The New Old Testament: The Good Book gets weird
Posted October 6th, 2021 by Russ White
Artist Sam Robertson spent seven years illustrating the King James Version of the Old Testament, and someday soon he'll be bringing it to your doorstep
Have you ever wanted to read the Bible, or maybe just felt like you should? No wonder why so many of us haven't: it's long, it's old, it's difficult to follow (depending on the translation you pick), and good God in Heaven, it can be boring.
Well, artist Sam Robertson is here to help with that last part. Next year he will be releasing a new illustrated version of the Old Testament, available for pre-order through Minneapolis's own 11:11 Press, and the 257 paintings he created to accompany the text are absolutely bonkers. Forget Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner; Robertson has painted us a horse of a very different color. His is a cast made up mostly of ruddy, modern-day white folks trapped in outlandish, kaleidoscopic landscapes — wearing safety vests, dust-busting eggs off the kitchen counter, and hoisting fishing trophies into the sky. Each illustration was inspired by a specific passage highlighted on the adjoining page. Sometimes the connection is clear; other times, not in the least. All of them, however, are delightfully strange, irreverent, and oddly enough, make you want to engage with the text, if only to understand what you're looking at. (I think dolphins may have something to do with circumcision, for instance, but I really can't be sure.)
We connected with Sam to get to the bottom of this weird, seven-year saga he has just completed, and to get the deets on some big plans he has to get the book out into the world. If anybody knows the Pope, it might be best to warn him now.
The death of Moses, Deuteronomy 34: 5-6.
Russ White: As texts go, you can’t get much older, bigger, or more impactful on Western culture than the Old Testament. It’s been translated, interpreted, and illustrated countless times over the past three thousand years. What drew you to this project in the first place? What has your relationship with religion and with that book in particular been throughout your life?
Sam Robertson: I was drawn to the project in a roundabout way. I wanted to undertake a large, flexible illustration project that I could evolve with and learn a lot from. I had heard of some other people who set out to illustrate existing books with existing fan bases who then found that that audience helped to create momentum for their illustration endeavor. I thought I could maybe find a publisher that way, by illustrating a popular book, and hoping it might open the doors to further opportunities down the line. I ran through potential books in my head. None of my favorite books seemed like the right choice, but when I thought of the Old Testament, I knew that was the one. It was an epiphany.
I had never read the book, but I went to a Roman Catholic grade school up through 6th grade. I remember that experience being very tedious. I don’t think I took away anything positive or memorable about the Bible from how it was presented to me as a kid. Most of what I remember is being kicked out into the hallway during classes a bunch and never understanding why. Like when I said “puke-arist” instead of “eucharist.” The teacher screamed, “Stop saying that you say that ALL THE TIME” when it was for sure the first time I had ever said it. Then I remember feeling all sad and lonely out in the hallway.
The Bible wasn’t made digestible for young minds at the school I went to. I remember being in church trying to make the flame of the candle by the altar four pews away wiggle from blowing at it as hard as I could without being noticed and therefore reprimanded, for the better part of many 45 minute masses, never hearing a word of what was spoken by the priest, because I was 10 years old and super hyper. And I remember having to sit boy girl boy girl in church so we would be less likely to have fun, make jokes, or be any sort of distraction. That’s my whole religious takeaway from those early 7 years of Catholic school. Then I got confirmed in high school, and that felt transactional, like something I was supposed to do but didn’t care about. I felt guilty about getting confirmed under those circumstances, not being into the Bible. And then I remained agnostic up until the start of the project and to the present day. I’d consider myself to be sort of spiritual, but I haven’t been drawn to any one religion.
