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Dancing in His Ephod

A conversation with illustrator Jeff Gregory

 

“Frozen oatmeal dancing on a trampoline.”

Why oatmeal? I wondered, though the answer shouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve worked with Jeff Gregory for 15 years and can’t recall anything he’s said—or drawn—that was predictable. A staff artist since 1998, he’s known throughout In Touch for off-the-charts creativity, skill with any medium from paint to cheese wax, and the most boisterous table in the lunchroom.

Wearing more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins, Jeff has always struck me as something of a Renaissance man—he’s a master doodler, accomplished illustrator, animator, deacon, Sunday school teacher, truth-seeker, and unofficial stand-up comedian, not to mention the roles he values most: husband and father. So, at a loss for how to introduce such a multi-faceted and -talented friend, I decided to let him introduce himself, by answering one question: “How would you describe yourself in six words?”

***

Jeff Gregory: Well, oatmeal was the first thing that came to mind. The real answer is, “A man dancing in his ephod.” It’s from 2 Samuel 6:14, where David’s bringing the ark back into Jerusalem and God punishes Uzzah for simply touching it. David loses his temper and thinks, I'll show Him. I'll just leave the ark here. Later, he realizes it's not about God conforming to his view of what God’s supposed to do; it’s about David conforming to what God wants him to be. It sounds counterintuitive, but there’s freedom in realizing it’s not up to you, and God’s really in control. As they bring in the ark, David’s so caught up in the joy and excitement of finally being able to relax in who God is that he dances around.

Sandy Feit: Whenever your name comes up, I hear words like “hilarious” and “nonstop creativity.” Does it ever turn off? What are your dreams like?

Jeff: It's funny you mention that, because at my daughter’s ballet class, I saw a motivational poster that said, “If you can dream it, it can come true.” I was like, “They've never had my dreams!” I had a dream one time that I punched a tornado and made it cry.

Sandy: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Jeff: Always. My mom says I saw animals in tile patterns on the ground. I've actually got my first drawing—a bus. I was 2.

David’s so caught up in the joy of finally being able to relax in who God is that he dances around.

Sandy: What do you consider important for an artist’s success?

Jeff: Specialty art schools are great, but I’d recommend liberal arts, where you actually do math, history, and science—because they feed into it. I’ve done illustrations where it's not This style will work so much as it is This symbolism or historical reference will work. You can have technique until the cows come home, but if you don't have that soul behind it—that arsenal of historical, literary, and scientific influences—something will be missing. It's like the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Sandy: I like watching you doodle in meetings. But does drawing distract you?

Jeff: Actually, just the opposite. Otherwise, that part of my brain would daydream. Someone once joked to my director about me drawing in a meeting. And he answered, “I know Jeff’s paying attention if he’s doodling. If he stops doodling, I’ve lost him.”

Watch an interview with Jeff Gregory.

Sandy: Has doodling ever gotten you in trouble?

Jeff: In high school, I once covered an entire desk with a chimera—this big fantastical beast. Not only was I stupid enough to sign it; I also shellacked it.

Sandy: How do your drawings take shape?

Jeff: I’ll often see what I want to draw on the paper before I begin drawing it. Other times, I’ll just start—with an eye, light bulb, circle …  Sometimes a snippet of a conversation gets me started. Or a Sunday school lesson—we were discussing John 14:1 and John 16:33, where Jesus basically says, Look, your troubles are temporary. Even with the worst thing that can happen in life, worrying about it is like focusing on the flat tire you got on the way to cash in your winning lottery check. That perspective led to my “eternity goggles” doodle.

Sandy: You work in so many styles. Is there one you prefer?

Jeff: Not really. Sometimes I’m influenced by whatever’s at hand to make the art with. I recently made a candy-wrapper dragon and knight, and little people from the red wax off a Babybel cheese.

Sandy: Are there styles you don’t like to work in?

Jeff: I prefer not to do anything from nature. I think it’s because, especially with sunsets and flowers, part of their beauty is that they’re temporary. Not everything is meant to be captured. Some things are better as a special moment—to live right now, not to be prolonged. We’ve so lost touch with just being.

 

Sandy: How do your thoughts about “being” and fun impact your parenting style?

Jeff: One of the things that stuck with me even before I had kids was—I’m sure you’ve heard it—“Nobody on his deathbed says, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’” They remember the time spent together. God created Adam and Eve to spend time with Him—that’s important. I could work 80 or 90 hours a week and see my kids maybe on the weekends. But I don’t want them to remember just the big things. I want them to be able to look back and go, “We had dinner every night. He taught me to drive. He made me a Godzilla costume.”

Sandy: You seem to understand joy well. How would you define joy of the Lord?

Jeff: So many places in the Bible show that fun and joy are important. The joy of the Lord means being in His will and being content. So today I choose to wear an ephod—to live in that joy—because I do think it’s a choice we all can make. Or, as I posted recently on my blog, that could be “Today I choose to be gruntled.” There you go, another six words to describe me!

Sandy: Do you have any stories about In Touch?

Jeff: Like the first time I met Dr. Stanley? Let me preface it by saying we always had this running gag: Whenever we were doing something really stupid or goofy, somebody would go, "Oh, hi, Dr. Stanley," as if he had just walked in on us.

When I was a newbie, I shared a big cubicle with another artist—Lisa—and John, the art director. John had gotten some software that was shipped in those biodegradable packing peanuts made of cornstarch. So he came over and dumped them on Lisa's head. I said, "Oh, cool—those are the ones you can lick and stick together" and started making a giraffe, attaching them to each other. That gave John an idea, and he went, "I can do my Planet of the Apes impersonation." When John stuffed a bunch in his mouth, they started to dissolve, of course, and he began spitting them into the garbage can. Lisa said, "You sound like a cat choking on a hairball." But I said, "No, a cat choking on a hairball sounds like this: “blech, blech, blech.” So I was putting my giraffe together and making cat sounds when Eric, our web designer, went, "Oh, hi, Dr. Stanley!” I said, "Yeah, right" and turned around to see Dr. Stanley standing there. John Brown had packing peanuts coming out of his mouth; Lisa was over there picking the stuff out of her hair, and I was making a giraffe and impersonating a cat choking on a hairball. Dr. Stanley simply said, "I was just bringing your book back, John." And John said, "You can keep it a little longer if you want to.”

 

Illustrations by Jeff Gregory