Ned Bustard talks with Mark T. Smith
Ned: We’ve known each other for more than two decades, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about “religion.” What did you think when I asked you to make some prints for Revealed: A Bible Storybook for Grown-ups?
Mark: Religion is such a thorny topic . . . (pun intended). I think we are lucky to live in a mostly free society where everyone has the ability to practice or not practice the faith of their choosing. I know faith is a very large part of your life and I respect the decision you made all those years ago—primarily because you are a daily practitioner of the philosophies that you espouse. You lead by example.
When you contacted me about working on the project, I immediately set aside the religious connotations of the Bible—the book is a collection of stories at its most basic level, and that is what interests me most artistically. The origin of the stories is less relevant to me than the content. The Bible is a rich narrative whose stories have been woven into the fabric of the cultural identity of millions of people globally. As the starting point for a piece of artwork, you couldn’t ask for a better subject. Everything in the Bible is exaggerated to blockbuster comic hero movie levels—perfect for visualization.
Ned: Absolutely. The idea of “story” was very important to me as I built this book. I think many religious people present Christianity as merely a moral code or a bulleted list of propositional truths. But that approach misses out on the Bible being a wild and crazy story. Printmaker Barry Moser has written that the Bible is “full of a fire and ferocity that share at least equal time with love and redemption.” Through my choice of stories, their commentary, and even selection of artists, I was trying show the “fire and ferocity” while also make the connections in the overarching narrative that can be found throughout the Bible’s cornucopia of literary genres—from law and history to erotica and end-of-the-world prophecies. For me it always seems to come back to the story.
Mark: Agreed—this book is filled with so many amazing stories, fantastic metaphors, and genres. The other benefit of making art with the Bible as the subject is that contemporary artists can compare and contrast their work with the host of artists that have preceded them. It gives the artist a way to measure their growth and to see their work in a context of art history with other artists across the expanse of time.
Ned: The contrast and connections between historic artists and contemporary artists was an aspect of creating the book that I really enjoyed. It is not often folks get to talk about your work and Rembrandt’s or William Blake’s in the same breath. Blake, for example, produced a diverse and symbolically rich body of work, which I also appreciate in your work. How do you approach the development of symbolism in your work?
Mark: I love Blake’s work—I once did an entire exhibition based on his printmaking. In terms of the symbolism and its development in my artwork, there are two approaches that I use to construct my work. The first approach is working within the known—that is working with a specific communication objective in mind—addressing the conscious/analytical mind. This is a response to the text, making certain that there is something tangible and connected between the text and visual. The second part of my approach is to unlock the unconscious. These are the parts of the work that are created on an intuitive level—the part of the work that I find more meaningful because this is where the mind makes deeper and more personal connections between the subject and the art. The passages selected for me to illustrate were filled with fire and brimstone, linguistically, so it was easy to let my mind run free within the composition.
I always strive to create work that makes an immediate connection to the audience—giving them something obvious and direct at their first viewing. I normally mix some Jungian archetypes into that first layer of symbols. This creates comfort with the viewer that opens them to other indirect channels of communication. The second and third layers of meaning walk through this open door into the viewer’s conscious or unconscious mind. A great work of visual art is like a great piece of literature: it can have multiple meanings, taking on new nuances upon multiple viewings. I think that great works have an initial approachability and then a depth that keeps the viewer coming back for more over time.
Ned: I agree that visual art can have multiple meanings and be something slightly or totally different when viewed over time. But do you see limits to the readings that a viewer brings to the work? Is any reading fair game or are there limits?
Mark: I think that a skilled artist can usually nudge the viewer in a specific direction regarding the interpretation of his/her work. But artwork, like religion, is open to interpretation that the artist hadn’t originally intended. If you add time to this equation, the possibility of misinterpretation becomes a greater possibility.
Ned: When I was working on Revealed and reached the “man of lawlessness,” mentioned by the apostle Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians, I knew there was only one artist who could make the funky, outlandish character I had in my head. So I called you. Unpack your thinking about the story and symbolism that went into the print which ended up being called Parable.
Mark: This was a really engaging subject matter. The Man of Lawlessness—a classic villain archetype! This character is the demagogue, the charismatic pied piper of weak minds, the devil—or at least the breaker of rules. Evil and good need each other to tell the tale, and so our pointy-bearded character is the foil in the story. Rules are for people who follow them—this is the constant frustration of religion and those who wish to bring order out of chaos. Mankind’s nature is dual: order/disorder, good/evil. This tension is manifested throughout the Bible. It is the ongoing story of humanity, the constant struggle between the Maker and un-makers. This is why the stories in the Bible are so compelling and make great subject matter for visual artists. This human characteristic has never been—and will never be—resolved. Not by a book, a religion, or a government. Not in this lifetime or a thousand more. It is the inescapable reality of humankind.
Ned: Ah, the Problem of Evil. It is an issue that comes up again and again in Revealed, since the book intentionally seeks to focus the reader’s gaze on the incest, murder, rape, genocide, and other atrocities recorded in the Bible. But perhaps a short conversation like we’ve had here is not the place to take on such a perennial sticky wicket?
Thanks again, Mark, for taking the time to chat with me—and for allowing your art to be included in Revealed. It was a delight for me to have you be part of the book and the new CIVA traveling exhibit. I hope that you and I can collaborate again very soon!
Mark T. Smith (b.1968) is a painter known for his colorful, complex paintings and his passion for the application of art into the fabric of everyday life. Smith has created work for Disney, the Olympics, and even Taco Bell. For more on Smith, visit marktsmith.com
Ned Bustard (b. 1967) is the CIVA graphic designer, a children’s book illustrator, an author, and a printmaker. Some of his projects include the Legends & Leagues series, The Sailing Saint, Ella Sings Jazz, Squalls Before War: His Majesty’s Schooner Sultana, It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, The Church History ABC’s, and Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who; and Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-ups. For more of Ned’s work, visit worldsendimages.com