Illuminating the Entire Bible Through the Arts
Spark+Echo Arts is the coming together of thousands of patrons and artists from around the world to create a new work of art, music, theatre, poetry, dance, or film in response to every verse of the Bible. Emily Clare Zempel and I founded the project as a nonprofit arts organization in 2010 in New York City. Since then, Spark+Echo artists have created hundreds of new works illuminating over four thousand verses of Scripture.
In 2009, Emily and I, married for just a few weeks, spoke on faith and creativity at the "Creativity and Lutheran Theology in Media" Conference, hosted at Bethany Lutheran College by the Christ in Media Institute. Back then Spark+Echo Arts was barely an idea. Nine years later, I'm excited to return here to share how it has grown, our philosophy, and how we use media and technology to share the Bible.
The concept for Spark+Echo Arts partly grew out of my own creative practice. I loved making music and theatre on the Bible and found it to be the best way for me to connect with God's Word. Spending time creatively responding to the text brought it to life. The verses would linger in my mind and weave through my daily life. We sought to create a platform where other artists could have these kinds of transformative experiences.
Here is how the project works: Artists are selected to create for Spark+Echo Arts by our team of curators working across six disciplines — art, music, theatre, poetry, dance, and film. We also accept applications via our website. A commissioned artist then chooses a verse or section of Scripture that has not yet been illuminated in the project. The artist is given freedom to respond however they would like. They submit a preview along the way and ultimately a final work and related artist statement. The digital representation of the work appears in our online gallery at www.SparkandEcho.org, woven into the text of the Bible. Artists are given a small honorarium and support along the way as desired (some request artistic feedback or theological resources, others work independently). We premiere a new work every Monday and promote it to our network and beyond through various online channels.
This brief promotional video concludes with an overview of Spark+Echo Arts from our artists:
Artists that have created for Spark+Echo work in a wide range of disciplines and styles and represent a diversity of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They are from across the United States and around the world. They are Christian, part of other religions, and secular. We believe the Bible is alive and relevant to all, that it speaks to everyone. Our commissioning process models this, and we are routinely amazed by what each artist brings to life. A different voice from mine can capture something in a verse that I may never have noticed.
A critical component of our process is giving artists the freedom to respond however they would like. We simply ask each artist to spend time in the Word, contemplate the passage, and create. This yields very personal works of art, honest responses that benefit us all.
We also hold high the concept of "respect": respect for the artist, the Bible, and the audience. We respect the artist by not censoring their work or process. We ask the artist to respect the Bible by responding to their chosen text directly and recognizing the importance of the Bible to its readers. We respect the audience by asking the artist to write an artist statement that will connect the audience to their process, particularly if we anticipate that the final work will be challenging. Likewise, we ask the audience to respect the artist by being open to consider what they created and their process, even if the final work is different from what they expected.
To GOWM conference participants reading this, our project may sound a bit "hands-off" in a typical "Christian outreach" sense. It is. This project is run by people who believe deeply in the transformative power of Scripture, and though it may seem counter-intuitive to some, stepping back and trusting the Word is part of that.
While our philosophy and mission has stayed the same over the last nine years, our community has grown to include many board members, dozens of curators, hundreds of artists, artists-in-residence, patrons, fans, and a worldwide audience. At the helm of our day-to-day operations for the last several years is our Program Manager, Rebecca Testrake. Rebecca personally guides each artist through the process while keeping an eye on our overarching vision.
People and relationships are central to our project, particularly in the curator-artist relationship. An artist who may have never considered the Bible relevant to their creative process is often more willing to create for a "Bible project" if they are invited by a peer they respect. When this is followed by professional care from our staff, artists can focus more deeply on exploring the text and creating their best possible work.
Technology plays a key role in this personal care. Though we have occasional live events in NYC and elsewhere, we are primarily an online project. Behind the scenes we use many online connectivity tools to stay close. Our artists are scattered, our Program Manager is in LA, and our Executive Director is in New York. Online tools keep overhead low and communication high.
While the works created for the project vary greatly, our administrative process, by design, is repetitive and consistent. With a new work premiering each week, we have many opportunities to refine every little step of the way from contract to premiere through promotion. It seems like a minor point, but using online tools to make the process run smoothly is crucial to artist-care.
Two years ago we started down a path to improve how our audience engages with the project. While caring for the artist primarily happened behind the scenes, our audience needed a better platform to engage with the works and Scripture. In 2017, with support from the American Bible Society and private donors, we hired Cantilever, a New Jersey-based digital agency, to focus on improving our digital presence.
Cantilever created a new platform at www.SparkandEcho.org that elegantly weaves the works of art into the full text of the Bible. Now visitors can discover the art in context and connect more deeply with each artist and the words that inspired them. You can clearly see Scripture through their eyes, their pen or brush, tap shoes, guitar, or lens.
We offer people a different way of experiencing the Bible, a massive collection of works, and a thought-provoking devotional tool. Immerse yourself in the Word; listen, see, and feel it come to life in ways that will surprise you.
On this new platform we can also bring the Spark+Echo supporter into the commissioning process. Cantilever integrated Patreon, a fundraising platform that helps donors support the ongoing work of projects they love. Patrons who donate on our Patreon page can use their Patreon credentials to log in to our website and "spark" (i.e. vote, like) the verses they would like to see illuminated next.
Our community has illuminated nearly 15% of the Bible to date, over four thousand verses, with new works of art, music, theatre, poetry, dance, and film. On our path to illuminating all 31,102 verses, we plan to commission an artist in every state in the US, and every nation in the world (see our progress map). We also hope to partner with physical galleries, universities, and faith-based institutions across the country. These are big and evolving goals, but they are possible with a large, engaged audience. We plan to build upon our recent technology upgrades and give more opportunities for audiences and artists to discover and connect with Spark+Echo Arts.
I look forward to connecting with you through the discussion here, to answer any questions, and learn from you. Please explore the project via www.SparkandEcho.org and share your thoughts and ideas here. You are part of the Spark+Echo community, too, and we hope that together we can bring the Bible to life in remarkable ways for new audiences.
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