When looking back on life, only then can we sometimes see how the footprints of various experiences merge together into the path of today. This is the case with Paul Oman and his work and mission known as Drawn to the Word.
From an early age, Paul Oman has been consumed with a passion for drawing and painting. In fourth grade, Paul was selected as the Wisconsin Youth Art Month student to present an original painting of a white-tailed deer to the Governor at the State Capitol during the annual celebration. The following year, Paul asked a classmate, who had green paint stains on her hands, how that had happened. She replied, “I started taking painting lessons yesterday after school.” Paul rushed home from school that day and asked his parents if he could take painting lessons as well! His parents said “yes” and the next week Paul began. The instructor was a local artist who enjoyed sharing her love of painting.
The recognition and encouragement of Paul’s talent by his parents is a key part of his life journey. One year led to the next, with six classes in the fall, winter, and spring over four successive years, learning acrylic, oil, and watercolor skills. He earned awards through 4-H at the county fair for his paintings. His enthusiasm for painting, however, came primarily from a desire within as he was inspired early on by the wildlife and landscape artists of the 1980’s.
The journey was not without challenges. A fear of public speaking had its grip on Paul throughout his middle and high school years. Having the benefit of an agriculture teacher and mentor who cared deeply about his students, Paul’s potential and challenging limitation was recognized and confronted. This teacher encouraged Paul to become involved in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) organization throughout high school, which Paul did. More specifically, this teacher challenged Paul to enter a speaking contest each year to work on overcoming this fear.
During Paul’s first year of college, Paul was elected State FFA Vice President for the 1987-88 year. This transformative experience gave Paul the confidence needed to speak to large audiences, build relationships, and enjoy these opportunities.
Paul’s career plan, having grown up on a farm near rural Amery, was to attend college and pursue a career in veterinary medicine. While at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, he took drawing classes for enjoyment while studying science. A critical event happened in January of 1992 when Paul participated in a weekend watercolor painting workshop taught by Minnesota artist, Russell Norberg. Inspired by this experience, Paul had a renewed vision for his own artistic focus. For the next 15 years, he painted almost entirely in watercolor. He excelled in the arts perhaps over the sciences, though would not have a degree to show for it.
With a gradually lessening interest in vet medicine, Paul’s excitement for teaching developed. He served as a summer camp counselor at Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp, 1989-91. As a result, he decided to enter the field of education in order to teach the science he had learned. Here he would combine his knowledge and skills in science, teaching, and art in the classroom. This landed him a teaching position in the Hopkins, Minnesota School District in 1993, primarily as a middle and high school science teacher. Using his artistic ability to teach scientific concepts, students learned by seeing “Mr. Oman” draw. “This was a great way to engage students, especially the visual learners. They would see it as I would draw it – ecosystems, the skeleton, geological landforms, the water cycle, and just about anything else — and they would remember it,” Paul recalls.
However, a tug at Paul’s heart, which began as a Confirmation student years earlier, continued. While teaching, Paul attended several night classes at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota to further explore this interest. In 1997, Paul met his wife-to-be, Jana. The following year they were married and moved to Paul’s hometown of Amery, where he accepted a position of teaching high school science and agriculture. After one year, this “tug became an irresistible pull,” and with the encouragement and support of his wife, Paul decided to resign his teaching position and enter seminary.
A pivotal event took place during this brief teaching tenure in Amery. This would be a significant experience that would shape what was to come. During the fall of 1998, Paul was invited to paint the large-scale backdrop for the Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp’s Annual Dinner Theater event. The canvas frame, which measured 13 feet tall by 13 feet wide, was in place and the muslin material was stretched and ready to go. He agreed. Using the theme of that year’s performance as his inspiration, he sketched out the image. He arrived with acrylic latex paints, a roller with an extended handle, brushes and rags, and began to paint as the Dinner Theater choir was rehearsing. It was at this moment the idea of “Drawn to the Word” was born, though it would not be realized for another eight years. Paul painted and the choir sang. The image came into view musically and artistically, simultaneously.
Paul continued to paint throughout his time of theological study, funding part of his expenses through the sale of his work. During seminary he completed a project of illustrating the uniqueness of stories from each of the gospels, for which he was featured in a national publication, The Lutheran magazine. He continued to dream of ways in which he could use his art in ministry and mission.
A congregation of just over 300 people in the town of Birchwood, Wisconsin (population 518) called Paul to serve as their pastor in 2003. Gaining confidence in his leadership and painting abilities, along with a vision for a new way of “preaching,” Paul had an idea which was implemented for the first time during worship on Good Friday of 2006. As Paul tells the story, “A small audience was expected for Good Friday worship services, and this year was no different. So, I thought this may be the perfect place to try out my idea in case it fails.” His music director and worship planning team were on board. It was “a go.” Paul constructed a canvas that was 80 inches tall by 60 inches wide. The painting would serve as the sermon. The order of worship would follow a simple alternating form of Bible readings and music, with the addition of a first-person character narration of Barrabbas, told through a strong, narrative voice. The choir sang the story as a choral cantata. Paul painted an image of an angry soldier coming out of the canvas at the people, with the crucifixion scene in the background. Surrounded by the voices and music of the people, Paul would paint without saying a word. Less than 40 people attended, as was expected. Within an hour it was finished… and it had just begun.
Unaware of what was about to happen, Paul continued serving his congregation with joy. After all, these were the people who whole-heartedly embraced the use of the arts in church at this level. It was a permission-giving moment that inspired others to share artistic gifts to enhance worship, education, and outreach.
The Good Friday worship experience was repeated for the following five years, with new music, narrations, and a different painting. Attendance jumped to over 300 in the following years. People of all ages and denominations were attending. Even those who had been disinterested in church came to see, and hear. By word of mouth, this new way of “preaching” spread. Paul began receiving requests from churches and organizations around the United States.
In 2011, Paul and his wife, Jana, decided it was time to take the next step in this journey by moving into this developing artistic ministry full-time, giving it the time an attention it needed if it was to grow. There was risk involved, yet promise as well. If this is what God had in mind, then he and his family would follow where it would lead. Since that leap, Paul has painted with many churches of all denominations across the United States, in China, in both public and private schools, with non-profits, camps, seminaries, colleges, and with inmates at correctional facilities. “The greatest joy of it all,” Paul says with a smile, “are the people I meet along the way. I hope that what I do gives even a small amount of hope to anyone who is in need of hope.”
Paul continues to seek out and implement new ways in which the arts can revitalize congregations and communities.
To God be all the glory!
“And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32