In October 2021, Queen Mob’s Teahouse facilitated a conversation between twin cities-based visual artist Samuel Robertson and Minnesota Community Network TV host Simon Calder. The conversation concerned Robertson’s Illustrated Old Testament, which will be published by 11:11 Press in June. Part 1 of Robertson and Calder’s conversation was first broadcast on MCN6 that month, then archived by Robertson on YouTube. In Robertson’s words, that first part of his conversation with Calder concerned “the topics of God and Good Orderly Direction, violence and the lack of violent imagery in Sam’s illustrations, and Sam’s intent behind some specific paintings.” That first conversation can be viewed here: youtu.be/umHNwG7gvhU Today Queen Mob’s Teahouse is pleased to premiere Part II of Robertson and Calder’s conversation, in which they discuss music, food, sin, and shame in relation to several more specific paintings.
Simon Calder: One of my favourite paintings is of Judges 20:8 “and all the people arose as one man.”
I have some specific questions about that painting, but I’m also just interested in your initial thoughts about it.
Samuel Robertson: That’s an example of one that was more of a literal interpretation of the text, with everyone emerging as one man.
SC: That seems quite mystical, the idea of there being the many in the One. It seems there’s something significant going on there, in terms of an invitation to participate…
SR: Yeah, all these characters are sprinkled throughout [the rest of the book]. It’s very individualist, reflective of the individual in the world, since that’s so much what is focused on in our society … In that sense, the project was about having these individual paintings with these individual people doing their individual things. When they’re all put together and bound in this book, it’ll take on this life of its own, which I had no way of predicting, … like all of these individuals are coming together into this much bigger collective individual.
SC: Yeah, there’s a component of discovering the universal in the particular. And perhaps only within the particular.
SR: Yeah. That resonates with me, definitely.
SC: Yes, and it’s captured in the paintings. They do evoke that.
SC: Music and food are both quite prominent throughout. I love the closing painting in 2 Samuel: “David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord on all manner of instruments.”
In that painting, there’s a keyboard. It’s kind of like a rock performance. Are the paintings that reference music (and there’s a few of them) suggesting anything about music as an art form, and, perhaps, the relationship between music and “good orderly direction” or flow?
SR: Yeah, music played such a big part in the Old Testament, it was on so many of the pages. I had to deal with music in some way. And it’s self-referential in some ways. Before this project I’d played a lot of music, heavily, for probably about five years. It was one of my main outlets, besides painting.
SC: What kind of style?
SR: It kind of started off as a finger-picky, blues kind of thing … some Mississippi John Hurt kind of thing, but then from there it just got more electric guitar-lead, and weird. Experimental, but a little bluesy still. It’s hard to explain. It’s kind of like these paintings if they were music. People have told me that the feel and the themes continue between my forms of expression.
[Robertson’s band PUNY put out a record called The Sports Store, which is the soundtrack to these interviews and can be found on bandcamp here: puny.bandcamp.com/album/the-sports-store ]
SC: In this particular painting [from 2 Samuel], it’s almost like a depiction of entering into the good orderly direction or flow, and music is facilitating or fostering that, in that moment.
SR: Yeah, definitely. That makes sense.
SC: Let’s now direct our attention to the very first painting, for Genesis 1.
SC: Is it fair to say that this painting preceded the project, but then it ended up kind of steering the project too?
SC: Can you explain how?
SR: That’s some of that “good orderly direction” right there, because it was just a painting that I made in a series of unrelated paintings … Then I realized I was going to be doing this project, and I read that passage, about God giving man dominion over all the animals…
SC: [reading] “over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth…”
SR: Yeah! Then, I found myself focusing on what is done with that dominion. And what is your relationship, then, with the animals, and what have you chosen to do with this order? Then, fast-forward three millennia or whatever to the “rodeo” relationship with animals, where it’s, like, sport and game mixed in with livestock for eating, this very morally-confusing relationship to all the wild beasts, using them for our entertainment and stuff … The rodeo was just kind of fascinating to think about, so that was the picture that steered a lot of the direction, especially of the first three books, where there’s the focus on the cowboy, just kind of like this dusty feel.
SC: Yes, in Genesis 21:8, Abraham’s making a great feast… There’s lots of hamburgers.
SR: Oh, yeah, and spaghetti.
