The idea came to Samuel Robertson at a moment of artistic aimlessness. He was painting — but haltingly. And his works didn’t have a theme or deeper purpose. Robertson considered whether to illustrate one of his favorite books, which might help him tap an existing fan base. He weighed one title, then another.
Then it hit him: the Old Testament.
“It was super clear,” Robertson said, his eyes intense.
Now, to other people, this choice was not so clear. The south Minneapolis-based artist and musician grew up going to a Catholic school in Eau Claire, Wis., but considers himself agnostic. In fact, until he decided to illustrate the Bible, he had never read the Bible. But Robertson, 30, connected with the odd, antiquated language of the King James Version.
“It’s a style that I think works well with what I’m doing,” he said. “There’s a lot of goofiness within it.”
The Bible has inspired sacred interpretations — from the intricate wood engravings of Gustave Doré to a calligrapher’s handwritten, hand-illuminated pages commissioned by St. John’s Abbey and University.
Robertson’s Old Testament looks a little different. His paintings feature office and construction workers living in a neon version of the United States. Water skiing, sunbathing, playing instruments. There are Tupperware parties, toilet plungers and plastic-ball pits.
“It’s weirdly perfect, where it’s tapping into something people have been looking at and reading for a really long time,” said Grant Maierhofer, a writer and friend. “There’s this mainstream narrative of what the Bible is and what it’s for.
“What Sam has done is looked at it and said: This is a really bizarre book.”
Finding wonders in the deep
The paintings are surreal and a bit subversive, with hidden hearts and sneaky humor. Which doesn’t mean Robertson isn’t taking this project seriously. He’s been working on it for six years. So far, he’s completed 180 illustrations.
Forty of his newest mixed-media paintings — from the books of Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms and Proverbs — are being shown in a group exhibition at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wis., through June 16.
“I love that he has set this task for himself,” said Anastasia Shartin, the Phipps Center’s visual arts director. “These are foundational stories in our culture and they are stories that are shared across religions, or at least they inform other religions.”
Shartin has been fascinated to see those stories told with “a very contemporary visual approach.”
After reading a less archaic version of the Bible to get the general gist of a chapter, Robertson combs the King James Version page by page for intriguing text, marking his picks with a highlighter that he’s taped to the front. Then he sketches and paints. He’s struck by vivid scenes and strange turns of phrase. He free-associates, incorporating themes that have long preoccupied his work — the way humans are devastating the planet, the ways in which we “entertain ourselves to distract ourselves from loneliness.”
He was struck by how dark the Old Testament feels today, by its preoccupations with circumcision and contentious women. “Psalms was so violent,” he noted. “You hear the word ‘psalms’ and think, beautiful, poetic. But it was mostly King David wishing ill will upon people he wanted to conquer while praying for his own good fortune. You definitely have to pry out the good.
“It’s contextual; I’m not trying to oversimplify. But it’s crazy how weird it was.”
Sometimes, he makes it a little weirder. He came across Psalms 107:23 and highlighted it: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.”
That brought back a memory of canoeing down the Mississippi River with a friend, when the Asian carp were jumping. “One jumped, hit him in the back and left a bruise,” Robertson said. “Stained his shirt.” It got him thinking about invasive species.
“How did we get this whole other animal into our lakes, taking over, affecting our pastimes?” he said, sitting in his dining room on a recent afternoon. “We keep trying to cure all these maladies we’re unleashing on the world around us. Faster than we can fix them, they multiply.”
The vibrant finished painting features a pink couple wearing colorful life vests and traversing geometric waves in a motorboat. Carp fly through the air and into the boat. One, it seems, is even tucked under the woman’s arm. The man in back is steering, but his eyeglasses have fallen off his face. The piece’s bold lines feel perfect, pop art.
A worker’s sensibility
During a recent afternoon in his south Minneapolis home, Robertson grabbed a thick stack of paintings in protective plastic sleeves out of a safe he got at a rummage sale. He found the oldest paintings in the group — “Genesis.” Those paintings are looser, maybe cruder. They share some DNA with “The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb,” the comic legend’s take on the Bible’s best-known book.
Over six years, this project has accompanied Robertson through big career and life changes, evidence of which sneaks into some of his paintings. (One features a discarded angle grinder, a nod to Robertson’s work as a home tiler.) Three years ago, Robertson got married. Two years ago, he became a father. (He took a year off from the Old Testament to care for his son.) The tiling work taught him a kind of discipline. The child brought him an urgency about the state of the world.
Along the way, he and Maierhofer, who lives in Idaho, ruminated over how to keep going. “This question of enduring with it,” Maierhofer said. “Figuring out a ritual that would allow him to keep making these things.” Robertson, he noted, “does have a worker’s sensibility.”
Robertson, who earned a BFA in studio arts with a focus on sculpture from the University of Minnesota, often paints standing up, the pocket of reused jeans slung across the front of his work table, holstering his markers and pens. He mixes and builds color and texture with house paint, a material “some people are snotty about,” he said. But he appreciates how versatile it is — and how cheap. He knew he’d be making about 260 paintings before getting paid for them. He’s hoping the paintings will become a thick 12-by-12-inch book that includes the full text of the Old Testament.
He plans to sell that book door-to-door, knocking on strangers’ doors as an accompanying performance piece.
That built-in audience he was hoping for? Hasn’t materialized — at least yet. Some people expect the work to be rigid, religious art. “I think people see ‘illustrated Old Testament’ and say, ‘Next,’ ” he said. “And then for religious people, it’s too subversive for them to be interested in.
“All potential groups are ostracized from the get-go.”
But he’s seen what happens when people get close to the work, when they read the accompanying text. When they realize that Moses is a construction worker, that the cherub is an old man, that God is wearing shorts, working at a standing desk.
Samuel Robertson’s Old Testament illustrations
What: Part of a group show. When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-4:30 Sun. through June 16. (Closed May 25-27.) Where: Phipps Center for the Arts, 109 Locust St., Hudson, Wis. Admission: Free. Event: Interfaith roundtable discussion inspired by his paintings, 6:30 p.m. May 29.