INTERVIEWING SAMUEL ROBERTSON
A while ago the website of Zak Smith’s paintings interpreting the pages of Gravity’s Rainbow came to my attention. I enjoyed the work, and found the idea fascinating, even becoming conversant with several groups on the internet who set out goals for themselves to read the entire text of Pynchon’s novel, studying Smith’s artwork along the way, as well as an accompanying critical text to enrich, and visualize, their reading. Months later when I decided it was time to try and read Moby Dick once and for all, I discovered Matt Kish’s drawings interpreting Melville’s work, and carried it along home from the library to augment my reading. Artwork to compliment, interpret, or derived from literature is rather a fascinating thing, historically, whether it be the Lascaux Caves and the attempt there to interpret the “text” of the real world, or Vladimir Nabokov’s frantic scribblings mapping out the characters in Joyce’s work, the visualizing of textual information has existed for centuries, and more recently with the advent of the internet has taken fascinating forms. “The Illustrated Bible,” by Samuel Robertson, is a free website via Tumblr that the artist himself created to share interpretive drawings of the “King James version of the Old Testament” because, in the tradition of artists like Smith and Kish, it struck Robertson as an interesting, personal means of offering a visual reimagining of one of the world’s most widely read works of literature.
What’s fascinating about Robertson’s illustrations is they seem at first to exist in a world entirely removed from the text that inspired them, and yet once observed for any length of time become convincing as only tied with these passages, but through a novel and unabashed lens. There’s something tragic about them, with vacant-eyed alien observers wearing cowboy hats staring off from volleyball games they’ve lost interested in, families riding tubes together with sunburnt flesh and bulbous figures, or lonely construction workers next to glowing deities, the both of them docile and resigned in their La-Z-Boys.
Robertson is onto something here, and was kind enough to respond to some questions about the endeavor, as well as sharing several original artworks from the series available here. Other work of his was recently shown in the Driftwood Gallery in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he branched out to fight the tyrannical T-shirt industry with “F-Shirts Across the World” available here. And this is his online portfolio.
GM: Alright, well I suppose the simplest question is what drove you to illustrate the “King James version of the Old Testament,” as listed on your site? Your approach seems highly personalized, almost as if the art offers a critique or interpretation of the passages you’ve selected, does that seem fair to say?
Thanks Grant for the interview! And thank you Queen Mob’s Teahouse! Okay: now let’s answer some questions! Let’s see here… Before I started these Old Testament illustrations, I was in the middle of a creative block and I felt pretty aimless, creatively. For a while I’ve just bounced around from music to illustration to writing, putting all my work onto my website TunaCrystals.com, as a sort of half baked organizational method. But Tunacrystals is VERY CONFUSING: I know that now. It’s my website 100% and it confuses me, too. It’s my various creations over the past 2 years under the guise of a small company’s journey towards corporate expansion, and not surprisingly, it confuses pretty much everyone. My friend told me his dad found it one time and thought it was a big company trying to take his money away from him so he left to go surf the other areas of the internet! Lost another potential fan! Sheesh!
Basically, this Illustrated Bible project began as a way for me to focus in on something long enough for people to maybe hear about it and get excited, and to hopefully start getting illustration jobs, and to maybe get these images published. I talked it over with friends and family before I began, and it made a lot of sense. There was no doubt it was the logical next step for me. The passages within King James Bible are so visually rich and loaded with wild imagery that it practically illustrates itself. It’s not intended to be a critique in any way – it is just me inserting my style into the famous text.
GM: Thinking about precedent here, the “tone” of these illustrations is playful, anarchic, almost in line with artists like, maybe, Ralph Steadman; do you feel like there’s a tradition you’re communicating with in doing this? As a visual artist do you think much about things like influences and whatnot?
There is probably a tradition I’m communicating with, but I don’t think too much about it. I love Gustave Dore’s illustrative engravings for the bible, but his work demonstrates an enviable patience and skill that is so foreign to me. I’m also trying to use a lot of the color gold, because, now there’s a bible tradition for sure! And a good number of God’s messages so far in the first three books of the Old Testament are about gold.
