A Bittersweet Farewell to an Exhibit that Touched Our Souls

On Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, museum staffers will begin tearing down Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible and Contemplative Landscape. Housed together in the museum’s second-floor Herzstein Gallery, the exhibits speak not only of art, of the history of the printed word, and of the role that spirituality plays in our state, but they also speak to a place uniquely special within each of us.

A hallmark of the exhibit has been a golden-hued meditation space nestled within its center. As we headed into the Christmas holiday, we decided to hold a small ceremony in that space to honor the exhibit with our thoughts about what it meant to us and how we saw it change others.

Tom Leech, who curated The Saint John’s Bible portion in concert with Saint John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., kicked it off.

“We pulled off something great, something above and beyond what we were expecting,” he said. “Fran (Levine, the museum’s director) keeps talking about teamwork, but this proves that it really happens. At times it felt like pulling teeth, but we sailed through a lot of heavy stuff.”

Here’s the thing: Several years ago, Tom fell in love with the Saint John’s project — the first calligraphed and illuminated Bible commissioned by Benedictine monks in something like 500 years. Donald Jackson (at left), Queen Elizabeth’s calligrapher, conceived the project while on an artists’ retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, then oversaw it from his scriptorium in Wales. The Ghost Ranch piece that kicked off years of fund-raising, hand-writing, and the final “Amen” last year, was displayed for the first time in our museum’s version of the exhibit, which has appeared in other cities.

Pairing our 44 pages with photographs of sacred places — from Tony O’Brien’s work at Christ in the Desert Monastery, historical images from the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, and interpretations by contemporary shooters — initially sounded like an odd shoe-horning. But in meeting upon meeting, we brought our ideas out, sanded here, excised there, and together built an exhibit so eloquent that Saint John’s Abbey extended its run in Santa Fe and is borrowing elements of it for future exhibits in other cities.

“I’ve had so many people say, `Whose idea was this to bring these exhibits together?'” Fran said. “And I say, `Our team.’ It was an iterative process. It was building this — this meditation room (I really hate to see this go). It comes from that respect we have for each other as museum people. I suppose we could get to the place where we say, `No, the walls have to be white and you can never put a nail in the floor,’ but that’s not what we do.”

“It’s a community and it’s how it is molded by us together,” said Caroline Lajoie, the exhibition designer. “We catch ideas from one time or another, and we all came to a place where it makes sense. My daughter, who was in my belly when I was designing exhibits years ago, she is a fanatic of this. It’s her completely favorite exhibit. She cares very little for the work I’ve done, but she goes straight to the pages whenever she’s here.”

Even the meditation space was an idea in need of evolution. Originally, we dreamed of building a labyrinth in the space and inviting visitors to walk it slowly. As the design for it became complicated with questions that included how more than one person could walk it at a time without bumping shoulders, we decided to create a simple spiral — and even researched some lovely information about the way spirals appear in all of nature. Finally, we stripped it down to bare essentials: curved walls, four benches, and phases of the moon on high.

Surrounding the meditation space are the cases holding the Bible pages and surrounding them are the photographs. Outside the exhibition, in the museum’s Gathering Space, we grouped couches around a television showing documentaries about The Saint John’s Bible and Christ in the Desert Monastery. On occasional weekends, local calligraphers demonstrated their work in the space. A robust programming schedule included lectures by artists and photographers and several performances by Schola Cantorum and the monks of Christ in the Desert Monastery.

Larry Luck, one of our volunteer guides, became an expert on the project and has thus far conducted more than 60 tours of the exhibit. (He still has two to go.)

“I saw this exhibition in Phoenix several years ago,” he said. “It wasn’t as attractively presented and was kind of crowded. Here, when you’re looking at a page, your eyes go down, but the photographs make your eyes go up. What was interesting was the number of people who were repeat visitors and who would bring friends and then their friends would bring friends. I was so pleased when it was extended because that meant I could still use all the knowledge I’d gained.”

Those repeat customers were apparent to Mary Anne Redding, the museum’s former photo archivist who curated Contemplative Landscape. Now the director of the photography department at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, she’s overheard students outside of her program talk about visiting the exhibit every week mainly to take advantage of the meditation space. At the space’s core is a slowly burbling fountain rising out of a glorious piece of granite that we weren’t quite sure what to do with after Dec. 31.

“I’m going to buy the fountain,” she said. “I have the place for it in my house, and it will keep the exhibit with me at home.”

Tony attended our gathering and was visibly moved at how visibly moved we were. His photographs, which included this favorite image of a monk at prayer, are included in his book, Light in the Desert: Photographs from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert (Museum of New Mexico Press).