SC: Let’s keep on focusing on the food and ethics overlap … You have an ethical commitment to non-violence. This passage on dominion over animals seems to be an entry point that you discovered, where you could engage with this text as yourself …Could you expand a little bit more on your personal ethos of non-violence, your concern about how humans treat other animals, and discovering a way into this project there [through Genesis 1.28]?
SR: Yeah. It’s more sort of like as a bystander … kind of like I have a sense of how that relationship could be vastly improved, how much waste it produces and how inhumane it is to all the animals. I understand the horrible impact of agriculture … so it’s reflective of all that without being, like, “I don’t do that.”
SC: Rather than looking down on—and judging—other humans, it seems more like you’re recognizing the energy in this passage here, of an invitation to step into greater responsibility.
SR: Yeah, I can see that.
SC: The focus on what’s being eaten keeps on recurring, obviously, both in the Old Testament and in the passages that you’re drawing attention to. A couple more that do that are this one from Leviticus, where it’s like a student is being educated about which animals it’s OK to eat, and a second painting here—in Deuteronomy, 13:40—where there’s a focus on the clean fowls that you may eat, so the birds are being cleaned. What draws you to those passages, that relate to cleanliness and purification in relation to what we’re eating?
SR: Well, part of that is… those early passages are flooded with direction about how to prepare and what foods to eat, what not to eat. So, part of it was unavoidable … and what seemed like it would produce an interesting painting.
SC: … There’s a number of other paintings where you’re picking up on passages related to cleanliness. There’s this green water in one painting, and as these humans are addressed and told to be clean, there’s a strong sense of these humans in this green water feeling shame …
So, you have this concern about looking down on other humans … and here we have humans feeling that they are not clean, that they’re not pure. They’re feeling ashamed because of that. There’s quite a few paintings, I think, where shame is being depicted in that way. Can you expand on that anymore?
SR: I feel like those are interesting passages to read, about people going astray, then “coming to,” with God being upset at them, and then just, like, dissecting what that means, to have gone astray…
SC: Thinking about sin as just “missing the mark,” that’s—I think—one translation of what sin is, and then being aware of having missed the mark. Obviously, then shame can arise. And other transformative things can occur, depending on what happens next. I think there are various paintings that are aware of what might happen next, and about how universal those kinds of moments are, where we’re aware of having missed the mark … and what now? And how can we show up in a way where that awareness is channelled in a good orderly direction? As opposed to succumbing to shame…
SR: Yeah. It’s a very common human feeling, especially in the process of going from a child to an adult. You have internal pressures that make you want to do certain things, and then society or what-you’re-told-God-is is frowning on you, and you have to reassess and redirect, based on what’s OK with you.
SC: As we near the end of our journey through the book, I’d like to home in on your description of your journey, creating the book, as having been “very transformative, serious, and seriously long.” Again, seven years … and you experienced a transformation, and you experienced a shift into greater responsibility [Robertson became a father and took on a new trade], the very thing that’s referred to in that opening passage. Do you have any further thoughts on how the discipline and the practice of your commitment to this particular creative project naturally facilitated growth, as an alternative to the shame? Do you have any final thoughts on how your commitment to this creative endeavour naturally led to an experience of growth and maturing, not just random growth, but evolution?
SR: … One really pivotal painting was Lamentations 2:10. It’s of this beached whale … and there’s all these people still in their bathing suits, with pool party gear and a water slide, and, again, they’re all in shame, hanging their heads in shame. They’re just trying to keep on going, even though there’s this beached whale that’s taken away their steam… There’s this proverbial beached whale on all of our doorsteps now.
That was a pivotal piece because I was, like, should I even continue this or should I redirect my energy elsewhere?
SC: But you did remain committed to the practice that you’d begun, and it seems to me that you were talking about having emerged from completing this process with new commitments and a new sense of responsibility. I think one way in which that manifests is in your creative ideas about how to honor your creative project. The door-to-door salesman component. As we begin to wrap up, could you say a little bit more about where you’re at at the moment, how you’re still harnessing your creativity at this “sharing” stage?
