REVEALED: Artist Interviews

Shortly following the launch of the Revealed traveling exhibit, the CIVA Blog ran three interviews with three of the artists from Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups. The first was with Tanja Butler, and the second was with Mark T. Smith. The most recent was a discussion with Edward Knippers. That conversation had to be edited down for length. Following is the entire conversation:

Ned Bustard: I often explain to people that Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups began with my desire to make a book featuring your printmaking along side works from your collection of other printmakers who explored Christianity in their work. In your flat files are some lovely prints by Otto Dix, Howard Finster, and many others that I had scanned to use in the book but ended up not making it into the final project due to copyright issues. If we could go back and make Revealed again (and your whole collection was in the public domain), what works would you have included?

Edward Knippers: I would have included the Otto Dix pieces for sure, especially The Flight into Egypt, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Betrayal in the Garden. There are also a number of Chagalls such as The Gray Crucifixion and Joseph Before Pharaoh that would have been nice to use, not to mention Cain Slays Abel and David and Absalom (both of which would have added the problem of color, but we are dreaming, right?). The Baptism of Christ by Max Beckmann and the Veil of Veronica by Bernard Buffet would have been good additions. And one of my favorites, although not strictly Biblical in its subject matter is Georges Rouault’s The Just Like Sandalwood Perfumes the Ax That Fells Him from the Miserere. 

Ned: Otto Dix made it into the book (in a way) with my baptism of Christ print that I made based on one of his pieces. I also included in the book (through imitation) Sadao Watanabe, Vincent van Gogh, Saul Bass, Ben Zion, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, George Rouault, and Conrad Felixmüller. The Felixmüller homage along with several other pieces that I contributed to the book contain nudity. And nudity always illicits a strong responses from viewers. One of my favorite reactions to Revealed so far was on Christmas morning. My eight-year old nephew opened the book then slammed it shut, informing his mother “This book is inappropriate.” And of course I am not the only one in the book to include nudity. Right from the start your diptych on the cover of Revealed shows Adam and Eve in all their glory. But you’re no stranger to people being offended by art you have made. Your work often comes under fire for showing too much skin. How would you respond to Christians who take issue with Revealed over the nudity we included?

Ed: The answer to your nephew’s response is in the title: “A Storybook Bible for Grown-ups.” I recently wrote a blog post for Artway in which I addressed why I have chosen to use the nude in my art. I said, “I want viewers to reconsider the Scriptures in very human terms that might shock them out of their complacency about the things of the spirit. The nude is my way of aiming at the deep and saving Truth given to us by Christ. It is an attempt to strip away our hiding places.” Revealed is a place that nudity is not only appropriate, but should be expected. In its pages we should be kept on edge thinking new and penetrating thoughts.

Ned: Your new book is called Violent Grace. That title gets at another issue people have with Revealed. Folks may not be offended by the nudity in the book, but images like Steve Halla’s depiction of the murder of children are seen as crossing the line. Why do you think violent works like that are not only acceptable, but actually had to be in this project?

Ed: The Scriptures ring true because the difficult events are not suppressed but instead are recorded for all to read, and for all to try to comprehend in the light of the reality of God. The Bible is not a cover-up job, but instructive truth dealing with real people. In the other literature from back in the day if a king was defeated in battle, the narrative would stop. The king was to only be seen in the best light. Yet in the narrative of David, as an example, his worst sins were exposed. Likewise, Steve Halla’s murder of children should be seen. Even the cannibalism in II Kings (chapter 6) would not be out of place. Your linocut, What Evil Is This? dealing with the dismemberment of a woman is no easier to contemplate. Yet for all the violence represented, Revealed has much tenderness as well. For example, prints such as Tanja Butler’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt or Albrecht Durer’s Doubting Thomas (Small Passion). Though in light of the violent images in teh book we need to remember that the Bible teaches us the often difficult fact that we are to fear nothing but God. Since He has revealed Himself as our loving father, this is truly liberating and we should learn to embrace our freedom from fear in all things, even pictures in a book. 

Ned: Continuing on with the violence thread, one of the things I like in several of your contributions to this book is the way the spiritual world violently thrusts itself into the physical world through your use of cubism. No puffy clouds or cute cherubs here. Just alien slabs of another reality marching in. 

Ed: I think that we are living between two worlds and that ours is the weaker of the two. I also think that we will have glorious work to do in that other world to which we hope to go. The puffy clouds with people sitting around doing nothing, seems to me, to be a boring anti-Christian image that makes Hell seem more interesting, even more important. Glory should be engaging and our participation in it will be wonderful, consuming all that we are and could ever hope to be—never boring. This is true because Glory is where God is and we will see Him face to face. It is difficult for paint to be able to even hint at that powerful reality. The least that we can do in trying is to not be sentimental about it. Give me Flannery O’Conner or C. S. Lewis, not Hallmark!

This brings to mind an overriding question that we should engage. It is: “Why is it easy to show evil and despair and so difficult to create images that embody goodness and joy?” 

