2017-02-17 / Faith

Artist’s faith inspires creativity

By Dawn Megli-Thuna

ACT OF LOVE—Above, artist Mike Amato works on one of his driftwood Jesus statues. At right is the face of one of those statues, which he gives away for free to local churches. 
Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers ACT OF LOVE—Above, artist Mike Amato works on one of his driftwood Jesus statues. At right is the face of one of those statues, which he gives away for free to local churches. Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers The morning Mike Amato turned 49, he woke up in Los Robles Hospital lucky to be alive.

The Newbury Park resident had suffered a “widow-maker” heart attack. After years of working long hours, first as an architectural designer then as head of a general construction firm, stress had caught up to the Encino native.

“I woke up and realized that none of my possessions meant anything to me,” the now-52- year-old said, wearing his signature red bandana over shoulder-length hair.

It wasn’t the first time Amato had faced death. As a 5-year-old, he spent a week in a coma while battling pneumonia. When he awoke from the coma, Amato said, he remembered being greeted by the image of Jesus Christ, arms outstretched and bathed in light.

“I kept it a secret because I was afraid. It was really personal. I only told my wife (years later),” he said. “But when I had my heart attack, I finally had to face it.”

The Rev. Tom Stephen, pastor of Monte Vista Presbyterian Church in Newbury Park, said the brush with death at 49 was a watershed moment for Amato. The pastor visited Amato while he was recovering. After Amato shared his childhood vision with Stephen, the pastor told him that his personal experience could be a powerful assurance for those struggling with loss.

“Maybe God saved you for a purpose. You can offer the hope of heaven, not just in theory but in experience,” Stephen said.

Amato decided to start the Hound of Heaven ministry. When he hears about someone who’s lost a loved one, he donates an artistically rendered image of the person lost. At first he hand-drew the likenesses, which would take three to four days. Now he creates the images as photo montages on his computer, which takes 30 to 40 minutes.

His renderings have included lost friends and family members, including stillborn children.

Raised Roman Catholic, Amato graduated from Crespi Carmetlite High School in Encino before earning his Bachelor of Fine Art from Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in 1987. He said he named his ministry the Hound of Heaven because of a sermon Stephen preached about the Francis Thompson poem “The Hound of Heaven,” in which God is depicted as a hound who pursues a sinner until he is saved.

The artist said he identified with the imagery.

“God can sniff out anyone who is lost or is in danger, and he saves them. That’s what I am. I’m a hound. I look you up, man. I find people; they don’t even know me,” he said.

One person Amato didn’t know was Diane Black. A psychiatric nurse who lives in Camarillo, she lost her brother, Doug, in August. Doug had been a longtime parishioner at Monte Vista Presbyterian.

Black said her brother, who was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 8, had always had poor health. She donated a kidney to save his life 30 years ago, but he was on dialysis the last few years before he died. When her brother died, Black said, she felt like a piece of her died as well.

When he heard about Doug Black’s death, Amato said, he felt called by God to create a picture for his sister, even though he’d never met her.

When she saw Amato’s charcoal sketch of her brother, Diane Black said, she nearly collapsed.

“My knees almost buckled. It’s so uncanny (a likeness) of my brother,” she said.

She said the image is such an accurate depiction of her brother that it’s difficult for their mother to look at. Despite the sadness she sees looking at her brother, she said, the image has been a comfort to her in the grieving process.

“It’s the Lord giving me another sign my brother is OK and the Lord is with him,” she said.


With an aim toward sharing his art with churches, Mike Amato created a series of statues of Jesus made out of driftwood he collected on local beaches.

He donated one Driftwood Jesus to Monte Vista Presbyterian Church to display during Lent and another depicting the Ascension for use during Easter.

Amato has offered to create a Driftwood Jesus for any church that requests one. A statue is free, but recipients must either pick it up or cover the cost of shipping.

Amato’s work can be seen at the OVA Arts gallery in Ojai.

For details email Amato at Mamatoart1964@gmail.com.

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