Sacred Arts Museum
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
When a museum declares that its collection is not merely religious, but SACRED, then a standard has been set that is impossible for sinners like us to assess. The contents of the Sacred Arts Center thus at times may seem strange to others, too, but that's not the point.
The core of this collection was assembled by the late Gerald L.K. Smith, founder of the Great Passion Play theme park, and it has steadily grown since his death. More than 1,000 artworks are currently on display in this small museum, and we were assured by Vernon Payne, our guide, that it's only a fraction of what it owns.
The Last Supper is a popular theme. We saw it rendered into royal Dresden china commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm I, and made out of butterfly and moth wings by a Mrs. Wesley Whitson (We've seen this kind of Insect Expressionism before). "Her husband traveled around the world and would collect them," Vernon told us. "She perfected a process to preserve the wings."
What impressed us most about the Sacred Arts Center was its casual mix -- a right democratic mishmash -- that allows a precious 9th century Roman marble cameo, for example, to be exhibited in the same room as a 1990s acrylic painting of Jesus walking hand-in-hand with American children.
The Center claims to have works of early masters such as Raphael, Rubens, Da Vinci, Titian, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo -- and maybe it does, but we didn't notice them. Instead, our eyes were drawn to the paintings of modern "Christian artists" such as Shelli Jones Baker, whose vividly detailed "Travail of the Flag" mixes patriotism with Jesus and "kinda tells the story of the American experience," according to Vernon, as a crucified Christ's blood explodes outward from his spear wound to form an ocean of blood, and then the stripes in the red, white, and blue.
For all of its many mediums -- carvings, watercolors, mosaics, ceramics, bugs -- the art here is all literal, narrative-driven, with symbolism but no abstraction. Rapture Realism.
We liked the style of Harry Antis, in whose paintings the water always seems to flow toward you and Jesus always appears to look in your direction. Jack Dawson's "seek and find" series reminded us of the cartoons in Highlights for Children where you have to discover a toaster or a yo-yo hidden in jungle foliage. Dawson's signature work, "Decision," feature the faces of the famous and the infamous -- from Hitler to Elvis to Andy Griffith (G.W. Bush stands with Saddam, Hillary Clinton keeps her distance) -- in the shadow of an unseen, looming Jesus. Which of them will make the decision to believe in Him and go to heaven? A spot has been left blank to insert yourself.
Although the result is not necessarily intentional, the Sacred Arts Center makes art interesting by juxtaposing a bunch of stuff that otherwise would have been kept far, far apart. A sign near the exit tells visitors, "We trust that you have seen more than beautiful paintings," and, indeed, when you come here, you will.