Interview with Barry Moser. Part 1

Barry Moser is as gifted as they come. His woodcut engravings and illustrations are provocative, dark, powerful and engrossing. He has created illustrations for many books including The Bible, my favorite of his work. Barry chooses to create works that are honest and real, not sugar coated white, pretty Jesus’ or the white-washed parables of usual Sunday school propaganda. His works are real, showing the darkness of humanity and sin alongside the light of things. He shows a mastery of his medium and communicates loudly with small scrapes and gouges of his blade. I have sat transfixed over his images that truly are worth a thousand words, with Moser maybe more.

I had a chance to interview Barry and his insights into art, faith, and the human condition are just as eye opening and provocative as his art work.


Jake : Much of your work is “spiritual” in nature, the obvious being the illustrated bible, and the less obvious being illustration for novels (though they are often spiritual as well, Flannery O’connor etc.). Why are you drawn to creating art in this context?


Barry: “Spiritual” is one of those words that has been used so much it has ceased to have any meaning for me. I think the same about the word ‘Creative.” I rather associate “spiritual” with women who take out personal ads in local tabloids (WW, 61, cute, vivacious, spiritual, seeking WM, spiritual, doesn’t smoke, likes dancing and the outdoors, 25 to 40). I mean what does that mean, really. Regardless, I understand your question and will try my best to answer it.

First, a bit of history:

My earliest encounters with religion came as a child. The experiences were divided between my grand mother’s Methodist church, and my aunt’s Christian Science church, both in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the 1940s. But even so, I went o church rarely. When I was made to go to Sunday school it was, for me, a torture. By the time I was a teenager and my testosterone levels went up I yearned for female companionship, which was mighty scarce at the military school I attended from 1952 till 1958. About the only place a horny kid at my school could meet girls was at church (especially delicious were those Saturday night hayrides). So I started going to MYF meetings (Methodist Youth Fellowship) on Sunday nights. Sunday mornings I was usually found on Lake Chickamauga fishing with my dad and brother. During the summer I often went to revival meetings, lured there primarily by girls in cotton dresses with low bodices. And, of course, I got saved. More than once. But one time in 1959, then a freshman in college, I got really good and saved and subsequently became a Licensed Methodist preacher, a title conferred on my in 1960 by the Holston Conference. To obtain said License I had to read a few books and the Bible. Well, I read those books and I read the King James Bible a few times, skipping the genealogies only in my third read. All of this led me to a deep interest in religion in general and Christianity in particular. As a preacher I was a fundamentalist and inerrantist of the worst sort. It lasted three years. What brought me away from the “church” and from Christianity, as such, was born in two events.

The first was in the church where I had my first appointment. I was youth director and a young girl turned up pregnant. The church quite literally turned its back on that kid. The only place she was welcome was in my Sunday School class, after which she and her boyfriend went home.

The second was that I could go to church with my daddy’s chef, Big John, at the Chattanooga Golf & Country Club where my dad was the manager. I was welcomed at John’s Baptist Church and was invited to give the morning prayer the one time I went with him. This was around 1962 when the Civil Rights movement was just getting geared up. The long and short of this story is that I could not have taken John to Church with me. Not only would he not have been welcome, he would have stood a damned good chance of being lynched in the front yard of the church by those same hypocrites who turned their pious backs on that young woman.

That hypocrisy, hate, and meanness just did not jibe with my reading of the Gospel. Still doesn’t, obviously. And it was that hypocrisy, hate, and meanness that turned me away from the ministry, the church, and its congregation, never to return. By a slow attrition over the years I have become a deeply religious agnostic. Agnostic in the pure sense of the meaning of the word: “I don’t know.”

I have no trust of Fundamentalism of any sort. Not Judaic, Muslim, or Christian. As I see it, Fundamentalism fosters the myopic evil of thinking that one’s self and one’s clan is uniquely special, vis a vis God Almighty, to the expense and exclusion of all others. And most of these folks seem to me to be mean people, except with their own kind.

By the same token, I think atheists are equally arrogant in their “beliefs.” The only thing is, atheists, by and large, seem to be nicer people. I am not aware of any wars or ethnic cleansing being initiated by atheists.