“As one of the artists involved, I want to thank you all,” he said. “I feel honored to be part of this exhibition. You’ve created a space that respected our work beyond words, and you’ve created a safe space. Every time I walk in here, things change. It all calms down. It’s inclusive of our community, our religions.  When you’re in here, you’re allowed to be alone but you’re also part of a larger community. That is exceptional.”

One of the reasons we wanted to bring people together for this little gratitude ceremony was because of the wound we suffered as a nation last week from the shootings in Newtown, Conn. As we prepared to end the gathering and open the exhibition space to our visitors, we mutually and quietly agreed to a moment of silent prayer and reflection. It lasted longer than such moments usually do. We are, after all, so bruised and confused. But we were also, as participants in the exhibit, reluctant to say that this is it, this is the end, now we are leaving.

You have one more week. Please take advantage of these exhibits. Stand in awe, scrutinize the details, listen to the silence. They are our gifts to you.



Good News: “The Saint John’s Bible” Earns an Extended Engagement

As the monks of Saint John’s Abbey might themselves say: Hallelujah!

The popularity of Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible, combined with the delighted approval of the exhibition’s design from the monks of Saint John’s University, has led to an extension of the show’s run. Previously set to close on April 7, The Saint John’s Bible will now be on exhibit in the History Museum’s Herzstein Gallery until December 30, 2012.

“The installation of the folios in the New Mexico History Museum presents The Saint John’s Bible in one of the most beautiful and faith-filled exhibitions of this Bible done to date,” said Tim Ternes, director of The Saint John’s Bible. “The contemplative environment artfully shares the story, work and process of this monumental project in a setting that compels the guest to slow down, relax and reflect.

“Saint John’s is very pleased to be able to extend this exhibition in the Santa Fe area, a place where art, faith and culture have been harmoniously blended for centuries.”

Commissioned by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., The Saint John’s Bible represents a remarkable achievement in the book arts. In 2000, Donald Jackson, senior scribe to Queen Elizabeth, and a crew of artists and calligraphers began the first of the Bible’s 1,150 vellum pages—from Genesis to Revelation. Last May, the project achieved completion when Jackson wrote the word “Amen” on the final page of the Book of Revelation. All of the pages will eventually be bound into seven volumes for use and exhibition at Saint John’s Abbey, but in the meantime, 44 pages from two of its Old Testament volumes–Prophets and Wisdom Books–are on exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum.

More than 26,600 people have come to the museum to see the Bible and take part in the activities and lectures that accompany it.

“Faith is part of the history of New Mexico, one that you can see in ancient petroglyphs, mission churches, Jewish temples, the Sikh community and more,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the History Museum. “Besides being part of the state’s history, faith is part of the history of the book, and this exhibit takes the book back to its medieval origins, when the Bible was `the first book.’ In Saint John’s, that first book meets modern technology, contemporary artists, and interpretations that blend modern-day events with centuries-old scripture.”

Tom Leech directs the Palace Press, a working exhibit that celebrates the book arts. He helped bring this contemporary masterpiece to Santa Fe to help visitors experience how profoundly beautiful and moving an illuminated manuscript can be.

The Saint John’s Bible is installed in a way that gives people a quiet, secular space to unplug and de-stress. The work speaks to us in many different ways,” Leech said. “We’ve even included a sort of meditation space in the center of the gallery where visitors can let what they’ve seen sink in.”

Also on exhibit in the gallery is Contemplative Landscape, featuring the work of photographers both past and present who have interpreted the ways that people of many faiths have found a home in New Mexico. (Find out more about Contemplative Landscape by clicking here.)

Accompanying the exhibits are lectures, performances and hands-on calligraphy workshops. We’ll be adding a few events with the extended run of The Saint John’s Bible, including talks by Tim Ternes. As soon as details are firmed up, we’ll let you know. All events are free and in the History Museum Auditorium, unless otherwise noted. The remaining schedule:

Saturday, February 25, 10 am-4 pm, NMHM Classroom: “Oh My Gouache,” calligraphy workshop by Diane von Arx, special treatment artist for The Saint John’s Bible. This event is sold out.

Sunday, February 26, 2 pm: “Special Treatment Illuminations for The Saint John’s Bible,” lecture by Diane von Arx.

Sunday, March 11, 2 pm: Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe and the monks of Christ in the Desert Monastery perform in the History Museum Lobby.

Sunday, March 25, 2 pm: “Endangered Texts: Preserving Ancient Books the Benedictine Way in the 21st Century,” lecture by Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Minnesota.

