- Kathryn L. Williams
Spark+Echo Arts/Jonathon Roberts, Executive Director & Co-Founder
Did you know there are 31,102 verses in the Old and New Testaments? Me, neither! But Spark+Echo Arts knows firsthand, as they are gathering together thousands of patrons and artists to illuminate the Bible and bring those verses to life in a brand new artistic way. Yes, every single verse from Genesis onward, spanning all genres and styles, with commissioned artists from a wide range of backgrounds, including non-Christian and secular artists. With about 15 percent of the verses completed, theirs is a long, fascinating journey and no small feat as the nonprofit, founded in 2010, hopes to complete all of the illuminations by 2030.
Recently I spoke with composer/sound designer Jonathon Roberts, who co-founded the project with his wife, Emily Clare Zempel, an actor/musician and theater professor, to hear more about the group’s vision and dreams for this immense creative undertaking. I encourage you to take a look at the creatively powerful and meaningful artist contributions at their online gallery - perhaps you'll feel inspired to participate as an artist or spark a verse through their patron page at Patreon. Illuminations, shine on!
RG: Jonathon, thank you for talking with me. You are the Co-Founder and Executive Director of what I see as a very far-reaching artistic Bible project called Spark+Echo Arts. Will you tell me what it's about and how it originated?
JR: Thank you for doing this, it's really nice to talk to you. Spark+Echo Arts is creating a work of art, music, theater, poetry, dance or film in response to every verse of the Bible, and we do that by commissioning artists from all disciplines, Christian, non Christian, from around the country and around the world. Curators select an artist, and they'll choose a verse that hasn't been illuminated in our project, or a section of verses, and they'll create whatever they like. They respond using their gifts however they like and then the work is featured in our online gallery and shared to our community and elsewhere.
RG: Your website says that there are 31,102 Bible verses, and it says you've got 26,655 still to do. This is a monumental project because those are staggering numbers!
JR: Yes. We're about 15 percent in, which we're proud of. There are a lot to go, especially hearing you say that number aloud, 26,655!
RG: And you started this in 2010?
JR: Yes. My wife, Emily Zempel Roberts, and I founded it together. She's an actor and theater professor, and we enjoy creating art and music and theater in response to Scripture. We always found that was the best way for us to learn about the Bible and learn about our faith by creating something new that can force us to explore it. We enjoy the process so much that we wanted to create a reason for other people to have those same kind of experiences. That was the foundation, and then it grew with different collaborators and leaders that helped us shape the process. Lots of new curators came on board through the year so it's grown and evolved.
"Rivers in the Desert," Isaiah 43:18-19, digital photography collage by Emily Clare Zempel
RG: You and your wife have a particular affection for the Bible from an artistic perspective, but you were just what, sitting around one day and had this idea to do the entire Bible?
JR: I think it just came about because I particularly did a lot of theater after school. I made this theater piece on the apostle Paul, called 'Project Paul.' It was music and theater, kind of performance art-y, and I took that around. That really changed how I felt about Paul. I was always drawn to Paul but I would read the Scripture and feel he was maybe too brash, or I didn't connect with it. Just going through that experience of performing got me excited about him more and then trying to get other people to have those experiences. But why the whole Bible, I don't know. I just thought it would be really cool!
RG: I'm sure you've been getting comparisons with how hard this is in context of difficulties in the Bible itself, right?
JR: Yes, it is complicated. But it's a lot about community and that's been pretty neat. I did have a personal dream of writing music on every verse and I don't know if that's possible so this is probably more attainable although it's going to take a long time!
RG: Can you talk a bit about what the word illumination means in the context of this project? I'm guessing most people think of Bible illumination from the Middle Ages and the gorgeous books.
JR: It inspired us a lot. I love the St. John's Bible and there's one from Sweden or Norway that's magazine style, photographic illumination, and then other kinds of prayer projects, too. My wife and I wanted to expand that, thinking about other disciplines and what a poet or filmmaker would do, or a musician in the same vein of the original artists from the Middle Ages. We wanted to include more people. For our project, illumination means any kind of artistic response, basically. We don't limit people to using the words exactly as they are, if they're creating something that is words based or incorporating the text directly into the work. We want them to respond directly to it and create something using their voice. It's a little bit open because there's a lot of different kinds of artists.
