When Terrell O’Brien was just a young boy growing up on a farm in the Texas Panhandle, art became a major part of his life. He loved to sketch the scenes that unfolded before his eyes each day on his family farm, but little did he know then that his talent and love of art would allow him to share the gospel with a people states away years later.
Though there was not much art instruction in the small town of Lamesa where he was raised, Terrell pursued art in whatever way he could. When it was time to attend college, he left home to attend Stephen F. Austin University where he studied commercial art with plans to become a medical illustrator.
“God gave me that desire for art, but He did not intent for me to be a medical artist,” Terrell said.
After finishing college in 1970, Terrell had plans to go to an art institute in Chicago or Fort Worth, but felt led to go back and help on family farm.
“Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was God very directly ordering my steps,” he said.
For a year, he helped his father on the family farm before branching out to begin his own farming endeavors. A few years later in 1977, Terrell met Vickie and soon after they were married, continuing to live and work on Terrell’s farm.
During this time, Terrell still was drawing when he was not out working in the fields, and during this time, some of his drawings were published in a few farming magazines. Soon, art was taking more of a prominent role in his life and a decision had to be made.
“What I wound up with was two careers and I couldn’t do both,” he said.
In 1983, the couple took a leap of faith, decided to sell their farm and pursue an art career full time. Terrell established a gallery and studio in Lamesa and diligently worked at his craft, adding in western and wildlife sculptures.
Art and farming “both are a difficult way to make a living,” Terrell said. “Later on I realized that God was moving us out of farming into a more flexible career because He had plans for us to be on mission.”
Ten years into his full-time art career, Terrell and Vickie felt the Lord moving them in a new direction – missions through the North American Mission Board.
“Art didn’t directly lead us into ministry,” he said. “God was working in our lives to move us into ministry, and art became a vehicle for that. After we left farming, I guess it was probably along 10 years later that we realized God was calling us into pioneer mission work. We moved to Wyoming as Mission Service Corp missionaries in 1996.”
God’s hand quickly became evident as Terrell and Vickie were able to smoothly join the Lander, Wyoming community as tentmakers, opening their own sculpting shop to provide funding for their mission efforts. And they partnered with a small Baptist church on the Wind River Indian Reservation to minister to Native Americans in that area, the focus people group for their mission efforts.
“I had no knowledge of the Indians, and I thought it was strange the Lord put us there,” he said. “I was told by a lot of people the [Native Americans] may never accept you. But what I found out was that because I was an artist, they really accepted us. They have such an artistic personality…. My art became an element that I didn’t know it would be such a strong element.”
Terrell’s art not only connected him to the Native American community but also allowed him ample opportunity to share about God’s movement in his life with the customers that came into his art studio.
“This has opened the doors with many people because many people find my work interesting,” he said. “As people saw the sculptures, it gave me a ready opportunity to share how God has worked in my life and why I am doing this and came to do this.”
Before moving to Wyoming, Terrell began making enlargement or monument sculptures, taking the small sculptures other artists have crafted and rebuilding them on a grand scale. There are not many sculptors who are able to do this so many artists flocked to Terrell’s studio, asking him to enlarge their art efforts.
During the enlargement process, the artists have to spend plenty of time working alongside Terrell to complete the monument. Terrell saw this as a God-sent opportunity to share his first passion with them, loving and serving the Lord.
“It has given me opportunities to witness to my clients,” he said. “When it is a big monument project, they will work with me on the final stages. They will ask how I got into this because there is not a school to learn this. I have to say that God thrust me there and allowed me to learn it for how He is going to use it.”
Terrell and Vickie loved the ministry and work they had in Wyoming, and never intended to return to Texas. But the Lord called them back in 2007, where Terrell now serves as pastor of First Baptist Church in Fort Davis.
“Over the years I have realized that it wasn’t about us, that God is going to take care of us,” he said. “But art was what He had designed in my life.”
Through his journey as an artist, missionary and pastor, Terrell has realized that the artistic ability the Lord has given him was meant to bring Him glory.
“When I started out in my art career, I loved working with other artists and improving and working on my craft,” he said. “It is such a dynamic field because there is always a place to explore or learn or do something new… But as I started in this, I had my own plans… What happened was that I was looking at my art career as solely for my own accomplishment. And then God began to teach me that that is not what He had given it to me for. Along the way, he began to reveal why He had given it to me. He gave me a heart for this and a passion to pursue it for the way He wanted to use it in my life and my family’s life.”
Terrell challenged other artists and Christ followers to see their gifts, their careers as avenues to spread God’s love, just like in the instance of God using his art to open a pathway for him to share the gospel in Wyoming.
“A lot of people seem to discount their career from their faith, and you can’t do that,” Terrell said. “And I see a career in art to be the same way. That was God’s intention with me, and He designed to use that art in my particular ministry… You can’t run away from what God gives you. The thing to do is to pursue that and to pursue it allowing God to use it in whatever way He has planed and fashioned. He has much greater plans than we can imagine.”
Photos provided by the O’Brien Studio.
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