Sunday, April 29, 2 pm: Contemplative Landscape photographers panel discussion; Kirk Gittings, Ed Ranney, Janet Russek, Sharon Stewart and Don Usner.

Friday, June 1, 6 pm: “Fragile Faith,” lecture by Contemplative Landscape photographer David Robin.

Friday, June 8, 6 pm: “Landscape and Memory,” lecture by artist and calligrapher Laurie Doctor.

Saturday and Sunday, June 9 & 10, 10 am-4 pm, NMHM Classroom: “Landscape and Lettering: Before the Separation of Drawing and Writing,” calligraphy workshop with Laurie Doctor. Cost is $200. Limited seating; call (505) 476-5096 to register.

Friday, July 13, 6 pm: “Poetry & Photographs,” discussion and poetry reading with Contemplative Landscape photographer Teresa Neptune and poet Miriam Sagan.

Sunday, October 14, 2 pm: “Ritualized Naming of the Landscape through Photography,” lecture by John Carter, photography curator at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Sunday, November 4, 2 pm: Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead Trappist, poetry reading by Lisa Gill; and Compassion Rising, a film about Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama.

Sunday, December 2, 2 pm: Sacred choral music by Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe and the monks of Christ in the Desert Monastery.

Preserving the Lost Art of Fine Handwriting

In the days before the weight of our words fell to the skill of our thumbs, people did crazy things. Some of them took goose quills, cut off the feathers, and fashioned the points into nibs. Some mixed powdered pigments with water; others purchased teeny bottles of ink. All dipped some sort of pen into some kind of ink, placed the points of said pens to paper (often calfskin vellum), and then wrote messages to one another. Messages with meanings greater than LOL or OMG.

They called it calligraphy, and it’s an art celebrated in our new exhibition Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible. It’s also celebrated in our second-floor Gathering Space, where each weekend through the show’s closing on April 7, 2012, Albuquerque and Santa Fe practitioners of this dying art are demonstrating their skill at it.

(Those are the hands of Catherine Hogan above, and she’s writing my name far prettier than I ever could on something I”ll use to mark my place in another lost craft that some of us still love: books.)

The calligraphers and bookbinders adding to the exhibition belong to Escribiente, Albuquerque’s calligraphy guild, and the Santa Fe Book Arts Group. They plan to be available from 10 am to noon and 1-3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays through April 7, though winter weather may occasionally interrupt those plans. Keep an eye open during the week, too: Calligraphers sometimes show up and set up shop for the love of it.

Take today (i.e., Thursday, Nov. 10). Three members of Escribiente–Catherine Hogan, Beth House, and Rick House–drove up from Albuquerque and worked away on a variety of crafts.

Rick, for example, was practicing his newfound skill of turning feathers into quills.

Beth was calligraphing a piece of writing by Henry David Thoreau–an ode of sorts to the benefits of forest fires.

(On April 30, 1844, shortly before retreating into isolation at Walden Pond, Thoreau accidentally started a blaze in the Concord Woods, destroying some 300 acres. The devastation, including the narrow miss of Concord itself, so angered residents that for years afterward Thoreau could barely escape the epithet “woods burner” from his neighbors. The event, though, likely played into his budding environmental philosophy. In 1850, Thoreau’s journal noted in part: “I once set fire to the woods….It was a glorious spectacle, and I was the only one there to enjoy it.” For more on that event, click here.)

In the meantime, here’s a sample of Beth’s work:

Take special note of the letter at the top left; she illuminated it with real gold leaf:

If you can’t be here when the demonstrators plan to be, but have a group of folks who might be interested in learning more about the book arts, call ahead and we’ll work to arrange a demonstration for you. For such requests, call Tom Leech, director of the Palace Press, at 505-476-5096.

Whenever you come, bring your curiosity and your questions. Not only are the volunteers good at what they do, but they love to talk about the book arts.

Thanks, Rick Beth and Catherine (below, from left to right), for helping us bring another day of life to an art that deserves many more.

The Wisdom of Donald Jackson

Were you to spy them in a Santa Fe cafe, you might mistake Donald and Mabel Jackson for any other vacationing couple. But make no mistake: They are a power couple unlike any other power couple before them.

As a child with extraordinary artistic talents, Donald Jackson imagined writing an entire Bible in the best style of medieval monks–with careful calligraphy and inspiring illuminations. Earlier this year, he inscribed the word “Amen” onto the final page of The Saint John’s Bible, a work that has been called the Sistine Chapel of the book arts. Donald Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords, oversaw the project from the scriptorium he and Mabel created in Wales. There, a team of scribes and artists worked hand-in-hand on page upon page.

