A Journey in Creatively Ordered Spirituality
For most of my life I never considered myself particularly creative or artistic. My work in church administration kept me primarily behind a desk and in the left brain, providing order and structure for churches, ministers, and ministries. Over time though, I came to see structure and organization can be a creative enterprise. That creativity can be exercised in the designing and presenting of reports and the conceptualizing of processes and systems. And, as I learned that music is organized sound, and philosophy is organized thought, I came to understand art as organized beauty and religion as organized spirituality. This realization freed me to begin accessing both my dominant organized left brain and my creative, yet atrophied, right brain to uniquely express my personal spiritual journey and my understanding of Holy Scripture.
The result is what I call “Sacred Structures,” or spiritual art assemblages that convey my belief that the Bible cannot be fully interpreted and applied without understanding its metaphors, symbols, and stories. Jesus modeled this practice when he took what he saw around him…….animals, flowers, trees, vines, bread, wine, yokes and used them as metaphors and parables to communicate truth.
My art further reflects the deep connection between the Holy Scriptures of my Judeo-Christian faith tradition, the Torah and the Bible, and the metaphors, stories, and symbols requisite to their understanding. I also seek to respectfully represent and recognize the spiritual traditions and truths of indigenous peoples from around the world by incorporating their spiritual symbols into my art.
For me, art is an expression or representation of my values, my spiritual journey, and what I understand as truth. Hopefully, through my art, I am able to inspire, move, and connect with others who share similar values, journeys, and truth.
My sacred structure making inspiration comes from the Bible, God’s Word, and the 40 authors who wrote it over a 1500 year period. My work reflects the diversity of those writers. Some were kings and prophets, others were shepherds, fishermen, and physicians….humans from all walks of life. They lived at different times but used a common language of stories, symbols, and metaphors to communicate a central message – God, who created us all, desires a personal relationship with us through His Spirit and His Son, Jesus Christ.
As a pastor for over 40 years I spent considerable time reading and studying the Bible. My ministry also allowed me to frequently come across old Bibles in different languages and translations. I discovered there is a vast trove of old Bibles in many languages in a state of disrepair and disuse. The faith traditions that view the Bible as sacred scripture have no specific means for disposing of Bibles that are no longer usable. Therefore, Bibles are handed down from generation to generation and can be found stored in attics, basements, and garages as well as collecting dust on bookshelves and antique stores. Many if not most of these older Bibles have lost their covers and spines or have bindings coming apart.
My desire became to somehow repurpose these old Bibles, to give them a new life and a new purpose if you will. Turning them into pieces of art seemed to me an appropriate way to restore their beauty and transform their usefulness into something that could serve as a visual reminder of one’s faith heritage and could continue to be passed down from generation to generation.
At first I thought this meant providing them with new decorative covers. But, the realization that the word “religion” comes from the Latin word, Re-ligio, which means “to rebind,” prompted me in another direction. That of simply rebinding these old Bibles in a manner where the focus is on the words on the paper and the truths the words portray, rather than the covers.
This direction was further prompted by the discovery that prior to 1860, especially in Europe, Bibles were printed with bold black ink on heavier and thicker paper due to the especially high percentage of rag content, or scrap cloth, used in making the paper. While today’s papers are thinner and are prone to crack and yellow with aging, pre-1860 papers are often found to have survived fire and flood and outlived their leather covers and thread bindings. I found this older, heavier, and thicker paper has a beauty all its own and drapes gracefully when re-stitched and hung in a U-shape.
My final bit of inspiration came from my love of story, metaphor, and symbol. Throughout history every culture and faith group has used stories, metaphors, and symbols to communicate the history, values, and truths they hold dear. Because my faith heritage is Judeo-Christian, I began draping these re-stitched Bibles from a Biblical symbol, metaphor, or story. Upon moving to New Mexico, I was inspired by the Spanish Catholic and Native American symbols, stories, and metaphors and began incorporating those into my work as well.
I use a variety of media in my sacred structures, including paper, wood, stone, rusted nails, metal, and salvaged wood. At times I create the metaphorical structure the Bibles are mounted on and at times I find an existing piece that I can incorporate, such as a yoke, skull, boat, cross, or other religious relic or symbol. I especially enjoy incorporating old, found, and discarded items to represent how Christ “makes all things new” and can repair and repurpose our brokenness and mistakes for his purposes.
Most of my art structures incorporate an antique Bible. The pages of each worn and weathered Bible are carefully and prayerfully hand torn into strips. The size of the Bible dictates the size and number of strips. The torn strips are then grouped in sections, or “signatures,” of 10-15 folded pages and are adhered with a Nepalese handmade paper that comes from the bark of the Himalayan Lokta plant. The sections are hand sewn together with waxed linen thread using a 4th century Ethiopian Coptic stitching. Finally, the sewn signatures are draped over a religious metaphorical or symbolic structure forming a U-shape.
The U-shaped drape of each repurposed Bible represents God’s Word as a container providing a vessel for our belief system and direction and guidance for our lives. The inside of the U-shaped container represents the contents of our inner spiritual lives, the communing with God in our spirit through prayer, reflection, contemplation, and creation. The structure that each Bible is draped over represents the systematic framework, discipline, and order necessary to anchor and nurture one’s spiritual life. My prayer is that my art will move people to reflect and gaze upon the divine image and likeness of God in themselves, others, and all creation.
Jim’s art can be found in homes, businesses, colleges, and religious institutions and has been shown at The Abbey Gallery in Canon City, CO, the Recycle Santa Fe Art Festival, the New Mexico Capitol Rotunda Gallery, Abiquiu Studio Tour, The Lavender Festival in Abiquiu, Gallery Arriba in Abiquiu, Fuller Lodge Art Center in Los Alamos, Convento Gallery in Espanola, Stables Gallery in Taos, and the Galisteo Art Center in Galisteo, New Mexico.