Going into illustrating this, I had a sense of the Old Testament being the book that has probably most shaped humanity. So I wanted to take that energy and bring myself into the conversation, reflecting on the influence it’s had, and on our Western consumerist culture I was born into. A culture somehow descendant from that text. And I wanted to approach it sort of like a lost, ageless, estranged child, who didn’t know of this formative book for 3000+ years and is just meeting it now, trying to explain or piece together in some way the long journey its words have sent me on, both historically and culturally. But I needed to do it without actually researching the history and the culture. Like if I found it in a time capsule in my yard and never heard tell of the old days or something. I just wanted to stay in my role as the millennial I am, uninfluenced by this book in any real direct ways, and try to make sense out of it symbolically. Then when I started to illustrate it, it felt like it was meant to be. Its words (The King James Version in particular) had tons of rich imagery and archaic phrasings to work with. Often all I had to do was to show up for the paintings, to put the time in, and they made themselves.
Top: Purified maidens on their way to see King Ahasuerus, as one does. Esther 2: 12-13. Bottom: Jeremiah 6: 19-20, in which our burnt offerings displease the Lord.
RW: Your illustrations offer a really surreal, cartoonish take on specific passages from each page. I’m assuming you read the entire thing, which can be very dense and very dry at times. How did you land on which passages to illustrate?
SR: Yes, I read the entire thing, but it was an admittedly superficial reading. Humor has often been at the core of my paintings, even before this project, so I tried to select passages I thought I might be able to do something funny with. That’s not to say I was out to lambaste or make fun of the book - humor is in part the language I use to explore deeper themes and things that interest me. I feel like humor has the power to really cut through the weeds and into the depths of human struggle, which the Old Testament seems to be about. I think a little crust of humor makes the paintings more accessible for many people, so they can kind of let their guards down, and then I can really explore what humans are doing with their time! Then I can really start to dig into the jarring contrasts between the beauty and brutality of the human impact on each other and the planet. The Old Testament already seems to be all about those themes, so I discovered it fit snugly with my style, in a way no other book could.
RW: Your work in here is really hilarious and engaging and delightfully strange. It’s not the first time the Bible has been illustrated by contemporary artists (I’m thinking of R. Crumb and Basil Wolverton specifically, and there are surely many others), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a version with so many cowboys and rodeo clowns and construction workers and games of beach volleyball. Can you explain how you landed on this particular style and set of characters?
SR: Looking back on the work, I’m not exactly sure how I landed on the individual characters or the style to be honest. I approached each painting with the goal of making it its own thing that could stand alone, and did whatever inspired me in the moment to avoid getting bogged down by the vastness of the endeavor. I tried to make whatever connections I could within each passage, sometimes drawing inspiration from a literal interpretation, sometimes just a subconscious feeling about what might best illustrate it. My intention was always to make a series of paintings where each could stand alone without the words that inspired it, but then when each was paired with the Bible verse, it would make even more sense and become more profound, and when all got bound together in their final form with the entire text of the Old Testament in a big book, they would take on a meaning of their own I couldn’t have imagined, that they’d be larger than the sum of their parts.
The first spread of Robertson's book.
RW: It’s a funny juxtaposition, pairing these seemingly irreverent illustrations with the King James translation itself, reverently reprinted in full. Most artists would have started Genesis, for instance, with God conjuring light out of the darkness or creating Adam and Eve in the Garden; the very first image in your version is a cattleman awkwardly trying to hog-tie a calf in distress. It kind of sets the mood for an unconventional, critical reading of the text. What do you hope readers will get out of viewing the Old Testament through your lens? What did you get out of it?
SR: That first painting I made a couple weeks before I even thought of illustrating the Old Testament, and it became what steered the whole project, being a reflection on God’s order to dominate the world and all the other plant and animal creations. From there it was like, "Well, let’s explore what happened later on, over three millennia later, after we were told to dominate all the plants and animals."
I don’t hope for readers to get anything specific out of it; each can bring their own experiences to my illustrated version of this book and take away their own thing. What I got out of it personally was the experience of having a very defined purpose for seven years and what that does to a person. (It was supposed to take only one year but that’s not what happened.) It was a serious and seriously long journey. There’s been nothing else like it in my life, it was transformative. I was so much younger when I started it, irresponsible and aimless perhaps, and in those past seven years while I painted, I also got married and had two kids and learned a trade (tiling). The early paintings are so different from the later ones and my thoughts on the world have changed a lot, too. I used to be pretty indifferent, and I’m sure some of my worldview changed due to this project, but much has likely changed from having lived seven more years, from being with a partner who cares deeply about the world, and from having kids.