SR: I guess I’m trying to do things like this and figure out how to express what this project is and what it meant to me. I guess during the project it was more based on feeling, like I was saying earlier. So now the next step is figuring out what this really means, how it can get into the world and what that can do. Yes, I want to sell it door-to-door. I mean, I wanted to sell a lot of copies that way, but knowing where people are at, partially because of the pandemic, partially just not trusting anyone coming to your door, trying to sell you something, it’s such a different time than it was in the 50s or 60s…
SC: Hence the intention of wearing a suit from the 60s. It’s almost like it’s a performance art piece, which is also a genuine endeavour to actually sell the book.
SR: Yeah! I definitely want to sell some that way, and the hope is that if it actually works out then it’ll be like an actual job on top of the performance art piece. But then I also have the idea to make a radio drama-style podcast about it, where part of it is actual conversations I’m having with people on the doorsteps, with, like, a hidden microphone. Which is legal. I’ve researched it. It’d be just audio, not video. Everyone’s anonymous, but it’d be like my efforts as a salesman interwoven with some other recurring characters … I haven’t had the time to really dig into what form this is going to take, but I feel like there’s a lot of potential in that setting…
SC: There is! The podcast would be about human connection, the presence or absence of it. You would be placing yourself within the narrative in a new, exciting and powerful way.
SR: There’s even a couple of self-referencing door-to-door salesman scenes in the book, so I kind of painted myself into it that way too.
SC: You’ll be emerging as One sales-man on behalf of all of the paintings and all of the stories. I think there’s something really interesting going on there. As you’re making the podcast, please reach out if you’d like some assistance with it…
SR: Well, I’ll need all the help I can get so I’ll definitely call on you.
SC: We’re connected now! Human connection.
SR: Yeah, definitely.
SC: Exciting. Yeah, I love this. And the themes we’ve been talking about are very much recurring themes in the first Back to the City book, Her Hummingbird Heart. It’s about harnessing creativity with Sarah Morris, Julia Cameron, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, and Brené Brown. Are you familiar with any of those?
SR: I’ve heard of Brené Brown before.
SC: Brené Brown is a sociologist who reseraches shame.
SR: Awesome. Yes, I’ve definitely heard of her.
SC: And a lot of what we’ve been discussing today, regarding awareness about missing the mark, and alternatives to the self-abnegation that could follow from that, and the connection between that and violence. The fact that you’ve managed to illustrate the Old Testament with so few depictions of violence, and without feeding shame, but, rather, with a focus on integration. Owning these different components of the story. Realizing that you belong in the story, and are now transforming into the door-to-door salesman character, who will honor that work, and not just your work but the work of the humans. Because, you know, we’re pretty lovable at the end of the day, if we look at ourselves in a certain light.
SR: You’re so good at making these connections. I can’t wait to hear more about your thoughts about these connections and what this project—which I don’t know what it means—what it means.
SC: I want to help you with the podcast.
SR: Thank you so much.
SC: We’ll do that!
SC: and then we can have a very meta “Part 2.”
SC: where you interview me about our podcast.
SR: That’d be awesome. Thank you Simon. You put me at ease. I’m not much of a talker, so thank you for putting so much of your soul into generating the questions and being present. It was awesome.
SC: Yeah! I really enjoyed it too! We’re connected! We’re at ease. We belong. It’s all relative, but we hit some marks.
SR: And I want to see your book when it comes out. That’s really exciting.
SC: Watch this space! One last time, how can people access your book if you don’t happen to show up at their door in salesman mode?
SR: Right! I wouldn’t bank on that because there’s, like, nine billion people in the world. 11:11 Press. That’s the publisher. Check their other work out too, because they’re awesome.
Samuel Robertson is a multidisciplinary artist living in Minneapolis, MN. The Illustrated Old Testament will be published in June 2022 with 11:11 Press. His work has been featured in The Star Tribune, MPLSart.com, Eau Claire’s Volume One, and MinnPost. Dr. Simon Calder completed a PhD on Spinoza’s philosophy and George Eliot’s fiction at the University of Cambridge in 2011, and his published scholarship includes a chapter on ethics and fiction in Spinoza Beyond Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2012). He presently lives in Minneapolis, where he is the host of Back to the City: Minneapolis Music Conversation, which is broadcast on MCN6.org every Thursday at 10pm CST. He is soon to publish his first book, Her Hummingbird Heart: Harnessing Creativity with Sarah Morris, Julia Cameron, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, & Brené Brown.