RG: Once an artist is working on a verse, is there somebody overseeing that person in what they're doing and how they're representing it?
JR: We have a program manager, Rebecca Testrake, who really is the day-to-day motor behind the project. There’s a lot of work in artist care and shepherding artists through the process. She's been working with us for I think six years now, and she really walks them through the process from when a curator might connect us to them, and then she helps them select the verse, and helps them get what they need to create. While the project is gigantic, we're a smallish team so the artists do a lot of work on their own creating but we give them the spark to get going and help them along the way.
"Psalm 16," Psalms 16:1–11, paper collage by Nicora Gangi
RG: I noticed on some listings that you have a curator for each project. Is that person working in tandem with the artist, and is that collaborative?
JR: Sometimes it is. We'll have a rotating cast of curators each year, maybe one or two from each discipline – dance, theater, film, music, poetry, etc. – and they will connect us with artists from their network. Sometimes the curators are former artists from the project themselves. Depending on how close they are to the artist or how much time they have, they will help facilitate their project. We have one curator, Michael Markham, who is a filmmaker and he's helped produce some of the works or created in collaboration with them. Other curators are more about getting people going and then they're on their own.
RG: I was curious about the interpretive part of the Bible. If you give certain verses to certain people they'll come away with a very different response about what it's about and what it means to them.
JR: Some of the artists aren't religious, or are but have never responded to the Bible in this way. Sometimes they will be looking for more theological or background information on the verses. There are a lot of verses, and some are hits, and then there are others less known. If they have some obscure version of Lamentations, for example, they might take information from the curator or we'll connect them with a theologian who can give more background information. The curator helps facilitate that process.
RG: The Bible has been used so often throughout history as an artistic spark, even for people who aren't religious. The name Spark+Echo, where did that originate?
JR: We really think of the Bible as the spark and the echo as it goes forward.
RG: Is the echo the artistic response in this case?
JR: That's the idea. You could interpret it other ways but that's sort of the way we're thinking of it. The Bible is the spark that we echo, which is creativity. This is maybe more information than you need, but in our early days it was called Bible Consrontatie, which is a Dutch word and a Dutch music composition tradition. Consrontatie is where you create another work in response to a first work of art that you're trying to understand better. The concept is really what we do, but the PR people reading this will be like, 'No! Don't call it Bible Consrontatie!' People in artistic circles were already maybe a little nervous about the Bible in the name and then on top of that you have a word that's not pronounceable. Anyway, we evolve!
RG: Let's go over the process involved from start to the end. You formed a nonprofit and how it works is that the public can sign up through a crowd funding platform, Patreon, and contribute monthly financial support. What do they get for that and how are they involved beyond that?
JR: Through Patreon you can pledge a certain amount a month and then you can log into the site and spark a verse, which means choose which one you'd like to be illuminated. That helps us shape which verses we want to illuminate next. That's an early feature. Our web developers are a great team called Cantilever, in New Jersey, and they’ve been working on the site for the last couple of years. They created it where people who are really committed to supporting the project will be able to interact with the site and interact with the Bible. That's from the audience point of view of how supporters can be involved. We also have some live stream things and an annual gala. From the artist point of view, you can suggest yourself as an artist, or suggest other artists that you think would be great for the project. There's an artist application, and our team of curators looks at the work that you've done and decides if they want to commission you to create a new work for the project.
"We Wait," 2 Peter 3:13, a painting by Judith Barcroft
RG: On the patron side, how much direct impact do people have? I sign up, I donate money and then I get to spark something. But is this just a vote? What do I get for that and how do I get a project done that I want done?
JR: There's a lot of room for growth in that area. Right now it's pretty much just a vote. A lot of people donating are enthusiastic about the works of art that are being created and want to help in an ongoing way. But in the future there's a lot of possibility that you could support and then help more directly with a specific work of art that you have in mind. Maybe there’s ways to connect with different artists or help shape a concept that you have. That would be a neat thing for us to try.
Also, people have talked to us about how we could assemble some of the works of art into a more usable, more devotional, type of experience. These works are unique and they come at the Scriptures from different angles, so we could assemble them and that could be made available to people supporting the project. Currently, if you feel strongly about the project and the goals of it, then you would want to support it as you do other nonprofits. But in the future, especially with this design team and ways to interact with audiences, we want to build on that.
