MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–In New York City and other places where street eccentricity is common, Bob Adams likely wouldn’t rate a raised eyebrow.
But when he sets up his easel on a busy corner in downtown Montgomery, Ala., the 46-year-old street artist becomes a magnet of intrigue and fascination. And that, said Adams, is precisely the plan.
“Just because I like to paint doesn’t mean that others will want to see my work,” he said. “However, when I work right under their noses, they have to see it. I don’t give them a choice.”
Actually, Adams, a member of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church since 1991, is a bit unusual even for a street artist — he’s a gospel artist. Although he produces an occasional secular work for pay, the great majority of Adams’ renderings are Bible-related. His painting, he explained matter-of-factly, is the ministry the Lord has given him.
“The Lord has blessed me with a talent which he is allowing me to use for his glory,” Adams said. “Painting on the street has given me the opportunity to present the gospel in a nonintimidating, nonthreatening way.
“I select a place at which I know there will be a lot of people — traffic,” he said. “Strangers approach me rather than me approaching strangers. People are naturally curious about what I’m doing. They stop, take a look, ask about the painting I’m working on and, next thing you know, I’ve put my brush down and we’re talking about Jesus’ desire to save them.”
Fellow Christians often stop by, and “that’s always a tremendous lift,” he noted.
“For the most part, reaction to my work has been extremely favorable,” Adams said. “There has been very little negative [reaction]. No one has ever told me to pack up and move on or anything like that — just the opposite, in fact. When I’ve been at a certain location for a while, I start to see a lot of familiar faces. There are a lot of waves and smiles. It’s a really good feeling.”
In addition to his street art, Adams lends his talent to various First Baptist ministries, including missions trips to Kenya and Ecuador in recent years. To enhance communication, Adams painted Bible characters and scenes in accordance with local customs.
During one trip, natives waited under an acacia tree to be treated by a doctor, who worked in the shade of a second acacia tree. Adams seized the opportunity to share — via his paintings — the Christian faith with those in the waiting area. He recalls with genuine humility and awe how his art was used to help reach hundreds with the good news about Jesus Christ, with a number of them baptized in the local river.
Adams also utilizes his art during his weekly visits with inmates at two Montgomery-area juvenile detention facilities. The meetings are part of First Baptist’s prison ministry. Besides witnessing via water color art he brings with him, Adams occasionally copies and passes out ink sketches for the youth to continue considering between get-togethers.
Adams is also a teacher in tutoring outreach at First Baptist.
Adams quickly concedes that, although he has always loved to draw, if someone had told him 20 years ago that he would become a Christian street artist in Montgomery he’d have called that person crazy.
Indeed, Adams’ background is as colorful as his art. If you don’t believe that God works in mysterious ways, consider this unlikely chronology: After graduating from high school in 1970, the Michigan native did a four-year stint in the Navy. Subsequently, the GI Bill paid for him to follow his dream to study art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. After graduating from Pratt in 1978, Adams bolted the East Coast for Reno, Nev., where he was hired on as a casino dice dealer and first took to the street to paint.
“That place was sin city,” Adams recalled. “Every legal and illegal kind of sin imaginable was at your disposal.
“In the midst of all that, the Lord got to me through the first and second chapters of Romans. I received Christ as my Savior and went about trying to live my life for him. I knew that he wanted me out of the casino, but I was stubborn.”
Adams slowly weaned himself from that lifestyle, first working part time for four years, then only weekends for another four years. Finally, after eight years, he quit completely.
It was around 1986 that Adams decided to switch from secular to Bible-based paintings.
“I discovered that painting on the street was a natural for drawing people to me,” he said. “When I became a Christian, I began to realize that the Lord wanted me to use my art for him. That’s when I switched.” In 1990, Adams moved from Reno to Montgomery — where his parents had retired to from Michigan — to help care for his ill father.
His father lived another seven years before passing away. His mother remains in Montgomery. Adams, who has never married, also has a brother in East Lansing, Mich., and a sister in Alexandria, Va.
“I’m very happy in Montgomery, and I love being a part of First Baptist,” Adams said. “Jay Wolf [pastor at First Baptist] and his staff have been extremely supportive of me in my street art and in every other way. They are truly like family to me.
“I’m very grateful to the Lord for giving me the privilege of letting me use something I love to do to draw people to him.”
Thompson is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.