One of my earliest memories concerning art involved the exquisite woodcut block prints of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). I’m uncertain where I came upon them, and have wondered if it might have been in an old Bible at my grandparent’s home. I was stunned by the beauty of the prints, and by the idea that works like this could be made by scoring and cutting a block of wood and transferring the inked image to paper. It began my lifelong love of block prints.
Which is one of the reasons I was drawn initially to Ned Bustard. He too makes block prints—he uses linoleum rather than wood—and is involved with a series of efforts that together take seriously the Christian conviction that the truth of reality expresses the goodness and beauty of God. (If you’d like to see the process that’s involved in making linocuts, I’d recommend watching “Scott Avett & The 2011 Tour Poster” on YouTube, or “Scott Avett Printmaking” on Vimeo).
I had a chance recently to talk with Ned Bustard, and wanted to let you listen in on our conversation.
DH: How would you describe your art—particularly your linocuts?
NB: I have often described my style of illustration and my block prints as “faux gothic.” I take great delight in medieval art, and find their woodcuts a constant source of inspiration. If you look at a piece like my “Simul Justus et Peccator” I think you can see the obvious influence of those long-dead craftsmen on my work—especially in the eyes. To see my style worked out in a non-printmaking way, take a peek at my children’s book, The Church History ABCs.
Oscar Wilde said, “Talent borrows, genius steals.” And though I wouldn’t claim to be a genius, I would claim to be a thief. An example of that is seen in my Noah’s Ark pieces. In them I steal outright from the artist Sadao Watanabe. In the larger collaborative piece, “And Such Were You” I also steal from Katsushika Hokusai—twice!
Speaking of collaboration, I think it is crucial to point out that I wouldn’t have made any of these block prints without the training, help, and encouragement of the artist Matthew L. Clark. A dear brother and friend, he taught me how to do this technique and has pulled nearly all the prints with me. He is a talented artist who should get truckloads more attention than he does.
DH: How did you discover your creative gifts?
NB: I would say that my mother discovered my aptitude for art. She encouraged me by signing me up for art lessons and buying me drawing books and such. It is funny, to me the phrase “creative gifts” sounds so mystical. I would not normally discuss “my creative gifts.” I don’t think of myself as gifted. I see myself as a visual plumber. I do the work, and if it doesn’t leak, I’m happy. I don’t smoke, but I often describe my artwork as “smoke and mirrors”—one day everyone will realize that I am just faking it. But until then, I pretend to be an artist. And if Screwtape is right, eventually I may end up becoming what I pretend to be!
DH: Were there any signposts along the way that pointed you towards a vocation in the arts?
NB: Well, failing College Math was a big one! I was going to school to take over the family business, and my lack of skill in logical spheres made it obvious that my brother, and not I, should take over the company. In high school I had a great deal of positive feedback for my art. It was a Christian school so there wasn’t a huge art program, but there were plenty of jobs around for me to do. And I remember my dad introducing me to the idea that a person could have the job of a graphic designer when I was in middle school. That was probably when I realized I could be something when I grew up. Ironically, the graphic designer that he introduced me to when he explained the idea was a former graphic designer. He was a minister from our denominational seminary. Though no one said this to me, what I extrapolated from this was that if you were serious about being a Christian you went into “full-time Christian service” not art. It would take years and years (as well as Francis Schaeffer and Madeline L’Engle) for me to get over this sacred/secular dichotomy and eventually embrace the idea that art is a legitimate calling for the believer.
DH: What inspires you to begin, to imagine a linocut print?
NB: That is hard to say. Sometimes it is just the desire to make “real art.” The copy/paste world of my graphic design company is very rewarding, but the grittiness of printmaking and the accidents of the medium have their own special appeal. Sometimes it is a desire to visually codify a concept. For example, a while back I made a whole series of prints on the Beatitudes. And this past spring Matt Clark and I did a large print that communicates the idea that the whole Bible is one big story—Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. Sometimes it is the need to have Christmas presents to give to people. I whipped up a pear print last year (just a pear, nothing deeper than that) and it is quite possibly the best received of all my prints. Recently necessity has inspired my printmaking. I have needed to fill holes in a new book I’m developing. Then last week it was in response to the request for a show of my work—and my realization that I don’t have a large body of work that I could hang in a show and have that show make sense as one cohesive collection of prints. So I have begun a new series on famous literary characters—Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Robin Hood, etc.
DH: What is the book you are developing? Is it for Square Halo?
NB: Yes, it is called Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown Ups. The book is like a children’s storybook Bible, but with all the stories that they never tell children—stories of genocide, dismembered bodies sent in the mail, incest, rape, decapitation, murder, etc. This will be a book for people who might have grown up in the Church, but gave up on Her Story because they thought it was too childish. My hope is that they might come back and reread the Bible and see that it is relevant to the big issues in life.
DH: Besides the Revealed book, what new projects are you working on?
