As source material for art, it might be difficult to find a more popular book than the Bible.
While the lineage includes old masters like da Vinci and Rembrandt, Stephen Glueckert couldn’t resist his latest project.
The retired curator and longtime artist does believe that his book, “The Bible Illustrated,” is the first of its kind made in Montana. It comprises 130 oil-pastel drawings from Genesis to Revelations, usually with two drawings per book.
Glueckert, now in his early 60s, has thought about the project since he was kid, born and raised Catholic in Missoula and Great Falls.
He chose the Jerusalem Bible, published in 1966 and based on new translations.
“It is one of the most poetic Bibles ever constructed,” he said, citing the “absolutely beautiful” rhythm and cadence. (Among historical sidenotes, J.R.R. Tolkien was responsible for a translation of the Book of Jonah.)
Before he could illustrate the Bible, he had to read it back to front. He made a list of passages that he wanted to draw, and contemplated the right approach for a daunting undertaking.
“There's a lot of literalness in these illustrations, but really it's about the metaphor and the meaning,” he said.
He realized the project could balloon into several hundred, had to stop himself around 160 illustrations and edit them down.
Stephen Glueckert was first hired at the Missoula Art Museum as the curator of education in 1992.
Glueckert was the senior curator at the Missoula Art Museum, retiring in 2015 after a quarter-century with the MAM. The job was demanding, including tasks that you don’t often associate with the glamorous title of “curator,” such as driving across the state to pick up large pieces of artwork before installation can even begin. He made art in his free time during his tenure, and his retirement saw a burst of creative activity. He’s been able to show his work more regularly, too. As a curator of an accredited museum, ethics rules prevented him from showing his own work there, for instance.
He works primarily in found-object sculpture, often with humor or strongly depicted social themes. He loves drawing, too, and he loves drawings about the act of drawing. He’s drawn pictures of imaginary drawing machines resembling variations of Rube Goldberg creations. He’s built physical machines that will do the drawing for him, either by turning a crank or flipping a power switch.
Bob Duren, a former curator, wrote a catalog introduction for Glueckert’s 2011 show at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art that contains a description of his drawing style that holds true for the Biblical illustrations:
“His narrative drawings are drawn from the essential moments of his observations — tempered by memory and intuition — and exclude extraneous detail, ornamentation or showmanship.”
For his part, Glueckert describes his drawing style as crude and has no interest in the draughtsmanship associated with many of the master artists who’ve produced images from the Bible.
“You can't be something you're not. You have to be who you are,” he said. “My drawing is not refined.
“I know I’m not Giotto or a Doré or a Rembrandt. I know I'm not that, but I know I've been motivated to do this for a long, long time. I knew I would do it,” he said.
For the Biblical illustrations, he limited himself to black-and-white oil pastel, accented with blue China marker. He created borders with filigree based on medieval illuminated manuscripts.
The monochrome scheme has a philosophical underpinning: he could avoid depicting any figures as belonging to a particular ethnicity.
Some illustrations depict a specific scene, such as moments during the Crucifixion. In other cases, a passage would provide him room for more purely symbolic drawings. A passage from Hebrews 6:19-20 that reads: “This is the anchor our souls have, reaching right through inside the curtain where Jesus has entered as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever, of the order Melchizedek.”
Glueckert drew a cross aboard a boat, its anchor dropped below into pitch-black water.
He had the images photographed and a limited number of editions produced at Copy Right Printers in Billings. The pictures are presented “portfolio” style on individual sheets, with the accompanying Bible text on the back of each page.
While the history of Bible illustrations is rich, Glueckert noticed the creative freedom available. The material is religious, but the illustrations are human and there’s not a specific “way” any scene or person should look.
“In so many ways, it’s surrealism,” he said. “It’s totally fabricated out of the minds of human beings.”
As an example, he mentioned the depictions of cherubs as babies with wings in some religious art. In the Bible, they’re a tad more surreal, with multiple sets of wings and feet and faces. For his drawings, Glueckert substituted birds and butterflies, often floating above the scene to symbolize the natural world, which felt more real to him.
Glueckert was accustomed to hearing Biblical passages read aloud — he attends St. Francis Xavier — but this was his first experience reading the book in its entirety. It’s one that he said reinforced his beliefs.
Forgiveness in general was one of his overall impressions; he’s not impressed with how American society would fare on a Ten Commandments test, particularly regarding commercialism and caring for each other.
The New Testament is consistently “indicting us to do better, figuring out a kind way to say we need to do better. I think that’s a message for our time,” he said.
“We're just human beings on a journey. This book, the underlying meanings can teach us how to be better to one another, that's what I think,” he said.
He was struck by the way the Old Testament felt more masculine, “establishing the rule of law and authority,” and the New Testament as “feminine” and focused on forgiveness.
He notes that he’s not a Biblical scholar and has braced himself for criticism.
“I’m ready for people not to like it, too, that’s OK. I didn’t do it for people to like it. I did it because I felt like I could bring something different to the table,” he said.