TRINITY, N.C. — Gaye Frances Willard can’t remember a time when she didn’t know what she wanted to be.
“Probably when I was about 3 and my mother said I used to draw on the wall,” Willard said, of when she knew she was destined to be an artist. “I would draw one little line and a circle.”
Much of her career was spent as a portrait artist.
“I want it to have an emotional effect,” she said, of why she enjoys focusing on a subject’s eyes.
But it was a painting she wanted to do for herself which would end up being viewed the most by other people.
“When I did that one, I wasn’t really thinking about what anybody else would think because I did it for me,” she said.
Willard is talking about a painting she did in 2009, when she came up with the idea of Santa kneeling over infant Jesus.
“I intended to paint a cross in this particular painting, but I did it in the shape of a star, because I think the cross and the message of the cross is central to the Christmas story,” she said, adding that she took a break from painting once the cross was finished. “When I walked back into the room, where it sat on the easel, I immediately saw another cross that I did not intend to be there, and it is perfectly positioned at the feet of Jesus.”
When the painting was done, she found that a lot of people were fond of it, so she made some prints. But it’s what happened when she posted the painting online that led to the biggest surprise.
“Someone posted it, and you know how these things go, it just went viral and went everywhere,” she said. “This painting has been all over the world. I hear from people all over the world.”
With some of the posts being shared hundreds of thousands of times, Willard says there’s no way to gauge how many people have viewed it.
The story, however, took a shift around 2018’s Christmas season. Willard’s son sent her an email, saying someone had written about her painting, saying it’d been blocked by Facebook.
“Right after I heard from him, I started hearing from other people who had shared it and said they weren’t able to share it, it’d been blocked,” she said.
Willard says a good number of people must have complained to the social media giant because the picture was unblocked the following day. Two years later, she learned the story was taking yet another turn.
“It happened again almost, well it was two years and one day, it happened again,” she said.
It’s why Facebook blocked the picture for a second time which is adding to her confusion.
“And they blocked it for violent content. That’s what it said,” Willard said.
Willard says people complained and the picture was unblocked once more, but that doesn’t leave her feeling any less bewildered.
“Either Santa Claus is violent, or baby Jesus is violent, or the two of them together,” she said.
Willard adds that she’s spoken to someone who was able to contact Facebook, where a representative told her the picture was blocked because of the social media company’s algorithms. Once more, leaving Willard with more questions than answers.
That said, Willard does say the picture offends people on two opposite side of the spectrum: Christians and atheists. That’s why Willard, who has now painted eight Santas, wrote a book to explain what she “had in her heart” when she painted the one featuring baby Jesus, titled “Every Knee Shall Bow – A Christmas Collection.”
FOX8 also reached out to Facebook for comment but is yet to receive a response.