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Painter uses clients’ homes as his canvas

Decorative painting, murals, trompe l’oeils — his work is as eclectic as his client base

Yawu Miller | 7/30/2014, 1:32 p.m.
Chuck Christian specializes in decorative painting. Decorative painting, murals, trompe l’oeils — his work is as eclectic as his client ...
Painter Chuck Christian pursued football and art while an undergraduate at University of Michigan. He now specializes in decorative painting. ( Photo courtesy of Chuck Christian)

For decorative painter Chuck Christian, art has always come easy. The toughest challenge he had majoring in art at University of Michigan was convincing the art department that he was an art major.

“They didn’t realize I was a legitimate artist when I got there,” he says. “I didn’t fit in with the art school crowd.”

Christian was at the university on a football scholarship. And there weren’t many 6’3”, 275-pound tight ends taking art classes at Michigan in 1977.

“I was this big, macho guy, and there were only two blacks out of nearly a thousand art majors,” he adds.

There’s no question Christian was a talented athlete. Few at University of Michigan could brag that they went head-to-head with Earvin “Magic” Johnson and won, as did Christian, as an all-star center on his high school’s basketball team. But even more so, Christian was a natural artist, who began sketching when he was a two-year-old in Detroit.

“My mom and dad used to put me on the floor with a poster board, and that kept me quiet for hours and hours,” he said. “They saw my talent, and I never stopped.”

There wasn’t much money in Christian’s Detroit household. His first actual sketchbook was donated by a social worker when Christian was nine. Most of the time, Christian made do with the discarded pieces of cardboard his parents provided him. His first commissioned piece of artwork, a landscape mural on the wall of his sister’s room, came when he was 13.

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Christian created a landscape in this girl’s bedroom, matching the scenery to the room’s decor.

“It was a garden scene in her great room,” he says. “It was from a series of photographs that I researched. I showed my sister a sketch and she said ‘go for it.’”

In high school, Christian pursued his art, football and basketball. While art was his favorite subject, he didn’t skimp on other classes. He finished third in his class, then headed to University of Michigan on a football scholarship. He enjoyed playing on the gridiron and made three trips to the Rose Bowl with his team.

“It was great, traveling all over the country, playing in a stadium with 105,000 fans, being on national TV,” Christian said.

Through all the highs of playing for a Big Ten school, Christian stayed true to his art, painting portraits of his teammates and even designing and illustrating brochures for the team.

“They didn’t know what to make of me,” he said. “The coach called me a ‘sissy artist.’ I never took him seriously.”

After he graduated in 1982, Christian pursued art full-time. The economy in the Rust Belt, however, was not an ideal place for a struggling artist.

“In two days, 800 people applied for a McDonalds in Detroit,” he said. “They had bumper stickers that said ‘last one out of Michigan, turn off the lights.’”

Christian ended up in Boston, and continued with his painting. Over the years, he has built up a broad client base ranging from first-time homebuyers in Mattapan to owners of multi-million-dollar mansions in Chestnut Hill. Decorative painting, murals, trompe l’oeils — his work is as eclectic as his client base.

He lives in Randolph with his wife LaDonna Christian, who is an associate professor of nursing and director of the Dotson Bridge and Mentoring Program at Simmons College. They have three sons, one of whom, Micah Christian, is currently a contestant on the television show America’s Got Talent.

Christian relies on long-term customers, word-of-mouth referrals and Angie’s List to keep a steady stream of jobs for himself and his assistant. In his spare time, Christian still enjoys landscapes, portraits, abstracts and sports painting.

Yet Christian seems to make little distinction between what he paints on a canvas and the walls of the homes he paints.

“I’m always seeing different areas where I can apply my artistic ability,” he says. “I like to treat a whole house as a canvas.”