Ned: For me that question immediately brings to mind you throwing down the gauntlet years ago during the time when I was developing the first edition of It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. Back then you challenged me to write an essay on making art about GOOD. The task of writing that essay was certainly not a walk in the park. But in the end I was able to learn a great deal about goodness, and the ideas in that essay have shaped my artmaking ever since. In It Was Good I wrote that one reason it is so difficult to create images that embody goodness is due to a general misunderstanding of what the word really means. “We make good the equivalent of ‘nice try’ when we say a child has done good when they have merely put forth effort. And usually ‘nice’ or ‘sweet’ are presented as synonyms of good. This is where we begin to see our collective understanding of the biblical concept of good begin to break down. A nice or sweet God would not destroy every living creature (except those who could fit on one boat), in a worldwide cataclysmic flood. So we find that we all have a misunderstanding of the word, resulting from a distortion of true goodness observable in the world around us.” Also, we are completely sumbmerged in a broken world. We can neither rise above it, nor go around it. We are bound to it. It pervades everything we think and do. So portraying Good is hard because we can never get an objective viewpoint on it. 

Aside from the legitimate challenge that Good presents to the artist, I also think that the crude reality: “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” [Proverbs 9:17] comes into play here. Fallen mankind simply desires evil more than goodness.

Ed: That is certainly true, but as followers of Christ, I wonder if we fear that true goodness and joy is too remarkable to be real and therefore when we encounter any attempt to embody them we tend to discount the image as false or make-believe? 

Ned: C.S. Lewis credits that with the Temptor’s efforts. In The Screwtape Letters the senior devil writes, “The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are ‘Real’ while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective.’” This is why I like the cubist elements you use in your art to represent the spiritual world. We contrast the spiritual reality with the “real world.” For many, the hope of Heaven is “too good to be true.” 

Ed: Is this because we are more acquainted with grief than with joy? Can sentimental art be blamed, or is such art merely the result of a more all encompassing failure of imagination in the face of something so grand? 

Ned: I think of it as a “poisoning of the Imagination.” I have been struck over and over lately that many of our popular songs, TV shows, and movies are wrapping cyanide in Beauty. The goodness and truth of Scripture is disparaged and discredited as half-truths and lies are packaged in pretty moving images and heart-warming stories set to a good beat. We are distracted and mislead to the point that we are unable to embrace God’s ultimate reality.

Ed: There are rare times, nonetheless, when we do find goodness and joy depicted with authenticity. For example, I find such goodness and joy in the face of Jesus in Lovis Corinth’s Christ Falls Under His Cross and also in Rembrandt’s Christ Preaching (La petite Tombe). Do you see it in other pieces in Revealed?

Ned: Well, the book intentially embraced the darker stories in the Bible. But for me, Steve Prince’s Slow Dance and Tanja Butler’s Kisses both convey real goodness and joy. Prince’s piece especially seems to be an authentic, non-saccherine display of goodness and joy. Also, Albrecht Dürer’s Noli Me Tangere (on the inside back cover of the book) shows Christ, the definition of Goodness, with Mary, who, in my mind, was at that moment was the personification of Joy.

Ah, but that is enough loftiness for now! Let’s get back to earth with a bit of reflection on the gritty art of printmaking. As a graphic designer sitting in front of the computer all day, I love the fact that in printmaking there is no “Save As” button and it can be such agreat exploration trudging through the cutting of a block and arriving at the end with and unexepected image rather than the cold predictability of a “Copy/Paste.” You spend most of your time making huge oil paintings. What about the printmaking process draws you back again and again?

Ed: Printmaking is, for the most part, an intimate art form that can be spread to many viewers in its original form. There is no need for those interested in art to gather in one place in order to see the work, as is the case with painting. A print is usually a humble sheet of paper that speaks more about the ordinary world than about art, yet in doing so it becomes quite personal. For me, looking at prints is like reading a real book that is held in your hands. You are in a physical relationship with an original work of art. One might say that paintings are more standoffish. You are taken into them in a different way, a way that is more mental and less physical. However, both can be quite emotional, both can speak to the heart.

I am also drawn to printmaking as I like to see how much I can do with the simplest means. That is why many of my prints are a white line in a black field, a technique used by Matisse. In working this way, without all of the tricks of the print medium to cover my mistakes, I feel truly exposed with very little room to hide. The line must carry everything, the image, the emotion, and the presence of the idea.

Ned: Yes, I understand the appeal. I began making Second Eve immediately after seeing a Matisse print one night. I was so taken by the simplicity of the line as well. You mention how printmaking brings you into a physical relationship with an original work of art. I feel that as well. And that is why I am so glad that CIVA made a traveling exhibit from a selection of the book’s prints. Seeing them in person is so much better than merely looking at them in the book. Not that the book is bad! Good heavens, of course I want folks to buy Revealed! But it is a different experience than expereincing the art in person. And no one will ever be able to see all the art in the flesh. Even I didn’t, and I made the book.

And with that, I think we will close this conversation. Thank you for sitting down with me and tossing around all of these big ideas. And thank you for inspiring Revealed and for decades of inspiration to love God and make art that seeks to bring Him glory.