Paul Roorda's art views the Gospel through skeptical eyes

  • March 23, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - A worn, century-old Bible, powdered blood and butterfly wings aren’t exactly what you’d expect to see in most artwork.

But Kitchener, Ont., artist Paul Roorda says re-using materials in creating his art helps to portray the themes of resurrection and transformation.

In his exhibition “Skeptic’s Gospel and Other Remedies for Truth,” Roorda explores questions about faith and doubt, life and death, humanity and divinity. The exhibition opened March 13 and runs to April 22 at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto.

Roorda said the exhibition explores the idea of how people deal with changes in society as well as changing beliefs. He added he is interested in looking at how people resolve the tensions which can arise between the scientific world and religion.

“I’m always approaching the Christian tradition I grew up with with questions,” Roorda said. “I don’t want to believe anything blindly. I don’t want to be told black-and-white answers. I think the world is more layered and complex than that.”

In Luke (The Passion), Roorda used the wings of a dead butterfly which he found on the side of a highway. The butterfly provides symbolic references to the spirit or the soul, he said. Three other butterflies are made with smoked-and-aged paper which, he said, hint at the transience of life.

The piece is an exploration of Jesus’ crucifixion, he said. In re-using materials, the artwork focuses on the idea of death and bringing something back to life.

The images are framed within the pages of an antique Bible which was already falling apart. Roorda cut away the text and replaced it with his exploration of Jesus’ death. With this technique, he said, “There’s a feeling of replacing the literal story with a new understanding.”

Some people may be uncomfortable with certain aspects of Roorda’s art, but he said using Bibles which were already going to be discarded isn’t meant to offend but “to transform them into a new form that people can appreciate.”

In Small Miracles (Wine to Water), Roorda does just that: boiling, distilling and purifying wine until it becomes water which sits in small communion glasses. This represents the prevalence of  wine in the Bible from Jesus’ miracle in Cana to the Last Supper, he said.

Other pieces which incorporate bandages and vintage medical equipment also touch upon the skepticism that a scientific world has on the idea of miracles. But the father of two said it also explores how people approach problems from a medical and scientific standpoint, in addition to the spiritual and religious. These pieces touch upon the idea of people applying first aid to try to heal others, or perform life-saving actions, he said. They also invite people to delve into deeper spiritual questions like “Is that the divine in us?”

Roorda’s unique approach to art is also seen in his use of dried powdered blood (his own, he said). Blood has many layers of meanings, from representing violence, injury, healing and life. Blood also has an obvious reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Raised in the Christian Reform Church, he now identifies himself with the United Church. A primarily self-taught artist, Roorda studied psychology at the University of Waterloo and completed a masters degree in sociology at Northeastern University in Boston.

“A faith that’s not examined and questions which are not explored, I think is a small faith,” Roorda said.

Calling Roorda an “incredibly thoughtful and very skilled artist,” Rebekah Smick, associate professor of philosophy of the arts and culture at the Institute for Christian Studies, said his art is timely, especially in light of the atheist bus ad campaigns taking place in Toronto and other Canadian cities and Britain.

“We all live in society that is highly skeptical. Christians need to be able to respond to that skepticism in a way that can be understood or heard,” she said.

Samples of Roorda’s artwork can be found at: .

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