RG: So in theory if somebody had a verse that they were especially fond of and maybe they didn't have an artist, they could get a lot of people to donate and then spark that verse.
JR: That would be a really cool angle, to have something in mind and then put a bunch of people behind one verse.
RG: Or to propose an artist. Maybe they know someone who they think would be perfect for it.
JR: My wife and I and a lot of the other leaders initially, we really are artist-centric, artist care type people and in the early days especially we were thinking, ‘Well if we get artists to create on Scripture that maybe they wouldn't normally be inclined to, and they create high quality work at their same level or more, wow! Mission accomplished!’ It’s exciting, these works that are being created on these verses. But in more recent years we've had other people saying, ‘You're not connecting with the audience enough, and how do you make that better? We're sort of at step one of that on our new site, which has some features and art woven into Scripture that might be usable for an audience. But if other people have more ideas, this is where we want to move to and where we need to grow.
RG: Do you have funding from organizations other than the patrons financing you directly?
JR: There's been some foundation support over the years and other donors outside of Patreon, and then we have some events. We used to tour. My wife and I used to play music from the project and that was also a way. Like many nonprofits, it’s a mix of donors and foundation support and earned income.
"Visitation," 1 Kings 10:1–10, choreography/performance by Elizabeth Dishman
RG: Let's talk about the projects. What have been some of the outstanding ones for you over the years? You're running across all different media. I saw poetry, theater, music, dance, and I happened upon one artist who took gold and filled in the cracks in the city sidewalk. So this really runs the gamut.
JR: Yes, the one you're talking about, Elias Popa, is one of the artists and he's curated for the project ,too. He does this work with Kintsugi, which you or your readers may have heard about. It's basically breaking things in a beautiful way, but maybe that's not doing it justice. With Kintsugi, he uses gold and fills in the cracks on the sidewalk as a response to this verse in Acts 2 about breaking bread from house to house and sharing what they have. It’s a really neat piece. In addition to the artists that create works week to week for the project, we've had 12 or so artists in residence over the years and Elias created another work this past year.
We’ve had some really interesting work – film from Chris Knight, and beautiful dance theater from Elizabeth Dishman who is a dancer and choreographer from Brooklyn. A lot of times dancers are great partners with filmmakers and we've been thrilled that some these dance works have turned into beautiful films that can live on the internet. We've also had a lot of works from Nicora Gangi, the renowned pastel artist in New York. She has done these wild paper collage works that she digitally manipulates, and as she reads Scripture, she sees colors and shapes that kind of jump out of it and she creates quickly from that.
RG: Did she always do that or did this happen in conjunction with this project?
JR: I don't know. She's more known for her pastel works, but in the time that we've known her she's done a lot of digitally manipulated paper collages. I believe it’s a devotional practice in her daily life and it sort of grew out of that and then became part of this project as well.
RG: Are a lot of the artists involved in the project people you knew previously?
JR: In the early days they were people we knew but by now it's mostly people that I don't know personally. It’s sort of spread out through our network of curators. An artist will create and then the next year they'll be a curator and bring somebody else in and they'll create and assign somebody in future years. It's been pretty great. In New York City, where we started, there's obviously so many artists creating so we had a lot in the early days centered there. But now we've been bringing in artists from all over the country and our program manager is in California so we're spread out more. I think we've had 10 or 12, maybe more, from around the world. In addition to every Bible verse, we'd love to have an artist from every state and every country. I think we're on our way to that one as well.
"The Art of Kintsugi and Sacrifices in Sidewalks," Acts 2:45–47, installation art by Elias Popa
RG: You must be an incredibly patient person because this is such a far-reaching project!
JR: It's just been neat to see it grow. We have a map on our site, and from last year we've had 31 states and 10 nations so far. There are at least 200 nations in the world. We'll get there. It's been cool to meet people from around the world and see how they connect with the project, too.
RG: How does it work with artists who are neither Christian nor Jewish, or who come from a more secular perspective? How do they gain an understanding of the verses?
JR: If they want more information about the verses and background information there are people connected to the project that can help do that. That comes up fairly often, people request that. We also just allow them to respond how they like. We have a motto here, the word respect is important in three directions. We want to give the artists respect and allow them to create however they like and just respond honestly, and then we ask them to give the audience respect and create an accompanying artist statement, particularly if what they make might be challenging to an audience. So there's respect of the artist, and also respect for Scripture. These are the three directions, artist, audience and Scripture, and when all those work together it's neat because you can see that even if somebody doesn't come from the same tradition, they're spending honest time exploring Scripture and then responding.
