhere we went. It is their greatest gift to all of their children and it has affected my life in the most powerful way. Not least that I am standing here before you!

It is such a great privilege and I’d like to thank Julie Spence for inviting me and I’d particularly like to thank Noémie Jean-Bourgeault, because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here at all. It was Noémie who first saw my sculptures, who contacted me in Switzerland, who came to meet me in London and had faith in me being able to contribute today.

Noémie is also responsible for the most remarkable achievement. Through perseverance and sensitive diplomacy, she has managed to exhibit my sculptures in the most splendid and noble place in central London, at Westminster Abbey. The Abbey houses the largest collection of figurative sculpture in the country, with over 600 monuments and statues and to have my contemporary work alongside these magnificent pieces, is the greatest honour.

Last week and with the help of Noémie and Ketsia, my team and the patience and good will of the team at Westminster Abbey, we installed a 3m gymnast and 4 smaller bronzes in the pouring rain! I would like to share a few of those moments with you.

WESTMINSTER FILM

I have been a professional artist and sculptor for over 25 years and started drawing when I was about 5, but at that age I was just as interested in sport. It is because of this that I have become involved in the art for the Olympic Games. Sport played a key part in my childhood and upbringing and I loved all sports but particularly gymnastics. I was never good enough to have made a professional career out of it, but I competed for about ten years and it gave me a lasting admiration and love for the skill, the grace and the discipline.

In 2009 I was asked to sculpt a monument of a young rhythmic gymnast in California. I flew to the United States with all the paraphernalia of a sculptor - sketch pads, pencils, measuring equipment and cameras, but when I arrived at the training studio, nothing had prepared me for the sheer beauty and grace of the gymnasts before me. There was a complete team of Olympic stars who totally mesmerized me with their skill and beauty. They leapt and flicked and somersaulted, swishing their ribbons and twirling their hoops with seemingly no effort at all. But as anyone who has pursued a pastime vigorously will know, it takes years of hard work to make something difficult look easy. Perhaps this is why gymnasts make such enduringly fascinating subjects for artists:- All that grace, beauty and poise in the performance – all that grit, perspiration and toil in the preparation. Thecontrast is compelling. And then, on a purely stylistic level, the artist is equally challenged by the anatomy of the professional gymnast. Which artist could fail to be inspired by their muscular limbs and toned torsos? I asked them there and then if they would all model for me and so my bronze collection of gymnasts was born.

Since then, they have been exhibited in many different countries around the world and when I dedicated the 3m gymnast to our own top Rhythmic Gymnast Frankie Jones, she came to Heathrow T5 and performed around the sculpture for the BBC. What has given me the most joy about the exhibitions is the reaction of people who see them. I have received letters and emails from complete strangers and my children tell me that people have posted photos on facebook, and conversations on twitter. It is so rewarding for me to hear that people are touched by my work and feel uplifted by it. For an artist, this is the highest recognition. Not the price it sells for or the critic’s review, it’s the fact that it has touched the heart and moved the soul. At a time when classical art has long been swept out of most contemporary galleries, it restored my faith in humanity’s need and desire for beauty.

We live in an age where technological advances take us further away from mutual points of reference, so art that celebrates the individual spirit becomes increasingly important, to inspire an awareness of the shared range of human emotion. The contemporary world needs re- awakening to the relevance of figurative art, to art that moves people, that embodies what is deep within our souls. The challenge to you the viewers is to see if you connect, one on one, with a work of art, screening out all the fashionable noise of the critics and dealers and feeling your own, uninfluenced instinctive response.

Art has long been a creative outlet for society’s ills and general angst. Like music it is a powerful form of inspiration and it has often been said that the Art of a nation reflects its society. So today, with all eyes on Great Britain for the 2012 Olympic Games, there has never been a more important time for our nation’s Art to be the very best.

True Art is born out of contemplation, which gives it the power to touch a deep inner space within us. Like the beauty of nature, it can bridge the gap between the physical, material world and the world of the senses, so it can speak to our capacity for delight and wonder and foster good in our society. Sadly, Art that is not noble, can encourage the reverse.

We have a wealth of talented and skilled artists in Great Britain whose innovation and use of modern materials could have contributed much to the evolution of Art, but for over four decades, the London Art market has been twisted and manipulated, to a new standard of depravity in public taste. True artists, who have conquered age-old skills in painting and sculpture, have practically starved in this distorted market. The traditional understanding of Art has been replaced with provocation, violence and controversy at any cost.

