Story

40

’40’ is a CD-Rom comic strip meditation on Christ in the wilderness – a unique worship and meditation resource produced by ‘revive’ church in Leeds. We caught up with illustrator Si Smith to chat about the CD-Rom, inspiration and to ponder on what Jesus really did do with all that time.

so… ’40’. it’s fantastic. tell us how it came about, where the idea started…

it’s an idea that i borrowed/nicked from the artist stanley spencer. he once embarked on a project to paint 40 images of christ in the wilderness – one for each day of Lent – but he never completed it. i love the images from that series that he did finish, and had always thought that it was a neat concept…

then a couple of years back, our church [revive, up here in leeds] were planning a new forms service for greenbelt. the service was based on a book called ‘hymn of the universe’, which is about this priest who finds himself out in the wilderness, and the revelation that he experiences there. we had songs on the same theme to showcase, but not much visually, and the spencer idea seemed to fit very nicely. i just started experimenting with some images, and ’40’ grew from there really…


cool. i love the way jesus in ’40’ doesn’t just spend his time praying. he runs and jumps, wonders at nature, even plays skittles. and he gets really tired and worn out towards the end of the 40 days. he’s a very human saviour – very different to most portrayals of christ in a comic-strip format which often present him one step away from being a superhero…

absolutely!

i think that i grew up in the church with exactly that sort of superhero, otherwordly, kind of distant image of christ. i’m not sure if that was what my church was teaching me, or – more likely – if it’s what i somehow felt i was supposed to believe. it’s only in the last few years that i’ve begun to get to grips with a much more incarnational idea of jesus.

david dark’s ‘everyday apocalypse’ is a very important book for me, and in there he talks about holiness as a state of ‘super-aliveness’. so i was thinking about that a lot when i was drawing the images for ’40’.

also, a russell t davies/christopher eccleston tv drama called ‘the second coming’ was quite a big influence – a weird one, because it was a very provocatively humanist piece, but the messiah figure in it was brilliantly written and acted, and it asked loads of interesting and insightful questions about what it actually means for god to take human form.

so, anyway, jesus in ’40’ is a bloke, and he does the sort of things that blokes do when they’re faced with time to kill. lobbing stones and chasing birds and stuff.

and the biblical text that relates the story of christ in the wilderness is pretty short. it leaves the reader plenty of room to imagine and wonder about what actually went on there [at least up until the devil shows up…!]

i found all that really liberating and exciting – being able to explore that idea of jesus as a very human being…


i was going to ask if you’d been influenced by any other portrayals of christ. an obvious one that sprung to mind was jim crace’s ‘quarantine’ – his retelling of christ in the wilderness…
are there any artists or illustrators who you feel have been able to portray christ in a very human way?

…well the jim crace book is a new one to me, but obviously i’m now gonna have to go get meself a copy…;-)

meanwhile, sorry to bang on about him, but stanley spencer was a genius. his jesus paintings are brilliant. [if you ever get the chance to go see his stuff in the little museum/gallery in cookham, or his memorial chapel in burghclere, you should definitely go…]

i like artists who find all sorts of personal allegories and resonances in biblical texts… albert herbert and anthony green do that brilliantly. they have a very intimate and personal take on biblical themes, and i love that.

mark cazalet is another artist who i really like…

also, cms produced a great resource called ‘the christ we share’, which contains images of christ from a whole load of different cultures and traditions. there’s some fantastic, challenging art in there…


much of the imagery we see in church is very safe and bland – pastoral scenes, rainbows, doves and not least a westernised (sometimes even blonde!) christ. do you see art as having a role to play in challenging the church to reimagine christ in their culture?

the simple answer is ‘yeah!’

in ‘everyday apocalypse’, david dark talks about the difference between art and propaganda. imho too much of what passes for art in church is the latter [and to be fair, i’ve produced my share of it!]…

i think that good art is intrinsically subversive. it’s democratic, unpredictable and kind of uncontrollable, it should open things up, be revelatory, take you places, challenge your perception of things, startle you, get you thinking and wondering, engage your emotions, unsettle you. [and these are all the things that christ did…]

good art makes room for the spirit to blow.

[dark also asks the question of ‘what is christian art?’ and suggests that maybe all good art is essentially christ-ian, because good art challenges the status quo and refuses to allow you to settle for what the world would have you accept. i’ve paraphrased him really badly there – go read the book!]

so much of my church experience has been about controlling the message, nailing it down, finding the ‘true’ interpretation of the text, closing out the argument. art bypasses that and hits you on a much more instinctive level, i think.

but then, having said all that, when i was drawing ’40’, i wasn’t really thinking deeply thoughts about Art… i was just drawing and wondering and being happily absorbed in creating stuff for a service. enjoying meself, really…!


and i think that enjoyment really shines through in ’40’. it’s full of life. have you had any feedback from people who’ve used it in their worship?

to be honest, we’ve been a bit taken aback by the response to ’40’, because i didn’t put it together thinking that it would have a life outside of that single greenbelt service…

within revive people obviously really liked it, and i was very pleased with the way it came out. after greenbelt it got used again in a worship session at a conference, and our good mates from the ‘mayBe’ community in oxford asked if they could post it up on their website throughout lent last year. that’s when interest in it really took off…

what’s been interesting for me is that people have seen stuff in it that i never realised was there, or certainly hadn’t put in there intentionally. i like the way that people have their own favourite images in the sequence, different things that resonate with them…

that’s all very pleasing – it goes back to what i said earlier about art leaving room for the spirit to blow, i think…

people have told us that it’s made them laugh and cry…

so far the feedback has been incredibly positive and encouraging [and none of it has been negative – yet…!]”


so do you have any plans for something similar in the future?

loads of plans and half-formed ideas… the problem is finding the time and the space to actually work on them…

when i was working on ’40’ i’d had a really lean period work-wise [i freelance as an illustrator] so i was coming out of my own sort of wilderness-time in a way, and i’d had a lot of spare time to think and dream and draw, and i can see that reflected in the finished piece…

one thing that i would love to do is a comic-book gospel, getting a load of different cartoonists and comic-book artists to contribute their own retellings of an episode in the life of jesus. that’s an ongoing dream…!

revive has a monthly creative service, and there’s always the possibility of something developing out of that… maybe something created for greenbelt again… otherwise, who knows! watch this space….!


’40’ is available by sending a cheque for £5.50 inc. UK postage & packing to:
Revive Office, 17 Vinery Road, Burley, Leeds, LS4 2LB
Make cheques payable to ‘revive baptist church’.
For delivery to non-UK addresses please email si at: si@simonsmithillustrator.co.uk