RG: Do the artists talk about it being transformative for them in any way?
JR: Yes, and that often comes out in their artist statement. There's not pressure on anybody to have a certain experience, and certainly any time an artist creates they're going through a bit of an experience through the process. But we're not surprised when sometimes artists will say, 'This passage really came to life and spoke to me,' or they'll say, 'Wow, this is so uncanny, I've just been working through this in my life and now I’m reading this here in a way that really connected with what I've been pondering this last year.' We're not surprised by that because it's part of why we started the project and got excited about the Bible in the first place. I love creating from the Bible because I'll read the verse and it will come to life! We'll say, 'Oh, wow, this is part of my life.' Artists do share that and it's pretty cool, some of those stories around the site.
RG: Can you talk a bit about the intersection of spirituality and creativity, both for this project and for you personally? It sounds like you've been doing this for a very long time and you've expanded it into this project. I'm curious what your view is of this intersection of spirituality and creativity.
JR: That's a good question. For me, I just always loved creating on the Bible, it's sort of my favorite thing. It just feels like I'm creating something that'll weave into every part of my life when I go through that process. I feel like it's a no brainer for me. I just really like creating on the Bible and the process, just the act of creating, when connected to Scripture, it feels like a spiritual experience. I'm not one who feels that kind of spiritual connection when I'm just creating. I've heard other artists say, 'Creating art is my religion,' or, 'I feel a spiritual sense as I create.' I don't necessarily feel that when I'm not creating on Scripture but that's just sort of my background and what I'm enthusiastic about.
RG: I read your background and it does seem like you are creating primarily from the Bible. You're a composer and a sound designer, and I saw that you composed a song cycle called 'Cities,' that, in your words, personifies Biblical cities. And, you've got a podcast called ‘ComposerDad vs. the Bible.’
JR: Yes, it's all me. The ‘Cities’ project was trying to personify the Biblical cities in a way that is interesting, so imagining how Ephesus felt as Paul was run out of town. Does Ephesus miss Paul? As the water receded from Ephesus, the city moved with the water and the ancient city is sort of stuck there on land. What does that feel like for Ephesus? Or what does Jericho feel like as the walls come down? Just trying to imagine that and bring the Bible to life in that way. We have a 5 and a 2-year-old and I think about creating on Scripture with them, too. That evolved into creating this ComposerDad podcast and ComposerDad vs. the Bible. I imagined, what if a Bible verse jumps down at me. Like I'll be walking around with the kids and there's the Bible, it appears in my life and challenges me to make a song of a verse. It's evolved for me as an artist in the city, starting Spark+Echo Arts, and now being a Dad and seeing the Bible through kids’ eyes, too. It's been fun.
"The Call," 1 Kings, 19:1–8, a screenplay by Michael Markham
RG: You've been looking at the connection between artistry and the Bible, it sounds like, for quite a long time.
JR: Yes, since I was a kid. I was in high school writing music from the Bible.
RG: What does it give to you? Do you feel that the art changes because it's Bible focused for you?
JR: I feel like I’ve changed more easily because I'm focused on the Bible. But how is the art different? That's a good question. One of the things I like about creating with the Bible is that it forces me to think outside of what feeling I might be having that day. It makes me think outside of the box. I'll find a verse and say, 'Oh, that's a really obscure prophecy in Isaiah,' or whatever, and what if I created something on that and used it for my parameters or restrictions? If I put those walls up, then what I come up with is more interesting than if I were to just say, 'Oh, what am I feeling today? I'm feeling a little sad,’ or whatever.
RG: There's a focus that comes from it for you.
JR: Yes, and I end up writing about things that I wouldn't normally write about. It stretches me, and the end product, I think, is more interesting than what I would have come up with otherwise. I’ve heard from the artists in Spark+Echo Arts that that is a benefit to the project, having those restrictions on their creative process. 'Here's the verse that you've chosen, and this is what you'll be responding to.' So much is on the artist. They create so much, they do so much on their own, and those little restrictions we have on it seem to be valuable.
