By Kristopher Kennedy
“Hitchhiker Jesus” signals to drivers on Highway 41 A. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).
From scenes of the Nativity prolific around Christmas, to Renaissance Adorations and Michelangelo’s Pieta, to modern depictions on the stage or on the big screen, the figure of Jesus Christ has been rendered in a diverse mixture of artistic representations for nearly two millennia.
When The Reverend Michael Cannon (T’18) and his wife Erika moved to Monteagle, Tennessee in the summer of 2015, it wasn’t long before Jesus Christ found yet another manifestation through art, one which has evolved into an iconic Sewanee landmark over recent years.
“If art tries to make you believe something, it’s not art: it’s propaganda,” said Reverend Cannon, a School of Theology alum at the University of the South, who was inspired in 2016 to have the figure of Jesus Christ painted on a fence at the foot of his driveway, right off Highway 41 A going north towards Cowan.
Dr. Eric Thurman, associate professor of religious studies and chair of religious studies at the University of the South, pointed out that, with the addition of the Christ mural to their fence, the Cannons can now direct visitors to simply “look for Jesus” as they roll down Highway 41A. The mural serves both this practical directional purpose alongside its artistic one—and both were at the genesis of Cannon’s inspiration.
“It’s hard to separate the two [purposes],” Reverend Cannon said, “it’s like they just came together at the exact same time. It just all happened.”
He described his inspiration as “an idea that hit me all at once…I could see the white of the fence and was like, ‘Jesus has gotta be on that fence.’” And so, in May 2016, the Cannons had a family friend, Matt Gutierrez, visit Monteagle to bring their idea to life.
“I was basically outside there with the headlamp on and Michael would come out and play Taylor Swift, it was so funny,” Gutierrez reflected, “I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
According to Reverend Cannon, Gutierrez is “an artist in every sense of the word” and, when he paid that visit to Monteagle, it only took him one day to complete the mural. “Matt worked from sun-up to a headlamp finish,” reflected Reverend Cannon—a miraculous day’s work.
Right off Highway 41A, the Christ appears before an image of the sun, with doves flying around his shoulders. Christ is traditionally clad, but also wears a pair of sunglasses and “the people’s eyebrow,” the highly-raised eyebrow popularized by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, of whom the Cannons are a huge fan. Christ’s hands have holes in them to symbolize the “resurrected Jesus,” and his right hand gives a thumbs up, with a rolling highway and purple mountains in the background.
This image came together very cohesively in Reverend Cannon’s mind. He said, “The sun comes up back there [behind the fence], so I had that image of Jesus coming out of the sun. It naturally followed that he would be wearing sunglasses and the inviting hitchhiker pose; it just began to fill out in an inspired way.” The mural also contains a great deal of purple: the purple mountains, purple on Jesus’ robe, what Michael notes as “the liturgical color of Lent; it’s Sewanee, it’s royalty, it’s perfect.”
Thurman described this depiction of Christ as shrouded in ambiguity—one might readily discern the mural as Jesus a hitchhiker alongside the road or as Jesus giving drivers a thumbs up; as Thurman said, “You can interpret his message either way.”
“That thumb up is a hitchhiker,” stated Reverend Cannon, “as you pass by, maybe you want a little company, and he’ll join you,” emphasizing that travellers can symbolically take Jesus with them down the road if they so please, but also noting the Christ is “interpretive” in its meaning for all individuals.
According to Thurman, “The most striking thing are the sunglasses. It takes Jesus out of the story world of Gospel narrative and right there onto Sewanee road, bringing Jesus into 21st century America,” describing the tinted lenses of Nazareth’s most famous son as “cool, mysterious, hid[ing] identity a little bit” and ultimately begging the question: ”what do sunglasses mean?”
The Christ on the Cannon’s fence is known around Sewanee by many names: “Jesus on the Fence,” “Hitchhiker Jesus,” “Hippie Jesus,” and “Jesus del Sol,” to name a few, with the Cannon’s house now colloquially distinguished as “The Jesus House.” They have have often seen passers-by pull off alongside the road to step out and take selfies with the Christ.
The effigy of the iconic carpenter also entreats the mind to recall other examples of “roadside religion,” often created by individuals as “very creative purposes of religious symbol,” according to Thurman. “Hitchhiking Jesus” is no exception, giving Sewanee and Monteagle its own “very local expression of religiosity.”
Thurman also illuminates the “juxtaposition with ‘King Jesus’ in All-Saints’ [Chapel]” that “Hitchhiking Jesus” creates. Commonly known as “King Jesus,” the stain-glass representation of Christ in All-Saints’, the Chapel art evokes the sentiment of a kingly, divine Christ, his robe held up by angels, standing on top of the world, with an image of All-Saints’ itself beneath.
As Thurman described it, “All-Saints’ becomes the place where Heaven and Earth meet; Sewanee becomes a sacred spot being included in this visual narrative,” contrasting to the Christ off Highway 41A who represents “something contemporary, ordinary, not King of the World, just a guy on the side of the road who needs a ride.”
The Cannons have no intention of letting their mural go away any time soon. “We’ll try to preserve it and preserve Jesus for as long as we can,” said Erika Cannon, with Reverend Cannon adding, “It’s iconic Sewanee.”