Phil MacKay: Dialogue with an Adventist painter of wildlife in Australia

Australia's native rainbow lorikeet, a living rainbow of colors, leaps off the page. A sugar-glider is rendered in such lifelike detail you half-expect it to start moving. Painting after painting of wildlife and flora produced with meticulous accuracy and slavish attention to detail.

Welcome to Phil MacKay's world of art.

Phil was born in Barellan, a small rural settlement some 400 miles southwest of Sydney, Australia, but grew up in Port Macquarie, a tourist destination on the mid-north coast of New South Wales--an idyllic region with sandy white beaches and waterways, rainforests, and a pleasant climate. A perfect place for a nature-lover to live.

After leaving school, Phil tried different jobs but kept going back to the call of his skills--sign writing and screen printing. Although some of his family members were Adventists, he himself made no commitment to Christianity. Then, at age 20, he visited the Solomon Islands as part of a Fly-n-Build team* to help build a school at Kuzi Village. The experience changed his life. On the third day in the village, Phil met a young Adventist islander, Lily, and he decided to stay in the Solomons. After a few years he and Lily were married, and he ended up living in the Solomons for nine years. During that time, he ran his own business and worked for a graphic-arts company.

Three years ago, Phil, Lily, and their two-year old daughter, Nikhaule, returned to Australia and set up their home in Port Macquarie. Phil decided to be baptized. He began pursuing his art in a more professional way, and his work soon achieved widespread respect and admiration. Last year, during an Australian Geographic Magazine function at Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, he received the prestigious Australian Geographic Society's award for best illustrator for 2001 (from a field of 30 artists).

* Fly-n-Build is a short-term mission program where Australians and New Zealanders, usually Seventh-day Adventist lay people, help build or help with the maintenance of church properties in the Pacific islands.

Phil, as an artist, what is your typical day like?

My daily routine is pretty much the same. I have my normal meal times and paint an average of 10 hours a day, usually six days a week. I often find the night hours the most beneficial, as there aren't too many distractions.

Can you tell us something about the process of your art? Take our readers into your studio, if you please, and let them see you at work.

Before the first stroke of the brush on the canvas, I have to do a lot of research. First I find photographic references of a particular bird or animal. Then I have to track down the photographer and seek permission to use that particular photograph, to avoid breaching copyright laws. It's important to be ethical in everything.

I then sketch the image I will paint and get it into proportion. Once that's complete, I start painting the image from the sketch and photograph references. Normally, it takes about four to five weeks to complete a painting.

When and how did you start painting?

Early in life I began entering a lot of coloring-in competitions, and similar events. Although I never received any formal training, I always dabbled with some form of art throughout my working life. It was only a few years ago that I decided to paint professionally and had the opportunity to do that. Basically, I'm self-taught.

How would you describe your painting style?

I call it photorealism. The painting is usually mistaken for a photograph. This style works well for me as I paint wildlife, and I think the subject should look as lifelike as possible.

Of the many pieces you've painted, do you have a favorite?

My favorite painting would have to be the wedge-tail eagle titled, "The Regal." The eagle is a unique creature and has a place in Scripture.

How can one purchase your paintings?

Most of my paintings sell through the Hart Gallery on the Sunshine Coast. The Australian Geographic Society also sells my prints through their stores. Most picture framers in Australia stock my prints. And those with access to internet can get them by going to my website:

Do your paintings have a purpose?

For me, the purpose of my paintings is to share the glorious beauty of animals and nature that our Lord has created. Before I became a Christian, I painted very dark-themed paintings, and I seemed to be able to do them blindfolded. It all seemed too easy! After becoming a Christian, I wanted to use the talent God gave me to serve Him somehow.

How important do you think art is for human beings?

Very important. Art, of course, is an expression of one's God-given ability, skills, and talents. That aside, for a Christian, themed art provides a visual understanding of the past and the future.

Can you explore a little further how your art interfaces with your Christian beliefs?

It happens through the nature/creation aspect. I used to paint a lot of satanic things without realizing the beauty in our Lord's creation. The things I painted reflected my lifestyle. Now that I'm a Christian, I see things in a totally different way. For example, when I look at the animals now, I see God's handiwork.

I believe the Lord gives us unique talents, and we should make use of them for His bidding. I can really see the Lord working in my family's life and my own. The Lord has opened a lot of doors for me with my artwork and answered a lot of prayers, and continues to do so.

Your wife is a Solomon Islander, and you lived there for nine years. What have you learned from being part of another culture?

The years I spent in the Solomons have been very valuable. The first thing I noted about the Solomon Islanders was their simple Christianity and love of God. The Lord has such an impact on their daily lives, and everything ties in with their faith. Because of their witness, when I returned to Australia, I became an Adventist. We in Western countries need missionaries from the islands to evangelize us!

The cultural difference was sometimes difficult, but it was a fantastic experience. Lily and I lived in her family's village for two years, and then settled in our own village two kilometres away and developed the land. We were planning to build a small house for holidaying purposes and return to Australia. However, our village called Minana (meaning blessing) turned out so beautiful we couldn't leave and ended up staying for six years. It was a pristine paradise, with turquoise water and white sand beaches fringed with coconut trees for our front yard. You can see why it was hard to leave.

When you're not painting, are you involved in any hobbies or interests?

My favorite hobbies are spear fishing, gardening, and fast cars.

Gardening and fast cars. Those two don't seem to go together too well!

Gardening is good therapy--relaxing and very enjoyable. I suppose it's something I picked up in the Solomons, where the islanders live off the land, and we had our own crops. On the other hand, at the other end of the spectrum, fast cars are good therapy. I must admit the "petrol head" of my youth is raising its head again. There were no V-8 engines on the islands, so maybe I am catching up for those years.

On a serious note, I am like most people with a love for nature in some form or another. As a child, I wanted to visit zoos and animal sanctuaries, and was fascinated with the vast variety and magnificence of all the creatures there. I gasp at people who seriously believe that animals have evolved from slime!

The intelligence of animals amazes me at times, and I sometimes wonder just how smart they must have been in the Garden of Eden, and how beautiful without their faults and fierceness. Nature to me is certain evidence of the love of God to His created human family.

Interview by Gary Krause. Gary Krause is the communication director for the Office of Global Mission at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland. His e-mail