RG: I saw that you had stats on the site about most illuminated books, least illuminated books and most sparked verses. Are you surprised at how this has shaken out in terms of what people want to see illuminated?
JR: I am surprised sometimes. We'll be shocked. 'Oh, there's a thing from the Book of Acts,’ or whatever. We've had people ask a lot, 'What about the lists of Numbers, what are people going to do with those?’ Then an artist will show up and be like, 'I want to do something on one of those lists.' We had one artist that created a work, it was this whole list, and he brought each little numbered verse, each person's name, to life in this little quirky animation. It gets people thinking about every little part of the Bible that might be overlooked. For every quirky verse there's an artist out there who can create something really interesting about that that I wouldn't have thought of.
RG: Has anybody done or proposed a traditional Bible illumination, like from medieval times?
JR: That's a good question. I feel like somebody has but I can't think of it offhand. Probably not as directly as you can see in a museum. But that would be really cool. There's such a big trend in Bible journaling these days, too, that I'm surprised it doesn't come up more often in our project, where people create art in their Bible.
RG: What's going to happen to these art works afterward? Is this meant to be an online archive or do you have other plans for it?
JR: We'd like to grow our site so it's more interactive. We also sometimes have gala events in New York City and elsewhere, and when the whole Bible is illuminated we’d love to partner with big museums at various places to put on shows. We have some relationships with different galleries in different cities and it would be great to put on shows or touring shows from the collection. Maybe a live theater piece or other things. We don't limit people to things that can be represented online, so some of them are more like representations of a thing that happened.
RG: Can you give me an example?
JR: Well, some of the dance work. We hope to expand, and then there's other possibilities with technology as virtual and augmented reality grows. It would be my dream. They even have some of this already where you can walk through virtual galleries with your VR device. I would love to have the whole project represented in a virtual gallery that you can go in. I don't know how we would pull that off now, but we're only 15 percent in so I'm hoping that by the time we finish, this will be more commonplace because it does pop up, you see some galleries and VR companies doing this kind thing. I'd love to see more tools that can grow out of the project. CIVA, Christians in the Visual Arts, has touring exhibitions and devotional tools. There are unique partnerships we can do, too, because we float between Christian institutions and we’re comfortable in non-Christian settings, having evolved so many artists that aren't religious. There are potential partnerships to groups curious about the project, even from a historical point of view.
RG: In their artist statements, do the artist’s talk about their relationship to the Bible before and after? Is there a way to know, for example, which artists are not Christian that worked on a project? Do they refer to that in their statement?
JR: We don't put any restrictions on what they express. They'll let us know in their exit survey if they volunteer to, but a lot of them will express that in their artist statement.
RG: I was curious about how they addressed it.
JR: A lot of people said, ‘We would not have created this work,’ ‘This isn't part of my background,’ etc., and this is what was surprising to me about the process. They might share that.
"Blessing," Numbers 6:24–26, a composition for wind ensemble by Jonathon Roberts
RG: It's interesting in talking to you, had you thought about becoming a minister at some point in your life?
JR: Maybe a little bit. I've always been drawn to pastors and feel like I always want to be friends with pastors. I go into churches and gravitate to the pastors. I really want to know what it's like but I don't have certain key skills in that area. I've always been more inclined in the arts and probably would come up short with certain kinds of counseling and care that a pastor needs to give all day, all week. That dedication, I just feel I would fall short. But I suppose many pastors would say, 'I feel the same way,' even though they're doing it.
RG: It seems like you've got an artistic ministry going here.
JR: I do, I guess. I think I’ve always been interested in how the Bible and faith plays out in a secular landscape. In New York City, when we moved there, I was writing Bible songs and performing them in nightclubs. Trying to say, 'Look, this is something we could all be into, this is interesting stuff.' You know? Putting it outside the church, in a way.
RG: Were you seeing it as music or were you seeing it more as performance art?
JR: Both. I'm somebody who's very passionate about my faith and also enjoy sort of awkward, comedy, performance situations. It was natural for me to share my faith sincerely in these settings and recognize it's also being viewed in an awkward, absurd way depending on the setting and being OK with all of that at once.
RG: I'm envisioning a 'Bible songs in bars' series!
JR: Yeah, that's me! That's it!
RG: Where did you grow up?
