2016-04-15 / Front Page

Not necessarily in bad faith

But atheist artist aware his work may create controversy with biblical collages
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


G. Bud Swenson stands in his Kennebunk home with various works of art created over the past seven years using Holy Bibles collected at yard sales and flea markets. The works, meant to provoke a conversation on corruption in the church and the place of organized religion in modern society, will be on display at the UMVA Gallery at 515 Congress St. in Portland weekdays from May 2-26 as part of a one-man show entitled, “Commissioned by God: The Bible collaged and deconstructed.” (Duke Harrington photo) G. Bud Swenson stands in his Kennebunk home with various works of art created over the past seven years using Holy Bibles collected at yard sales and flea markets. The works, meant to provoke a conversation on corruption in the church and the place of organized religion in modern society, will be on display at the UMVA Gallery at 515 Congress St. in Portland weekdays from May 2-26 as part of a one-man show entitled, “Commissioned by God: The Bible collaged and deconstructed.” (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — As an artist, G. Bud Swenson of Kennebunk knows all too well that a work can do more than inspire a conversation. Sometimes, it can create a controversy.

That’s what happened in 2007 when Swenson began showing collages made from bits of discarded American flags. The furor raised in some quarters quickly led to national notoriety, culminating in a public forum on First Amendment rights at the Kennebunk Free Library, attended by more than 100 people.


“The Book,” paint wire and paper, 2010. One of several works by Kennebunk artist G. Bud Swenson, on display at the UMVA Gallery in Portland from May 2-26. (Courtesy photo) “The Book,” paint wire and paper, 2010. One of several works by Kennebunk artist G. Bud Swenson, on display at the UMVA Gallery in Portland from May 2-26. (Courtesy photo) Some stood in support of Swenson’s right to use the flag in art, noting that its imagery appears on everything from bumper stickers to bikini briefs. But others said using actual bits of Old Glory went too far, showing disrespect for both the flag and the country it represents.

In an April 6 interview in his Kennebunk studio, Swenson said the flag fracas had been an inadvertent introduction to the power of imagery to incite.

“Of course, all art is political, but I really hadn’t intended to make a statement with that show,” he said. “It ended up being an anti-war show about the invasion of Iraq, but at first I really just kind of thought the flag was an interesting medium to work with.”


“Bales of Babble,” Bibles and strapping, 2016. One of several works by Kennebunk artist G. Bud Swenson, on display at the UMVA Gallery in Portland from May 2-26. (Courtesy photo) “Bales of Babble,” Bibles and strapping, 2016. One of several works by Kennebunk artist G. Bud Swenson, on display at the UMVA Gallery in Portland from May 2-26. (Courtesy photo) But this time around, braced by his previous experience, Swenson is ready for controversy. That’s because this time, he’s using the Holy Bible.

On May 2, Swenson will stage a month-long oneman show at the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery, located on Congress Street in Portland. The show, titled “Commissioned by God: The Bible collaged and deconstructed,” features hundreds of Bibles collected by Swenson over the past seven years from yard sales and flea markets in the area, and repurposed into works of art.

Some works use entire Bibles, painted in lavish colors, or stacked in piles, but almost always bound shut. In some cases, while the words of the Bible are sealed away, other words remain for the viewer to see, in the form of news articles about abuses of the church, folded and tucked under the bailing wire.

“We are all victims of the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind – the mythology of the deity, watching over this glorious, muddled cosmology,” Swenson says. “Free thinkers need to come out of the closet.”

But Swenson admits it took a long time for him to come out of the closet, and to feel fully comfortable in his atheist skin. That’s because he was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist family in Connecticut, and first attended a Christian college.

“Even though I have rejected it, this religion will always be a part of me,” he said, noting that it was only when his godmother passed away that he finally came out fully as an atheist. But even now, he says, he tries not to broach the topic with relatives, many of whom remain active in the church. And he does not mean to poke anyone in the eye with his artistic commentary, only to prompt a thoughtful discussion.

“These works are not an attack on Christians, per se,” he says. “They’re more about the corruption, greed, abuse and cover-up by an authoritarian, patriarchal society.”

Still, the show has not been undertaken without a fair amount of anxiety. Swenson says the use of Bibles as art is not a cathartic journey. He found his own way long ago, back when he migrated to Aroostook County in 1973 as part of the back-to-earth movement. Eventually relocated to the Kennebunks a decade later, Swenson naturally brought his life in tow.

It was seven years ago, he says, when he was cleaning off a bookshelf, that he came across his own confirmation Bible.

“I thought, well, what am I going to do with this?” he recalled.

Instead of throwing it out, Swenson tore out the pages and rearranged them in a series of 20 collages he called “Commissioned by God.” From other Bibles he found, Swenson tore additional pages and arranged them on wood panels with certain passages blacked out at random.

That, Swenson knows, might offend some.

“When I first started to collage my Bible, I did not hesitate or fear the wrath of God,” he said. “What I feared was the wrath of my fellow man. But there is nothing sacred about ink and paper. I found the Bible difficult to read and it made more sense to me to put the pages inside a frame up on a wall. Visually, that was more stimulating and though-provoking.”

Swenson says those viewing his work should not try and draw any meaning out of what pages are used, or which words are blacked out. “None of that is any part of the composition,” he says. “The words themselves have no meaning. The idea that I would take my Bible and cut it up was statement enough. I did not need to do anything beyond that with the words, or to make them into things that might be purposely offensive.

“I guess if you’re an atheist, people think you’re demonic, and they expect you to do a picture of the devil, or some brutality, but atheists are some of the most peaceful people I know,” Swenson said. “But, even so, I did not enter into this project with a cavalier attitude. There was a great deal of anxiety and introspection. There were a few mini-breakdowns. I mean, it is not exactly politically correct, in fact can be quite dangerous to appear to be attacking someone’s religion.

“But this is not so much about anyone else’s religion. It’s a reaction to how I was raised,” Swenson said. “But I have changed. I had doubts when I was as young as 13 maybe, but you don’t just say, I don’t believe in this, and leave. It’s a long slow process.

“And while I am a free thinker, I’m not sure I believe in free will. After doing the first piece with my own Bible, you might almost say I was called by God to complete the rest, to try and communicate my thoughts through my art,” Swenson said. “I’ve never really had a choice about being an artist.”

So, now, having reached a point, hundreds of Bibles later, where he feels his message is complete, that he’s said what he has to say on the topic of how people are, in many ways, bound by the church, Swenson is ready to let his work create a dialogue. Putting it out there, he knows, can have blowback. Some, thinking his artistic message comes from a place of hate, may hate him right back, or even attack him. But all he wants, Swenson said, is for people to appreciate the part of himself that went into the work, and to maybe take away something to mull on themselves.

“What I hope is that other free thinkers will come out of the closet, so to speak,” Swenson said. “In that way, art has the possibility to change the world.”

See the show

What: “Commissioned by God: The Bible collaged and deconstructed” is a one-man show featuring art created by G. Bud Swenson of Kennebunk, using hundreds of Holy Bibles.

Where: The work is available for free public viewing weekdays from May 2-26 at the UMVA (Union of Maine Visual Artists) Gallery, located in the Community Television Network building at 516 Congress St. in Portland.

Also: A “First Friday” opening reception will be held from 5-8 p.m. on May 6.

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