Borders of beauty
Australian-themed Bible illustrations encourage others to think laterally about the Bible and connect with its messages through the environment that surrounds them.
The Bible can be a daunting book for Christians let alone the rest of society, believes Fiona Pfennigwerth.
With this in mind theNewcastleartist and illustrator began a seven-year commitment to build a pathway into the text.
The result was The Scrolls Illuminated: an intricately illustrated book that presents Solomon’s Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther alongside detailed watercolour paintings of Australian nature.
“The aim was to make the Bible accessible,” she told Insights. “If you take a few books and through drawings teach people a little about how the scriptures work — how Hebrew literature works with symmetrical patterns rather than a beginning, middle and an end — if they have the keys then they might start reading more.”
She chose the scrolls because they were texts she’d explored in depth already in the running of Bible study camps for adults.
She found it serendipitous that the five sets worked together as a set in the Hebrew Bible to explore both God’s character and the breadth of human experience.
Ms Pfennigwerth had nursed the idea for years and was ready to take her art practice to the next level when a friend tipped her off on a natural history illustration course at Newcastle University.
At age 49 she began an honours year, during which she completed Songs then discovered the project was big enough to grow into seven years of study and a PhD.
But, after years of work completing the book, it took another three years of door knocking with publishers before Ms Pfennigwerth decided to publish it herself.
“They couldn’t work out the market,” she explained. “Some saw it as a Bible study aid. Others thought the drawings were better suited to cards.
“University presses wrote some wonderful letters but it did not fit in their lines. Art people thought it was religious and religious publishers thought it was art. It just fell down all of these gaps in the system.”
Ms Pfennigwerth described the book as a way “to help people who might be interested in reading the scriptures to actually give it a go without being scared or feeling they need a truckload of commentaries to get started”.
Geographically, her project took her to Inverell, Port Macquarie and through the bushfire-ravaged areas around the Snowy Mountains to get the particular Australian environments that would best link what people in this country encounter with the themes in the Bible.
“I wanted each book to have its own mood. I wanted the greys of Lamentations using bushfire and royal colours for Esther.
“Ruth was easy: it’s harvest.
“Ecclesiastes took me ages to figure out. I showed one of my theological friends and he said, ‘What have tidal mudflats got to do with Ecclesiastes?’
“To me, the mud crabs scuttling around, building their little mounds only to have them washed away by the tides each day … isn’t that the very definition of the man working and asking himself at the end of the day what it was for?”
Ms Pfennigwerth said she didn’t want people in her illustrations because it would then be like going to see a movie made from a favourite book: “Suddenly that actor becomes the character and it locks you into an idea of what they are like. I wanted to create something that made people think without locking them into any one interpretation.”
The Scrolls Illuminated is her first major work building on smaller contributions to art shows and exhibitions. Another Pfennigwerth work was showcased in the 2010 Blake Prize for religious art.
Her completed work was exhibited at both the university gallery and at the Anglican Cathedral inNewcastle.
A selection from her naturalistic watercolour paintings and preparatory sketches will be on display from May 16 to June 28 at the Visitor Centre Gallery, Australian National Botanic Gardens, ACT — an apt destination since she frequented gardens to make plant studies for the book.
She has also enrolled in a Master of Theology (Honours) through the United Theological College and Charles Sturt University to begin a similar work on John.
Securing distribution via the Bible Society for Scrolls was uplifting but the interest from gift stores has been an added boost.
“That is just the group I wanted it to reach,” she said.
“It is about getting it out of the Christian enclave and into ordinary shops. Some people are using it as a quiet time meditative tool.
“Other friends of mine who are non-believers are reading the texts for the first time. They say they had no idea the Bible was so beautifully written. If I can get people that far I think that’s wonderful.”