What both groups share in common is CERTAINTY. To me doubt and faith are twin sisters–or brothers, whichever metaphor you prefer. If I were to belong to either group it would be the doubters. But to doubt, it seems to me, is to also believe, since it is belief and certitude that is doubted. Me? I just don’t know. I will never know and that’s fine by me. Flannery O’Connor said that any God she could understand is a God that’s too small. Acquinas said that anything he could think of as God could not be God simply because he thought of it. God, the Creator of the universe (something that I think may have been “created” as we understand creating something) is far too vast, too far beyond the puny limits of the human imagination, to have been made by anything with a hoary head and a penis. To me it’s infantile and ridiculous to think in those terms.

And, it seems to me, that Whatever created all that universe must, by definition, be both omniscient and omnipresent, and if that is so, then Whatever that is must know my heart and mind. My every thought. My every deed. With that I am perfectly comfortable, and will look death in the eye regretting only the leaving of my family, my work and my dogs. I have no fear of Hell, nor any wish for Heaven—at least not as Dante or John Bunyan imagined it.

All of this, over the past fifty-odd years has settled in and I have become, as I said earlier, a deeply religious, crusty, old agnostic. I do not attend nor belong to any church, nor would I. (Well, there’s a little Episcopal chapel outside Jackson Mississippi which I feel is as Holy a place I’ve ever been in that I might try to join if the 1500 mile commute weren’t such a hindrance.) I have been guest speaker in a number of churches where I have felt perfectly at home, especially in Mississippi, as odd as that might seem. I just don’t want to belong. I don’t want to belong to the Elks either. Or any other group, except perhaps the Authors’ Guild and the ACLU. However, I am still, to this very day, deeply interested in religion. I have perhaps a thousand books on religion and the Bible in my library. I read theology every now and again. I subscribe to “Bible Review” and “Biblical Archaeology Review.” Every summer teach drawing at a retreat in the Santa Fe hills sponsored by America’s leading journal of arts and religion, IMAGE: A JOURNAL OF ART, FAITH, AND MYSTERY. I am very comfortable with these non-proselytizing people of faith and I look forward to the lectures and readings that are given by the poets, writers, playwrights and artists, many of whom are held in the very highest esteem in their fields: John Updike, Ron Hansen, Philip Levine, Robert Olen Butler, Chaim Potok, Jimmy Carter, Richard Wilbur, Elie Weisel, and the like come to mind.

And I still read the Bible. It’s a great read and is, as George Steiner has said, the greatest monument there is of the English language. It has a marvelous history, especially to someone like me who is interested in the printed book. As a friend of mine said, “The history of printing can be tread on the spines of Bibles.”

As an artist, if I may be so arrogant as to call myself that, I am not interested in anything “lite”– as so much of the feculence we call art is these days. I want to sink my teeth into material that is difficult. That makes me loose sleep. That invades my dreams. I think that artists who make nothing more than things that shock and offend are intellectual midgets. And I think that the critics and mavens who praise and celebrate such shit are cerebral and analytical dwarves who are always nostalgic for something new and who fear anything with a hint of the past in it (as Hart Crane said). One of the things they all have in common is a disdain of anything religious. Personally, I think that is a position of cowardice, ignorance, and fear.

Obviously, my history has had an impact on me, my thinking, and my image making. I am drawn to the mysterious. I am drawn to craftsmanship. And I try to make my work to stand a chance of lasting beyond next week, next month and next year. Like O’Connor said, God and Posterity are only served by well-made objects.” Amen.

Jake: Do you sometimes feel that that process of the image coming to life is a sort of revelation? God or nature or a force unveiling something before you? Is your art wholly from you or are you uncovering something that comes from somewhere else? Why create?

Barry:  As I said earlier—quoting David Smith—I have a need to make things. It’s as simple as that, really. As a kid it was lanyards and models. Model ships. Model cars. And especially model airplanes—the old balsa wood kind covered with tissue paper and flown by twisted rubber bands, or ones I made from scratch out of the wooden strawberry cartons the berries used to come in. I also tried to make furniture but was awfully clumsy with mitered joints.

I was not a good student, as I have already confessed. In fact I was very much a below average student. My successes, few as they were in grade school, involved drawing or painting. In high school (or military school I should say because it makes an important distinction)) my drawing was no longer an asset. In fact I was disciplined any number of times for drawing pictures in class or study hall—usually drawings of naked women with very spherical breasts and pointy nipples. Despite the punishments, I continued to draw surreptitiously. In the tenth grade I found that my drawing skills were beneficial in my biology class because we had to keep a notebook with diagrams of dissections and such. My biology teacher, Jack Stanford, told me not long ago that he still has that notebook. That was one of only two circumstances in my six years of military school that those drawing skills were an asset, the other being drawing maps in my eighth grade geography class. So making things got to be a kind of habit with me as a kid because it was the thing I did best. And that habit has never left me and I trust it never will.