Top: Ezekiel 20: 15-26, in which the Lord expresses his disappointment in the people of Israel flaunting his statutes. Bottom: Dolphins are just one of many recurring, unexpected thematic elements throughout. Illustration for Joshua 5: 2-3.
RW: Did you come away with a favorite book or a favorite story from the Old Testament?
SR: Since I read it over a four or five year period and was focused on finding inspiring passages more so than gleaning a storyline, I remember surprisingly little. I remember being disappointed with Psalms, hoping for poetic beauty but finding mostly what seemed to me like rambling prayers for self-enrichment and death to one’s enemies. So I’ll read it again when I get my hands on one of these copies at some point perhaps.
RW: Right now the book is in production by 11:11 Press here in Minneapolis, with a scheduled release next summer. At that point, I hear, you have a performance piece planned?
SR: Yes, I’m going to sell it door to door. Equipped with a briefcase, some 60’s era salesman clothing, my own welcome mat (this isn’t a very welcoming world anymore) and a hidden mic (it’s legal, I researched it), I’m going to see how the world receives this book if I just show up and try to get them to buy it. I hope to sell many books this way, thousands and thousands and thousands, but also I want to simply converse with people and record those conversations (keeping the people’s anonymity of course) and see what they’re thinking about the world in this era where most of us are all getting so cloistered, insular, and divided. I hope to make a podcast about it, part radio drama, part actual salesman conversations. I don’t think most people want a Bible salesman at their door these days, but I hope to change that. I hope they want me at their door. I hope they want me there and they don’t want to beat me up.
Also I’m trying to get an introduction by Pope Francis if anyone knows how I can get in touch with him, and I’m trying to get hotels to stock this book. One hotel in Wisconsin called The Oxbow is looking to buy 33 copies which is super exciting. I want it to replace, or at least accompany, all the Gideon bibles that are a staple in American hotels and motels. I think that’s a mainstay that’s never really been played with, the fact that in almost any hotel room you visit, you can open a drawer and be sure to find the same exact bible with no flourishes. I want weary travelers to open their hotel room drawers all frantic and disheveled and find this book and find salvation. So if you’re a hotel owner/manager/worker reading this, and you think you want to partake in this opportunity, let me know. Make no mistake, this is a beneficial opportunity for both parties, me and you.
RW: How can folks preorder the book? And do you have any plans to show the original paintings as well?
SR: Preorders are at www.1111press.com/oldtestament - The preorders are what will fund the printing of this book. We will print a few extra, but your only guarantee to acquire this book is to preorder it. There may be subsequent print runs in the coming years, but who knows?
And as for showing the originals, I do want to show the paintings. I want to exhibit the whole series at the Vatican, mark my words. I’ve shown sections of the paintings in four different exhibitions during the creation of this body of work, but there’s probably 70 that the world has never seen in person. I’m looking for opportunities to show all the originals in Minneapolis, and then on the road, hopefully to tons of cities, like you name it I want to go there. I want to bring these paintings on a crazy world tour. I want to go to LA, Chicago, NYC, then Rome, Berlin, other exotic European places, and Russia, Palestine, and Mexico as well. Then I want the Vatican to buy all the originals. They got tons of money and assets. They’re the richest establishment ever, or at least they were. They can throw down for this, give me a break! ◼︎
Sam Robertson, amidst a non-burning bush. All images courtesy of the artist.
To learn more about and preorder Sam Robertson's Illustrated Old Testament, visit 1111press.com. Books are set to arrive in June of 2022.
For more on the artist, follow him on Instagram @samrobertsonart.
Banner image: the wizards being cast out, I Samuel 28: 3.