JR: In Wisconsin. My wife and I both are from there. She is the co-founder and was very involved the first four or five years but then she moved on to being a theater professor and Rebecca took over as program manager and does a lot of the heavy lifting day-to-day.
RG: It's such a huge undertaking and it's very impressive, I have to say. As we're talking, I'm looking again at your website and it is extraordinarily put together.
JR: I'm glad to hear you say that and I'll share that with the team at Cantilever. I really like what they've done and I'm excited about building it out more with some of the stuff you're talking about. It's what we want to do.
RG: It's got to be a really fun thing for the artists, too. Do they get paid for their work, and what happens to their copyright?
JR: Yes, and artists who are interested in being considered can reach out to us on the site. There's an artist application, or you can write to us at email@example.com. Artists get a small honorarium. It's not a lot, but they do get paid something and they retain their copyright. They basically give us a license to use the work within the project. That's what the agreement is, and they have to create something new for the project. It can be also for something else at the same time, maybe they have a show they're planning.
RG: Are they free to sell it? Let's say it's visual art.
JR: Yes, they can, that's all up to them. What we end up with is a visual representation that can be shared on the website. We love for the artists to have a positive experience and continue creating on Scripture.
Songs by Lily Maase, Revelation 9:10–20, Revelation 11:3–7, Isaiah 8:11, Proverbs 4:23
RG: Has there been a kind of outstanding moment for you through this process, or something that maybe you weren't expecting?
JR: There have been so many little events we love. There's an artist, Lily Maase, who was an artist in residence a couple of years ago. She created a really amazing work reflecting her year. She had a major car accident and spiritual experiences that all kind of played out during her artist in residency. She is a rock guitarist and guitar teacher, she plays in an all female Guns N' Roses tribute band in New York City and also in New Mexico. Her story, and the work itself, was really moving to us and that was one of the examples of how an artist chooses a verse, says 'I think I'll try this,' and then over the year that verse and the creative process interacts with their life in a moving way. It was powerful for all of us.
RG: Can an artist do more than one project?
JR: Yes, we've had people come back and do several. The artist in residence might do a larger work over the year, or we've had people return and they don't have to do one verse at a time – they might choose a section or a few verses that fit together.
RG: It would be interesting from an artistic transformation perspective that maybe they do one verse and it changes something for them and it propels them to another verse.
JR: That would be cool, avkind of a series, an ongoing exploration.
RG: Are there artists you would love to have that either don't know about the project or haven't signed up? Is there a wish list of artists?
JR: That's a good thought but no, I don't have people in mind specifically. We'd love to do more, and we like all kinds of different artists. In addition to the main disciplines, there was a spice artist from South Africa that makes crushed spices and then makes art out of that. We've had other food-related art and I'd love to see more of that, and more genres that we haven't had. We've had a fair amount of jazz and song-based music, some classical, but it would be neat to see more instrumental works. It would be neat to see artists who are working in Hollywood that have a very public sphere around them do a project woven into that. Artists from different countries and parts of the world that we haven’t connected with yet would be exciting. As much variety as possible and as much diversity as possible over the whole Bible would be a goal but how that plays out I don't know.
"Collected Thoughts," Ecclesiastes 1:8–13, a film by Chris Knight
RG: There are a lot of directions you can go and a lot of dreaming that can happen with this project!
JR: Yes. I was trying to pitch a martial arts instructor, some sort of work related to that, but I wasn't speaking the language properly. Maybe a routine or a sequence or something but that's obviously not quite right. It'll be interesting how it plays out.
RG: The scope of the project and everything about it is incredibly interesting and I'm going to have to take a lot of time to look through each one of the art projects created so far.
JR: Thank you for the enthusiasm about it, we feel the same way! I hope other people will take time to explore. We're pretty smitten with the works and the artists. We're still growing, and if people have ideas or would like to get involved, we are a small team and there are ways to jump in. Don't be intimidated. We have a lot of people who reach out and feel like because it's such a big project that it must be a massive team and they don’t really know how to jump in. But there are ways, so feel free to contact us on the site or on social media. There's plenty of room to shape this going forward.
RG: Jonathon, I congratulate you on this. A lot of people have huge ideas and they stay ideas, but you actually are doing this. Kudos to you and your wife and to everyone else on the team!
JR: Thank you so much!
This conversation has been edited and condensed. All photos are courtesy of Spark+Echo Arts and the artists.