From left: Mabel Jackson, Palace Press Director Tom Leech, Donald Jackson, and assistant collections manager Pennie McBride outside the exhibition.

Forty-four of those pages are on view through April 7 at the New Mexico History Museum, and just this week, that otherwise ordinary-looking vacationing couple dropped by to see how the exhibition looks.

Good news for us: They liked it.

“It just feels really nice walking in,” Mabel said. “It just felt good.”

Donald was particularly interested in seeing how we displayed the creation that put the entire project into motion. While at a calligraphers’ retreat at Ghost Ranch in 1994, he mocked up an art piece representing how he would approach doing a handwritten Bible. He later showed it to the Benedictine monks at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and soon got their commission to tackle The Saint John’s Bible. The piece is on display at the museum for the first time in the project’s history.

“That’s come out well, hasn’t it?” he said upon seeing it near the front of our exhibit, Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible and Contemplative Landscape.

Donald Jackson will talk about The Saint John’s Bible and his life in calligraphy at 6 pm this Monday (Nov. 7) at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The lecture costs $15; a private $50 reception follows at the History Museum. Call 505-988-1234 or go to ticketssantafe.org for tickets.

We walked around the exhibit chatting with Jackson, as fitting a preview as any to what Monday evening holds in store. Here’s a taste.

On working through difficult sections of the Bible: “You grind your teeth. There was some reaction among the scribes. Some of Leviticus, for example, was quite heavy-going–very proscriptive and dark. One of the scribes, a woman, we were writing out something that was dreary and uncomfortable, and she said, `I just realized this is like the evening news. Every night there’s something horrible.’ You look at a newspaper today, you see war, atrocities, abnormalities. She realized that this was life.

On where the scribes’ focus lay: “On the one hand, you have to experience it. On the other hand, you have to spell it right, and you’ve got to arrange it. You’re not just thinking about what it’s saying a lot of the time; you’re thinking about how you’re going to manage it.”

While trying to translate a piece of his own non-calligraphed-but-most-decidedly-scrawled handwriting that’s on display in the exhibit, Jackson could barely make out the words “green slime.” On whether there’s calligraphy hope for others with similarly wretched handwriting: “I can look at somebody whose handwriting is bad and, if it’s consistently bad, I can probably knock them into shape. To be fair, if I put you in a high-powered car and you went 100 miles per hour through downtown Santa Fe, you’d crash. If you do it too fast, it isn’t going to be good.”

To be honest: “I also have a bit of resentment about writing (non-calligraphy) things by hand. There’s something there that hasn’t got the patience to write it.”

Suffering Servant, Isaiah 53, 54:1-8, by Donald Jackson, 2005. The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.

On how Ghost Ranch did or didn’t inspire The Saint John’s Bible: “It was time in the wilderness. That’s where it started. It was September, October. It was freezing. Frosty mornings and spectacular landscape. But any landscape is inspiring. Even downtown Detroit is. Flying into LA over night is. … But the truth is, it was creating the space within yourself and putting yourself into it. It’s what you bring to it as much as what it brings to you. The wilderness is frightening as well as beautiful. It’s definitely a metaphor.”

On the subversiveness of teamwork: “There were five scribes, plus me, at the scriptorium. That is a very unusual scenario. Nowadays, it’s counter-cultural, all working on one thing, all one script we’re trying to imitate. The word `artist’ in our society is synonymous with individuality. You had to be as different as you can be from the next person. … Our culture exploits that. It turns us against each other.

“To have to work together is a wonderful thing–like when you’re singing in a choir. Six people sitting in a room, all writing out sacred text. There is a noise to it, the sound of quills on vellum, the sound of occasional irritation–a mistake’s been made. Then you hear scratches of a knife raising up a comma in the wrong place. One of the most powerful things in that silence with six people is that there is a great depth of silence. It’s more silent than when you’re on your own. There’s power in that.”

On being human: “There will be mistakes in (The Saint John’s Bible). It’s not going to be perfect.”

Spinning Some Gold for “The Saint John’s Bible” Exhibition

On Oct. 23, when we open the two exhibitions Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible and Contemplative Landscape, visitors will be treated to world-class examples of calligraphy and illumination, on a par with the most cherished works of the medieval era. Workers are busily preparing the space in our second-floor Albert and Ethel Herzstein Gallery, where craftsman Tom Hyland spent the day adding a glittering touch to the title wall–the first thing visitors to the exhibition will see.

Because The Saint John’s Bible features the first entirely handwritten and illuminated Bible to be commissioned by Benedictine monks in 500 years, “We thought it would be morally correct to have the letters hand-lettered,” Hyland said.