In the 1990's, public Art was all about death and disease. The 'Vermin Death Stack', a ten-foot pile of dead mice was hailed as a masterpiece, as were the heads of dead animals suspended in formaldehyde. This begs the question, is it about Art or is it about a publicity stunt, to be provocative and shocking for its own sake. It is no coincidence that the spread of sensationalistic art tastes has coincided with a period of delinquency and street violence. If a society loses its idea of what is beautiful, it tends to lose its grip on good behaviour. For what are manners if they are not a quest for a form of beauty? Why should anychild behave itself if the adults are refusing to conform to ideals and standards? when it sees that artists can claim that phallic obsession and a soiled unmade bed are valid examples of artistic expression.

Artists have a responsibility with their talent and Art patrons and governments have a duty with their money and power, to try to improve the world around them. Art is not just about the personal whims of the 'artists' and the 'collectors'. It is, when displayed in public, a community matter. Numerous psychological tests have been carried out to discover the effects of violent Art on the brain and how it influences our behaviour. Research clearly demonstrates that exposure to media violence, in all its forms - music, video, Art – leads to aggressive thoughts and behavior. We live in a shock-driven society - look at the news, movies and TV shows across the country, it is no wonder that shock tactics have made it into the Art world. People have become so used to experiencing shock that they have become numb to it.

And it is precisely this numbness, when people have lost touch with their spirit, their life-force, that they become most vulnerable to consumer culture and the toxic drive for more stimulation.

But for over a thousand years Art has been one of our great civilising forces, so we need to put it right! I believe that something as simple as beauty can change a whole society. Beauty feeds the soul, it lifts the spirit and inspires positive thoughts and feelings. What food is to the body, beauty is to the soul.

The assumption that beauty is an accessory and dispensable, shows that we don't understand the importance of giving our innermost self what it needs. In a world where the spirit is neglected, true beauty is placed last on its list of priorities, and if we lack beauty in our lives, we will suffer familiar disturbances within - depression, paranoia, emptiness and addiction. An appreciation for beauty is simply an openness to the power of things to stir the soul, so if we can be affected by beauty, then our spirit is alive and well in us.

Throughout the ages, music, art and beautiful natural settings have been used to promote healing. Poets and philosophers have celebrated the power and significance of beauty, from John Keats' most famous "Beauty is truth, truth is beauty...." to Mystical Irish philosopher-poet, John O'Donohue, who explored beauty's profound impact on our whole being, calling our intimacy with beauty a "homecoming of the human spirit."

A few months ago there was an article in the papers called ‘Healed by Beauty’ which talked about the therapeutic benefits of natural beauty which had been witnessed at hospitals.

A number of experiments were done to measure the positive effects of beauty on the physical body and in every single one, levels of antibodies increased, production of Seratonin increased and the immune system was enhanced. This purely from spending time looking at pleasing images. There is something about beauty that causes the immune system to ‘turn on’ metabolically and do more effectively what it is designed to do. When the brain produces serotonin, tension is eased. In fact depression is a consequence of the scarce production of this hormone. Serotonin is released when the brain is “positively moved”. For instance: if we look at a splendid painting, smell a delicious scent, feel an extraordinary sensation, eat something delicious or listen to beautiful music, then the brain lets off a rush of serotonin which arouses and maximizes pleasant feelings. So building more beauty into our lives helps assure us that we’ll not only feel happier but we’ll also have all our body’s own natural healing resources fully available to us.

If we know that beauty in all its art forms has a positive effect on us, then shouldn’t we be encouraging it throughout society? Right from the start our arts’ programs in schools could be following a syllabus specifically focused on beauty in art. We could have national competitions to give all our gifted artists a chance to be appreciated and discovered. We could start by placing more value on the arts in schools and nurturing creativity. I heard Sir Ken Robinson speaking in the US about our education system killing creativity. And he’s right!

He said that every education system in the world has the same hierarchy of subjects. Mathematics, Sciences and Languages first, then the humanities and at the bottom are the Arts. There isn’t a single education system in the world that teaches children Art the way we teach them Maths. Why? Why is our education system so focused on academic ability?

Picasso once said that ALL children are born artists. They have extraordinary capacities for innovation and all children have talents, which we crush. We label our creative, imaginative children with diagnoses like ADD and ADHD and prescribe medication to calm them down, because they don’t fit into the limited structure of our system. We are educating people out of their creative capacities because academic ability dominates our view of intelligence. But with the Olympic philosophy of building a peaceful and better world through blending sport with culture and education, now is the perfect time to celebrate the gift of the human imagination and inspire our artists to give of their very best, to raise the quality of subject matter, to use their talents to give back to society and contribute to the evolution of humanity.

Rudyard Kipling had a vision of an Artistic Heaven where art wasn’t about money for the gallery and fame for the artist. It was about the joy of creating beauty for the Glory of God.

