A lot of people volunteer in their church, but few can do what Shawn Bridges has done. A member of Trinity Baptist Church, Bridges has transformed the children’s ministry building into a pictorial Noah’s ark by painting hundreds of life-size animals all over the walls of the central rotunda and along the hallways leading to the classrooms.

The elephants, giraffes, zebras, horses, koala bears and the entire colorful menagerie are so realistically portrayed that a child could get a good zoology lesson right there without ever going to the zoo. It took the artist four months of nonstop work to complete the project, often standing on scaffolding for hours and taking home the “bird panels” to complete at night. Naturally, the birds are “flying high” — two-story high, to be exact — so painting them as murals would have been a bit unsafe for the painter. Instead, she worked on panels which were later affixed to the walls.

“This is my gift to my church,” says Bridges, who didn’t charge a penny for her work. “But it was also the most fun thing I have ever done. The kids were so involved. They kept coming to me, asking questions.”

To make it even more fun, she snuck in tiny images of mice, butterflies and other small critters as special surprises for the youngsters. One can easily imagine a 5-year-old staring at a huge elephant figure and suddenly crying out, “Oh, look, there is a little mouse by his foot!”

Not only that, the children even pat the animals, says children’s pastor Debbie Potter, who initiated the renovation project.

“What Shawn has done has turned into something far greater than anything either one of us had imagined,” adds Potter. “Every Sunday people of all ages file through the center to admire her work. The congregation is so excited that one of our own was able to do something like this. We are probably going to have the finest children’s center in the nation.”

And certainly a unique one! How many churches today can boast of having original art on their walls? By the time Bridges is done, another part of the building will be covered with paintings representing Bible stories featuring human characters. As far as anyone knows, this is the largest mural project in the city.

Although she didn’t set out to become a muralist, Bridges may soon become known as one. In addition to her Trinity work, she has recently completed a wall-size picture of Dr. George Washington Carver’s science lab for the Carver Academy and is also the magician who turned walls and floors of a flooddamaged ranch house in San Marcos into a picture perfect sight. In addition, four of her early murals representing outdoor activities adorn Colorado State University in Pueblo, Colo., and a few others are hidden from public view in private homes.

But walls are only one of her “canvases.” Besides creating the more traditional kind that can be hung on the wall, Bridges can paint or otherwise artistically enhance just about anything, from furniture to bathroom sinks. In her dining room, for instance, the table is covered from end to end with a vivid canvas depicting an explosion of fruits and foliage. Protected by varnish, it serves as a “tablecloth” when she entertains.

“It’s hard for me to tell when people are finished eating their salads,” jokes the hostess, but it’s easy to appreciate her dilemma. The strong greens and turquoise blues of the painting most likely “swallow” any colorful stuff placed on top of them. Turquoise is also the color she chose for a large sculptural arrangement of tree branches that she painted and decorated with glass pieces.

But it’s her “Chihuly chandelier” that attracts the most attention. “I love glass and I love Chihuly’s work, but I can’t afford it,” explains Bridges. “So I went to a glass studio and made my own fake Chihuly.”

Consisting of a glass sheet suspended from the ceiling and loaded with an assortment of small glass objects, the “fake” is really a Bridges original. Looking up from the table, the effect is pleasing, as the light filtering through the objects produces an underwater kind of image.

Her impulse to add color and texture to plain surfaces extends to all the rooms in the house, but it’s the living room, which doubles as her studio, that serves as the main gallery. More than a dozen framed paintings line the walls, including portraits of her husband, Gary; son, Mark; and daughter, Annella. Though the exhibit changes as pieces are sold, the family portraits stay put as does a print of the painting she did in response to 9/11. The latter is an image of God’s hands holding the American flag and the survivors of the deadly attack. (More about that later.)

The day we visited, she was putting the finishing touches on a bright meadow scene sitting on the easel, an order from a Houston customer. As a painter, she favors acrylics and a frankly representational style. Florals, landscapes, picturesque scenes and portraits are all part of her portfolio. “I love contemporary art,” she says, “but I just don’t do it very well.”

A NEW DIRECTION

Although she learned to draw at her grandmother’s knee and studied commercial design at Baylor in the late “60s, Shawn Kingston, as she was then known, married while still in college and, after graduation, proceeded to devote herself to domestic life. Following Gary’s stint in the Air Force, the couple settled in San Antonio, Shawn’s hometown. It was her daughter’s birth that moved Bridges to pick up her brushes again. While she delighted in recording her baby’s beauty, her friends took notice of her talent. Before long, they started asking her to do portraits of their own kids, and she gradually established a reputation as a portraitist. Life was good as Gary advanced in his career and the children grew, but in 1985, the family left it all behind to move to a small ski resort in Colorado.

“I think we had a middle-life crisis,” she says, only partially tongue-in-cheek. “We wanted to have an adventure.”

They opened a convenience store and a gift shop in Cuchara, Colo., and for a while, enjoyed “the simpler life” and the great outdoors. That’s where Bridges first discovered the joy of painting tables and murals. While working as a waitress at the Timbers restaurant in Cuchara, she came up with the idea of decorating the tabletops with a variety of scenes to save on linen and laundry. Patrons loved it. Emboldened, she added a mural depicting a Wild West saloon and created “bear chairs” for the porch. By then, she was the artist in residence, selling some of her paintings to vacationing skiers from all over the United States.

When the resort closed, the Bridges stayed on for 10 more years. Eventually, though, the couple felt “adventured out” and returned to San Antonio in 2000.

That was the beginning of a new chapter. In short order, Bridges had two experiences that led to an important turning point in her life. While working on the flood-damaged ranch house mentioned above — her first project of such a magnitude — the still-inexperienced muralist fell prey to discouragement.

“I was way over my head,” she says. “I sat on the floor one day and cried and said, “Please, God, help me.’ I have always been a Christian and thought I was giving my work to God, but that day I gave the whole of it.”

Not only did she successfully complete the patio mural, she now felt she had found a new direction. Troubled by the 9/11 attack in 2001, Bridges painted the aforementioned “September 11” piece to express the belief that we are all in God’s hands.

“Everybody wanted a copy of it,”recalls the artist. “It isn’t a very good painting technically, but it’s a touching one. It spoke to a lot of people struggling through their own confusion and grief.”

Thanks to Bridges’ choir group, the Son Shine Singers, 1,500 prints of the image were made and sold to benefit Baptist Child and Family Services. But that wasn’t the end of it. The painter and the entire choir eventually traveled to Washington, D.C., to present the original to the Pentagon Memorial Chapel, where it still hangs today.

More recently, Bridges and friend Annella Egbert also donated a copy to a Manhattan fire station during a visit to Ground Zero.

All these developments have brought her greater visibility and a sense of purpose. Three local galleries may have turned her down, but that no longer bothers her.

“That painting has given me a new life,” says the amiable artist. “I used to frantically paint what I thought people wanted to buy. Now, I still paint what people want when they commission it, but otherwise I do what God wants me to do. Once I decided on that, I suddenly got a lot of work”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Janet Rogers