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Museum Explores Bible's Influence on Art

With the word Bible in its name, the Museum of Biblical Art might be mistaken for a faith-based institution. But its curators say that the museum explores how the bible has influenced visual art and it is a secular institution.

The inaugural exhibition in the museum's spacious new quarters is called Coming Home. The title refers to the rapture, the calling of the faithful home to Heaven at the end of the world. The 73 artists are all from the South, self taught and united by the impact of religious tradition on their work. Curator Carol Crown defines the majority as evangelical Christian - the predominant faith in America's South. Howard Finster, who died in 2001, was in fact a Baptist preacher.

"He is the most famous Southern self-taught artist in the exhibit," said Ms. Crown. "He's kind of an icon. You know when you think of the South, you think of Elvis and Coca Cola and Jesus. Well, put Finster with them."

In a small portrait of Christ, Finster, pleading for an end to the world's ever-growing evil, signed his painting: "Howard Finster World's Red Light Stop Sign."

"This Baptist preacher began making art as he was called by the Lord to do it and his intention was to convert," she said. "He had the good news. And being a good Evangelical, he wanted to share that news. By the end of his lifetime, I believe he had made over 50,000 works, signed works. Some of them much better than others but then it wouldn't matter to Howard because he had a message on each of those."

But, Crown points out, not all of these artists are believers.

"I've got a couple of artists that are critical of the church and point out that preachers aren't perfect," she added. "There are works by for example Herbert Singleton. His work carved out of a wood and painted is labeled the biggest Baptist is the biggest sinner. And it shows a male preacher in his long frock standing behind a perky woman in a red dress and he is, I don't know the appropriate term to be said, fondling her if you will."

Joe Light also rejected the evangelical message of his boyhood in Memphis, Tennessee after he landed in jail as a teenager. During his incarceration he believed he received a sign from God to create art.

"And he also believed that a change of belief was required," she said. "He became or endorsed the Jewish religion - kind of a religion he modified on his own - so it's sort of his own self-made Jewish tradition."

Light's work is painted on a discarded door and contains the words God of Israel, Abraham and Moses - emphasizing the Lord of the Old Testament.

"It's an image I think is appropriate especially for the Museum of Biblical Art because the God of the Old Testament is the God of Jews and is the God of Christians and also the God of those who believe in the followings of Mohammed," explained Carol Crown. "It's a way of emphasizing that these three faith traditions are bound together in the Bible."

Coming Home is diverse in other ways, including works by African American and White artists and several women. But in addition to the religious theme, these works also possess an aesthetic unity.

"Many of these artists are incredibly inventive in using materials because they don't often have the money to buy the art materials that we would usually associate, canvas, acrylics, that kind of thing," she said. "They use cast-off objects, materials, old paint, whatever's lying around their house to make their art. It's often a very bright, intense, ornamental art; it's meant to catch your eye. And you're meant to like it."

The museum plans to continue exhibiting a mix of both reverent and irreverent art in future shows, including, for example, a work that places Jesus Christ's image on a box of Wheaties breakfast cereal. This museum believes apparently that, like beauty, religion lies in the eye of the beholder.