These are the last lines from ‘When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted’ ......And only the Master shall praise us, And only the Master shall blame; And no one shall work for money, And no one shall work for fame, But each for the joy of the working And each in his separate star, Shall draw the Thing as he sees it For the God of things as they are. I would like to show you a short film now, so that you have a better understanding of the way I work. It was made in my studio in Geneva and in one of the foundries I use in Switzerland. It illustrates the work involved in making a bronze sculpture from start to finish and as you will see it was a challenge to compress twelve week’s work into four minutes!


FILM: CREATING A BRONZE

How many of you knew that that is how a bronze sculpture is made? How many of you have seen a finished bronze, in a park, a garden, a church, a gallery or home?

So although almost all of you have seen a bronze and know what it is, hardly any of you know how it is made.

This is partly because the art of casting a bronze is highly skilled and is now a dying art. There are very few really good foundries in Europe, which is why the good ones are inundated with work and have three to six month waiting lists to cast new pieces. The real problem is that there are no new apprentices coming in. As I mentioned before, practical skills across the country have been abandoned in favour of office and academic skills, resulting in unemployment figures of school and university leavers higher than ever before. Until we start encouraging the learning and acquiring of skills again, foundries will have a hard time surviving.

I would just like to quantify something I mentioned earlier, about the negative effect of violent and provocative art on the psyche, because I was not talking about all modern art and I am not suggesting that we discourage modern and contemporary art. Absolutely not! Society thrives on new ideas and visual thrills and we must always challenge the old and stimulate invention. The twentieth Century has brought to the art world an emphasis on idea, greatly expanding the media and methods that artists use today. I am merely concerned that beauty and skill have been lacking in public art for a long time. Not in the artist’s studios, where there is plenty of beauty being created, but out in the public eye, being supported and funded by our government. But thankfully for several years now, skilled painters, illustrators and sculptors have been creeping out of their studios in exile and have begun bravely exhibiting. They have been emboldened by what has looked to them, as one might imagine, as modern art gone berserk. Journalists and Art curators have also had the courage to speak out. Julian Spalding, an independent curator and museums consultant has written a book called Con Art where he scathingly criticizes the hype around conceptual art. I have a recent article here, I wonder if anyone read it? This is what he says: (Read from newspaper)

‘Have you ever seen modern art on TV or been to an art gallery and felt bewildered and angry about the exhibits? Have you ever felt it must be your fault that you can’t understand it because you think the people running the gallery must know more about art than you do? Well, it’s April 1 today, and it’s time to name the real fools. And they are not you!

Conceptual art, I call it Con Art for short, because it cons people. Found objects aren’t art. You can’t tell by looking at them what the person who put them in front of you is trying to tell you because he or she hasn’t altered them in any meaningful way. Nor does the act of placing something in an art gallery, whether it is a stack of bricks, a light going on and off in an empty room, or an unmade bed, automatically make it art, any more than framing a canvas with paint on automatically makes it a painting. Art can’t be just an idea or a feeling in your mind. All art is a subjective response of course, but art has to be made. You have to see the art in something.

When we look at a Rembrandt, we know we are looking at something that has been made for us to look at – and a truly wonderful thing it is. And our appreciation of Rembrandt’s achievement is enhanced by the fact that we know we couldn’t have made it ourselves.’ There is also Quentin Letts, the irascible political and art correspondent for the Daily Mail, whose book on Great Britain devotes a whole chapter to the subject.

In his words ‘ People have for too long been duped by controversial art with no intrinsic value or discernable skill. Like the Emperor's New Clothes, it has all been a wheeze, a passing fancy, a lucrative con, which for all the talk of 'democracy' and 'populism' has enriched a handful of elitist dealers but far more insidiously, has infected our national aesthetic.’ The encouraging thing, is that there are enough people who want to see skillful and beautiful art again and are working towards that end. I am campaigning with one of, if not THE greatest sculptors of our time, to bring beauty back to the Art world. American sculptor Richard MacDonald, who is renowned worldwide for his sculptures of the Cirque du Soleil and who is presently working on a monument for the Royal Ballet in London, has a manifesto signed by ex-presidents, Nobel Prize winners, writers, actors and influential people across America, in support of a movement to put beauty and talent back into contemporary Art.

Together we aim to bring superbly executed and emotionally powerful figurative art to the contemporary public. Completely removed from the context of ordinary life, these sculptures show us how beauty, passion, and strength can sweep away the everyday and reveal something extraordinary. In Richard’s own words ‘Art transcends all human boundaries.

It is a gift of almost inexplicable, magical energy. When our hearts, through our senses, Are touched by art, our lives are enhanced.’

If we can inspire our own generation and encourage generations to come, to strive for the best, to care about quality and fine craftsmanship and to be responsible for our work’s public effect on society, I believe we can create a change in the heart, a thirst for more beauty and an enthusiasm for life. I believe that a whole society can be moved to another plane of existence through the power of beauty.

Creating a Bronze Film: http://vimeo.com/36843034

FILM: IGNITE YOUR SOUL