NB: I’m getting the ball rolling on Square Halo’s final It Was Good book—It Was Good: Performance Arts to the Glory of God. I’m just starting to come up with a list of topics for that volume and praying for writers to pop up who can cover those topics. I am so thankful for my friends Alan and Diana Bauer for having the vision (and making the sacrifices) to start our company. It has been a fabulous experience to see God work through our hand full of books.
We are also in the beginning stages of establishing a gallery. It looks like Square Halo and The Trust Performing Arts Center will be partnering to set up “The Halo: An Alternative Space for Art and Music” sometime this Fall, too. I hope that comes together because it would be a great first step to achieving a ridiculously impossible dream I have had for many years: founding a museum in Lancaster for contemporary art by Christians.
Through my design company I have lots of new things happening. Coming out this Fall I have a new, two-volume history workbook for kindergardeners and first graders called Bede’s History of ME and Bede’s History of US. Bede in this case is not the dead historian from England but instead a ball of red yarn and two googlie eyes who teaches kids about What happened When. Also this Fall a set of four storybooks and accompanying workbooks for grade school students will be released. These books teach about geography with the help of the two main characters—Mr. Longitude and Mr. Latitude.
In printmaking, I have the Revealed prints and the literary characters series I mentioned earlier. In addition to them, my daughter Maggie and I are working on expanding my Noah’s Ark series so we can have shows. She is doing block prints of the cute animals on the Ark and I’m doing prints of the Ark. I might do Noah getting drunk, too.
I will soon begin work on a series of posters for The Row House 2013 Fall Forum series. The Row House is an organization inspired by the work of L’Abri that hosts monthly forums, concerts and gatherings that “engage believers, inquirers and skeptics in an atmosphere of hospitality, civility and whimsy.” Besides believing whole-heartedly in their mission of “engaging current culture with ancient faith,” doing design work for them allows me to shed all the constraints I usually work under and make some insane posters.
This past year I began working as staff designer for CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) and am on the board of ASCHA (The Association of Scholars in the Christianity of Art). I am delighted to be working with both organizations because I feel like they are two sides of the same coin. CIVA looks to support Christians in the Visual Arts and ASCHA looks to support art historians talking about Christianity in the Visual Arts. Wow, all that makes it sound like I am really busy! But mostly I am trying to figure out how to feed my family and serve the church.
DH: Tell us a bit about yourself.
NB: I have a fabulous wife, Leslie, and three daughters: Carey Anne, Maggie, and Ellie. We homeschool (except for Carey—she is now at college in NYC). I have two dogs. I live in the West End of Lancaster—a city in central Pennsylvania that is (sadly) much too far from anyplace I could sail. I am the owner of an illustration and graphic design firm called World’s End Images. I enjoy collecting art, books, and music. I’m third generation Irish-American. My grandfather was a preacher for 40 years. I have written a number of books for Veritas Press (besides the Bede books I discussed earlier), including Legends & Leagues or Mr Tardy Goes From Here to There, The Sailing Saint, Ella Sings Jazz, and a historic novel Squalls Before War: His Majesty’s Schooner Sultana. My bathroom sink is clogged. Most of the rooms in my home need at least the trim painted. I’m terribly near-sighted. Your article, “When a Stick becomes a Staff” had a huge influence on me and on my wife. I’ve never been to Laity Lodge. I like James Bond novels and Roland March mysteries. I grew up at Grace Reformed Episcopal Church and now am a ruling elder at Wheatland Presbyterian Church. Foyle’s War, Sherlock, and Doctor Who are my favorite TV programs. I enjoy dark chocolate and red wine. In my office I have two mermaid sculptures, a ship’s wheel, and three bins of my kid’s LEGOs. I have obsessed with Narnia since I was in First Grade.
DH: In addition to your graphic design for World’s End Images and your printmaking, you are the creative director for Square Halo Books, Inc. Since Square Halo publishes works on art and faith, you are in a unique position to gauge the embrace of the arts by the evangelical Christian community. What are your impressions?
NB: From my perspective, it seems that the evangelical Christian community has gone from a disdain of art when I was young (because we “don’t want to polish brass on a sinking ship”) to an embrace of the visual arts today. That could be seen as a good thing, but it actually bothers me since I don’t see this change coming from reading Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible (or perhaps Art for God’s Sake by Phil Ryken) and embracing the arts because they understand the theological reasons for valuing the arts. It seems to me that generally visual art in the evangelical Christian community is there because the larger culture is so drenched in eye candy, so we follow the culture’s lead. I’d prefer that our tribe be hostile to the arts than embrace them without thinking.
But it is hard to speak in generalities. I’d rather tell you about my small spheres in the evangelical Christian community. In the sphere of my church I have set up a gallery, had it shut down, and have been asked to set it up again. I think that speaks volumes to your question. Also, the amount of art going on in my church has fluctuated over time. We’ve had nearly a dozen artists that I have worked with to encourage through a music and arts small group to having just one young artist that I am now mentoring.
