Let There Be Art! E.C. Native’s Illustrated Old Testament Headed For Print
bold artistic vision leads artist to create more than 250 custom illustrations for the best-selling book in the world
The number seven comes with a lot of biblical baggage. God, the Book of Genesis tells us, took seven days to create the world. (Six, really; the Almighty rested on the seventh day.) Noah brought seven pairs of every clean animal onto the ark, Pharaoh dreamed of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and so forth.
It seems appropriate, then, that it took artist and Eau Claire native Samuel Robertson seven years to illustrate the Old Testament. The recently completed project – with 257 vividly offbeat paintings across 520 pages – will be published in June by 11:11 Press of Minneapolis.
Robertson, a graduate of Eau Claire Memorial High School, received his BFA in sculpture from the University of Minnesota in 2010. After that, he explains, he bounced around artistically. “I had been painting, but it was pretty aimless,” he says. “I was doing music and writing and painting, and it felt like it was really hard to think of what to paint at this point.”
In 2014, he struck upon the idea of illustrating a book, preferably one with a built-in following. He toyed with the idea of tackling the countercultural classic Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. Then it hit him: Why not illustrate the Old Testament of the Bible? It’s a rich text that’s inspired centuries of art, plus it’s got a fan base that’s literally second to none, considering billions of Christians and millions of Jews consider it the word of God.
So Robertson began painting, primarily using latex paint and micron pens on 9-by-12-inch watercolor paper. “I didn’t quite understand how intensive (it would be),” he says. “I thought I would be done in a year.”
That year expanded into nearly seven, and early this year Robertson finished the 257th and final painting for the project while rocking his newborn baby with his foot. In addition to having two children and becoming a tradesman during those years, Robertson says he grew as an artist. His first, more crude paintings took about 3 hours each; eventually, paintings took 10 hours.
When describing Robertson’s style, the word “surreal” comes to mind. Traditional biblical settings are replaced with Americana: A colorful cowboy cavorts in a leotard. Swimsuited men and women revel while their pontoon sinks in a storm. A mustached surgeon dissects a pizza.
For his part, Robertson says his style isn’t exactly “pop art or hyperrealism or surrealism or comic book art.” Instead, he says, “I strive for a fine-tuned flexible style that can walk the line of realism, impressionism, and cartoonishness while always being experimental.”
I strive for a fine-tuned flexible style that can walk the line of realism, impressionism, and cartoonishness while always being experimental.
Throughout the project, Robertson continued to approach the text as a 21st century man who wasn’t religious but lived in a culture deeply shaped by religious beliefs. He came at the project with fresh eyes, avoiding historical or theological research and simply drawing inspiration from the stories in the books themselves, beginning with Genesis and working all the way through Malachi. He acknowledges that a nonreligious person making religious-themed art has the potential to create “positive controversy,” but he insists he didn’t put 4,000 hours into the project for the sake of mockery.
“It’s never been a spoof,” he says. “It’s always been sincere. Even with the kind of absurd, surrealist approach, it’s always been sincere to me.”
Seeking artistic inspiration, Robertson combed through a paperback copy of the King James Bible with a highlighter to identify notable passages. The final, published volume will alternate between his illustrations and pages of the original text, with the passages that inspired the artwork in large, bold type.
Across the millennia, the words of the Old Testament can be layered, confusing, and downright weird.
“I wasn’t going into it to highlight either the glories of it or to poke fun at it,” Robertson says. “In a lot of the passages of violent depictions, I would be drawn to the doom and gloom. Other times, it was kind of funny phrases or things that I thought would inspire a picture.”
Now that the artwork has been completed and publication has been scheduled, Robertson is working on the next phases of the project. These include encouraging people to preorder the book online (preorders will fund the printing, so there’s no guarantee more copies will be made after the initial print run) as well as pondering ways to use the illustrated work to create different kinds of art: Specifically, Robertson is hoping to hawk copies door-to-door, like an old-fashioned Bible salesman, and chronicle his efforts with a podcast. Plus, like the Gideons, he dreams of getting his book into hotel rooms. (Eau Claire’s Oxbow Hotel is considering doing so.)
And while a handful of the paintings have been exhibited in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Robertson hopes they will ultimately attract the eye of a collector who wants to buy the whole collection. “I need to find some wealthy weirdo,” he says.
Samuel Robertson’s Illustrated Old Testament is available for preorder for $115 at 1111press.com/oldtestament. The 12-by-9-inch hardcover with gold foil, 520 pages, 257 illustrations, will be published in June 2022 by 11:11 Press of Minneapolis. Learn more about Robertson at misterrobertson.com or on Instagram @SamRobertsonArt.
More Old Testament illustrations: