BY JAKE DOCKTER
Barry Moser is as legit as they come. His engravings and illustrations are provocative, dark, powerful and engrossing. He has created illustrations for many books including The Bible, my favorite of his work. Barry chooses to create works that are honest and real, not sugar coated white, pretty Jesus' or the white-washed parables of usual Sunday school propaganda. His works are real, showing the darkness of humanity and sin alongside the light of things. He shows a mastery of his medium and communicates loudly with small scrapes and gouges of his blade. I have sat transfixed over his images that truly are worth a thousand words, maybe even more.
Much of your work is "spiritual" in nature, the obvious being the Illustrated Bible, and the less obvious being illustration for novels (though they are often spiritual as well, Flannery O'Connor etc.). Why are you drawn to creating art in this context?
"Spiritual" is one of those words that has been used so much it has ceased to have any meaning for me. I think the same about the word “creative." I rather associate "spiritual" with women who take out personal ads in local tabloids (WW, 61, cute, vivacious, spiritual, seeking WM, spiritual, doesn't smoke, likes dancing and the outdoors, 25 to 40). I mean what does that mean, really. Regardless, I understand your question and will try my best to answer it.
First, a bit of history:
My earliest encounters with religion came as a child. The experiences were divided between my grandmother's Methodist church, and my aunt's Christian Science church, both in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the 1940s. But even so, I went to church rarely. When I was made to go to Sunday school it was, for me, a torture.
By the time I was a teenager and my testosterone levels went up, I yearned for female companionship, which was mighty scarce at the military school I attended from 1952 till 1958. About the only place a horny kid at my school could meet girls was at church (especially delicious were those Saturday night hayrides). So I started going to MYF meetings (Methodist Youth Fellowship) on Sunday nights. Sunday mornings I was usually found on Lake Chickamauga fishing with my dad and brother. During the summer I often went to revival meetings, lured there primarily by girls in cotton dresses with low bodices. And, of course, I got saved. More than once. But one time in 1959, then a freshman in college, I got really good and saved and subsequently became a Licensed Methodist preacher, a title conferred on my in 1960 by the Holston Conference. To obtain said License I had to read a few books and the Bible. Well, I read those books and I read the King James Bible a few times, skipping the genealogies only in my third read. All of this led me to a deep interest in religion in general and Christianity in particular. As a preacher I was a fundamentalist and inerrantist of the worst sort. It lasted three years. What brought me away from the "church" and from Christianity, as such, was born in two events.
The first was in the church where I had my first appointment. I was youth director and a young girl turned up pregnant. The church quite literally turned its back on that kid. The only place she was welcome was in my Sunday School class, after which she and her boyfriend went home.
The second was that I could go to church with my daddy's chef, Big John, at the Chattanooga Golf & Country Club where my dad was the manager. I was welcomed at John's Baptist Church and was invited to give the morning prayer the one time I went with him. This was around 1962 when the Civil Rights movement was just getting geared up. The long and short of this story is that I could not have taken John to Church with me. Not only would he not have been welcome, he would have stood a damned good chance of being lynched in the front yard of the church by those same hypocrites who turned their pious backs on that young woman. That hypocrisy, hate, and meanness just did not jibe with my reading of the Gospel. Still doesn't, obviously. And it was that hypocrisy, hate, and meanness that turned me away from the ministry, the church, and its congregation, never to return.
By a slow attrition over the years I have become a deeply religious agnostic. Agnostic in the pure sense of the meaning of the word: "I don't know." I have no trust of Fundamentalism of any sort. Not Judaic, Muslim, or Christian. As I see it, Fundamentalism fosters the myopic evil of thinking that one's self and one's clan is uniquely special, vis a vis God Almighty, to the expense and exclusion of all others. And most of these folks seem to me to be mean people, except with their own kind. By the same token, I think atheists are equally arrogant in their "beliefs." The only thing is, atheists, by and large, seem to be nicer people. I am not aware of any wars or ethnic cleansing being initiated by atheists.
What both groups share in common is CERTAINTY. To me, doubt and faith are twin sisters--or brothers, whichever metaphor you prefer. If I were to belong to either group it would be the doubters. But to doubt, it seems to me, is to also believe, since it is belief and certitude that is doubted. Me? I just don't know. I will never know and that's fine by me. Flannery O'Connor said that any God she could understand is a God that's too small. Aquinas said that anything he could think of as God could not be God simply because he thought of it.
God, the Creator of the universe (something that I think may have been "created" as we understand creating something) is far too vast, too far beyond the puny limits of the human imagination, to have been made by anything with a hoary head and a penis. To me it's infantile and ridiculous to think in those terms. And, it seems to me, that Whatever created all that universe must, by definition, be both omniscient and omnipresent, and if that is so, then Whatever that is must know my heart and mind. My every thought. My every deed. With that I am perfectly comfortable, and will look death in the eye regretting only the leaving of my family, my work and my dogs. I have no fear of Hell, nor any wish for Heaven—at least not as Dante or John Bunyan imagined it.
All of this, over the past fifty-odd years has settled in and I have become, as I said earlier, a deeply religious, crusty, old agnostic. I do not attend nor belong to any church, nor would I. (Well, there's a little Episcopal chapel outside Jackson Mississippi which I feel is as Holy a place I've ever been in that I might try to join if the 1500 mile commute weren't such a hindrance.) I have been guest speaker in a number of churches where I have felt perfectly at home, especially in Mississippi, as odd as that might seem. I just don't want to belong. I don't want to belong to the Elks either. Or any other group, except perhaps the Authors' Guild and the ACLU. However, I am still, to this very day, deeply interested in religion. I have perhaps a thousand books on religion and the Bible in my library. I read theology every now and again. I subscribe to "Bible Review" and "Biblical Archaeology Review." Every summer I teach drawing at a retreat in the Santa Fe hills sponsored by America's leading journal of arts and religion, IMAGE: A JOURNAL OF ART, FAITH, AND MYSTERY. I am very comfortable with these non-proselytizing people of faith and I look forward to the lectures and readings that are given by the poets, writers, playwrights and artists, many of whom are held in the very highest esteem in their fields: John Updike, Ron Hansen, Philip Levine, Robert Olen Butler, Chaim Potok, Jimmy Carter, Richard Wilbur, Elie Weisel, and the like come to mind.
And I still read the Bible. It's a great read and is, as George Steiner has said, the greatest monument there is of the English language. It has a marvelous history, especially to someone like me who is interested in the printed book. As a friend of mine said, "The history of printing can be tread on the spines of Bibles."
As an artist, if I may be so arrogant as to call myself that, I am not interested in anything "lite"-- as so much of the feculence we call art is these days. I want to sink my teeth into material that is difficult. That makes me lose sleep. That invades my dreams. I think that artists who make nothing more than things that shock and offend are intellectual midgets. And I think that the critics and mavens who praise and celebrate such shit are cerebral and analytical dwarves who are always nostalgic for something new and who fear anything with a hint of the past in it (as Hart Crane said). One of the things they all have in common is a disdain of anything religious. Personally, I think that is a position of cowardice, ignorance, and fear.
Obviously, my history has had an impact on me, my thinking, and my image making. I am drawn to the mysterious. I am drawn to craftsmanship. And I try to make my work to stand a chance of lasting beyond next week, next month and next year. Like O'Connor said, “God and Posterity are only served by well-made objects." Amen."
Image found here.