Blake, Bucknell and the Bible
An exploration of the liminal spaces of the heart, the mind and faith.
Text and Artwork by Makoto Fujimura '83
In late 2009, I received an unusual request from Crossway Publishing— to illustrate the King James Bible, which ended up reshaping my path as an artist. That path took me somewhere I never expected to go. As I worked on this project, I realized that the path had already been laid out from my youth, my student days spent with my future wife, Judy Beebe ’83, at Bucknell.
The commission was historic. A representative from Crossway informed me, “No single artist has been asked to illumine all four Gospels for more than 400 years.” My assignment was to illumine a contemporary translation, the English Standard Version, for the 400th anniversary of the original publication of the King James Bible. I began a two-year process to create what turned out to be five major paintings, 89 chapter heading letters and more than 140 pages of hand illuminations.
Recently, I had the privilege of exhibiting 94 pieces from this project as part of MOBiA (Museum of Biblical Art) in New York City during its commemoration of the King James Bible anniversary. There, as I inspected the aged pages of the original prints of the King James Bible on display, my mind raced backwards in time to my Bucknell days. I was humbled to find my own work in the backdrop of documents that shape Western history. I am indeed thankful to God to have called me through my time at Bucknell to venture into a path I never thought I would traverse.
My journey began somewhere between the dark Vaughan Literature rooms speaking with my freshman year adviser Professor Robert Taylor; in the Art Barn comparing colored layers of paint with Professor Neil Anderson; and in the “Monkey Lab” discussing the details of squirrel monkey research with ProfessorDoug Candland. I double-majored in animal behavior and art, with a minor in creative writing. I trekked to the Art Barn to make prints, often stopping by the Monkey Lab, my mind filled with Shakespearean sonnets, Hawthorne’s Hester and Melville’s Bartleby. In the snowy days of Lewisburg winters, I often walked alone by the old fieldhouse, next to the soccer fields, hovering between the campus and the graveyard. Chickadees and tufted titmice flitted in and out of the bare trees, chattering as they danced among the branches. I spent cold January days by the Susquehanna, noting their foraging patterns for a class in animal behavior. The world at Bucknell seemed so immediate, and yet so removed from the “real” world out there.
And then, quite seminally in my junior year, I began to take more classes with Professor Michael Payne. There, in his class on William Blake, this winding path began to take shape. Professor Payne’s meticulous notes were a perfect introduction to the eccentric 18th-century engraver, poet and artist. I was delighted to hold a facsimile of Blake’s manuscripts in my hand, a unique hybrid of illumined manuscripts and fiery epic poems. I memorized several of Blake’s poems, and the rhythm and cadence of his words began to live within me. As I studied etchings with Professors Joan Curran and Rosalyn Richards, I began to see how extraordinary Blake’s technical details were, and how he broke all the established rules of the day in creating hand-colored modern illuminations. His methods perfectly mirrored his creative message. By etching copper plates with acid and writing backwards onto the plates, he wrestled deeply with issues of faith.
I grew up in the home of a scientist and an educator. My introduction to the Bible came only through peripheral, incidental means. As I read Blake, and as I later took Professor Payne’s class, “The Bible and Literature,” reading the King James Bible for the first time changed my perspective of the world. I remember taking a long breath after writing an essay on Psalm 23, thinking that the history of literature could not have happened without the eloquent passages of The King James. Before I consciously noticed, my personal faith began to grow within.
The liberal arts education should, indeed, liberate. I felt liberated by the words of Blake and the Bible. In the context of contemporary ideologies, such sentiments may seem old fashioned or impractical. In a creative journey, however, we hold these intuitive leaps to be directed by the ontological realities from where the spirit flows. A good liberal arts education prepares one for a journey of unexpected twists and turns, even dead ends.
Not many others walked my path as a budding artist and poet. The day-to-day reality was that the artists, like me, could not really fit into the culture of fraternities and predetermined outcomes. People would ask me, “What are you going to do with your degree?” I would tell the inquisitive chemical engineers that “finding yourself is far more important than getting a job.”
Walking in such liminal spaces, the narrow path between the graveyard and Bucknell, I had a revelation one day on my way to the Art Barn. That narrow path was exactly where I needed to be; it was where I would indeed “find myself.”
Some 25 years ago, Judy and I landed in New York City. We did not expect the bucolic hills of Lewisburg to prepare us for the intensity of New York, but this was the synthesis that I experienced as theory turned to practice, and we became an artist and a psychotherapist raising three children. My family was involved in the newly founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church movement, started by Rev. Tim Keller ’72. Another Bucknellian, Rev. Dick Kaufmann ’68, was the executive pastor when I served on the elder board there. Our three children grew up in the heart of Manhattan, involved in a Biblical movement to live out Christ’s love in the city.
Even though we chose the entrepreneurial lives of an artist and a psychotherapist, we have been blessed with what has turned out to be very steady work. In the days when all spheres of our endeavors and careers are being challenged, and we are all learning that there is no security apart from our willingness to adapt, we find our niche and continuously create work. I can tell you that what we have carved out has never felt completely secure. Still, the shepherd of Psalm 23 has proven over and over that he will meet our needs. All three of our children have graduated from a Quaker-based private school in New York City. My eldest is married, and his wife just gave birth to our first grandson. Our younger son, C.J. ’13, is discovering his own path at Bucknell, majoring in philosophy and music composition. Our youngest, Lydia, is off to college, making us empty-nesters. Judy and I feel that another journey has just begun, and our marriage is artwork that God’s grace has poured into us. It takes a while, apparently, for saplings planted to grow. We feel we have just begun to fully understand the impact of education, the embers of knowledge that we were given at Bucknell.
We have instilled in our children a sense of both readiness and anticipation of what is to come, of both the uncertainties, living only a few blocks from Ground Zero, and the delight of finding friendships that endure through those uncertainties. These fruits have come from a tree that Judy and I planted at Bucknell. Our friendship and our studies in the humanities and the sciences have given us generative lives. Liberal arts education itself ought to be generative, to prepare us for the future challenges that demand broadness, flexibility and adaptability. There are green pastures and still waters there, and our cup does indeed runneth over.
For more of Makoto’s artwork and writings, go to www.makotofujimura.comor follow him on Twitter @iamfujimura.