GM: I’m wondering about the intersection of the Bible as a piece of literature and your process as an artist in turn. Do you read these passages for X amount of time, say, then get to work? Does it seem like you’re getting a new perspective on the Bible as a text in using it toward a purely visual end?
I read through each book of the bible before I start illustrating it (two versions of it – one that’s less archaic and easier to know what’s going on, and one’s the King James) and I highlight passages that seem to lend well to my vision. Then I think about them for a bit, select the ones I want, and then I plan and sketch out six at a time – then I get to work. I’ve never read the bible before, so it’s new to me, and I’m probably interpreting it differently than I would otherwise since I’m looking for passages to paint.
GM: Are you a religious person, an atheist, agnostic? Does anything strike you in particular about any of these ideas in your illustrations?
I think I’m agnostic but I’m not really sure. I don’t think about that too much.
GM: It’s interesting because, historically much of the pre-twentieth-century-art that exists depicts some religious event or figure, and yet here it’s more about using some turn of phrase to inspire something novel and strange. Does it feel as if you’re playing around with those conventions at all?
Yeah, maybe a little bit. I’m trying to make each illustration vivid enough to stand alone without the text, but for their real power to be when in tandem with the words of the Bible they’re drawn from. For better or worse, I’m trying not to think too much about historical conventions and my place within them or I get real daunted.
GM: I feel struck by the loneliness of the figures in these paintings. They’re gorgeous, strange, alien and usually draped in neon, and yet they’ll feature figures wandering along in solitude or lazing in their chairs. Has the Bible and the passages you’ve chosen guided that for the most part? Do these images offer an insight into your reading of the text?
The text feels incredibly lonely so far – mind you I’ve only read through Leviticus. There’s some triumph and positive things for sure, but often it’s mostly just sorrow, death, tragedy, plagues, famine and punishment. And rape, incest, bestiality, and traps that the people aren’t avoiding too good. I got worried that my images were becoming too scary, but the Old Testament seems pretty scary so I decided not to worry about it too much. I didn’t think reading it would affect me, but I do find myself getting pretty worked up about it sometimes. It’s really heavy. So I try to keep it lighthearted with lots of cowboys and nudity. Also, Moses is usually a construction worker.
GM: Lastly, I know this is a prolonged project that you’ve set out for yourself, so I was just wondering if you might outline the coming months you’ll be doing this, and what you hope to achieve by the end. There’s been a phenomenon lately of artists publishing whole books for individual pages or passages from various works of literature, does that sort of thing appeal to you?
I am into the idea of artists illustrating entire books. Before I started this project I emailed Matt Kish out of the blue, the person who recently illustrated every page of Moby Dick, and I asked him a few questions about illustration and publication, and he sent a really kind and informative reply. I was impressed that he just wanted to illustrate Moby Dick and then he did and then a publisher found him because of it. I thought it took admirable focus and commitment. I’m not getting my hopes up, but it would be nice to have a publishing deal to come of this, or to get published book by book (as I illustrate them) on the internet. I want to see these eventual 300 or so illustrations of the bible in print, next to the Old Testament’s words themselves. Mostly, I just want people to see these pictures of mine, and in the meantime, I’ll be having a few gallery shows around the Minneapolis/St. Paul area throughout the duration of this project and will be keeping everyone posted at facebook.com/MisterRobertson
Also, please feel free to follow along on TheIllustratedBible.tumblr.com if you’re interested!
Thanks so much!
PS: Spoiler Alert! There’s going to be business meeting scenes, exercise equipment scenes, and scuba diving scenes, and horseback riding scenes to come, so stay tuned! Probably no sports scenes, but I don’t know yet. And probably no more hamburger scenes. The hamburger/cheeseburger well is drying up fast.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of various things. All of them should largely be accounted for here