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Artist searches world for new ‘mega-symbols’

NCR Staff
Sonoma, Calif.

Gregor T. Goethals, artist, author, educator and now art director and graphic designer for the American Bible Society’s new media project, has spent the better part of her life “zigging and zagging,” as she puts it, between philosophy, theology and art.

A Yale- and Harvard-educated professor and dean of graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design for 29 years, Goethals has long been interested in the role of the artist in a technological society and the way images function in a technological, consumer-oriented age. Among her accomplishments is a book called The TV Ritual: Worship at the Video Altar (Beacon Press, 1981).

Goethals’ interest in theology and art evolved from her intellectual awakening in college, at Louisiana State University -- where, at first, she went to party, she said, and then encountered the renowned political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Her interest also evolved as “a kind of resistance against highly sentimental, often trite art that is considered by some people to be religious symbolism.”

“I’m essentially a populist,” she said. “But I would like to see more options in religious art than currently exist.”

So when the American Bible Society began looking around for art consultants for its forays into new media, Goethals was a likely choice.

Reared in Monroe, La., as a Baptist, she gravitated to the Episcopal church and then to Catholicism as an adult. Her artistic sensibilities gave her a strong preference for a symbol-rich “material” Christianity over symbol-deprived Protestant churches. “I was drawn to Catholicism by my love of stuff,” she said, although she equally values a lesson from her early training in “Bible-belt Christianity”: its sense “that the world is not ours.”

Pushing boundaries

At first as Goethals worked for the Bible society she fulfilled the need for an art historian -- someone to research how artists had treated various biblical subjects in the past. Equally at home in theology -- Goethals holds a bachelor of divinity from Yale, along with a master’s in art, and a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Harvard, working along the way with such giants in American religion as H. Richard Niebuhr and Robert Bellah -- she discovered fascinating links between the evolution of theology and the popularity of particular images. For example, while working on “A Father and Two Sons,” she discovered that the parable -- all parables -- were popular subjects for artists in regions imbued with the Protestant spirit. A fundamental doctrine of the Reformation was, after all, primacy of the word of God.

“What’s so interesting is today to study art history you have to know philosophy and theology,” she said. “When I was in school, there was academic imperialism. You were expected to have a narrow focus” -- a dictum she ignored.

Since 1992, when Goethals’ work with the Bible society in new media began, her role has shifted from research to production. Her personal life underwent some major shifts as well. After retiring from academia in 1995, she moved cross-country to a hillside home in California’s Sonoma Valley, overlooking a neighbor’s vineyard. Four of her five weekdays are largely consumed with Bible society work, she said. Her role -- drawing on her range of creative and analytical skills -- is to use mind, camera and brush (and the skills of techies on the team) to develop symbols and images -- “so-called mega-symbols,” she said -- that unify the videos, the Web pages and the CD-ROMs.

Along with other members of the new media translation team, Goethals is pushing the boundaries of religious symbolism.

For “The Visit,” the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, a unifying symbol became the nautilus, the chambered, spiral shell that Goethals sees as “a symbol of life and growth,” an expression of “the mathematical spiral found in all living forms.”

For “A Father and Two Sons,” Goethals said she looked for “some set of symbols that would hold the separate parts together” and settled on the notion of place -- the places where people gathered in the ancient world and where they gather today. “I thought about the places where stories were told. In the ancient world, it was the marketplace.” For today’s teenagers, it is often the malls. She brought together photographs she’d taken of sites in the ancient world -- places in Israel, Greece and Rome -- and photographs she’d taken of contemporary malls in a variety of U.S. cities. “If you look at the CD-ROM, you’ll see compilations of various sites,” which serve “as a metaphor to hold all of the pieces together,” she said.

Matter counts

For an upcoming production of John 20, the story of the Resurrection, the team of scholar-consultants decided some of the key metaphysical themes “could be expressed visually through lightness and darkness, spaces and voids, openings and closings and garden.” On a trip to Barcelona, Spain, for a conference last fall she stayed an extra week, taking 400 photographs of the work of Spanish Christian architect Antoni Gaudi. (For more on Gaudi, whose beatification cause is being advanced by members of the Spanish hierarchy, see www.gaudi.tm/).

Goethals is gratified to find that scholars today are realizing that “theology and philosophy permeate everything. A book like Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity [Yale, 1996] would have been totally impossible a generation ago,” she said. “It was an aberration then for artists to read in theology.”

“Losses” in Goethals’ personal life a couple of years ago -- the death of a beloved dog, her companion on her cross-country journey and a fall that left her with a broken hip (now healed), have served to intensify her appreciation of “stuff” -- of matter, she said. In contrast to the traditional sense that materiality becomes less important as spirituality grows, Goethals said her recent goal has been to immerse herself in matter more deeply.

This “new stage” is transforming her art.

When Goethals isn’t working on Bible society projects, she is working on paintings intended to show “the radiance of matter,” its penetration by Spirit. “Matter is all we have as a vehicle for Spirit,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999