And the work is revelatory, though for me I find that more of a pragmatic issue than an issue of the mysterious. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I write in order to find out what I think,” or words to that effect. Same with me. I draw and engrave in order to find out what some thing, person, or place looks like, or to discover what unsuspected, unimagined connections between characters I can make. I am interested in connections between places and objects and animals too, but primarily between characters. And most of the time the revelations are just that: pragmatic results of deliberate, conscious visual inquiry.

However, there are times when the products of my imagination and of my seeking connections seem to have come out of a very deep well of which I am not really conscious. This is not a common circumstance, but neither is it especially rare. It is always a surprise.

Then there are times when my work seems to take on a life of its own and I—my mind, hands, and eyes— am simply acting as a conduit. This is not a terribly rare situation either, and it too is always a surprise.

And then there are times that the object I am making—a painting, a drawing, an engraving or a woodcut—seems to take on an aspect that goes beyond the drawing, the composition, and the materials. That’s a truly transcendent moment. This phenomenon, however, is very rare, and it is in that rare moment (to quote Rilke) that the work, as far as I am concerned, emerges as art. To say that it is a surprise would be an understatement.

It is in these three arenas of my work where I have to admit—must admit—that I do not know where it comes from. Oh, yes, I can cop the attitude (as I often do) that art comes from work (or “at the piano,” as Stravinsky said), and can back that up with copious quotations of my betters who have said it themselves (O’Connor being one of them). And I can say (with E. H. Gombrich) that art comes from art. Or (with John Ruskin) that art comes from nature. And I could perhaps go on, but the fact remains, for me at least, that the deep and unknown well, the conduit that my hands and eyes and mind become, and those rare transcendent moments are matters of Mystery.

When I was in the eighth grade at the military school (The Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee) I was part of the Junior Glee Club. For a while at least, until the coach, during a rehearsal for the Christmas concert stopped us mid way though “O, Holy Night,” stopped us. She remained quiet for a moment, then said, “Moser. Son, you just move your mouth. Don’t make any sounds.” I was crushed. I thought my young treble voice was sounding wonderful, but apparently not. I have never sung since. At least not with my voice. I have, however been singing for a long time with the voice that is my work. And the song that I sing is to my Self and to that Mystery. And nowhere have I ever sung so loud, or so long—or with so much doubt—as when I was working on the illustrations for the King James Bible.

There’s an old French proverb that tells us that “We never go so far as when we don’t know where we are going.”  I certainly found that to be true when I was working on my edition of the King James Bible. I was never sure where I was going or what I was doing. Nor am I sure where I’ve been. Or what I’ve done.

An abiding truth about being a writer or an artist is that if you’re really doing your work—trying to do it as well as it can be done—you can never be certain about it. You can never be certain because you are always aware of your shortcomings. Aware of your failures. Aware of what the work could be, if only you were better at it. Aware that your ideas are only your puny ideas—and this immediately casts a long and dark shadow against the possibility of there being any eternal verity in the work.

Yet it is veracity that we are after in our work—as elusive, transmogrifying, and undefinable a quarry as that is.

The idea of interpreting the Bible, of preaching the Word, was not a comfortable place for me and I didn’t want to go there. Didn’t want to go there because since my preaching days in college (have I told you that I was a licensed Methodist Preacher back in the 60s?) and that time of dissidence and dissolution, I have not been much moved by the words of priests, pastors, radio preachers, or televangelists. I am not moved by dogmatic sermons, knee-jerk sanctimony, or contrived catechisms. Not moved by the teachings of men who divine God’s will and “know” it in such a way that they can call themselves His chosen—and, of course, to the exclusion of others. I am not moved by the homilies of men who claim to understand “the word of God” and then interpret it to suit their own purposes and agendas.

I am, however, profoundly moved by the sometimes small and sometimes grand religious predilections of ordinary men and women who have raised their flawed and uncertain voices to God. Raised them in the form of painting, and architecture, and sculpture, and poetry, and prints, and reliquaries, and sorts of other things, perhaps most of all in music. Lifting their voices in praise of that something-beyond-themselves which, whether they hold to any religious principles or not, breathes life into their very nostrils. Life into their stone and concrete. Life into their music and their voices. Life into their paint and clay. And, pray God, breathes life into engraved illustrations, especially for new Bibles.

Check out more of Barry’s work here, and here. 


Stay tuned for more of the interview.

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