Ned Bustard talks with Tanja Butler
Ned: Tanja, you and I have worked together on a couple of projects over the years and I love your work, and so it was a given for me that you would be part of Revealed: A Bible Storybook for Grown-ups. What was your favorite aspect of participating in this project?
Tanja: It was great fun to consider ways to illustrate the more challenging biblical narratives. There weren’t a lot of sentimental precedents to wade through.
Ned: One of the pieces that you and I discussed at length was the depiction of Lot and his daughters. I had tried to do a print on that account myself and found the story too disturbing. How did you arrive at the final piece that appeared in our book?
Tanja: For this piece I did end up “cheating” by looking up other artist’s renditions of the scene, something I don’t usually allow myself to do while I’m developing narrative imagery. I found a painting by Jan Massys (1563), with Lot’s daughter reaching around her father with a possessive, almost maternal embrace—so psychologically loaded that I couldn’t resist stealing it. I did have to strain out Massys’ luxurious reveling in the lascivious scene, and substitute an emotional tenor that was more about a willful, callous despair.
Ned: Another passage I asked you to do was the Song of Solomon. Since one of my goals with this book was to accurately portray the Bible’s position on sexuality, I wanted that piece to be richly erotic but not bawdy or crass. What was your approach to coming up with a visual for the Bible’s great love song?
Tanja: The print you selected depicts an intimate close-up of two faces framed by the lilies found in the text and ivy, a symbol of fidelity. The couple could be engaged in a deeply responsive conversation or in passionate lovemaking. Both aspects of marital love are exquisitely expressed in the biblical phrase describing physical intercourse, “knowing one another.”
Ned: In contrast to the beauty of fidelity, you also created a linocut for this book of the ultimate betrayal. What was the thinking that went into your depiction of the Last Supper?
Tanja: When John asked Jesus to identify his betrayer, Jesus shared the bread he’d dipped in his bowl with Judas. I’d always understood this incident as Jesus’ exposure of a traitor to his inner circle until a commentator explained that this gesture of sharing food signified particular friendship. Knowing who would betray him from the beginning, Jesus had offered countless expressions of favored friendship during their three years together. This was the last opportunity Judas had to freely respond to Jesus’ generous and tender invitation.
Ned: Another invitation to receive God’s grace was depicted in your piece, Desert Serpents. In this narrative, a work of art—the bronze serpent—is used first as a means of salvation but then later in the history of God’s people (2 Kings 18) it was called “Nehushtan” and embraced as an idol.
Tanja: Thanks for noting that in your commentary in Revealed. I hadn’t really considered the complex function of iconography as I developed the image. I focused on Christ’s comparison of the serpent raised on a pole with his own death on a cross. In my print, a black snake encircles a hill that represents the world; the serpent’s head is poised to strike the viewer. Moses points to a light-colored snake on a cross that breaks out of the circle of the earth, connecting it with heaven.
Ned: One of my favorite things during the creation of this book was to assign artists Old Testament and New Testament accounts for making their prints, often linking the passages thematically. Moses appears again in your last piece in the book, The Lord Rebuke You.
Tanja: This is a truly strange passage, isn’t it? Michael the Archangel and Satan fight over the body of Moses. Biblical imagery is an exhilarating mix of the corporeal and the numinous. It offers both a timeline of history and a transcendent timelessness that allows for all sorts of metaphors and types, fascinating puzzles to be solved. Jesus said all of Moses’ writings spoke of Him. But enough about my pieces in the book. Let’s talk about some of the ways you use symbolism in your own prints. The Monkey and the Bride contains a rich combination of unexpected elements to describe the temptation of sexual immorality.
Ned: Ah, turnabout is fair play! In The Monkey and the Bride, the castle and tree is the Kingdom of God; the broken piggy bank stands in for thieves/greed; the rolly-polly Buddha symbolizes idolaters; the bottle is drunkenness; and the monkey is sin in general—but in the context of this passage, it specifically represents sexual immorality. We are constantly bombarded with the message that we can do what we want with our own bodies. But the Bible says our bodies are not our own; they were bought at a great price, and, therefore, we must honor God with them. My print addresses abuses to the body. It is then followed by pieces by Steve Prince and Matthew Clark dealing positively with the body: godly Eros and the resurrection.
Tanja: Speaking of the resurrection, you end the book with New Creation, in which you depict the entire cosmos revolving around Christ and his Bride. How did you organize an image depicting the redemption of all creation?
Ned: I built on good ol’ Mr. Anonymous’ Birth of Eve from the Cologne Bible found at the beginning of Revealed. I replaced the Four Winds in that woodcut with the four Evangelists; the angels with symbols for the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles; Eve with the Bride of Christ; and then dumped as many historic symbols from Christian art as I could fit—anchors, dolphins, shamrocks, butterflies, and more. It seemed to me to be fitting to begin and end the book with the same image since that is what the Bible does.
I feel like there is so much more we could talk about, but after the Resurrection at the end of Time, any more discussion seems . . . ummm . . . anti-climactic? Thank you for spending time with me to reflect on the book, and thank you again for giving so much of your beautiful art to the book!
Ned Bustard (b. 1967) is CIVA’s graphic designer, a children’s book illustrator, an author, printmaker, and creative director for Square Halo Books and Gallery. 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.
Tanja Butler (b. 1955) is a painter, printmaker, liturgical artist, and illustrator. Her collection of 600 graphic images, Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, was published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Her work is represented in the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Art; the Billy Graham Center Museum at Wheaton, Illinois; the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art; the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts; and the Boston Public Library. For more, go to tanjabutler.com.
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