Artist Searches World for New `Mega-Symbols'

Article excerpt

Gregor T. Goethals, artist, author, educator and now art director and graphic designer for the American Bible Society's new media project, has spent the better part of her life "zigging and zagging," as she puts it, between philosophy, theology and art.

A Yale- and Harvard-educated professor and dean of graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design for 29 years, Goethals has long been interested in the role of the artist in a technological society and the way images function in a technological, consumer-oriented age. Among her accomplishments is a book called The TV Ritual: Worship at the Video Altar (Beacon Press, 1981).

Goethals' interest in theology and art evolved from her intellectual awakening in college, at Louisiana State University -- where, at first, she went to party, she said, and then encountered the renowned political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Her interest also evolved as "a kind of resistance against highly sentimental, often trite art that is considered by some people to be religious symbolism."

"I'm essentially a populist," she said. "But I would like to see more options in religious art than currently exist."

So when the American Bible Society began looking around for art consultants for its forays into new media, Goethals was a likely choice.

Reared in Monroe, La., as a Baptist, she gravitated to the Episcopal church and then to Catholicism as an adult. Her artistic sensibilities gave her a strong preference for a symbol-rich "material" Christianity over symbol-deprived Protestant churches. "I was drawn to Catholicism by my love of stuff," she said, although she equally values a lesson from her early training in "Bible-belt Christianity": its sense "that the world is not ours."

Pushing boundaries

At first as Goethals worked for the Bible society she fulfilled the need for an art historian -- someone to research how artists had treated various biblical subjects in the past. Equally at home in theology -- Goethals holds a bachelor of divinity from Yale, along with a master's in art, and a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Harvard, working along the way with such giants in American religion as H. Richard Niebuhr and Robert Bellah -- she discovered fascinating links between the evolution of theology and the popularity of particular images. For example, while working on "A Father and Two Sons," she discovered that the parable -- all parables -- were popular subjects for artists in regions imbued with the Protestant spirit. A fundamental doctrine of the Reformation was, after all, primacy of the word of God.

"What's so interesting is today to study art history you have to know philosophy and theology," she said. "When I was in school, there was academic imperialism. You were expected to have a narrow focus" -- a dictum she ignored.

Since 1992, when Goethals' work with the Bible society. in new media began, her role has shifted from research to production. Her personal life underwent some major shifts as well. After retiring from academia in 1995, she moved cross-country to a hillside home in California's Sonoma Valley, overlooking a neighbor's vineyard. …