Within the sphere of my family and friends, I have been generally appreciated, and some of them have even bought art for their homes. And in the homeschool sphere I have worked hard to introduce that community to all the great Christian artists I know through CIVA. Some have been welcomed, and some have been proverbially burned at the stake.
DH: You are a father as well as an artist—are there things parents who are not artists can do to encourage their children to love beauty?
NB: During a visit in our home to give his interview for It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, Ed Knippers unintentionally gave us a phrase that has been a rallying cry to us for developing the love of beauty in our children’s lives. He encouraged us to strive to give our children not just an excellent classical Christian education, but to also work to give them poetic underpinnings. It has been our goal ever since to try to figure out what “poetic underpinnings” were, and then how to build them into our kids’ lives.
We have chosen to teach our kids about beauty through poetry and art. My wife Leslie is a great lover of poetry and art. She has read poem after poem to them as they grew up. She gave them fine art postcards to look at while toddlers. We read fine art board books to them. Our walls are covered with original art. And together we have taken them to many, many museums.
But the secret is that you have to like those things too. Kids can pick up if we are telling them to eat their broccoli while not eating it ourselves. So don’t try to force museums and whatnot on your kids “because it is good for them.” Pick things that you like and then share it naturally. My friend Matt Clark loves bugs. He sees God’s beautiful design in every wing and stinger. So he takes his kids on walks and they collect bugs and take them home to draw them. Do whatever will work with your family culture. One strategy that we found useful was to go to museums and ask the girls to pick out one—and only one—piece of art in each room that they liked and explain why. They missed out on a lot of art in each museum, but they had more fun with it, and remembered more than if we had forced them to study every piece.
Disclaimer: Leslie would want me to make sure that your readers know that we allow our kids plenty of pop culture, too. Along with the fine art board books we also read Sandra Boynton board books. We eat candy bars and vegetables. It is all about trying to keep things in balance.
DH: Most of the prints of yours that I’ve seen have strong biblical referents. That reminds me of a comment Edward Knippers made that he saw himself as a “servant under the text of Scripture.” Yet never do I get the impression that either of you are mere illustrators of Bible stories—the works seem to unpack a deeper level of meaning. Is this something that is intentional on your part as the artisan?
NB: Yes, I am quite intentional in my work about trying to inject into the pieces spiritual truths. Often I am afraid that I am overly didactic, and crush the art with the content. I am always cramming concepts into my art. Usually I do that through using classic Christian symbolism. An example of this can be seen by returning again to “Simul Justus et Peccator.” In that piece there is a black bird (sin), Adam’s apple (sin), a candle (the light of God’s Word), a mirror (God’s Word), thirty pieces of silver (sin, guilt for Christ’s death, and the three X’s can allude to pornography/lust), a prisoner’s outfit (bondage to sin), the Jesus sash of Sunday school art (being clothed in the righteousness of Christ), and—of course—a square halo (signifying a living saint).
I often think about my pieces as illustrations. But as we are discussing this now, when I step back I can see that I do a great deal of tweaking to the Scriptures when I depict them. For example, in my recent piece called “Violation” I show Bathsheba’s husband as a skeleton. Certainly in that piece I am striving to present the viewer with a deeper level of meaning beyond just illustrating David’s sin.
DH: Is there a way people can purchase your prints?
NB: The easiest way is through my Etsy store. But the way it works is that the art is only up for a limited amount of time, and if it doesn’t sell, you have to pay to repost it. So I often let work drop out of there. If folks don’t see something they would like to buy, they can email me and perhaps I still have what they want and I can repost it. (http://www.etsy.com/shop/WorldsEndImages).
DH: The linocut of yours that moves me most deeply is titled, “Rahab.” Perhaps the reason is that it reverses our roles. She is usually depicted as the scandalously promiscuous woman who was saved by grace, always with the impression given that since someone much more low class and tasteless than I can be saved, there is hope for the likes of me, who is a sinner, but not really all that bad and compared to her, actually fairly respectable. Your depiction turns that rendering on its head, so that Rahab, now framed in light, appears to be throwing a lifeline to me. How did you determine how to depict her?
NB: It took me a while to get to that final composition. Before this print, I pulled an edition of an entirely different block. But I ditched that one because it did precisely what you said—it allowed the viewer to look down on Rahab. Although she was a prostitute, Rahab is a grandmother to Jesus. We need to look up to her. I reflected while making this second print that to take the offer of salvation, we need to humble ourselves and as “nice” people receive the Gospel from a whore. So my idea was to catch her having just risen from serving a customer. Clutching a sheet to her breasts, she quickly throws the rope out the window for the spies. I put a light behind her to give her a halo of sorts. That way, we see her as a holy hooker. The rope is a stylized letter S, since what she is offering to the spies—and to us—is no less than our Salvation.