Using the logo script created by Diane von Arx, one of the calligraphers on the project, Natalie Baca, our graphics designer, developed a computer-generated stencil, called a frisket, which Hyland applied to the wall, then filled in with a metallic gold paint.

If you’ve walked around Santa Fe, you’ve already seen Hyland’s work. He hand-painted the signs for the Cowboys and Indians shop on the Plaza, Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery; Pasqual’s Cafe; and the Hotel St. Francis, among others.

Here’s a peek at how he accomplished our title wall (and it’s your first look, by the way, at the exhibition itself):

Tom Hyland and exhibit designer Caroline Lajoie tested a variety of metallic paints against a swatch of the wall's purple color.

The frisket was applied to the wall.

Tom Hyland got to work filling in the frisket...

...which required clambering up a ladder.

He carefully, carefully peeled off the frisket.

And, voila, the finished, glimmering wall.



Thus, It Is Written: The Saint Johns Bible Reaches its Final Word


On Oct. 23, the History Museum opens its doors to an exhibit that celebrates an epic achievement in the book arts. Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible features 44 pages from the first handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery.

Detail from Letter to the Seven Churches with the Heavenly Choir, Donald Jackson, 2011. The Saint John's Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.

You can find out more about our exhibit here. But for now, we’d like to send out heartiest congratulations to Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., along with Donald Jackson and his team of scribes and calligraphers. On Thursday, the abbey announced that 15 years of transatlantic work had been completed, with the word “Amen” having been written on the final page of the seventh and final volume of the Bible, Letters and Revelation.

(That volume goes on exhibit today through Nov. 13 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.)

From the official press release:

“Today we celebrate the culmination of a fifteen year commitment to revive a monastic tradition in the modern world and create a work of art that will ignite the spiritual imagination of the world,” said Abbot John Klassen, OSB, Saint John’s Abbey. “We also celebrate the beginning of The Saint John’s Bible’s journey to inspire people from all backgrounds through the many ways they can experience the project, beginning with this exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.” …

The Saint John’s Bible is a fifteen year collaboration of scripture scholars and theologians at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota with a team of artists and calligraphers at the scriptorium in Wales, United Kingdom under the direction of Donald Jackson, one of the world’s foremost calligraphers and Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords. Written and drawn entirely by hand using quills and paints hand-ground from precious minerals and stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, silver, and 24-karat gold, The Saint John’s Bible celebrates the tradition of medieval manuscripts while embracing 21st century technology to facilitate the design process and collaboration between Saint John’s in Collegeville and the scriptorium in Wales.

“Now that I have inscribed the final Amen, I realise that over the long years of this task, a boyhood dream, I have gradually absorbed an enduring conviction of the pin-sharp relevance of these ancient Biblical Texts to the past, present and the future of our personal and public life and experience,” said Jackson. “These texts have a life of their own and their life is a mirror of the human spirit and experience.”

The Saint John’s Bible illustrates scripture from a modern perspective, reflecting a multicultural world and humanity’s enormous strides in science, technology and space travel, as well as recent wars and genocide. “Illuminated manuscripts have always marked the time and place in which they were created, and The Saint John’s Bible will reflect our world at the beginning of the twenty-first century for future generations,” said Fr. Robert Koopmann, OSB, President of Saint John’s University. “The illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible provide a new way for people to see and experience scripture, which is a particularly exciting in our increasingly visual culture.”

(BTW: Donald Jackson, at left, will be in the house at the Lensic Peforming Arts Center on Nov. 7 for a 6 pm lecture. Tickets cost  $15. A $50 private reception with Jackson follows. Tickets at www.ticketssantafe.org, or call 505-982-1234.)

With his fellow scribes and illuminators at a to-die-for scriptorium in Wales, Jackson carried out the monks’ request for a monumental Bible. When opened, it will measure 2′ tall by 3′ wide, with its nearly 1,150 pages bound into seven volumes. Saint John’s Abbey and University are dedicated to ecumenism, and the text, translation and imagery in The Saint John’s Bible reflect this commitment. Theologians and scholars at Saint John’s University selected the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) as the translation for The Saint John’s Bible. Though each letter is rendered by hand, The Saint John’s Bible uses state-of-the-art computer technology to create and manage page layouts as well as employing contemporary scripts and illumination.

Illuminating the Word will share its exhibit space and spirit with Contemplative Landscape, which uses archival and contemporary black-and-white photography to reveal how people have responded to New Mexico’s art, architecture, land and sacred rituals.