You could tell Bible stories using Barbie products. "But it would be difficult," says Brendan Powell Smith, "to keep passing off Barbie's Malibu Dream House as all sorts of different locations in ancient Palestine."
So the Mountain View artist found a more versatile medium, though that too was in the toy department. Smith's "Brick Testament" series (Quirk, $12.95) comprises three volumes so far: Each page of The Ten Commandments, Stories from the Book of Genesis, and The Story of Christmas includes a Bible quote and a color photo of the accompanying 3D rendering, in LEGO pieces, of anything from the Burning Bush to the bloody Nile to the Slaughter of the Innocents, every flood and invasion and begetting.
"An early challenge was figuring out how to crucify a LEGO Jesus when LEGO people's arms can only move up and down, and don't go out to the sides," Smith recalls. "The solution involved pulling Jesus' arms completely off, then pressing the hands of his severed arms into the cross itself, and then squeezing his body in between the arms, so that they held it in place with just friction." In a scenario depicting Moses holding the stone tablets, "his arms are not arms at all, but pieces of pliable LEGO Technic tubing with hands stuck in the ends."
Building LEGO horses, pharaonic thrones, virgin births -- easy. Not so crowd scenes and action shots, which entail "some very intricate and delicate structures with LEGO support beams hidden from the camera." In the tumbling-Walls-of-Jericho scene, crossed spears flank falling plastic figures and masonry against a backdrop of blue skies streaked with smoke. In one of many other battle scenes, identically smiley-faced Simeonite soldiers chase identically screaming Canaanites across the parapets of a beige plastic palace; an out-of-focus foreground lends a sense of speed.
Smith is an atheist. Raised Episcopalian, he decided at thirteen to reassess his boyhood superstitions: "I didn't start out with the goal of questioning my religious beliefs, but eventually got around to it." And behold, "belief in God just didn't make the cut." Studying philosophy and ancient Christianity -- "so I could learn more about how all this stuff got started" -- at Boston University, he read the Bible cover-to-cover for the first time: "I must say I was pretty shocked." Wanting to show the world the real rage and gore behind the psalmistry, he rediscovered LEGO, which had once been his favorite toy and which offers "near-infinite ways of combining small elements to make recognizable representations of just about anything and everything in our world. I can create distinctive and visually appealing characters, landscapes, buildings, and implements, all out of LEGO."
A subculture of adult LEGO builders "gathers online at places like LUGNET.com to show off their latest creations and discuss building techniques," Smith says. "There are definitely others out there whose skills at building in the LEGO medium eclipse my own, and I often look to them for new ideas and inspiration. But there are very few others who are making a living as artists working in the LEGO medium."
The Brick Testament made it onto Rolling Stone's "Hot List 2005" this month, and the Genesis book just came out in Japan. On his Web site, Smith notes that the Japanese publisher redesigned that book's cover, "notably putting Shem [one of the sons of Noah] on the cover while relegating God to the dust jacket fold-over."
Smith's latest project involves working scene-by-scene through the Book of Judges, which includes the gang rape (Judges 19:25) and dismemberment (Judges 19:29) of a concubine: It's surprisingly moving when rendered in uncompromising shiny plastic, the blocky yellow concubine distinguishable only by her molded pageboy hairstyle from the two assailants between whom she lies pinned as others watch and wait on the pegged surface, stock-still.
Judges also includes the story of Samson and Delilah: "It's one of those stories with a lot of name-recognition, but as with so much of the Bible, very few people have actually read the story, so it can still be quite surprising." Smith calls Samson "a proto-suicide bomber in a place that would later become known to the world as the Gaza Strip. Samson used his own death to bring about the death of a whole bunch -- three thousand -- of civilians of a rival nation with a different religion. Samson killed more people with his single act than all the people who died from the 9/11 attacks. Yes, he lacked the benefit of modern homemade bomb-building technology or the convenience of four hijacked planes chock-full of jet fuel, but Samson could still be considered not just the founder of the 'suicide bomber' attack, but also the most 'successful' one ever."
Nearly all responses to Smith's work, even from the devout, have been positive. He hears nearly every day from ministers and Sunday-school teachers asking permission to use his images in their lessons. They "seem to really like that it's accurate to Scripture and yet presented with a sense of humor," he says. The handful of negative responses are "from people who are upset that I don't shy away from depicting the sex in the Bible." Oddly enough, "No one has ever complained to me about the far more prevalent depictions of violence."
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